Caste census: Will Lalu-Nitish's EBC jinn take on BJP's Kamandal in 2024?
Survey gives RJD-JD(S) a robust electoral plank that BJP will be hard-pressed to counter
By releasing the findings of its much-awaited caste-based enumeration, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has set the ball rolling for Mandal 2.0 politics nationwide, to combat the BJP's aggressive Hindutva agenda. He is set to use the survey data for deriving political mileage not only in Bihar but also at the national level.
It is a repeat performance by Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar – the two leaders of the socialist and social justice movement in Bihar – after over 30 years. The duo, along with Sharad Yadav, had persuaded then Prime Minister VP Singh to implement the Mandal Commission report, which had been gathering dust for several years. Eventually, the Mandal Commission report was announced in August 1990.
In an attempt to shift the political debate from Mandal to Ram temple – a strategy also referred to as Kamandal – Lal Krishna Advani, then the tallest leader in the BJP, launched a ratha yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya, in September 1990. Lalu, who was Bihar Chief Minister then, arrested Advani on October 24, 1990, at Samastipur in Bihar, triggering the fall of the VP Singh government, which was supported by the BJP as well as the Left parties. This went to prove how strong his opposition was to the Hindutva agenda.
Nitish and Lalu firmly believed that Mandal politics alone could offset the BJP’s Hindutva agenda and prevent the growth of the saffron forces in northern India – referred to as the cowbelt. They decided to push for a caste census so that the majority of the nearly 80 per cent backward castes did not get influenced by the Sangh Parivar narrative.
Now, again, they pitched for the inclusion of caste census as the main political agenda of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has been campaigning for it throughout the country.
The idea to hold the caste census in Bihar was first mooted when Nitish Kumar was in alliance with the BJP. A resolution to this effect was adopted by both the houses of the Bihar legislature and a cabinet decision was taken in February 2022 to conduct the survey in two phases, and complete it by January 2023.
However, it suffered roadblocks due to legal wrangles – from the Patna High Court to the Supreme Court – wherein the Centre challenged the purview of the state government to conduct it. The Narendra Modi government at the Centre made it clear that it would not be able to undertake a headcount of castes other than SCs and STs as part of the National Census. But the Centre eventually withdrew its objections, apparently considering their political fallout.
The new findings have revealed that the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and BCs constitute a whopping 63 per cent of the state's total population, which stands at 13.07 crore. Constituting 36 per cent of the population, the EBCs – whom Lalu had once dubbed as the 'jinn of ballot boxes' – were found to be the largest social segment, followed by the BCs at 27.13 per cent.
With the revised caste data in public now showing a substantial increase in the number of EBCs and BCs, Nitish has planned a meeting of all nine parties that are part of the ruling coalition, including Deputy Chief Minister Tejashwi Yadav, to discuss the next move. It is expected that the RJD-JD(U) combine, with other allies, will announce an increase in the BC quota, which is currently at a meagre 27 per cent. In Bihar, the BCs are classified into two categories – Annexure One comprising over 120 EBCs and Annexure Two consisting of four major BCs.
The survey outcome will also give a boost to their demand to implement the reservation formula in private sector jobs and reinforce the politics of social justice in Bihar and other parts of the country. On his part, Nitish has given 33 per cent reservation for women in panchayat elections and constituted a Mahadalit Commission for the welfare of SCs.
The survey has revealed that the Yadavs are the single largest caste accounting for 14.27 per cent of the total population. Combined with the Muslims, who are at 17.7 per cent, the electorally sought-after Muslim-Yadav (MY) combination together constitute 31.97 per cent vote share. “The RJD and its allies start with a solid vote bank of 32 per cent. And, if the votes of EBCs, other BCs and Dalits are added, the INDIA alliance stands far ahead of the rival BJP and its allies,” said former minister and RJD functionary Shyam Rajak.
Leg-up for marginal groups
The census results may give a new group identity to the marginalised groups. The proportion of SC and ST population has increased to 21.33 per cent, giving an edge to parties like the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) of the late Ram Vilas Paswan and Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) of Jitan Ram Manjhi, with support bases among the Dusadhs (Paswans) and Musahars, respectively.
Nitish's political move will definitely enable the RJD and JD-U to counteract the BJP plan to influence EBC votes. Bihar BJP has been trying to divide the social justice bloc and draw in the smaller sections among them. By appointing Samrat Choudhary as the state unit president and roping in former Union Minister Upendra Kushwaha, the BJP has sought to elicit the votes of Kushwaha caste (Koeris), which constitutes 4.21 per cent of the total population.
As the 2024 Lok Sabha polls are nearing, attempts are again being made to reinforce the Mandal bloc under one umbrella and influence the electoral choices of people with old and new calculations. With EBCs registering a substantial growth, political parties will target them big-time.
The caste dynamics have moved a full circle now. They had changed politics in the post-Mandal 1.0 era and are likely to again in the Mandal 2.0 phase, in the days to come. But the moot question remains – will the jinn of RJD-JD(U) be able to take on the Kamandal of the BJP in Bihar?