Why BJP's refusal of caste census gives Opposition a unity plank
The Centre’s renewed refusal — this time before the Supreme Court — to conduct a caste-wise enumeration of Indians in the decennial national population audit has triggered the chorus among various political parties, including constituents of the ruling NDA coalition.
Reiterating the position it had taken in the last session of Parliament, the Centre, on Thursday, informed the apex court through an affidavit that “a caste-wise enumeration in the Census has been given up as a matter of policy from 1951 onwards and, thus, castes other than scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have not been enumerated in any of the Census since 1951 till today”.
The Centre’s submission comes at a time when the clamour for caste census has united political parties on either side of the power divide just four months ahead of crucial Assembly polls in five states, including Uttar Pradesh, a state often defined by its caste politics.
Opposition outfits such as the Congress, RJD, SP and BSP as well as NDA constituents JD (U), Apna Dal and the Republican Party of India (Athawale) have all been demanding caste-wise enumeration in the 2021 Census. Predictably then, the votaries of the caste census are furious.
Among the key arguments proffered in favour of a socio-economic caste census is the fact that India’s last caste-wise enumeration was done in 1931. Subsequent data on caste-wise population (excluding the SCs and STs) has largely been by way of estimates — the Mandal Commission had pegged India’s OBC population at 52 per cent while a 2007 National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) report pegged it at 41 per cent.
The UPA government had conducted the first-ever Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011 but the findings have not been made public yet. The G Mohini Commission, set up by the Narendra Modi government in 2017 to study sub-categorisation of OBCs, too is yet to finalise its report. In essence, political rhetoric as well as all affirmative action schemes for the socially backward classes – or the BJP’s fad of reservation for economically backward upper classes, for that matter – over the years have been dictated purely by electoral arithmetic and not current empirical data.
The BJP has, at least for now, sought refuge in the precedent, refusing caste-wise enumeration.
The party hasn’t offered any explanation of why, if it planned to follow a policy of the past, had Rajnath Singh, as Union home minister in 2018, said that the Centre would carry out a caste census.
The stand taken by the Centre in the apex court while responding to a petition by the Maharashtra government that has sought enumeration of information on Backward Class of Citizens (BCC) in the 2021 Census isn’t new.
In July, Nityanand Rai, the Union minister of state for home affairs, had informed the Lok Sabha that the government’s decision of not enumerating caste-wise populations in the census “is a matter of policy”.
The statement had prompted BJP-ally and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar to rally an 11-member delegation, also comprising his arch-rival Tejashwi Yadav, to the Prime Minister pressing for a caste census.
The Centre’s stand before the apex court, however, has made it clear that Narendra Modi is in no mood to concede the demands being made by his allies and opponents alike.
Kumar’s JD (U) and Yadav’s RJD were first off the block to hit out at the Centre for its “doublespeak” and “betrayal of the backward castes”. The coming together of Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav — even if for just one delegation and on an issue that neither can afford to ignore in Bihar — has set speculation abuzz of a possible political realignment between the JD(U) and the RJD ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
Tejashwi Yadav has now written to 33 leaders of various Opposition parties and chief ministers of non-BJP ruled states seeking their support in demanding a socio-economic and caste census.
The letter sent to interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, NCP’s Sharad Pawar, DMK’s MK Stalin, Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee, BJD’s Naveen Patnaik, CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, JMM’s Hemant Soren, YSR Congress’s YS Jagan Mohan Reddy, BSP’s Mayawati among others, said: “There is not a single rational reason against the desirability of caste census… the census of India must deliberate upon the flaws and gaps in the way it conducted the first Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011… the demand for caste-based census needs to be seen as an essential step in nation-building. The caste census, once conducted, would actually bring to the forefront the pressing concerns that a country like India must attend to with a sense of urgency.”
The boldness of the Centre in trying to brazen over the demand for providing statistical merit to the socially and politically essential, but data-devoid affirmative action being implemented by way of the Mandal Commission recommendations across the country for over three decades, has its own pitfalls.
