Prime Minister Narendra Modi will find himself in a sticky situation, when an 11-member all-party delegation from Bihar led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, will meet him on Monday (August 23) to push for their long-standing demand for a caste census to count the OBCs.
This high-powered delegation includes not just all NDA allies in Bihar, and a BJP leader, HAM’s Jitin Ram Manjhi but Bihar CM’s arch-enemy Tejashwi Yadav, said media reports.
On July 20 this year, in a complete U-turn, Union minister of state for home Nityanand Rai had said in the Lok Sabha that the Centre had decided against a caste-wise enumeration of the country’s population in the census—other than of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes – prompting many parties, including BJP allies to red flag this change of heart of the government.
Earlier, in 2018, the Modi government had assured Parliament that they would be collecting OBC data along with the census.
According to a report in News18, the Modi government will be faced with a “tricky call” whether to accede to their ally Nitish Kumar’s demands since they have to consider the fallout of this move on the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections.
In UP, the BJP had returned to power after a 14-year gap in 2017 on the back of strong support of the OBCs. But the BJP also had to consider its core upper-caste voter in Uttar Pradesh, and also the fact that it will be using the construction of the Ram Temple as a key poll plank in the 2022 elections.
Taking advantage of the BJP’s dilemma on the caste census issue, Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) has been issuing statements like “hum to kiss ginti main aate hi nahi hain” (We OBCs do not come in any count)”.
By doing this, Yadav intends to draw the non-Yadav OBC voters back to the SP. Moreover, the SP leader has vowed to order a caste census in UP if his party returns to power next year, pointed out the News18 report.
Though a senior BJP leader told News18 that no decision on this “top-level political call” has been taken so far. The BJP leaders argued that even if a caste census was ordered the data if made public would open “a Pandora’s Box” as it would be contrary to the 50 per cent reservation cap fixed by the Supreme Court in the Indira Sawhney case. And, this may lead to the government having to make a constitutional amendment.
“Congress also ordered a caste census in 2011 but never made it public,” said the News18 report quoting a senior BJP leader.
Most political parties felt that the Modi government will just defer the issue and commit to conducting the caste census at a later date.
But the BJP government knows that Bihar CM Nitish Kumar will go ahead and order an OBC count in the state if the Centre fails to do so, said media reports. Nitish and his party believed that a caste census will allow for a detailed enumeration of the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) in Bihar and help identify sections that remain off the government’s social welfare radar, said an India Today report.
This is one of the main reasons political parties are keen to have a census of OBCs done. In fact, all the political parties across the spectrum seem to root for the caste census.
However, the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011 too had not revealed the caste numbers in public though Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have been asking for empirical data from the Centre. Odisha too ordered its own caste census to count the OBCs. A delegation of Biju Janata Dal MPs had met Home Minister Amit Shah demanding a caste census.
The last caste census was held in 1931 in pre-Independent India, which covered present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. That census had put backward castes, which have a total of 2,633 communities, at 52 per cent of India’s population. The demand for a fresh assessment of the OBC population in the country had been made many times, but successive governments have failed to show political intent.
The normal Census of 2021 has already been delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and is scheduled to begin next year. While most Opposition parties want the caste census to be conducted along with the normal census, it is widely speculated that the Centre may postpone the caste census to after the normal census is completed in 2022.