New Delhi: The BJP is caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place over the potentially explosive issue of a nationwide caste census — a demand that has grown louder ever since Parliament approved the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill.
With its own OBC MPs from UP and Bihar lending their voice to the clamour, the shadow of a caste war triggered by such a census looms ominously over the party leadership. The OBCs, it fears, are not as monolithic as the Dalits, so if the census alters the current caste equations, Mandal politics will be back in play. Castes that gain greater numbers will ask for a bigger share of the reservation pie and those that see a decline in numbers will be left disgruntled and disenchanted.
The feelings of the party’s OBC MPs were expressed most recently by Sanghamitra Maurya, the first-time MP from Badaun, Uttar Pradesh, when she demanded a caste census during the debate over the amendment in Parliament. Party leaders blamed her inexperience and political naivete for her speech, but Maurya, it turned out, wasn’t alone.
Several other OBC MPs of the BJP also believe that a caste-based census should be held. This will increase the OBC numbers and, hence, the quotas, they say.
ThePrint spoke to several OBC MPs of the BJP belonging to UP and Bihar, where the demand for a caste-based census is gaining momentum and where pro-Mandal parties like the RJD, JD(U), and the Samajwadi Party are keeping the pressure on the BJP.
UP, Bihar to Maharashtra
In Uttar Pradesh alone, OBCs account for approximately 54 per cent of the population, according to rough state government estimates. Out of 312 BJP MLAs, 101 are from the OBCs.
In UP and Bihar, the BJP managed to make a huge dent in the non-Yadav OBC vote bank. That is also the reason why Union Home Minister Amit Shah visited Lucknow earlier this month to meet an ailing Kalyan Singh, who is considered one of the most powerful Lodh leaders. B.L. Verma, considered quite close to Kalyan Singh, was also allocated a place in the Union Council of Ministers. The Lodh community forms about 5 per cent of the population in UP.
In Uttar Pradesh, Yadavs form the largest chunk of OBCs with 19.4 per cent of the entire OBC population. It is followed by Kurmis (7.5 per cent), Lodhs (4.9 per cent). Gadarias (4.4 per cent), Nishads (4.3 per cent), Ansars (4 per cent), Telis (4 per cent), Jats (3.6 per cent), Prajapatis (3.4 per cent), Kashyaps (3.3 per cent), Nais (3 per cent), and Shakyas (3 per cent). Besides these, the remaining 32 per cent (of the total 54 per cent OBC population) includes castes like Lonias, Badais, Gujjars, Lohars, Dhuniyas, Sainis, and Darjis.
Barring Yadavs, other OBCs like Kurmis, Koyris, Lodhs, Nishads, and Kushwahas had voted overwhelmingly for the BJP in 2017 in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections as well as the general elections in 2019.
BJP MPs in the state are aware of this. Ramesh Chand Bind, BJP MP from Bhadohi (UP), says, “When there can be a census for tigers, then why not for the OBCs? After all, it should be known to all which caste has how many members. What is wrong with this? Right now, our caste proportion is estimated at 15 to 18 per cent. If a census is held, it will increase further.”
Bind belongs to the Mallah caste. In Uttar Pradesh’s complex electoral arithmetic, the BJP is vying for the Mallah vote through an alliance with the Nishad Party.
Pankaj Kumar Choudhary, a BJP MP from western UP’s Kairana Lok Sabha constituency, says: “When the central government passed such an important Bill in Parliament to let the states identify backward castes on their own, granted constitutional status to the Backward Classes Commission, made provisions for OBC reservation in medical colleges and in central schools, then this all-important task of caste-based census should also be done.”
Officially, though, the BJP has maintained a silence on the issue of a caste-based census. Even though the central government has rejected the idea of caste-based census, the party’s inability to commit either way in private conversations is significant.
Voices from within the party have started to grow in support of the caste-based census. MPs might be bound by party protocol, but the government and the party cannot ignore their wishes for too long. This is because these OBC MPs need to protect their own political base amid the ever increasing demands by the Opposition parties to hold a caste-based census and grab the BJP’s new-found pull among OBCs.
The Uttar Pradesh government has already initiated the process of including 39 castes such as Bhutia, Panwadia, Umeria, Muslim Kayastha in the OBC list, which will take the total number of OBCs in the state to 79. This is being considered an adroit political move by the Yogi Adityanath government.
Ajay Nishad, son of the late Jainarain Prasad Nishad, one of the most influential leaders from the Nishad community and a BJP MP from Muzaffarpur (Bihar), told ThePrint, “In a country where separate censuses can be held for lions, tigers, elephants — and even for buffaloes — then why can an OBC headcount not be done? The government does not need to spend even a single additional paisa on this.”
BJP MP from Madhubani, Ashok Yadav, son of Hukmdev Narayan Yadav, among the most prominent of the BJP’s farmer and OBC leaders in Bihar, says if a caste-based census is held, he has no objection. Instead, it will reveal the actual status and share of different sections of the society, he adds.
‘All-out caste war’
Clearly, the OBC MPs of the BJP from Bihar and UP — which account for 120 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats between them — are most vocal in support of a caste-based census. But the ripple effect is also being felt in Maharashtra, along with every other state where OBCs are an important factor in the political equations. The BJP’s real concern is that the caste-based census will cause a complete breakdown of the prevalent social equations.
