On August 23, an 11-party delegation led by Nitish Kumar secured a patient hearing from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on their demand for a caste census, especially among the CBOs. A month ago, the chief minister of Bihar led a delegation of deputies from his own party to the Union’s interior minister, Amit Shah, with a similar request. Modi and Shah both kept their options open on the matter.
In 2018, the Union government favored a census by caste, then the Minister of the Interior Rajnath Singh made a statement to this effect in Parliament. However, in July of this year, the government informed Lok Sabha that the 2021 census would not have a caste count. The 2021 census has been delayed by the pandemic and will now be conducted next year, with preliminary results expected in 2023-24.
What is the position of the BJP on a caste-based census? The late Gopinath Munde, a leader of the CBO, in 2011 made a passionate plea in Parliament in favor of such a workforce. Yet ideologically, in the 1990s and later in the first decade of the 21st century, the party opposed this move. The BJP has come a long way since the Mandal movement of the 1990s, where it built its electoral fortune by defending the interests of upper castes. Modi, who belongs to an OBC caste, has helped the BJP get rid of the image of a party of Brahmins and baniyas alone.
This change in party character made it possible to discuss the complex issues of a caste-based census. Much of the BJP and RSS supports the demand for a caste census. They believe that the apprehension of this conduct to a class conflict is unfounded. The Bihar assembly twice passed a resolution in favor of a caste census, which was supported by the BJP.
A senior BJP leader said that a caste-based workforce could spark strong backlash among communities, an overhaul of the quota system and the removal of the 50% cap on reserves set by the Supreme Court. The BJP needs to take a call to see if it should go this route. Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, a CBO leader with RSS training, said at the last Rajya Sabha session: The caste-based census is a revolutionary process. It is not that the caste census did not take place. Many states saw it as the basis.
The line followed by Pradhan, who is well connected to the big league BJP as well as the RSS, gives an indication of the government’s perspective on the matter. Pradhan was participating in a debate to demand amendments to the 102nd constitutional amendment made in 2018 to constitute the National Commission for the Backward Classes (NCBC). The amendments clarified that states had the right to establish their own list of CBOs. This opens a window for states to do their own investigation rather than relying on the Center. It will still require legislative clearance from the state, but several BJP and RSS leaders believe it is the solution.
The last comprehensive caste census was carried out in 1931. Since independence, India has only conducted a caste enumeration through the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) in 2011. But the BJP government rejected the report in 2015. Full SECC data was never made public. A senior government official said the data covered more than 3.5 million castes. It was impractical to implement, says the manager. For example, there is a small community of salt collectors in Maharashtra, but you won’t find them anywhere else in the country. Then there are complexities within the castes themselves. It is better for states to do their own enumeration.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Janata Dal had championed the cause of the CBOs, but its collapse and the weakening of splinter groups helped the BJP. Many BJP leaders are defectors of these outfits. Today, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are actively building their frameworks and developing the leadership of these communities.
The BJP is not only courting those OBCs that have benefited from the Mandal quota and prospered economically, but also plans to have young members of the OBC communities as workers and party leaders. In Maharashtra, the BJP anchors the movement to protect the reserve for CBOs in local bodies. In the Punjab, after the split with the Akali Dal, the BJP consolidates its base among the OBC, one of the largest voters in the state (31.3%) with the promise of wider political representation and a fair reservation in educational institutions and government jobs. In poll-linked Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has formed a non-Yadav OBC rainbow electoral base, which it is trying to consolidate. To develop in Bihar, the BJP is working on a similar model.
The stakes are high for the BJP as far as CBOs are concerned. Will this lead to a national caste census? It looks dark for now. A senior BJP leader explained that the current provisions of the constitution only allow the counting of listed tribal and Dalit communities. The modification of these provisions is the least of concerns for the high command of the party. At the heart of the debate are the inferences from a report by the Commission on Backward Social and Educational Classes (ESCB), known as the BP Mandal Commission. Three decades ago, Janta Dal’s government, led by Vice President Singh, championed the cause of the report’s implementation. Later, despite the counter-movements of Congress and the BJP, both parties had to adhere to the new dynamic. This resulted in greater political representation of OBC communities, first in Congress and Janata Dal and now in BJP.
The issue is sensitive to many of these leaders, who traded loyalty for electoral gains and helped the BJP sew caste rainbows in several states. Therefore, the BJP is moving very cautiously. The recent appointment of 27 CBO leaders and 12 Dalit leaders to the Union cabinet is a big step forward. Beyond optics, on July 30, the Union Cabinet authorized a 27% reservation for candidates from the OBC and from economically weaker sections (EWS) under the All India Quota (AIQ ) for undergraduate and postgraduate medical / dental courses. We have ensured the implementation of all social sector programs without any discrimination based on caste, creed or religion. The benefits reached the intended beneficiaries within a limited time frame without any intermediary. This has helped all the backward communities, says Bhupender Yadav, Union Minister of Labor and CBO leader at BJP.
BJP OBC Morcha chief K Laxman told INDIA TODAY that more than having a staff, there was a need to push multiple state governments to ensure the implementation of the reservations. Out of 15,000 OBC communities notified, 9,500 do not benefit from the advantages of the reservation. The BJP believes that in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the dominant castes among the backward communities reap a large portion of the benefits.
BJP and RSS find themselves squeezed by a growing chorus of allies, such as JD (U), Apna Dal, AIADMK and the Republican Party of India (Athawale), as well as friendly parties like YSRCP and Biju Janata Dal. The leaders of these parties argue that a caste count will give a correct assessment of how the castes are numerically balanced and which groups have benefited most and least from quotas based on the recommendations of the Mandal commission. Now that elections in five states are slated for early 2022, the issue appears to be politically unresolved. As Nitish said, the parties are awaiting the response from the premiers.
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