Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Leader of Opposition Tejashwi Yadav and representatives from other state parties will meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 23 to push for a caste-based census across the country.
Nitish Kumar, whose JD(U) is a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, has stuck to his position on holding a caste census in the country . He has even spelled out plans to conduct one in Bihar if the Centre were to veto his demand.
The growing clamour for caste enumeration by Mandal parties, both in the heartland and down south, is indicative of a churn in subaltern politics with the ruling BJP taking a strong stride to shed any inhibitions to enter the caste quagmire. With little or no challenge from the Opposition to its core upper-caste vote, the ruling party has been emboldened to play on the front foot on the caste pitch; something which the BJP was a little wary of doing not very long back.
The political overtones in the recent expansion of the Union Council of Ministers is a case in point. In nominating new ministers, the BJP has not only sought to bring in diversity to the political executive, it has also made it a point to amplify the message. Soon thereafter, the Modi government gave a nod to implement 27 percent reservation in medical entrance tests for seats under AIQ (All India Quota).
The BJP’s aplomb to engage regional parties by pushing its own version of social justice under the overarching theme of nationalism is borne out of the party’s success in the last one decade to attract a large section of backward communities in the Mandal block to stitch winning combinations in the heartland politics. The party has effectively exploited strains and tensions between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ among OBCs and Dalits to mobilise a rainbow coalition.
The development is not new. The realignment has been in the works for the last 10 years. In UP, the BJP has made a concerted effort to wean non-Yadav backwards and non-Jatav Dalits away from the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The two social blocks together constitute close to 40 percent of the electorate. It is not surprising, thus, that the party has consistently polled almost 40 percent or more votes in every election in Uttar Pradesh after 2014.
In Bihar, however, the current political scenario is riddled with more complexities. Unlike UP where it has projected itself as the sole champion of a section of OBC and Dalits, it has had to compete for the same space with its ally Janata Dal (United). While the opposition space in UP is divided between BSP and SP, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal remains the sole repository of the anti-BJP vote in Bihar.
If the BJP has to grow further in Bihar, this growth will come at the cost of Nitish Kumar. Which is why the JD(U) despite being in alliance with the BJP is trying to push back any encroachments on its territory.
The last caste census in India was published in 1931. The 27 percent reservations for OBCs based on the Mandal Commission Report is based on the extrapolation of backward population at 54 percent.
Caste-wise enumeration and empirical data on socio-economic status can help the government frame targeted schemes for the deprived sections. But it can also open a Pandora’s box to reignite the reservation debate. In many states, like Tamil Nadu, OBC quota exceeds the stipulated 50 percent threshold set by the Supreme Court. To avoid judicial scrutiny, the enabling legislations have been put under the 9th Schedule of the Constitution.
The BJP has thus far done well to balance its social justice outreach with upper caste sensibilities on quota. The government juxtaposed the OBC quota in NEET with countervailing measures by extending 10 percent reservations for Economically Weaker Sections or EWS.
A caste enumeration documented against the socio-economic status of communities will throw up empirical data which may consolidate political positions against the status quo on reservations imposed by the Indira Sawhney case. Demand for proportional and not just adequate representation in jobs and education can engender fresh debates on diversity and positive discrimination.
The caste census thus has the potential to trigger another disruption in the Indian politics. A disruption which can disturb the current equilibrium the political parties in power want to avoid. The Congress leading the UPA II agreed to conduct a Social and Economic Caste Census but the data has not been made public.
Will the BJP bite the bullet to conduct the exercise along with the next decennial Census? It’s a choice between a rock and a hard place.