Political, social, constitutional reverberations of Bihar caste census
Nitish Kumar's caste survey is expected to allow the INDIA bloc to substantially counter the Hindutva pitch of Narendra Modi's BJP.

Political, social, constitutional reverberations of Bihar caste census

Will reservations breach 50% cap? Will states line up for caste enumerations? Elections 2024 just got more interesting

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With Bihar’s ruling JD(U)-RJD-Congress coalition government releasing a snapshot of the state’s caste-based survey, on October 2, the narrative of Mandal versus Kamandal, which had shaken and transformed much of India’s political landscape through the turbulent decade of the 1990s, is expected to get a reboot ahead of the crucial 2024 Lok Sabha polls.

The release of the survey’s findings comes at a time when the Opposition’s INDIA coalition, of which the JD(U), the RJD and the Congress are key constituents, has been vociferously pushing the demand for conduct of a nationwide caste census. That Bihar has now become India’s first state to publish a caste-based survey, overcoming legal hurdles created in its conduct by persons and organisations affiliated with the BJP, is bound to give a fillip to the INDIA bloc’s demand.

Sources familiar with ongoing discussions within the INDIA coalition on the issue of caste enumeration told The Federal that the release of the caste-wise population data in Patna is likely to act as a cue for other states where constituents of the Opposition bloc are in power. The Congress, which has already shed its reticence of the past on the issue of caste enumeration following former party president Rahul Gandhi’s strident backing for a nationwide caste census, is also likely to back state-specific caste surveys in its manifestos for the assembly polls due in two months in Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.

What the numbers translate into

The findings of the survey validate what caste-based parties such as Lalu Prasad's RJD, Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) or even Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, with their political narrative rooted in the idea of social justice, have been claiming all along – that backward classes far outnumber the forward castes, and the policy prescriptions of various governments must factor in this social reality.

The Bihar caste survey now gives quantifiable data to back what has so far been a matter of theory and electoral rhetoric. A natural corollary to the survey’s findings, a JD(U) leader told The Federal, would be to effect a “complete overhaul” of the way governments draft policies and schemes so that these can now be “custom made” to uplift the overwhelming population of socially oppressed communities and “end the hegemony of the numerically minuscule upper classes for good”.

The Bihar caste survey data released by Development Commissioner Vivek Singh, pegs the total backward classes at over 63 per cent of the state’s population – combining 36.01 percent Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and 27.12 percent Backward Classes (OBCs). In contrast, the forward classes (Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs, Kayasthas, etc), collectively form just 15.52 per cent of Bihar’s population, a bloc that, when compared on religious lines, is marginally smaller than even the 17.7 per cent Muslim population of the state, much of which is socially and economically at par or worse off than most communities in the EBC and OBC categories.

At least in Bihar, the data now allows the INDIA coalition to formulate its own version of the 80 versus 20 fight that the BJP's Yogi Adityanath had once famously pegged in the electoral battle between his party and its rivals. Yogi had alluded to the contest in UP being a fight between a BJP that fights for India's 80 per cent Hindu population and its rivals, Congress, SP and others, which according to the UP CM believed only in appeasing the 20 per cent Muslim minority population. The Bihar caste survey allows Nitish, Tejashwi and leaders of the Congress to claim that the real fight is of 85 per cent (Dalits, backwards, tribals, minorities) versus 15 per cent (upper castes) - a formulation that is sure to irk the BJP.

Nitish-Tejashwi's likely measures

With data of the caste survey at their disposal, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy Tejashwi Yadav are now expected to roll out a number of measures that further strengthen their claims of leading a government and coalition that is committed to equity, social welfare and socioeconomic inclusion.

These measures, sources in the JD(U) and the RJD told The Federal, are likely to be rolled out in a “staggered manner, possibly starting with the winter session of the Bihar assembly”. They will be pitted as a tangible pushback against the “double standards of the BJP/RSS combine, which uses tokenism of OBC welfare as a mukhauta (mask) to hide its true face of feudal, upper caste domination,” the sources said.

A senior RJD leader told The Federal that among the ideas on Nitish and Tejashwi’s table is the electorally significant push for revamping and breaching the 50 per cent ceiling on reservation in government jobs and educational institutions to make it commensurate with the findings of the caste survey.

