Nitish Kumar
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has achieved a bigger feat by releasing the caste survey

Caste survey: Why it could be a big churn in Bihar polity and elsewhere

With major caste groups now knowing their numbers, they will want their fair share of political representation in the state, even as the demand for a caste census gets a shot in the arm

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By successfully navigating the caste survey to fruition despite seemingly insurmountable political, legal and logistical challenges, Bihar’s ruling JD(U) and RJD have scored a major electoral advantage over the BJP and its allies in the state before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. However, the electoral and administrative challenges that lie ahead for the two key constituents of the state’s ruling alliance, as well as for their junior ally, the Congress party, are not insignificant.

The survey’s revelation that a staggering 63 percent of the state’s population comprises backward and extremely backward classes vindicates the reasons that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s JD (U) and Lalu Yadav’s RJD had canvassed for the need for caste enumeration. Over the years, the two parties had consistently asserted that a caste census was a pre-requisite for ensuring equitable political, social and economic alleviation of the historically oppressed communities.

With Bihar now becoming the first state in the country to have published the caste-wise break-up of its population, the obvious corollary for the two parties to follow would be to ensure that they deliver on the reasons cited to commission caste enumeration. This, sources in the two parties concede, “will not be an easy task” and “how we proceed from here in terms of our government’s policies but our electoral strategy will decide the fate of our political future”.

The djinn is out

So far, both RJD and JD (U) had drawn their respective electoral muscle by cultivating different vote banks drawn primarily from the state’s highly diverse backward communities. The RJD, like the Samajwadi Party (another vocal votary of caste enumeration) in Uttar Pradesh, had the Yadavs as its core support base. As a fierce defender of secularism and religious minorities, RJD founder Lalu Prasad Yadav had also won over the state’s Muslim electorate, giving his party in Bihar its famed MY (Muslims and Yadavs) vote bank, as Mulayam Singh Yadav did for his Samajwadi Party in UP.

Nitish, on the other hand, achieved what was, arguably, a bigger feat. Unlike the RJD founder, who had the advantage of rallying two big chunks of the state’s population – the Yadavs and the Muslims – behind his party, Nitish stitched for the JD(U) an overarching voter base drawn from multiple extremely backward communities (EBCs). Additionally, Nitish craftily chipped away a chunk of Muslim voters from the RJD by consistently engaging with members of the religious minority even during his long stint as an ally of a Hindu supremacist BJP. Nitish also held sway over what is colloquially called the Luv-Kush caste combination in Bihar – that of the backward caste Kurmi (Nitish’s caste) and Kushwaha/Koeri groups – while his move as chief minister to turn Bihar into a liquor prohibition state had also won him favour among the amorphous women electorate. All this aside, as the BJP’s ally, the JD(U) also benefitted electorally from Hindu upper caste groups that formed the saffron party’s key base just as his party helped its ally to expand its base among the EBCs and Dalits.

What the caste survey results mean to various groups

The caste survey has revealed that the Yadavs are the largest backward caste community in Bihar, accounting for over 14 percent of the state’s population, while the Muslims account for just over 17 percent; pegging the combined strength of the two communities at over 31 percent. The EBCs, which include caste groups such as the Nonia, Dhanuk, Nai, Prajapati, Mallah, Kevat, Teli, Kahar and Bhadhai, collectively number 36 percent of Bihar’s population. The Kurmi and Kushwaha castes, respectively, comprise 2.87 and 4.21 percent of the population.

These figures explain why both RJD and JD (U) were such aggressive votaries of caste enumeration. The data published now also shows why the BJP, which has batted for a caste survey in Bihar but remained dismissive of it at the national level, risks alienating a massive vote bank despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strident efforts at wooing the BCs by giving their leaders greater representation in the Union cabinet and by launching schemes, including the Vishwakarma Yojana, which are touted as measures for BC-EBC welfare.

Theory vs reality

At least in theory, consolidation of the BCs and EBCs behind the JD(U)-RJD combine would give the two parties and their allies, the Congress and Left outfits such as the CPI-ML, CPI and CPM, a definite electoral advantage over the BJP. However, what is true in theory may not always be true in practice.

“The caste survey will now lead to a greater assertion of caste identity in Bihar’s politics. All backward caste groups now know where they stand in terms of their numerical strength. Until now, political parties in Bihar had the luxury of floating fictional figures about the population of various castes and justifying their choice of candidates. The RJD could say Yadavs are in big numbers so they should get more share of the seats, JD (U) could rely on fictional estimates about different EBC groups and BJP would do the same regarding Brahmins and Bhumihars, while accusing RJD of denying BCs other than Yadavs and Muslims a fair representation. Now, no one can play this game because the data is out. The Yadavs may still be the largest backward caste bloc, but RJD will have to diversify its outreach beyond Yadavs and Muslims, just as Nitish will have to look beyond Luv-Kush and EBCs,” a senior RJD leader told The Federal.

