Monthly Archives: November 2013

On OBC Credentials

Caste in india is complex, complicated and difficult to comment on in a cursory post such as this. However, as a simple truism what can be said is this: the middle castes are often in a zero sum game against each other. The upper castes and the Dalits are not — at least not among themselves. The upper castes are by definition of the pyramid few in number. Members of one upper caste group are unlikely to look at another upper caste group as a direct threat to their prosperity or security. They may not marry each other or at times even drink water from each others’ house; but for purposes of politics and fight for resources, they don’t rival each other. Similarly, Dalits of one sub-sect many times don’t marry into another. But as a group, their agitational politics is largely not in conflict amongst the sub-groups.

The difference is quite dramatic when one considers the middle castes. In large parts of the country, they view each other as a direct threat to resource allocation for their group. For example, a political party in Tamil Nadu is never going to get Mukkulathor and Nadars to both overwhelmingly vote for it. And, it wouldn’t want to have a person from one of those large caste groups to dominate the party either — which partly explains M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran and J Jayalalitha as party chiefs, all belonging to obscure and tiny caste groups — to avoid the party be seen as associated with the dominant OBC caste to make the other OBCs nervous.

That basic rationale of competing groups appears to hold in UP and Bihar as well if the evidence of their polity is considered. Yadav’s, one of the numerically dominant OBCs in both states, have a party of their own — SP & RJD —  albeit in a social coalition with Muslims and some others. Their rival OBC caste, the Kurmis and Lodhs, for instance, seem to have a rival camp: Nitish Kumar and Kalyan Singh being examples. These OBC groups from their core caste base and then go about building a social coalition outwards — preferably with numerically weaker other OBCs or Muslims or Upper Castes. And yes, given these middle castes are the direct oppressors of Dalits in most places, a coalition that includes the Dalits becomes extremely difficult for an OBC credential claimant.

Thus, unless someone actually belongs to a numerically strong OBC locally it makes no practical sense to claim that in campaigning. Either overtly or covertly. In other words, the entire spiel about Mr Modi’s OBC appeal in the Gangetic Plains is nonsense. Actually belonging to an OBC in such a scenario may be a worse thing electorally than belonging to an upper caste. After all, OBCs don’t compete with upper castes for jobs and quotas. They compete with other OBCs.

Others’ Game

A version of this appeared in the DNA today. Regular readers may skip it given it’s summing up most of what’s already been said in these pages.

The 2014 general election is not going to be an INC-BJP contest in large parts of the country. In most of peninsular and Eastern India, the presence of national parties is often restricted to one of them and even that lone party is not the top contender. This is largely true even as one goes up the Gangetic plains. Therefore a Presidential style campaign that’s been adopted by the BJP, and to a lesser degree the INC – not because of philosophical reservations but because their candidate is weaker — mostly insults much of India.

There are 5 parties outside the BJP & INC that are likely to have more than 20 MPs each: AIADMK, BSP, SP, TMC and the Left. And these parties, with an expectation of 140 MPs among them according to polling data thus far, will be truly important for government formation in 2014; the arithmetic of simple majority needs at least 2 and preferably 3 of these 5 parties to be part of any future government. Further, these parties have more options and therefore have a greater ability to bargain with their suitors.

Let’s therefore look at the post-poll game from these 5 perspectives.

The problem’s easiest vantage point is the Left. The Left’s expectation, if one aggregates all the polls so far, is 32-36 MPs. The option of joining an NDA government or a Fourth Front government that has the TMC is non-existent for these 30 odd MPs. What that leaves them with, as a realistic option, is a Third Front government. What works in the Left’s favor are two things: the prospective allies in a Third front government will not have any problems explaining their decision to their electorate and those allies will also have a larger slice of the pie in such a government because the only way it’d work is when the INC supports such a possibility from the outside. This leaves ministerial positions for the taking unlike when the government is headed by a large national party. Further, the Left possibly also has the most ‘transferable’ vote among alliance partners in Indian politics. Making the third front proposition have no long term negative consequences for say the AIADMK or the SP or BSP.

The BSP’s strength is likely to be about 28-32 in the next Lok Sabha if the current estimates hold. The BSP is also one of the most secure political parties in India with a very stable core Dalit vote. In a Lok Sabha that’s fractured, as the 2014 verdict is likely to be, a BSP analyst will look at it as the best chance for Ms Mayawati to become Prime Minister in a Third/ Fourth Front government. Even if that does not happen, the party can garner important ministries in Delhi for the first time negating the Lucknow power base of its principal rival, the SP. The other possibility for the BSP, unlike the SP, is that it could join an NDA government at a cost that’s not as high. The state of Uttar Pradesh has about 18% Muslims and allying with the BJP will perhaps slightly impact the BSP’S Muslim vote gathering in the next election cycle. This calculation however is one that is difficult to lose sleep over for the BSP. The fact is, for UP’s Muslims the BSP is often a third choice – after the SP and the INC. It’ll take enormous faith in the long term for the BSP to decline an NDA invite in such a scenario. And given the party has little to lose and much to gain in the short term, it would have a position of enormous bargaining strength with any and all attempts to form a government.

The SP, on the other hand, has far fewer options. Firstly, the opinion poll aggregation estimates about 18-22 MPs for the party. That is significantly lesser, compared to the BSP. Further, the SP has a problem in that its Muslim vote-bank restricts its options in an election cycle where the INC is on the wane. The party obviously cannot join the NDA. The third and fourth front, if they are forming a government, have to choose between the SP & BSP. The latter comes with possibly more MPs, a compelling Dalit narrative and options elsewhere. Which means, if the BSP wants to really ruin it for the SP, it could by simply raising the stakes and then walking away. That leaves the SP hoping UPA comes to power and it is part of the government. That scenario, with the current polling data, has a lower probability than Ms Mayawati becoming Prime Minister.

