Doubts over the authenticity of the recent caste survey have put a big question mark on its utility.
In the run-up to Lok Sabha elections, political battle lines seem to be getting cemented around caste with the Bihar government releasing details of its four-month-long caste survey.
And, just like the demand for the revival of the old pension scheme—that was tweaked by the NDA government—the Congress and its allies in the I.N.D.I.A bloc are seeing an opportunity to force the Narendra Modi government and the BJP on the backfoot by demanding a nationwide caste census. Rahul Gandhi’s slogan of “Jitni aabadi utna haq” (entitlements should be proportionate to the size of a caste’s population) has made headlines, but his own party leaders in Bihar are afraid that the caste survey data may force the party’s upper caste supporters to desert it.
Doubts over the authenticity of the survey—which has indicated that Bihar’s backward class population stands at 63%—have also put a big question mark on its utility.
A cautious BJP has not clearly endorsed or opposed the demand for a nationwide caste census, though party leaders are confident that the outcome of the caste count in Bihar would not force a change in the social engineering model of the party. Under the model, the BJP has ensured that the party’s 29% MPs, 29 Union ministers and 365 out of the BJP’s total 1,358 MLAs in the country belong to the OBC category.
BJP leaders have also started talking about the need for a tactful handling of the sensitive “Mandal politics” issue that has the potential to hand an advantage to the Opposition parties and overshadow the party’s strategy to corner Hindutva vote bank. Meanwhile, there are signs that the BJP may have to take a quick decision on the implementation of the Rohini Commission report related to internal quota within OBC reservation, a possible means for strengthening its pro-OBC image.
The BJP which is hoping to cash in on electoral benefits from the planned inauguration of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya in January would now need to also look at the Opposition plan to build an offensive around the Bihar OBC survey. “It cannot be said that the OBC survey issue will overshadow the Ram temple issue,” said a BJP leader. The Prime Minister has slammed the Opposition for trying to divide the country on caste lines and leaders like Union minister Giriraj Singh and former Bihar deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi have criticised Bihar CM Nitish Kumar for not presenting a complete picture and relying on a “false” report.
Apart from seeing a new, powerful Mandal 2.0 narrative in the demand for a nationwide caste census, the Opposition parties expect to split the OBC vote which appears to have rallied behind the BJP ever since the party brought Modi, an OBC himself, to the forefront.
BJP leaders also point out that the saffron party has over the years successfully shed the image of being an upper caste-dominated outfit and made efforts to woo non-dominant OBCs to acquire a pan-India position.
According to N.K. Chowdhary, a former professor at Patna University, the Grand Alliance in Bihar has got a reason to believe that it is in a position of advantage. “These figures are likely to be used to pursue Mandal politics.”
Political analyst Ritwick Srivastav said, “The demand for a caste census alone may not be enough to fetch the I.N.D.I.A alliance a lot of votes. They will need to go beyond this and talk about increasing overall reservation above 50%, as well as taking the Kanshiram’s slogan of ‘Jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni bhagedari’ to the masses.”
On the implication of the Bihar caste count for the BJP, he said the party has been successful in uniting Hindu votes in the past two general elections by highlighting Hindutva, nationalism, and welfare schemes. “However, the demand for a caste census could challenge this unity by bringing caste identities to the forefront of political discourse,” he said.
However, there are signs that there is discomfort within some constituent parties and leaders of the I.N.D.I.A bloc over the implications of the Bihar caste count.
For instance, Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s now-deleted remark on social media, “Equality of opportunity is never the same as equality of outcomes. People endorsing ‘jitni abadi utna haq’ have to first completely understand the consequences of it.” Since Singhvi’s remarks appeared to contradict the assertions of Rahul Gandhi, these were forced to be deleted by the party.