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a) The Congress’s OBC outreach

It is well documented that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) owed its 2014 electoral triumph to three factors. The first was a powerful anti-incumbency against the United Progressive Alliance-II government. The second, a massively funded public relations coup, more popularly known as the ‘Modi wave’. The third and most critical element was the reinvention of the BJP — traditionally a party of upper castes and the urban middle and upper classes — as a party of virtually anyone who publicly self-identified as a Hindu.

The BJP plan

Scholars of political science have mapped how the BJP stitched together a new social coalition by playing down its hardcore Brahmanism without disavowing it, and by bringing the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Dalits and Adivasis — especially communities that felt neglected by the leading identitarian parties — into the saffron fold. This paid off handsomely in the 2014 elections, where in addition to healthy vote shares from every social group bar the Muslims, the biggest chunk of the BJP’s votes (39%) came from the OBCs. Even though the BJP enjoyed the largest vote share among the upper castes (47%), that still constituted only 33% of its overall votes.

It is today a matter of common sense that for any party which seeks to be a serious player at the State or national level, its electoral fortunes depend on the size of its support base among the OBCs who make up 50-60% of the population. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been more keenly aware of it than anyone else, which was why, among the national parties, it is the socially conservative BJP — not the liberal Congress and not the ‘progressive’ Left parties — that was first off the blocks in giving the most number of leadership opportunities to OBC politicians, including, of course, their 2014 prime ministerial candidate, which it did in the teeth of strong opposition from its own power elite.

Congress counter

Now the Congress seems to be finally waking up to the need for a proper strategy to recover lost electoral ground. In 2014, while only 15% of the OBCs voted for it, 34% of them preferred the BJP. A massive 19% deficit vis-à-vis the BJP, and a drop in vote share of nine percentage points from the 2009 Lok Sabha polls (when 24% of the OBCs had preferred the Congress) is a major problem without fixing which the Congress cannot mount a serious challenge in 2019. (All the figures are from the CSDS’ National Election Study datasets).

One sign that the party has begun to apply itself to the OBC question was Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the national convention of the party’s OBC wing last month. It was a remarkable speech in that it marks the first such attempt in recent times, by a Congress politician, to publicly articulate the interwoven nature of class exploitation and caste oppression in the lived experience of OBC communities.

Mr. Gandhi began his speech with a story about an Indian fashion designer ridiculed in a Paris show by his foreign peers. It turned out he was mocked only because he was taking the credit for a garment created by a ‘darzi’ (tailor), despite lacking the requisite skill (tailoring) to even appreciate the labour and know-how that had gone into its making. Of course, it is not unknown for Indian designers to use the skilled labour of poor craftsmen while paying them a fraction of the product’s retail price. Such exploitation is standard fare in capitalist societies. But in India, this is enabled and institutionalised through caste relations — with the typical scenario consisting of Dalit-Bahujan tailors toiling for an upper caste businessman. Mr. Gandhi made the point explicit at the end of his anecdote: “In Hindustan, wherever you look, one set of people does the work, another set reaps the profit. This is the truth about Hindustan.”

He gave three more examples in the same vein — the widely ridiculed one of the Coca-Cola founder being a shikanji-seller, of McDonalds being started by a dhaba-wala, and of Ford, Mercedes, and Honda being set up by auto mechanics. In Mr. Gandhi’s telling, these companies were founded by people whose skill sets were similar to those typically found among OBC communities. So why is it that in India, no shikanji-seller, dhaba-wala, or mechanic has ever produced a business empire on the scale of a Coca-Cola, McDonalds or a Honda? “It is because the doors to political power and finance are closed to them,” said Mr. Gandhi, and he promised that “the Congress party will open both these doors to the OBC community.”

This is, no doubt, an original pitch. It combines the Congress’s traditional, pro-poor plank with an approach that is partial to entrepreneurship rather than to a National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme-like jobs guarantee. It represents an ideological shift in favour of private capital — but of small businesses, not big corporates.

But promises of economic empowerment are rather easy to make. Mr. Gandhi’s real test will come when he has to decide on party appointments and ticket distribution. On these matters, the Congress is still a solidly caste Hindu party. It won’t be surprising if Mr. Gandhi’s egalitarian impulses suffer the same fate as his storied attempts to democratise the party — attempts stymied by an old guard invested in the status quo.

Economic empowerment

But even if Mr. Gandhi manages to demonstrate his seriousness in delivering on bank credit and party appointments, these alone won’t cut it. In fact, an anecdote he recounted in the same speech offered a good explanation why. He spoke of bumping into a group of OBC MPs from the BJP near Parliament. When Mr. Gandhi casually asked them how are things, one of them says, “Rahulji, people like me made Modi the PM. I am a Lok Sabha MP, but today I cannot speak a word in front of him. No one listens to us.”