For the uninitiated, it is important to recall that on August 7, 1990, then Prime Minister VP Singh had announced in Parliament that 27 per cent of Central government jobs will, henceforth, be reserved for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in accordance with recommendations of the BP Mandal Commission, whose report had, at the time, been gathering dust for nearly a decade.
Three decades later, the chorus for a socio-economic and caste census to belatedly validate and justify the social justice prescription of the Mandal Commission may have the potential to destabilize, if not end, the BJP’s fast-spreading pan-India dominance.
Tejashwi’s letter to Opposition leaders also coincides with efforts by Sonia Gandhi, Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee to stitch together a broad federal front against the BJP before the next general elections. Naturally, the demand for an SECC and its potential electoral implications are being viewed by Opposition parties as a possible plank for unity.
“The BJP is isolated on the issue of SECC while every other party, including most NDA constituents, wants caste-wise enumeration. This is certainly an issue on which there can be a meeting of minds among Opposition parties and we can build a countrywide campaign for better social inclusion that will benefit every section of the society. This is not just about SCs, STs or OBCs but is in the interest of so-called upper classes also because once you have empirical evidence on socio-economic status of various castes and classes, you can formulate precise welfare policies aimed at different sections of the population,” Congress leader M Veerappa Moily told The Federal.
Earlier this month, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi had constituted a committee under Moily’s chairmanship to discuss various issues regarding the caste census and finalise her party’s stand on the subject.
Moily said his panel, which also includes party leaders Salman Khurshid, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Kuldeep Bishnoi, RPN Singh and PL Punia, will finalise its report “within a month” and that after discussions within the Congress, recommendations will also be sent to the Centre.
He rejected the Centre’s contentions that “collection of data in respect of backward classes in the upcoming Census will pose a serious challenge to the enumerators” and “basic integrity of Census data may be compromised”.
Moily said, “These are lame excuses that show the BJP only wants to pay lip service to the cause of the oppressed. What is the challenge they are talking about; the 2021 census exercise has anyway been delayed due to the pandemic and so all that the government needs to do to enable the SECC is to add a few more columns in the survey forms. There is no need for a Constitution amendment or administrative changes and as far as the BJP’s excuse of following past policy is concerned, all I can say is that the Modi government has changed so many good policies for the worse so it can very well replace a bad policy with a good one too.”
For a party struggling to stay electorally relevant, jumping onto the caste census bandwagon has its obvious advantages for Congress.
Over the past three decades, the Congress has seen a swift attrition of its once-formidable vote bank among the SC, STs and OBCs to Mandal beneficiaries like the SP, BSP, and RJD in states like UP and Bihar. By positioning itself as votary of a second wave of affirmative action, just ahead of the Uttar Pradesh polls, the Congress hopes to win back the trust of the oppressed classes which collectively outnumber the upper classes in every Indian state.
Former UP chief ministers Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati too plan to use caste census as an electoral plank in the upcoming assembly polls considering that the as high as an estimated 65 percent of UP’s population comprises OBCs and SCs. Akhilesh’s call for “jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni hissedari” stresses on share of resources among communities as per their proportion of the population.
The cacophony for a caste census, however, isn’t limited to UP and Bihar alone. The Left parties, currently in power only in Kerala and having lost their bastions of Bengal to the Trinamool and Tripura to the BJP, too favour caste-wise enumeration as do regional outfits like the NCP and Shiv Sena which are both trying to tighten their grip on Maharashtra’s Maratha vote bank.
While the Trinamool is yet to officially declare its position on the issue, it’s likely that in the interest of Opposition unity, Mamata Banerjee is likely to join the chorus too.
On the other hand, the BJP, which owes much of its current electoral heft to successfully perpetuating a deeper sense of Hindu identity over individual caste identities among India’s religious majority, hopes that Modi’s ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas’ slogan will even out the deep-rooted caste fault lines.
It’s a different matter, though, that despite its stout denial for caste census, terming it divisive, the BJP has been going all out to publicise the induction of 27 OBC leaders in Modi’s council of ministers as a far greater tool of social justice than any SECC.