Explained: Siddaramaiah's calculated risk in accepting 2015 caste census report
The ruling Congress party in Karnataka, especially Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, is determined to fulfill all promises made to the people in the run-up to the Assembly polls, with an eye on the upcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Of the five guarantees assured, the party has already succeeded in implementing four, keeping the fiscal health of the state in mind. Besides guarantees, Siddaramaiah has hinted at reversing three controversial legislations ‘designed’ by the previous BJP government.
Until now, while implementing these promises, Siddaramaiah has not faced any dissent from Opposition parties or his own party leaders.
But, his promise of accepting the report of the 2015 socio-economic survey, popularly known as ‘Caste Census’ conducted by the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission (KSBCC), during his previous tenure as the CM, is likely to create ripples in Karnataka politics.
Political stalwarts of all the three dominant political parties believe the ‘content’ of the report is sure to change the political landscape of Karnataka. It looks like it will be a clash of two cultural icons ‘Mandal’ v/s ‘Kamandal’, in a state which had been communally harmonious till 2013. (Kamandal is a water pot often used by spiritual leaders and, over the years, has become a metaphor for Hindutva politics)
Impact on national politics
Siddaramaiah’s move on the caste census will have national connotations too as it will give impetus to Opposition parties like Janata Dal (United), RJD, SP, DMK, NCP and BJD, to pursue their demand for a caste census in their respective regions.
The BJP in 2022 may have supported the unanimous resolution passed in the Bihar Assembly in support of the caste census, as partner to the Nitish Kumar government. The Bihar government has even successfully completed the second phase of the caste survey now. But, the BJP-led central government refuses to budge and has still not accepted the demand by Opposition parties to go ahead with the caste census.
Siddaramaiah had commissioned this survey to KSBCC, then headed by H Kantharaj and the survey report is often referred to as Kantharaj Commission Report. It is significant that this survey was conducted after nearly eight decades since the first survey in 1935.
In 2017, the Congress government even extended Kantharaj’s term, and spent a whopping ₹162 crore on this project. The survey covered 1.36 crore households with a population of 6 crore. There was, however, an allegation that nearly 30 lakh people were left out of the survey because of inadequate staff in the Commission.
C S Dwarakanath, former chairman of KSBCC and now chief spokesperson of Congress, told The Federal that the process of this socio-economic survey was initiated during his tenure and during the Dharam Singh-led government in Karnataka. The UPA government, which was in power at the Centre, had sanctioned ₹21.50-crore for it, while Siddaramaiah, the deputy CM then, released ₹1.50-crore for this survey.
However, when the BJP formed the government in Karnataka along with H D Kumaraswamy in 2006, the survey was shelved, largely because veteran party leader B S Yediyurappa was completely against it.
Regarding tabling the survey report, former CM Basavaraj Bommai offered an ‘evasive’ explanation in August 2022, stating that “the government is examining the issue”.
Stirring the hornet’s nest
By bringing up the issue to the forefront, Siddaramaiah has stirred the hornet’s nest at a time when the demand for caste census has gradually become a silent issue in Indian politics. The BJP, which demanded the enumeration of caste in the census before 2014, took a complete U-turn after coming to power.
The Narendra Modi government has not only declined to release the report on Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), instead he asked the state governments to conduct a caste census “if they wish”. This is when the census is the subject matter of the Union list and state governments cannot conduct it.
In the UPA government’s second term, backward class leaders pressured Congress to accede to the issue of enumeration of caste census in the 2011 census. However, the UPA government separated the caste enumeration in the 2011 census and conducted a separate SECC in 2011-12.
Considering the effect of caste politics, especially AHINDA (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalits) in the recent polls to the Assembly, and hinting at the possibility of getting more seats in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, Siddaramaiah is taking a calculative risk by accepting the caste census report.
Congress’s hesitation, BJP’s opposition
A question that is often asked is why did the Congress when they were in power, hesitate to accept the report when it would have only helped them in the 2018 Assembly poll? There are ‘no takers’ for this question. Even BJP asked similar questions and alleged Siddaramaiah did not accept and release the report because of the pressure from top state Congress leaders and ministers in the cabinet.
A senior Congress leader, who spoke anonymously, admitted that “Congress leaders from dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities pressured Siddaramaiah against accepting this report. Congress, which was keen to claim its pound of flesh from the Lingayat community, did not want to antagonise the powerful community and spoil its own chances of coming to power”.
So, what were the ‘explosive findings’ in the caste census that could have angered the dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities? Findings of the caste census that was allegedly ‘leaked’ to the media at that time put the Scheduled Castes at 19.5 percent making them the largest entity, followed by the Muslims at 16 percent. The Lingayats and Vokkaligas make up 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.