The TMC is in a position somewhat similar to the SP in terms of limited options and lower strength compared to its regional rival. Except it’s preferred option has a slightly higher probability. The third front will have the Left and therefore not the TMC. That leaves the question open as to why there would be a Fourth Front at all; particularly if the Left has more MPs compared to TMC (with an expectation of 20-24) and everyone else in the team is going to be identical to the Third Front except the Left. Further such fronts have to be supported from the outside by the INC – another bit of complication for the TMC given the INC may prefer one that includes the Left for better optics. So that leaves the TMC with the only option of joining the NDA. Joining the NDA, however, queers the pitch a bit for the TMC;  West Bengal has 25% Muslims, the highest among large states. It will pose the question of how much of a future negative bias in distribution of votes in that 25% of the population can the party trade off against taste of power in the present . After all, the political theatre in West Bengal is largely bipolar and the TMC’s opponent, the left, happens to be cadre based. However, not joining the NDA post poll will mean providing the Left with a power base in Delhi. Therefore a reasonable demand in that case for the TMC to make, along with perhaps either the BSP or AIADMK backing, will be support for NDA with a different Prime Ministerial Candidate. Not that it’d be taken up positively by the man from Gujarat who sidelined many in his own party on that very issue. So the only real option for TMC is to hope the NDA forms a government and it be the last ally to join such a government, to seem ‘not desperate’.

The AIADMK’s position is quite similar to that of the BSP. Or perhaps even better given the party is already in power in a large state and the party’s chief enjoys considerable influence in both the third front and the NDA camps. Further, the Muslim population in Tamil Nadu is unusually low for a large state. The AIADMK, just as the BSP, will explore every opportunity with every other front before joining an NDA government simply because such options have a higher probability of Ms Jayalalitha being Prime Minister. One complicating factor for the AIADMK in such a formation is Ms Jayalalitha’s deep unpopularity among many decision makers in the INC. So perhaps that leaves Ms Mayawati with a slightly higher probability of becoming a Prime Minister should there be a Third Front government. However for both the BSP and the AIADMK, it makes far more sense to get a larger slice of the Third Front pie rather than get a tiny slice of an NDA pie. Unless, for the AIADMK’s best scenario rare event, Ms Banerjee’s unserviceable request gets traction and Ms Jayalalitha is the compromise Prime Minister in an NDA government. After all, whatever Mr Modi can claim about Gujarat’s development, Tamil Nadu has possibly surpassed that quite comfortably.

Populism in Tamil Nadu

The social contract of most societies tries to balance the extent of a safety net with volatility in growth. Or so professional Economists who study this tell us. That debate amongst developed societies such as America and Scandinavia is at a level that’s difficult to imagine for many in India where basic calorific intake isn’t always met. It is obviously far easier, however, to look at things that surprisingly work well in our own society in terms of what they aim to accomplish. The nascent ‘Amma Unavagam‘ that provides breakfast and lunch at very cheap rates appears to be one such candidate. A Soup Kitchen experiment in a country with such rampant poverty and malnutrition is possibly the best way to make calories reach people — provided it’s run well and can scale.

The first thing that one notices as one enters the premises of Amma Unavagam is that they are surprisingly well maintained — clean, orderly and efficient. The staff are all women from Self Help Groups. The food in terms of tastiness is reasonable; the point of comparison may be that the Idli in Amma Unavagam tastes better than what most college hostels in the State serve their students. The water in the premises is reverse osmosis treated. The kitchen is visible to onlookers and is again very clean and mostly automated. The three locations of Amma Unavagam visited in three different cities — Chennai, Salem and Coimbatore — were are all uniform in terms of quality and even the clientele. There was the odd middle class person, a couple of lower middle class people, some daily wage earners and mostly the very poor.

Sendhil Mullainathan’s research on the cognitive ability of people under stress owing to scarce resources is interesting to consider in this regard. On a related note, a field experiment that’s in progress among North Madras’ malnourished cycle-rickshaw pullers measures the impact of extra calorific intake on their productivity and cognitive ability. This experiment simply seeks to provide more calories (not better nutrition) to a group of emaciated rickshaw pullers whose intake prior to intervention was 1,200 calories a day. Of that, on average, 15% of the calories was from sugar in alcohol. The preliminary results, one is told indicated a significant increase in cognitive ability and productivity by a mere additional 300 calories a day. Or, in other words, as long as the truly destitute don’t have to worry about going hungry, their mental resources for other productive activities will be available at a much better ratio. Seems like a far more reasonable thing to do compared to providing subsidy for LPG, does it not? An important aspect about the delivery of this form — a Soup Kitchen subsidy — as opposed to schemes that require documentation is that the truly destitute are also the set of people who find it most taxing to obtain and preserve documentation.

Other recent populist projects of the State Government of Tamil Nadu include subsidised mineral water, subsidised vegetables and medical insurance apart from an already well functioning PDS. Some of them make better sense than others. But the uniform aspect has been surprisingly good execution. An interesting point of observation, based on the research cited above, will be to measure how the presence of PDS and the availability of food grain through it correlate to per capita income and education levels across states in India. And more importantly how they improve over time. The next post will attempt to do that.