Caste Survey in Bihar gives a new twist to battle 2024

Bihar CM Nitish Kumar. (File photo)

New Delhi: The release of the caste survey by the Nitish Kumar Government in Bihar has stirred up Indian political scene once again, reminiscent of the Mandal days, with the BJP trying to neutralise the Opposition advantage with a narrative of Hindu unity.

The BJP had in the last two Lok Sabha elections been successful to bring quite a sizeable sections of OBCs in its fold by giving them positions in the party, implementing schemes for their welfare, and playing the Hindutva card..

But caste fault lines are still strong in Indian society and play a crucial role in the politics of the country, especially in the Hindi heartland.The figures revealed by the caste Census are themselves set to disrupt the existing political equations. According to the new census report, the number of other backward castes (OBC) in Bihar is 27 per cent of the population and of the extremely backward castes (EBC) is 36 per cent. This comes to a total of 63 per cent, against which they have a reservation of 27 per cent. Out of the 13 crore population of the Hindi heartland state, the upper castes are 15.5 per cent, Dalits are 19 per cent , and tribals 1.68 per cent. Muslims form 17.7% of the total state population.

The Congress, which is part of the recently formed Opposition’s INDIA alliance, was reluctant to implement the Mandal Commission report in 1980s, the price for which it paid by becoming irrelevant in northern Indian politics. States with large backward population like UP and Bihar became politically dominated by caste-based political parties, claiming their share in the power structure on the basis of their numerical strength.

While the backward classes gradually slipped out of the Congress fold due to its opposition to Mandal, Muslims became alienated from the grand old party as a fall out of the Babri Masjid demolition, and the upper caste shifted to the BJP as it became a votary of Hindutva with increasing force.

Now in an interesting twist to the political power play, the Congress has started making strong pitch for nationwide caste
survey, advocating ‘ jiski jitni aabadi, utna haque ( Rights in proportion to population), which has put the BJP in a quandary. The Modi government by passing the women reservation bill was quite content that it had punched a hole in the Opposition campaign for 2024 Lok Sabha election, but the Bihar government by releasing the Caste census had created a situation in which it has become very difficult for the BJP to decide its stance on the issue. If it supports increasing reservation on the basis of increased number of OBCs, it would displease the upper caste Hindus, and if it does not, it faces the risk of losing OBC voter which it has so carefully cultivated through a number of strtaegies, including highlighting the fact of Modi belonging to backward caste.

The BJP has always ideologically opposed reservation and caste politics, as it would be a hindrance in their larger goal of Hindu unity, but the compulsions of Indian politics in which caste plays a dominant role, has compelled it to support reservation.

Even RSS cannot oppose reservation directly and openly in view of its impact on electoral prospects of the BJP. The constituents of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, like Union Minister Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal (Sonelal), the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) and the Nishad Party mince no words in backing reservation.

The publication of caste census has put the BJP in a difficult situation as the number of backward classes that would be revealed, as is the case in Bihar, would certainly lead to demand for their reservation in proportion to their population. The BJP at present cannot risk supporting OBC reservation even within women’s reservation as it would alienate its upper caste vote at a time when elections in five states are a month away and Lok Sabha election due next near.

Minister Narendra Modi has reacted to the caste survey by describing it as a sin, aimed at dividing the Hindu society. He tried to turn the table on the Opposition by saying that the biggest class instead of being any caste group was of the poor. He also attacked Congress president Rahul Gandhi for his statement ,” jiski jetni aabadi, utna haq,” saying whether he was trying to take away the rights of minorities.

Neutralising the caste politics of his opponents in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh with his push for Hindu unity is a matter of life and death for Modi and his political party, as it is the numerical dominance of OBCs in the Hindi heart land that was the reason for the rise of Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the RJD in Bihar, following the publication of the Mandal Commission report during the VP Singh government at the Centre, which the BJP had tried to counter with Kamandal, a symbol of the Hindutva politics. UP and Bihaar together account for 125 Lok sabha seats, out of which, the BJP had won 104 in the 2019 elections.

It would be interesting to see which one of the two forces–Caste affiliations or Hindutva –prevails in the coming elections. But it is to be noted that in addition to Hindutva, Modi can also exploit some paradoxes of caste-based politics against the Opposition. It is a known fact that there are so many disparities even among the backward classes with some dominant communities walking away with most of the benefits intended for the class.In 2017, the Modi government had set up the G. Rohini commission to get figures of the share in quota of the 2,600-plus caste groups in the central OBC list. The aim of this exercise was to sub-categorise the OBCs for ensuring a more equitable distribution of benefits.The Commission submitted its report in July this year. But this again comes to the need of caste-based census.


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