New Delhi: With the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections looming on the political horizon, and the Opposition looking for a stick with which to beat the Narendra Modi government, OBC politics is back on the front burner.
It has, ironically, united political foes — Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and Tejashwi Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Bihar, for instance — and the twin demands that are providing the glue to the parties otherwise at loggerheads are for a nationwide caste census and raising the Supreme Court-mandated 50 per cent cap on reservations.
The trigger for this sudden upsurge is the 127th Constitution Amendment law moved by the Narendra Modi government and supported by Opposition parties across the board.
The demand in favour of a caste census was also raised by the former UP chief minister and Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav. Standing solidly behind him are arch-rival Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), as well as the BJP’s own coalition allies Apna Dal and Nishad Party.
Even parties like the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and YSR Congress Party (YSRCP), which usually back the BJP on critical issues in the Rajya Sabha, have made it crystal clear that they are firmly in support of a caste-based census, as are other Opposition parties ranging from the DMK in the south to the Trinamool Congress in the east. Even BJP MPs Sanghamitra Maurya and Ganesh Singh have supported the demand.
The government’s stand on the issue has been cautious. When asked if the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) would be carried out, a senior government official said “no decision has been taken in this regard”. The official added: “As of date, there is no clarity on whether the SECC will be carried out or not. The government, however, has made clear that there will be no caste census, except in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. There is a proposal for SECC post-Census 2021, but no decision has been taken on it.”
The political establishment has sent confusing signals. In response to a question in Parliament on 20 July, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai said the government had decided to not conduct a caste-wise enumeration of the population, except in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. BJP National General Secretary Dushyant Gautam told ThePrint that the demand is very much in the BJP’s mind, and when the right time arrives, “the government will consider it. As of now the party does not have an informed opinion about it”.
However, in 2018, the then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh had announced that there would be a census of the OBC population during the 2021 Census. The government has also refrained from tabling the report of the Rohini Commission that was established in 2017. The central idea behind the formation of the commission was to extend benefits of reservation to those OBC castes that were left out of the central list of 2,633 castes.
The rationale was that the government believes the demand for a caste census was being backed by 100 influential castes who have been the biggest beneficiaries of the 27 per cent OBC quota.
‘Beyond Mandal and Kamandal’
Senior political analyst and professor at Allahabad Social Institute Badrinarayan explains it as the battle beyond caste mobilisation and the Ram Janmabhoomi moment. “This is beyond Mandal and Kamandal. The regional parties feel that the BJP has found the right balance between caste and religious mobilisation. The BJP’s OBC mass base is constantly expanding. A caste-based census may well be the Opposition’s only weapon to counter the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva-based politics and PM Modi’s personal appeal.”
Director of Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) Sanjay Kumar adds that the timing is right, too, since a new census is to be conducted soon.
“If they fail to do it now, then when will they do it? This is also important politically because the UP assembly elections are just around the corner. Raising this issue will not only provide a golden chance to caste-based parties like the SP and the BSP to further strengthen their own vote banks but also to challenge the BJP’s own social vote bank,” he said.
“The path to power at the Centre in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections passes through UP as always, so the caste-based census has become all-important.”
The regional parties hope the campaign launched by RSS-BJP combine to unite the backward castes under the larger framework of Hindutva will receive a major setback. The widening gap between Hindus and Muslims will narrow down. Those castes that have not benefited till now will rise up the ladder.
That is exactly what Lok Sabha MP V. Chandrasekhar from the YSRCP says. “Only when a caste-based census happens will we be able to tailor special plans for the welfare of the backward castes. This is because at the time of the Mandal Commission report, the data used was from the 1931 census, with the nationwide population of OBC communities at 52 per cent, which led to the 27 per cent quota,” he added. “It is important to know whether this population has increased or has come down.”
The last time a caste-based census was conducted was during British rule in 1931. “How can we continue to draft policies on the basis of archaic data,” said JD(U) national president Lallan Singh.
Akhilesh Yadav, who is desperately trying to find ways and means to return to power, echoes this, saying: “Why is the Modi government shying away from conducting a census of the same backward classes who voted overwhelmingly to install it?”
He has also asked the government to at least release the relevant data of 2011 Census which is already with the government.
A logistical nightmare
The Mandal Commission report led to the rise of caste-based leaders-cum-regional chieftains like Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, Devi Lal, and his son Om Prakash Chautala, who dominated the politics of north India for more than two decades.
Now, this demand for a caste-based census is like Mandal 2.0, points out Sanjay Kumar. Nitish Kumar has already re-categorised Dalits and OBCs by creating unique groups like Mahadalits and EBCs. If an OBC census is conducted, these parties will get a fresh lease of life to broaden their base.
But the government can achieve the same result by implementing the Rohini Commission report, which will ensure non-Yadav OBC castes get a larger share of the benefits. The real dilemma confronting all political parties is that if a fresh caste-based census is conducted, then the proportion of several castes in India’s population will alter, requiring a change in the reservation formula in every state, nothing short of a logistical nightmare.
It is a situation all governments at the Centre want to avoid. In 2011, the Manmohan Singh government conducted the first-ever socio-economic caste census under pressure from allies like Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh.
The exercise revealed 4,69,000 castes, sub-castes, and gotras across the country. The government later claimed there were many errors in that caste-based data. In order to investigate these errors, the Modi government formed a committee under the leadership of the then NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Arvind Panagariya in 2015. The Panagariya committee submitted its report in 2017 but it was never made public. During the debate in Parliament Tuesday, the DMK’s T.R. Baalu said former finance minister Arun Jaitley had promised that the government would release the 2011 caste census data, but it had failed to do so.
The government’s handling of this tricky situation may well determine the outcome of the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.