Patna: On Friday, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar met arch political rival and RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav and other opposition members. The topic of discussion was a caste census in the state – a subject that for years has pitched RJD and JD(U) (Kumar’s party) against the BJP, Kumar’s current ally in Bihar.
While JD(U) members tried to play down the significance of Friday’s meeting – Rural Development Minister and JD(U) member Shrawan Kumar told The Print Friday that “the chief minister met Tejashwi Yadav because the RJD had requested for a meeting. There was no other agenda” – it is also being interpreted in political circles as a message by the CM to his ally that he may change his alliance if needed. The BJP’s growing influence in Bihar has rattled both regional parties – the RJD and the JD(U).
“The meeting was very cordial. The chief minister agreed to lead a delegation of parties to PM Narendra Modi and handover a memorandum to him on the issue (of caste census). The chief minister assured us that he would write to the PM seeking time for the delegation to meet him,” senior RJD MLA Lalit Kumar Yadav told ThePrint Friday.
Meanwhile, though the BJP was absent from Friday’s meeting, there is no doubt that Kumar and Tejashwi joining hands on the issue of caste census has made the party jittery.
Even as Kumar and Yadav met Friday, BJP leaders showed their dissent on the subject. BJP MLC Sanjay Paswan arrived at the Bihar legislative building – where the monsoon session was in progress – in a rickshaw, demanding the census be held on the “basis of poverty instead of caste. The time has come to ensure that benefits of quota reach the deserving”, he said.
BJP MLA Hari Bhushan Thakur (Bachol) too told ThePrint Friday that it was time to review caste-based reservations to ensure that its benefits reach the sections that have remained deprived. He recalled that in 2015, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had openly said that reservation criteria should be reviewed. Unfortunately, then RJD chief Lalu Prasad used it as an election platform to claim that BJP wanted to finish off reservation, he said.
The division on caste-based census
The demand for caste-based census in Bihar is more than a decade old.
In 2011, the UPA government had conducted a socio-economic caste census, under pressure from Lalu Prasad Yadav. However, owing to flaws, such as the same caste being categorised more than once under different heads, the results of that survey had to be discarded.
Yadav had continued to raise the issue repeatedly after that. In 2017, before being convicted in the fodder scam in December, he had said, “Hamara mundi gin ley. Tab hum janage kaun caste ka kitna adhikar hai(Let them count our heads. It will then be known, which caste deserves how much).”
Nitish Kumar has also backed the demand since 2019 and even got BJP MLAs to support a resolution in the Bihar assembly demanding a caste census in 2022.
The ruling party at the Centre has since backed away from the subject and earlier this month MoS (Home) Nityanand Rai had ruled out a caste census, other than for SC/ST, in the Lok Sabha.
“The BJP’s refusal to go for a caste census reflects the dilemma within the party. Should it go along with its strong Hindutva agenda or follow backward caste politics,” a BJP MP who did not want to be named, told ThePrint.
“Initially there was a move in the BJP to have the Bihar pattern of differentiating between ‘Other Backward Castes’ and ‘Extremely Backward Castes’. But there is a threat from groups within the OBC opposing the move,” he said, adding, “Now with UP assembly election coming up, the party has decided to stick to its Hindutva agenda”.
Banking on caste votes
The main protagonists of caste-based politics in Bihar since the early 1990s have been Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and Ram Vilas Paswan. However, with the rise of the BJP’s “Hindutva agenda”, caste-politics in the country has been on the wane.
This was reflected even in Bihar – where caste vote banks have traditionally decided election results – in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
More than 20 per cent of the Yadavs – a stronghold of Lalu Prasad – and a substantial number of Extremely Backward Castes(EBCs) voted in the name of PM Modi for NDA candidates leading to a landslide victory for the NDA in the state. Even in the last assembly polls, BJP was able to increase its vote share from 55 to 74 seats, while JD(U) and RJD seats went down.
This has rattled the two regional parties who privately do not rule out the possibility of BJP coming to power in Bihar on its own, without support from any other party, in 2025.
The “caste census” offers them a hope to reinvent, themselves as it would lead to fresh demands for government benefits for their support base, create a social stir and tone down the BJP’s growing influence.
For Nitish Kumar it is also a message to the BJP leadership that he cannot be taken for granted and the fact that despite Tejashwi’s frequent criticism of Kumar, his bond with the RJD could be mended.
While UP too has a long tradition of caste-based politics, the Bihar leaders are in a better position to play caste-politics at present than Akhilesh Yadav in the UP, who is banking on a section of upper caste votes to revive his party’s fortunes in the coming state elections.
Tejashwi, on the other hand, with a strong base off Muslims and Yadavs, is not dependent on upper caste votes in Bihar, which is believed to be still with the BJP.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)