In the Bharatiya Janata Party’s highly centralised structure, there seems to be little space for MPs other than Narendra Modi and Amit Shah to drive policy. A sudden move by a Lok Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh, Ganesh Singh, has however attempted to shake up this structure.

On July 5, Singh wrote to his fellow BJP MPs from the Other Backward Classes asking them to oppose the Modi government’s move to bring in a significant change to OBC reservations. He even went to the extent of proposing that they make their displeasure public by tweeting to Modi and Shah.

What was the catalyst for such a drastic move?

The Modi government is considering changing the definition of the “creamy layer” for OBCs. Drawing an analogy to the layer of cream that forms on milk, the term refers to a subsection of a backward class who have transcended the caste disability of their community and would not be considered backward in social and educational terms.

As Singh’s revolt shows, this arcane concept is playing a major role in Indian politics at the movement, as the Bharatiya Janata Party grapples with how the creamy layer will be defined. While the details are technical, the outcome might be significant, especially given the large number of backward caste votes the BJP now depends on for its electoral success.

OBC quota

The creamy layer concept is applied to reservations for Other Backward Classes – a vast array of castes that broadly fall between Forward Castes and Dalits in terms of social disability as a result of caste discrimination. In 1979, the Janata Party government formed the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission headed by BP Mandal to look into the status of these castes. The commission determined that the OBCs – 52% of the Indian population – were socially and educationally backward and recommended a 27% quota for them.

It, however, took till 1990 for this quota to see the light of day, when the VP Singh government partially implemented the Mandal commission’s recommendations and brought in quotas for OBCs in Central government jobs.

The move set off a storm, with a number of people moving court, angry at this expansion of India’s affirmative programme for backward castes. The Supreme Court upheld OBC reservations – but with one significant rider. The OBC-oriented affirmative programme would not apply to the “creamy layer” or those who were well-off.

VP Singh. Credit: Creative Commons

Does this include salary?

The crux of the present controversy rests on how this creamy layer will be defined. As per a 1993 Union government document, people included in the creamy layer were children of constitutional posts (such as the President of India), elite officers in government or military service, elite private professions (such as doctors), major property owners and people with high income. Critically, however, the 1993 order made sure to exclude “income from salaries” from the definition of income.

Inexplicably, however, another Union government document issued on October 14, 2004, misinterpreted the 1993 memo and brought in the salary component to income calculations. However, this move only came to light in 2016 when OBC candidates for the elite Union Public Service Commission exam found themselves being rejected because of these new rules. Angry, they moved court.

In 2018, the Delhi High Court upheld their challenge. “In such a situation, I find that no rationale or justification is spelt out in the impugned Communication of 14th October, 2004 or in the counter affidavit filed by first respondent, to make the salary of OBC employees in PSUs as the basis to determine their Creamy Layer Status,” the order read, going on to direct the Union government that it should be “solely relying upon the OM [official memo] of September, 1993” while verifying the creamy layer status of the petitioners.

However, since the Modi government soon filed a challenge in the Supreme Court, little changed on the ground. A 2019 report by the Ganesh Singh-headed Lok Sabha Committee on Welfare of Other Backward Castes found that “the recruitment for the Central Government posts is being carried out year after year by following the same interpretation of Income/Wealth Test as has been applied by the DoPT [Department of Personnel and Training] in the sub-judice cases relating to determining the creamy layer status of the OBC candidates”.

Changing the definition

More indications that the Modi government was keen on preserving this new definition of the creamy layer came up in June 2019, when only a month after the BJP’s massive Lok Sabha election win, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment appointed an expert committee to look into the matter.

The committee submitted its report in September of that year. While it is still to be made public, multiple news reports point to the fact that the committee has recommended that salary be included while determining the creamy layer, but the income ceiling be doubled from Rs 8 lakh per annum to Rs 16 lakh. As per the Times of India, in March, the Union social justice ministry accepted the proposal to include salary in creamy layer calculations – but the proposal is still to be passed by the cabinet.

However, even as the Modi government moved towards including salary within the creamy layer, there has been some resistance from its own OBC leaders.

OBC politics

Most prominent has, of course, been Ganesh Singh’s move asking MPs to express their anger with this move publicly – an act the Times of India called an “in-house insurrection”. Singh, who heads Lok Sabha Committee on Welfare of Other Backward Castes, has waged a campaign against including salary as a factor to calculate the creamy layer for some years now. He had earlier raised the issue on the floor of Parliament. Moreover, the report submitted by the committee chaired by him is extremely critical of the move to include salary in income calculations.

This is the first time that the highly centralised Modi-Shah adminstration is being challenged by its own MPs when it comes to policy-making.

Ganesh Singh speaking in the Lok Sabha. Photo: Lok Sabha TV

Singh’s opposition is mirrored by OBC pressure groups. “Including salary while calculating creamy layer will practically end OBC reservations,” argued G Karunanidhy, General Secretary of the All India Federation of Other Backward Classes Employees’ Welfare Association.

Karunanidhy argues that the Supreme Court’s order to add the creamy layer to OBC reservations has already had a debilitating effect. “Even today, OBC quotas are never filled,” he argues. “It does not make sense then to make the criteria even more stringent.”

Unfulfilled quota

As per data from the report of the Lok Sabha committee led by BJP’s Ganesh Singh, in the Central government’s elite Group A category, for example, there are only 13% OBCs – well short of the 27% quota.

And things become worse as posts become more powerful. “There is not a single OBC amongst 89 secretaries in the Union government,” explains Karunanidhy. “And not a single OBC IIT professor.”

Karunanidhy finds the current thinking on the OBC quota inexplicable. “Given that because of the creamy layer, OBC quota is not being filled, we should be looking to abolish it. Not make it stronger.”

More fundamentally, OBC leaders argue that including an economic criteria like creamy layer for OBC goes against the very concept of caste reservations – which are meant to battle social backwardness. “In India, caste discrimination does not work according to economic criteria,” explained R Krishnaiah, President of the National Backward Classes Welfare Association. “Reservations are meant to provide castes representation. It is not a poverty eradication scheme.”

BJP’s politics

If the opposition to the very concept of the creamy layer is so strong, why then is the BJP even considering making it stronger?

Harish Wankhade, a political scientist who teaches at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, explains that while the party attracts a large number of OBC votes, the exact caste break-up is also important to consider. “The BJP has successfully mobilised marginalised OBCs against a dominant OBC caste,” he explained. “In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the mobilisation has been against the Yadavs.”

OBC support for the BJP in UP 2019 almost matched up to its traditional upper caste support base. However, note the sharp dip when it comes to Yadavs, the dominant OBC caste in the state.

Wankhade continued: “As a result, the neglect of the creamy layer [amongst the OBCs] flows into this.”

In the case of Uttar Pradesh, for example, making creamy layer criteria more stringent will mostly harm Yadavs, who are the most affluent backward caste and occupy the OBC quota far in excess of their numbers. This will will continue the BJP’s politics of mobilising marginalised OBCs against a dominant OBC caste

A similar politics had led the BJP government in 2017 appointing a commission to create sub-categories within the larger 27% OBC bloc for Central government jobs. This, its proponents say, is needed given the sheer diversity of the OBC category. While the current system allows a small number of powerful OBCs to garner a large proportion of the quota, sub-categorisation would ensure that weaker OBC castes do not have to compete with stronger communities, thus ensuring a more level playing field.

Since sub-categorisation does not include an economic criteria, unlike creamy layer, it is less vocally opposed and has already been introduced in a number of states when it comes to OBC quotas in state government jobs.