The RJD leader said his party had started diversifying its voter base under Tejashwi Yadav’s leadership since the 2020 Bihar assembly polls when the party reduced the share of Yadavs in ticket distribution and accommodated a larger number of candidates from other backward communities, such as the Nonias, Dhanuks, Mallahs and Telis. The party’s alliance with the CPI-ML, which has a significant support base among the oppressed communities in some districts of Bihar, has also helped the RJD expand its footprint beyond its traditional MY vote bank. “With the data now becoming public, we will have to improvise our social engineering further,” he added.

Shakeel Ahmad Khan, leader of the Congress Legislative Party in the Bihar Vidhan Sabha, agrees. Khan says that though the BJP will face major challenges in Bihar due to its “doublespeak on caste census”, the RJD, JD (U) and Congress will have to make “significant changes in the way we chalk out our electoral strategies or even how we function as a government”.

Muslims may ask for their fair share

Though much of the conversation on the Bihar caste survey has revolved around the BCs and EBCs, Khan says “secular parties like the Congress and our allies, the RJD and JD (U), will also have to think about how we engage politically with the various groups within the Muslim community because the survey has now given us numbers regarding various denominations among Muslims also along with the details about the economic disparity among them.” A two-term MLA from the Kadwa constituency in Katihar district of Seemanchal – Bihar’s most impoverished region with a high concentration of Muslims – Khan says, “Sub-groups within the Muslims are also bound to ask for their fair share from parties in our alliance and if we do not address their aspirations, the BJP, which has suddenly developed concern for welfare of Pasmanda (backward) Muslims, will succeed, sooner or later, in creating a divide in the Muslim community.”

Nitish’s gamble on EWS

At the all-party meeting, he convened on October 3 to share details of the caste survey, Nitish is learnt to have informed the leaders present that his government will also release data regarding the socio-economic condition of various caste groups in the state. Sources said that Nitish’s surprise move of expanding the scope of application of the 10 percent reservation granted to Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) was an admission of the poor economic condition of a section of Bihar’s forward classes, who have traditionally frowned upon the caste-based reservation system. By extending the EWS quota to judicial services and government law colleges, Nitish, said sources close to him, was also making a pre-emptive strike to secure his ruling alliance from allegations of discriminating against upper castes.

The Bihar chief minister has, so far, given no commitment on a timeline for releasing the socio-economic data gathered during the caste enumeration, but he knows that the information can’t be withheld indefinitely. A close aide of the chief minister told The Federal that while data of caste-wise population break-up of the state has electoral repercussions for all political parties in the state, publication of the socio-economic parameters would have a direct and more personal impact on Nitish and Lalu.

Push for a national caste census

“The data released on Gandhi Jayanti (October 2) gives us an advantage against the BJP because whether it is us or our allies – the RJD, Congress and Left parties – we have all been committed to the idea of social justice and we are collectively pushing for a national caste census. This differentiates us favourably compared to the BJP, because the BJP has been doing a flip-flop on caste census and it has the added baggage of still being perceived as party that believes in upper caste domination despite (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi’s push for wooing backward classes,” the Nitish aide said.

He added, “The socio-economic data may not give us the same advantage, because for the past over three decades, Bihar has only had chief ministers from either the RJD or the JD (U) and for a bulk of this period it was either Nitish or Lalu and (his wife) Rabri. If the socio-economic data shows massive economic disparity and backwardness, as many anticipate it would, it is the RJD and the JD (U) that will be put in the dock. The BJP may have shared power with us for a major part of Nitish Kumar’s stint as chief minister, but it is an expert at deflecting blame... if the socio-economic data presents a worrying trend, the BJP will go to town accusing Lalu and Nitish of ruining Bihar but if it is favourable, it will immediate try to seek credit claiming this is so because the BJP was part of the ruling coalition and Modi gave central funds for the state.”

The dilemma the ruling alliance faces

RJD MP Manoj Kumar Jha, perhaps, described the dilemma of the ruling alliance best. “The djinn is out of the bottle now and we have to feed it whatever it wants... the caste survey has given the population break-up and it is impossible for any party to reverse this; even other states and, ultimately, the Centre will be compelled to do what we have achieved in Bihar. While this will hold us in good stead politically because for the first time in independent India a government has shown the guts to publish the caste-wise headcount, expectations of the backward communities from us will also be very high and turning them away is not an option."

“The survey will embolden people to seek what is rightfully theirs – representation in electoral politics, share in government’s resources, socio-economic parity and welfare – and it is now on us to deliver on those aspirations,” Jha added.

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