A senior leader of the party says, “This might lead to an all-out caste war. The castes whose numbers get reduced will surely question the process involved in such an exercise. Their quotas might also be truncated. On the other hand, castes emerging with greater numbers will hanker for a bigger share of the reservation pie. Fresh demands will be raised to raise the current ceiling on the reservation quota. Again, it will not be an easy process to accommodate all the castes in that increased reservation quota. No government would want such a situation.”
The OBC caste war that might be a direct outcome of this caste-based census, is a big worry for the BJP. This is because some castes from within the OBC community, such as the Yadavs, Kurmis, and Jats, are considered dominant castes. The rest of the castes might rebel against them.
The BJP has been gaining electoral advantage from these existing fault lines within the OBC community. But a caste-based census will possibly cause a split and disintegration among the OBC castes, and threaten the Hindutva monolith the BJP has been piloting to power.
An MP from UP, who belongs to the Kushwaha community, says, “Yadavs have leveraged all the benefits of reservation for OBCs. They are not poor anymore. Why do they still need reservation? The remaining oppressed and deprived OBC castes should get more benefits.”
This is just a sample of things to come that can quickly transform into an all-out caste war if the government relents on the demand for a caste-based census.
A senior leader of the party from UP points to as much, saying, “People have completely forgotten the Rajiv Goswami incident (referring to the Delhi University student who attempted self-immolation in protest against the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990). But the regional parties are yet to forget this. The genuine demands of other OBCs can be fulfilled by implementing the recommendations made by the Rohini Commission. There is no need to go for a full-scale headcount.”
The central idea behind the Rohini Commission, established in 2017, 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.
Another BJP MP, however, who used to be a minister in the Narendra Modi government, says, “Of course, it is a chasm of fire, but it needs to be crossed at some point of time. If other parties are mobilising in support of a caste-based census, how long can the government ignore this demand? It might prove counterproductive. We need to find alternative ways.”
When asked whether there is any possibility of an intra-party caste war inside the BJP on the issue of caste-based census, a prominent BJP leader said it did not seem likely because the Prime Minister himself belongs to an OBC community and ultimately his word will prevail.
He added: “Of course, we will have to ensure that the upper castes do not get upset due to this and also whether the benefits of doing this outweigh the disadvantages associated with it.”
To each state, their own?
The BJP leaders say the Modi government has prioritised schemes related to OBC welfare as part of its agenda. Providing reservations for OBC communities in medical colleges (all-India quota) and central schools is a step in the same direction. The party will stage OBC yatras. Additionally, states will be told they are free to conduct an OBC census, and to increase the OBC list, along the lines of the Uttar Pradesh government’s initiative to include several castes in the OBC list.
The strategy, which was explained to ThePrint in detail by K. Laxman, chief of the BJP’s OBC wing, who honoured all the OBC ministers in Delhi at the end of the last Parliament session, is being taken forward by Bihar’s Deputy Chief Minister Renu Devi, who has talked about a state-level caste-based census in Bihar.
K. Laxman said the Socio-Economic Backward Caste census conducted in 2011 “was not scientifically robust and did not yield any benefits for the OBC castes”.
There were more than 3 million irregularities in that data, he added. “However, we will run a public awareness campaign regarding how much work has been done by the Modi government for the welfare of the OBCs. It has already started in several states. Again, the state governments can prepare their own list of OBC communities and they can also hold an OBC census if they wish to do so,” he said.
Karnataka has already conducted a caste-based census at the state level. Akhilesh Yadav has also declared that if he forms a government in UP, he will conduct a caste-based census. Renu Devi has spoken in a similar vein.
But experts predict anarchy if the responsibility is shifted to the states.
Sudha Pai, a professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who has worked extensively on the Dalit issue, said: “Parties in power will include castes that are their main vote banks in the backward castes list. This has already happened in the case of Karnataka where one party included Vokkaligas in the backward castes’ list while another did the same for the Lingayats. All the needy classes will not be able to get reservations based on the right parameters through any census conducted by the states.”
The real problem, she noted, is of a class division within the OBC community. With the exception of some castes at the upper level, there is considerable educational backwardness at the middle and lower levels, she said. They should get their due, but this division might deepen further in the aftermath of a caste-based census, Pai added.
There is some sort of homogeneity among the Dalits, but there is a lot of division within the OBC ranks. Nobody knows how much population belongs to which caste, Pai said. There is also a possibility that numbers of a caste with a low headcount right now might slide even further and those having large numbers may witness a further rise in their figures, she added.
“So, overall, it might trigger a new type of conflict. The accuracy of conclusions and data will also depend on what kind of questions are asked. All this is not going to be easy. This is the reason why the government appears so hesitant,” Pai said.
However, Abhay Dubey of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) says, “This exercise will benefit the artisan sub-castes (those identified with a particular trade) that have been feeling insecure due to the dominance of the larger OBC castes and are often reluctant to forge alliances with them. They have no hesitation in allying with the BJP. So, the BJP’s interests will not be harmed. Additionally if new leaders emerge from new castes, then it might usher in a new type of politics. Of course, there are major complexities involved in the entire process that are not easy to handle.”
And therein lies the policy impasse, over a politically expedient issue that is a potential nightmare to execute.