“Under the present ceiling, you have 27 per cent reservation for OBCs while Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes get another 23 per cent. Now that we have scientific data to show that 63 per cent of population is in the backward class category, it is obvious that 27 per cent reservation is grossly insufficient for them,” the RJD leader said. He added that it was the Supreme Court that had "shattered the myth of the 50 per cent ceiling" when it upheld an additional 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections (EWS). "Our argument is simple: if EWS can have 10 per cent despite the Constitution stating that affirmative action cannot be provided on economic criteria alone then why should 63 per cent of the population which is constitutionally guaranteed reservation on account of being socially and historically backward be given just 27 per cent?” he asked.

The RJD and JD(U), along with the SP, will also try to prevail upon its allies in the INDIA bloc to adopt a similar push for conducting caste surveys in states under their rule and, subsequently, using the data to rework the presently applicable reservation ceiling. The Congress, which is already on board with the caste census demand, is likely to be urged by Nitish and Tejashwi to expedite the process of releasing the caste survey data collected earlier in Karnataka while also committing to a state-specific socioeconomic caste enumeration in any state where it forms a government from now on until a nationwide caste census is done.

Fighting Hindutva pitch

This strategy, INDIA leaders believe, would be able to substantially counter the Hindutva pitch of the BJP, within which the saffron party has, increasingly over the past nine years of Narendra Modi’s stewardship, tried to subsume caste identities and aspirations of all Hindu denominations, including the Dalits, tribals and Backward Classes.

A senior JD(U) leader explained: “The 1990s saw the first full-blown Mandal versus Kamandal clash when social justice parties that came out of the Janata Party umbrella fought for the rights of backward classes following the revelations made in the Mandal Commission report while the BJP, with its Ram Janmbhoomi movement and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, began to give shape to its Hindutva narrative. Over the past decade, Modi and the RSS shrewdly married Mandal and Kamandal by increasing the representation of OBCs in governments and building Modi as the tallest OBC leader of the country. But, on the ground, they allowed the upper classes to continue their domination, which is why today the atrocities against oppressed communities in the country is the highest ever."

"It is time to launch Mandal 2.0 to expose the fraud that the BJP has played on backward classes," said the leader.

Significantly, in the clash between the politics of Mandal and Kamandal, it was the Congress which had found its electoral footprint shrinking steadily across the country. Parties that came out of the Janata umbrella – the JD(S), JD(U), RJD, INLD, RLD, and others – all chipped away at the Congress traditional vote bank among the backward classes. And, in states such as UP, Bihar and even Karnataka, they also succeeded in clubbing this vote bank with another pivot of the Congress’s electoral dominance – the Muslims. The upper caste Hindus, in thrall of the BJP’s aggressive Ram Mandir pitch, too began shifting away from the Congress to the saffron party.

Over the past decade, under Narendra Modi, the BJP reinvented its Hindutva pitch – though the ground for this had begun to be laid by the RSS much earlier but at a slower pace – to appropriate historical and cultural icons of those backward communities that found their interests inadequately addressed by the Janata Party offshoots, which catered largely to dominant OBC blocs such as the Yadavs.

Lesson for Congress, albeit delayed

The Congress had begun to realise the folly of its strategy too late and paid the price for it. It is now a fringe party in Bihar and UP – both states where caste assertion continues to determine the electoral longevity of political parties. Learning its lessons belatedly, as has been its wont, the Congress is now gradually embracing the rhetoric of caste identity politics, even in the face of acerbic attacks by the BJP regarding its past failures on the issue of OBC welfare.

During the recent debate over the Women’s Reservation Bill, former Congress presidents Rahul and Sonia Gandhi made a strong pitch for including an OBC sub-quota within the 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and state legislatures. Earlier, during the Karnataka Assembly polls, Rahul had also come up with the Jitni Abaadi Utna Haq (rights proportional to population) slogan to back the Caste Census demand – a plank that Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge, a Dalit, has now made inseparable from the party’s poll campaigns. To counter the Congress’s pitch, the BJP has harked about its rival’s refusal to table reports on OBC enumeration, classification, etc that were compiled during earlier governments of Jawaharlal Nehru (the Kaka Kalelkar Commission), Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (the Mandal Commission) and also sought to portray Rahul’s conviction in the Modi surname case as evidence of his “anti-OBC mindset”.

With the Bihar caste survey now giving the Congress a chance to redeem itself – the party is an alliance partner, even if only a minor one, in the Nitish Kumar government – on the score of OBC politics, the BJP is likely to use the party’s acts of omission and commission of the past to continue taunting it and its allies in the present.

Yet, the clash of electoral rhetoric between BJP’s NDA and INDIA over OBC identity politics is now inevitable. The BJP, by remaining non-committal on nationwide caste enumeration despite pressure from its allies for conceding a caste census, is starting off with a disadvantage.

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