Clearly, becoming an MP has not been empowering enough for these OBC leaders. Yet Mr. Gandhi is too much of an old school Congressman to venture beyond the safe terrain of economic opportunities and democratic representation. In his speech he stopped short of acknowledging the social dimension of caste, the most critical one for Dalit-Bahujans.

The RSS, however, did not make this mistake. An integral part of its outreach to OBCs (and Dalits) across the country has been the strategy of symbolically granting social prestige through newly minted quasi-religious folklore. These confer status on specific OBC and Dalit sub-castes by locating them within the mainstream of Hindu mythology, a project often accomplished via made-to-order sub-plots inserted into the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.

Symbolic empowerment may be good for the soul but it leaves untouched the structure of caste prejudice. Mr. Gandhi would like the Congress to focus on economic empowerment of the OBCs by ensuring a higher market value for their skills. He may even succeed in keeping his promise of offering them greater space within the Congress. But these alone cannot counter the Hinduisation of the OBCs that is currently on in full swing — the BJP would like them consolidated into a seamless Hindu vote bank by 2019 — unless they are accompanied by a politicisation of caste-based social exclusion. Reservations did precisely that, which is why they remain a political flashpoint.

Ultimately, the success of Mr. Gandhi’s OBC outreach will depend on his ability to articulate empowerment in an idiom that resonates with the masses. But this requires a certain breadth of political vision — one that views caste not as an electoral calculus problem but as a pathology curable only by a politics conceived as an instrument for social transformation.

b) Conferring eminence

In its report on higher education for the Twelfth Plan, the working group of the erstwhile Planning Commission identified expansion, inclusion and excellence as the three pillars for growth. The NDA government had the theme of excellence in its 2016 annual budget, with a proposal to make 10 institutions each in the public and private sectors globally competitive. The challenge of excellence is to develop liberal institutions founded on academic rigour, high scholarship and equitable access for all classes of students. Quite ambitiously, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has taken the decision to give Institution of Eminence (IoE) status to six institutes, three each from the public and private sectors. Potentially, this will help the select few rise above the many State, Central and private universities, national-level institutes of technology, science, management and humanities, and attract talent. While it is a creditable achievement, the recognition raises the bar for the chosen few: the IITs at Mumbai and Delhi and the IISc in the public category, and BITS Pilani and the Manipal Academy of Higher Education, which are private. Giving the tag to Jio Institute, which is yet to come up, generated understandable controversy. It should be ensured that this conditional recognition is fulfilled transparently, and that it meets the requirements on governance structure, infrastructure and faculty within three years.

The idea of developing centres of higher learning advances the Nehruvian vision of building ‘temples of modern India’. The IoEs can become models of autonomy, academic innovation and equity of access, and lead to a transformation of higher education. That there is need for urgent reform became clear during the selection process: the empowered committee found that State universities had a low output because some of them had several faculty members recruited on contract basis, with no incentive to do research. Such ad hocism must end, and public universities should be insulated from political pressures. Vice-chancellors should be appointed on merit, free of ideological biases. With good governance structures and significant new financial grants, the selected public institutions will be able to innovate on courses and encourage research. The growth of these and other national institutions will also depend on policies to raise the expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP. Among countries with a comparable research output, India with 0.8% R&D spending trails Russia, Brazil, South Korea and even Singapore, according to Unesco data. Islands of eminence can inspire, but the long-term goal should be to raise the quality of higher education in all institutions through academic reform. The quality is uneven, and at the bottom levels, abysmal. At the same time, initiatives by charitable trusts — which have declined due to political support for commercialisation and aid cuts — must be welcomed, as this would help open more affordable colleges and universities.


1) Triumph

Meaning: Achieve a victory; be successful.

Example: “They had no chance of triumphing over the Nationalists”

Synonyms: Win, Succeed  

Antonyms: Lose, Fail

2) Incumbency

Meaning: The holding of an office or the period during which one is held.

Example: “During his incumbency he established an epidemic warning system”

3) Coup

Meaning: A sudden, violent, and illegal seizure of power from a government.

Example: “He was overthrown in an army coup”

Synonyms: Overthrow, Takeover

Antonyms: Election

4) Coalition

Meaning: A temporary alliance for combined action, especially of political parties forming a government.

Example: “A coalition between Liberals and Conservatives”

Synonyms: Alliance, Union  

5) Disavowing

Meaning: Deny any responsibility or support for.

Example: “The union leaders resisted pressure to disavow picket-line violence”

Synonyms: Deny, Disclaim

6) Paid off

Meaning: If something you have done pays off, it is successful.

Example: “All her hard work paid off in the end, and she finally passed the exam”

7) Chunk

Meaning: A significant amount of something.

Example: “She invested a chunk of her inheritance in the stock market”

8) Keenly

Meaning: In an eager or enthusiastic manner.

Example: “One of this year’s most keenly anticipated movies”

9) Elite

Meaning: A select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.

