Mumbai: The Narendra Modi government’s decision to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for the Backward Classes (NCBC) last week, on par with similar commissions for the scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), could turn out to be the potential vote-catcher for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the elections to three BJP-ruled states later this year and even 2019 Lok Sabha elections, political functionaries and spokespersons for the other backward classes (OBCs) say.
In India’s diverse caste and communal fabric, OBCs are estimated to account for at least 52% of the total population (as per the 1931 census) and that makes them the single largest constituency of voters. Seen together with the Modi government’s decision to undo the perceived dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act by a Supreme Court ruling on 20 March this year, the move on the NCBC puts the BJP in a politically commanding position in terms of the caste dynamics that may influence the next round of elections, political functionaries and representatives of these social groupings say.
Before the Lok Sabha unanimously passed the Constitutional (123rd Amendment) 2017 bill last week, the National Commission for the Scheduled Castes was empowered to look into the complaints and grievances of the OBCs. The amendment gives the NCBC the powers to make recommendations to the central government to safeguard the interests of the social backward classes, exactly like the commissions for the SC and ST do.
The Modi government on 1 August also decided to move an amendment to the SC/ST Act which would nullify the SC ruling on 20 March that was seen by Dalits and tribal organizations, including political parties that are part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), as diluting the law.
“We are very happy that the long-standing demand of the OBCs has been accepted. The National Commission for the Scheduled Castes had recommended that complaints and grievances pertaining to the OBCs be handed over to the NCBC. With this amendment, the NCBC will have powers to make recommendations which would be mandatory in nature. Like the commissions for the SCs and SsT, the NCBC would not function like a civil court," Baban Taywade, national president of the Rashtriya OBC Mahasangh, said in an interview.
He said the amendment was one of the top demands of the OBC Mahasangh which will hold its third national convention in Mumbai on 7 August. Taywade conceded that the amendment could be politically motivated. “But we have no view on that since we are the beneficiaries of this decision," he said.
Taywade also conceded that empowering the NCBC and the decision to restore the SC/ST Act to its original powers could be attempts at balancing the caste equations in the backdrop of the demand for quota by several other castes including the Marathas in Maharashtra. “No political party acts unless there is political benefit to be gained," he said.
Taywade said the OBC Mahasangh wanted a new census to determine the exact population of the OBCs in the country. “In 1931, it was 52%. By our estimate, it has gone up to 65%," Taywade said.
BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh go to polls later this year. SCs account for 15.51% in Madhya Pradesh, 15.47% in Chhattisgarh, and 16.60% in Rajasthan, as per the 2011 census. STs account for 18.46% in Madhya Pradesh, 18.40% in Rajasthan, and 15.33% in Chhattisgarh.
A BJP leader in Maharashtra, who is a Maratha, said requesting anonymity that the NCBC amendment was “out and out a political move aimed at elections". “The OBCs are a large chunk across India and the BJP, with an OBC prime minister, can ill-afford to ignore this constituency. We aren’t keen to play up the caste issues but we definitely have to react to caste-based politics that the opposition parties have resorted to," the BJP leader told Mint.
A Maharashtra Congress functionary, who did not want to be named, agreed that the political purport of the move was obvious. “It is a balancing act. In Maharashtra, the BJP says it is committed to the Maratha quota. But it is a legally arduous task and the OBCs are worried that they may have to accommodate the Marathas. That is why the Congress also supported the amendment in the Lok Sabha since we are the original party of the backward classes. Don’t forget that the NCBC was formed by an Act of the Parliament when the Congress was in power at the centre," the Congress functionary said.
Sukhadeo Thorat, author, political commentator, economist, scholar of caste issues, and distinguished professor at Pune’s Savitribai Phule University, said whether this amendment would make the NCBC really effective for the OBCs would depend on how the government implements it. He said the experience of the SC and ST Commissions has not been satisfactory especially in the last 10 to 15 years.
“These commissions have had judicial powers all along. There is a provision that these commissions have to present annual reports to the parliament each year based on the action taken reports (ATR) submitted by each ministry on the recommendations previously made. But since hardly any ministry has submitted the ATR, the commissions have not presented their annual reports in the last 10 to 15 years. So, giving the constitutional status to the NCBC is fine but implementation remains the key," Thorat told Mint.
The NCBC amendment witnessed a political slugfest during the recent Karnataka elections. The BJP targeted the Congress which it claimed had stood in the way of NCBC getting constitutional status. From BJP president Amit Shah to Modi, the BJP tried to debunk every claim made by the Congress, championing the cause of OBC which was the main support base, especially for former chief minister Siddaramaiah, who stormed to power with his AHINDA (acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits).
The two parties, Congress and BJP, had individually tried to get the backing of the OBC grouping in the run-up to the May assembly polls.
Sharan Poovanna from Bengaluru contributed to this story.