modi nitish
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in a file photo: PTI

Nitish’s caste census: Major game-changer in Indian politics

While Bihar census will pressure Centre to release the caste data collected by the UPA government, it also exposes Modi’s inability to take any substantial measures for the OBCs with whose help the BJP came to power

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his deputy Tejashwi Yadav have hit the nail on the head by quickly conducting the caste ‘head count’ and releasing it even as the central government, in an affidavit before the Supreme Court, claimed that it alone can conduct census data mobilisation. After the Mandal reservation battle, this is the second major step that will change the democratic structure of India.

This kind of caste-based survey in our constitutional democratic set-up is going to make revolutionary changes in Ambedkar’s idea of ‘one vote one person’ irrespective of one’s caste or class. A person’s share in the national wealth and power now will be measured by the strength in terms of numbers of one’s caste and one's ability. Whether one is created from (Hindu god) Brahma’s head or feet has no value in the future. This is a new way to annihilate caste first by equalising all human beings by re-ordering the status of caste-based on the principle of individual right to be equal. Caste census serves that critical historical purpose.

Implications for national polity

The Bihar Caste Census Report will have huge implications for national polity. It exposes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inability to take any substantial step that would do good to Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Conducting a nationwide caste census during his regime would have given him and the BJP government, as they rode to power on the back of OBC votes, an image of sticking to the promise. Nitish took away the credibility. He carried the legacy of BP Mandal from Bihar, who headed the OBC reservation commission and submitted a landmark report.

The Bihar survey will force, perhaps, the central government to release the caste data that the earlier UPA government collected. The Modi government is quite tactfully sitting over it. It also enacted the women’s reservation law without giving reservation to OBC women. In that context, the Congress, which opposed reservation within the reservation in the OBC Bill, took a stand in favour of OBC reservation in Parliament and state legislatures. Rahul Gandhi is repeatedly talking about caste census and the share of OBCs in power and state finances. The BJP and RSS are cornered just before the 2024 elections.

Now, the pressure will mount to push for OBC reservations in Parliament and state legislatures.

Telangana, Karnataka keep caste count under wraps

Telangana and Karnataka will be pressurised to release the caste data that they have with them. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, in his earlier term, got a caste survey done through the state OBC commission. K Chandrashekar Rao did a household comprehensive survey in Telangana at the very beginning of his first term. He, too, did not release the data. They have provided an opportunity for Nitish to claim credit as the first chief minister ever to release caste-based numbers.

The BJP played various tricks to stop the Bihar census through legal and other means. But Nitish stood firm.

Bihar caste census

Look at caste data of Bihar. The backward (27.13 percent) and the most backward (36 percent) together constitute 63.13 percent. The general category castes that constitute Brahmins, Bhumihars, Kayasthas and Rajputs (Shatriyas) constitute just 15.52 percent of the population. Caste-wise, Yadavs, at 14.27 percent, constitute the single largest population. This one caste is as big as the general category in that state. But the general category consists of Muslim upper castes. The lower caste Muslims are part of the OBC category. The Muslim population, according to the same survey, constitutes 17. 70 per cent. What exactly is the caste break-up among Muslims is not known.

However, in all other states, Muslims do not have similar reservation facilities. In some states,converted Christians are on the OBC list.

Is 50% SC cap a legitimate benchmark?

How does this caste census play out in judicial decisions at the central level? The 50 percent cap on all reservations is imposed on moral as well as guess basis by the Supreme Court and has to go once the caste census is done at all-India level. Once data is available and the caste becomes the basis of positive discrimination, the 50 percent cap cannot stand as a sustainable benchmark.

This will be a challenge to political parties because so far, the non-reserved castes were controlling national political parties and, to a large extent, the regional parties too. In some states, though, the OBC leaders control some regional parties, which were dependent on the upper caste financial resources and could not push caste census even after 30 years of the Mandal movement.

The Modi factor

But OBC aspirations underwent a sea change with the BJP/RSS’s introduction of Narendra Modi as an OBC prime ministerial candidate in 2013 and his subsequent rise to power in 2014.

For the sake of power, the upper caste BJP leadership claimed that they, as against the dynasty rule of Congress, brought in an ordinary OBC activist to the prime minister’s office. They also projected him as a decisive leader as he faced huge criticism as Gujarat chief minister in the background of the 2002 communal riots in that state and remained unmoved.

However, Modi’s government has not changed the OBC status in the country in any sphere of life. His government mediated between the classical ideological stand of RSS and his OBC claim for power. Historically RSS was against caste discourse and political mobilisation on the basis of caste. But to defeat the Congress and UPA, it changed its position on the caste question and brought Modi with a proclamation that he was the first OBC prime ministerial candidate. This led the Dwija RSS leaders into an unresolvable contradiction. Since the BJP was winning with OBC votes, the Congress had to re-position on the issue.

To overcome its repeated defeat, the Congress had to change its anti-OBC position. It also now took a pro-OBC and pro-caste census stand.

Nitish’s caste headcount report and the numbers of OBCs in different states and the nation will lead to a new phase of Indian politics. Thus Nitish proved his political astuteness. Irrespective of the results of next elections, the Bihar caste census is the second major game changer after implementation of the Mandal Report.

The writer is former Director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad.)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal.)

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