Among Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Kuruba community, to which Siddaramaiah belongs, alone account for 7 percent of the state population.
It appears the very nature of the findings of the survey pushed Siddaramaiah into a dilemma about releasing the data before the Assembly elections in 2018. Few top Congress leaders were anxious that the report would only help Siddaramaiah considering the percentage of the population of minorities, Dalits and Backward Castes. They feared the Lingayat and Vokkaliga leaders would lose their hold on their respective communities.
The BJP and its mentor RSS too opposed the release of the caste census tooth and nail, because it would reveal to the country how Hindu society itself stands divided. It would also impact its grand nationalistic design of dividing the Hindus and Muslims.
A senior BJP leader unabashedly confessed that RSS and BJP are not worried about the class struggle but what makes them anxious is ‘caste’. Janata Dal (Secular), which completely banks on the Vokkaliga vote bank in the old Mysuru region, is more worried and H D Kumaraswamy, who headed the coalition government for a brief period, is understood to have played a pivotal role in not accepting and releasing the report.
Effect of Udaipur conclave
Siddaramaiah strongly believes the caste census will help his government at the helm to make right decisions on social welfare programmes and work out the reservation matrix for different castes and communities. Accepting, tabling and implementing the report is an important and prestigious issue for the Congress in Karnataka, as Rahul Gandhi batted for caste census during his recent campaign in Karnataka and the issue was prominently discussed in the party’s Udaipur convention as well.
Siddaramaiah now has the support of the party high command, following the decision taken in the Udaipur conclave. Interacting with the media, Siddaramaiah, in no uncertain words, declared that the Congress government would accept the report and release the findings for public consumption.
“Yes, I admit that the previous governments hesitated in accepting the report and extending the social programmes and reservation in employment, education and other sectors. We are here to extend justice to the communities that have been denied their rightful rights,” he said.
Siddarmaiah also said the state government would pressurise the Centre to increase reservation for SC communities and include the same in the 9th schedule of the Constitution. Previously, the BJP government tried to woo the SC and ST communities by increasing the quantum of reservation for them which might not have stood the scrutiny of the courts. And sent their recommendations to the Centre to be included in the 9th schedule only two days before the announcement of the Assembly election date.
Wrong notion about 9th Schedule of the Constitution
This is why Siddaramaiah objected to the ‘inordinate’ delay by the BJP government in sending the legislation to the Centre for inclusion in the 9th schedule.
This clause gains importance because even if the Siddaramaiah government announces a fresh reservation matrix, it has to be sent to the Centre to be included in the 9th schedule to get both constitutional and legal sanctity.
However, Siddaramaiah believes the schedule includes a list of central and state laws that cannot be challenged in courts and in the future may want to take shelter under this constitutional provision. But, it seems he may have probably been misguided by his legal team that the 9th Schedule will make them immune to legal challenges.
This is because different rulings of Supreme Court clarify that amendments which were made in the Constitution before April 24, 1973 (date on which judgment in the Keshavananda Bharathi was delivered) are valid and constitutional, but those made after that stated date are open to being challenged on the ground of constitutionality (Supreme Court’s observation in Waman Rao V/S Union of India (1981).
In IR Coelho V/S Tamil Nadu (2007) the apex court held that; “every law must be tested under Article 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution, if it came in to force after April 24, 1973″.
KSBCC is ready for submitting report
Jayaprakash Hegde, currently heading KSBCC, said the Commission is ready to submit the report to the government. However, taking objection to terming the report as a caste census, Hegde described it as the ‘findings of the socio-economic conditions of various communities’.
Hegde also said that the earlier roadblock to submitting the report was because member secretary of the commission N V Prasad did not sign the report. Now there is no hurdle to stop them from submitting the report to the government, he added.
Since the Congress government enjoys a massive mandate, there seems to be no opposition to making the survey report public, feel Congress leaders.
Congress spokesperson Nataraj Gowda said that accepting the report will help in taking up the cause of social justice in all earnestness, while C S Dwarakanath felt that “accepting the caste census will help the nomadic community-the most backward class among others”.
Confident that the Congress government accepting the report, Shivaraj Tangadagi, minister for backward classes welfare department too said, “One need not be apprehensive about the government accepting the report. The report, in my knowledge, will not affect dominant and powerful classes in any manner. The report’s findings are necessary for extending social justice, in which Congress strongly believes.”
With the decks getting cleared for Siddaramaiah to accept the report, he believes the move will only help the ruling Congress to perform better in the Lok Sabha polls. Which is why he confidently said in Mysuru on June 10 that Congress is confident of comfortably winning at least 20 seats of the 28 in 2024.