New Delhi: When we think of caste-based inequality in India, we typically think of a pyramid where scheduled castes (SCs or Dalits) and scheduled tribes (STs) are at the bottom, other backward classes (OBCs) above them, and upper castes at the very top. Official survey data which measure caste along such broad lines support such a view.

A new World Bank study by the economists Shareen Joshi, Nishtha Kochhar and Vijayendra Rao challenges this narrative, suggesting inequality within caste groups could be higher than that across caste groups.

The study, which provides the first-of-its-kind estimates of economic inequality among sub-castes or jatis in rural Bihar, is based on a sample dominated by SCs and OBCs who participated in a state-run rural livelihoods project called JEEViKA.

Therefore, the estimates of intra-group inequality are likely to be more precise for SCs and OBCs than for other caste groups. And among these groups, there is large variation within sub-castes, the study shows.

Among Dalits, for instance, Musahars are much worse off than Chamars and Dushadh in terms of both monthly consumption expenditure and educational attainment. Among OBCs, sub-castes such as Koeris fare badly compared with most Dalit sub-castes.

While the exact magnitude of inequality within broad caste groups may vary across the country, the study conducted in one of India’s most populous states suggests that inequality among sub-castes may be a key driver of economic inequality in the country. It also explains the salience of jati or sub-caste identity in our daily lives, and in our politics.

One of the main drivers of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s massive victory in 2014 was its ability to win the loyalties of sub-castes within caste-groups such as Dalits who have historically been aligned with non-BJP parties.

By portraying the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as a party that caters primarily to Jatav interests and Samajwadi Party (SP) as one of Yadavs, the BJP was able to wean away a significant chunk of non-Jatav Dalit voters and non-Yadav voters in Uttar Pradesh, data from Lokniti-CSDS shows.

The party was able to repeat that strategy with great success in the UP assembly elections of 2017 as well. Alliances with non-Yadav OBC parties such as the Apna Dal (Soneylal) and Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party helped the BJP mobilize the non-Yadav OBC votes in the country’s most populous state.

As political scientists Sanjay Kumar and Pranav Gupta of Lokniti-CSDS argued in an earlier Plain Facts column, it is with an eye on the lower OBC vote bank that the BJP has set up an OBC sub-categorization committee ahead of the general elections in 2019. Lower OBCs such as Badhais, Lohars, Kewats, etc., who have traditionally had a smaller share in the rural economy and account for roughly two-thirds of the OBC population in the country, voted in large numbers for the BJP in the last general election, Lokniti-CSDS data shows.

The BJP saw gains among both lower OBCs and upper OBCs but the gains among lower OBCs was greater.

The BJP’s vote-share among lower OBCs rose a whopping 26 percentage points since 2009 to 42% in 2014.

While upper OBCs (Yadavs and Kurmis in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, Vokkaligas in Karnataka, etc.) have representation in the Indian polity thanks to regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, lower OBCs lack such representation.

The BJP’s move to sub-categorize OBC reservations is thus an attempt to consolidate its support among these economically weaker sub-castes who are not affiliated to the dominant regional parties in their states.

Research by political scientist Pavithra Suryanarayan of Johns Hopkins University suggests that the salience of jati or ethnicity in politics increases when economic differences between ethnic groups are high.

Suryanarayan suggests that caste politics in India has a class component: sub-castes which are materially worse-off are likely to vote en bloc to improve their fortunes.

The BJP’s attempts to woo the lower OBCs must be seen in this context. But Suryanarayan’s research also suggests that attempts to mobilize deprived caste groups and provide them with benefits can lead to counter-mobilization among forward caste members, who resent changes in economic and social hierarchies.

The BJP was a big beneficiary of such counter-mobilization among upper castes after reservations for OBCs were implemented in 1990, Surayanarayan’s research suggests.

Even today, upper castes remain the party’s strongest supporters, with nearly one in two upper caste voters voting for the party in 2014.

This means the caste-cum-class politics of the BJP has a natural limit: it can sustain only so long as it does not run up against opposition from its core vote-bank of upper castes.

Managing that contradiction is among the BJP’s biggest challenges today as it seeks to maximize its electoral returns in a deeply unequal democracy.

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