The Opposition parties are yet to form an alliance for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, but their joint stand on caste census and the removal of reservation cap could be a binding factor and give them what a section of leaders feels the “Brahmastra” to counter the BJP and its Hindutva plank.
The issues of caste census and reservation not only put all Opposition parties on the same page but leaders feel it could also help them win back many backward classes, who have veered towards the BJP in the recent past.
At a DMK-convened conference, RJD leader and Bihar deputy chief minister Tejashwi Yadav summed it up for Opposition parties when he had said that the best way to beat the BJP’s politics of “polarisation” was through social justice-based politics.
This formula has been adopted by the Congress with much enthusiasm with Rahul Gandhi making an aggressive pitch for a caste-based census and the removal of 50 per cent cap on reservation, during his recent speech in Karnataka’s Kolar. He was striving to turn the tables on the BJP that had been gunning for him over his 2019 “Modi surname” remarks alleging that he insulted OBCs.
The BJP has hit back at Gandhi for his remarks, alleging that he is being “disingenuous” with his claim on the issue of social justice, when the erstwhile Siddaramaiah-led Congress government in Karnataka did nothing to address long-pending demands of Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).
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The Opposition has spoken with unanimity on general issues such as inflation and rising employment but lacked cohesiveness on specific issues like the Adani matter.
However, with the issues of caste-based census and removal of reservation cap, Opposition parties have found an arrow with which they can hit multiple targets at one go. It forges instant unity in the Opposition ranks, puts the BJP on the backfoot as it is yet to spell out its stance on them categorically, and prepares a counter for the Hindutva push expected closer to the polls.
With the Congress aggressively taking up the issue, it is likely to endear the party to regional outfits, which have till now been circumspect of the grand old party fearing that it may play the “big brother” by superseding their agenda with issues of its own.
Asked about the Congress strong pitch, Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh told PTI, “The demand for a caste-based census was articulated forcefully by many civil society groups to Rahul Gandhi during Bharat Jodo Yatra. The Congress is following through on that demand.”
A socio-economic caste census was conducted by the end of 2012 covering some 25 crore households but the data could not be published for various reasons, he pointed out.
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An example of how the issue of caste-based census could be the glue for the Opposition unity is how even the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which does not see eye-to-eye with the Congress on most issues has joined the caste-based census chorus.
The JD(U) and the RJD, which are part of the ruling Mahagathbandhan alliance in Bihar, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have also been vociferously demanding caste-based census for a long time.
The caste census and the removal of the cap on reservation are also likely to put the BJP in a quandary and test its own outreach to the backward classes.
The BJP unit in Bihar had supported a resolution at an all-party meeting convened by Nitish Kumar and later a unanimous resolution was passed in the Bihar Assembly on caste census. However, the BJPs central leadership is yet to respond to the demand for a socio-economic and caste census.
Rajya Sabha MP Kapil Sibal said the “doublespeak” of the BJP is clear from its “ambivalent position” on the Opposition demand for publishing the figures of the caste-based census of 2011.
“It (BJP) seeks the votes of the forward classes while it engages in doublespeak on backward classes,” he alleged.
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Sibal added that just being on the same page on this issue was not enough and that the Opposition unity requires much more than this. RJD MP Manoj Jha, another prominent voice in the Opposition ranks, also underlined the importance of the caste-based census issue.
“We have been demanding caste-based census, it started in 2010-11 when Lalu ji, Sharad ji and Mulayam ji raised this question and the then UPA government agreed to it. Subsequently, 2014 heralded (Narendra) Modi ji’s victory and myself and other MPs raised the question as to what happened to the data and we were told that the data got corrupted,” Jha told PTI adding that ‘don’t know whether the corruption was of the data or somewhere else’.
“The Kolar speech of Rahul ji provided a further impetus to the demand made by several state governments and leaders from diverse political parties. It is important to see that it is not a political issue, it involves deepening of democracy, who would not want deepening of democracy, it involves psychological, social and political empowerment of communities, it involves ensuring of representation in accordance with their population,” the RJD leader said.
Having said that, it is important to collectively raise this issue and tell the prime minister and his party that politics cannot be rhetorical, one has to come down to the ground and look at what are the critical issues, he said.
“The critical issue is that in the governance structure and bureaucracy, the representation of SCs, STs and OBCs is negligible. Can a democracy live with such anomalies that is our question and that is how we will take it up forward,” he asserted.
Political commentator Sanjay Jha, who was once a Congress party spokesperson, alleged that India has been devastated by a double whammy – unemployment crisis and extreme inequality – under the current government.
“The biggest sufferers are those from underprivileged communities and the backward classes. No amount or number of social welfare programmes being propagated by the BJP can neutralise the deprivation and the economic destitution of millions of Indians. Therefore the Opposition is completely justified in focusing on social justice as its key political message,” he told PTI.
“That’s why a nervous BJP is prevaricating on the caste census, as at core, it remains an upper caste party. Further, it is a party of the rich, by the rich, for the rich,” he claimed.
A leader on condition of anonymity said that with the BJP likely to use its Hindutva plank to consolidate its vote bank, the demands for a caste-based census and the removal of reservation cap could be the Opposition’s “Brahmastra” ahead of the 2024 elections.