Example: “The elite of Britain’s armed forces”

Synonyms: Best, Pick  

Antonyms: Dregs

10) Articulate

Meaning: Having or showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently.

Example: “She was not very articulate”

Synonyms: Eloquent, Fluent  

Antonyms: Inarticulate, Hesitant

11) Interwoven

Meaning: Weave or become woven together.

Example: “The rugs are made by tightly interweaving the strands”

Synonyms: Intertwine, Entwine  

12) Exploitation

Meaning: The fact of making use of a situation to gain unfair advantage for oneself.

Example: “The Government’s exploitation of the fear of crime”

Synonyms: Misuse, Ill treatment  

13) Oppression

Meaning: The state of being subject to oppressive treatment.

Example: “A response to collective poverty and oppression”

Synonyms: Persecution, Abuse

Antonyms: Freedom, Democracy

14) Ridiculed

Meaning: Subject to contemptuous and dismissive language or behaviour.

Example: “His theory was ridiculed and dismissed”

Synonyms: Deride, Mock  

Antonyms: Praise

15) Peers

Meaning: A person of the same age, status, or ability as another specified person.

Example: “He has incurred much criticism from his academic peers”

Synonyms: Equal, Rival

16) Turned out

Meaning: To be known or discovered finally and surprisingly.

Example: “It turns out that she had known him when they were children”

17) Requisite

Meaning: Made necessary by particular circumstances or regulations.

Example: “The application will not be processed until the requisite fee is paid”

Synonyms: Necessary, Required

Antonyms: Optional, Unnecessary

18) Toiling

Meaning: Work extremely hard or incessantly.

Example: “We toiled away”

Synonyms: Labour, Travail  

Antonyms: Rest, Relax

19) Explicit

Meaning: Stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt.

Example: “The arrangement had not been made explicit”

Synonyms: Clear, Direct

Antonyms: Vague

20) Anecdote

Meaning: A short amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.

Example: “He told anecdotes about his job”

Synonyms: Story, Tale

21) Vein

Meaning: A distinctive quality, style, or tendency.

Example: “He closes his article in a somewhat humorous vein”

Synonyms: Mood, Humour  

22) Plank

Meaning: A fundamental point of a political or other programme.

Example: “The central plank of the bill is the curb on industrial polluters”

23) Solidly

Meaning: In a unanimous or undivided manner.

Example: “The workers were solidly united”

24) Egalitarian

Meaning: Believing in or based on the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.

Example: “A fairer, more egalitarian society”

25) Stymied

Meaning: Prevent or hinder the progress of.

Example: “The changes must not be allowed to stymie new medical treatments”

Synonyms: Impede, Hamper  

Antonyms: Assist, Help

26) Status quo

Meaning: The existing state of affairs, especially regarding social or political issues.

Example: “They have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo”

27) Venture

Meaning: A business enterprise, typically one that involves risk.

Example: “A joint venture between two aircraft manufacturers”

Synonyms: Enterprise, Project  

28) Folklore

Meaning: A body of popular myths or beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.

Example: “Hollywood folklore”

Synonyms: Mythology, Lore

29) Seamless

Meaning: Happening without any sudden changes, interruption, or difficulty.

Example: “The intention is to achieve a seamless transition with a continuity of management”

30) Resonates

Meaning: To be filled with a particular quality.

Example: “The building resonates with historic significance”  

31) Pathology

Meaning: The scientific study of disease.

Example: “Visuospatial agraphia typically has a right hemisphere pathology”

32) Conceived

Meaning: Form or devise (a plan or idea) in the mind.

Example: “The dam project was originally conceived in 1977”

Synonyms: Devise, Originate  

33) Erstwhile

Meaning: Former.

Example: “The erstwhile president of the company”

Synonyms: Former, Old

Antonyms: Present, Future

34) Rigour

Meaning: The quality of being extremely thorough and careful.

Example: “His analysis is lacking in rigour”

Synonyms: Thoroughness, Diligence  

Antonyms: Carelessness

35) Equity

Meaning: The quality of being fair and impartial.

Example: “Equity of treatment”

Synonyms: Fairness, Justice

Antonyms: Inequity, Imbalance

36) Ideological

Meaning: Based on or relating to a system of ideas and ideals, especially concerning economic or political theory and policy.

Example: “The ideological struggle that underpinned the cold war”

37) Eminence

Meaning: The state of being famous, respected, or important.

Example: “His eminence as a movie director”

38) Abysmal

Meaning: Extremely bad; appalling.

Example: “The quality of her work is abysmal”

Synonyms: Dreadful, Awful  

Antonyms: Superb

39) Aid

Meaning: A source of help or assistance.

Example: “Exercise is an important aid to recovery after heart attacks”

40) Affordable

Meaning: Inexpensive; reasonably priced.

Example: “Affordable homes”

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