On the road to India’s 2024’s general election, an interesting battleground is emerging — the fight for backward caste votes.
In recent weeks, more and more opposition parties have joined the chorus to demand a national caste census as a new ‘Mandal’ politics takes shape to challenge the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP’s) Hindutva and nationalist plank.
The Patna High Court, however, put a spanner in the works recently by stopping Bihar’s caste census saying only the union government could do so.
It’s a setback for Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister, who has been leading the charge for a national census. But this could still work to the opposition’s advantage as backward communities feel aggrieved that their numbers aren’t being counted.
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The big change politically in the last few months is in the Congress’ stand. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has stepped up calls for a caste census, an issue that was also highlighted at the Congress party’s Udaipur shivir (camp) last year.
The Congress’ renewed focus on this also comes in the backdrop of the BJP’s offensive against Rahul Gandhi, accusing the Congress leader of insulting or defaming OBCs or other backward castes through his comment on the Modi surname.
That remark lead to his controversial conviction in a criminal defamation case and his subsequent expulsion from parliament.
Clamour for caste census
At a Karnataka election rally last month, Rahul Gandhi said that only 7 per cent of Government of India secretaries are from the SC, ST and OBC communities.
Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has written to Prime Minister Modi, asking the Union government to release the caste data collected in the 2011 census, remove the 50 per cent ceiling on reservations and conduct a national caste census.
UPA government conducted a socio-economic caste census, which was expected to provide comprehensive data. But the Modi government has not made this data public
Last month, 20 opposition parties came together at conference organised by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin for ‘social justice’.
The caste census and a quota for economically weaker sections was the main focus. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has lead the clamour for a caste census for some time now, aware that the politics of Bihar hinges on this.
The fight for the Lok Sabha therefore is now turning out to be a fight for the OBC vote. But what is the caste census and why is the BJP averse to having it?
Last census in 1932
The population of OBCs in India was last published in the 1932 census, and estimated to be 52 per cent of the country’s population. There has been no exercise to find out national OBC numbers since then.
The UPA government conducted a socio-economic caste census (SECC) in 2011, which was expected to provide comprehensive data. But the Modi government has not made this data public, it was meant to do so in 2015.
From the 1970s, the politics of social justice gained momentum in India as OBC leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and others made caste politics front and centre and challenged the hegemony of the Congress. For years, the BJP was seen as a party in favour of upper castes.
But over the last decade, under Narendra Modi, they have sought to overcome this tag by reaching out to OBCs, like non Yadavs in UP, through welfare schemes and the messaging that Hindutva was providing them their deserved space in society.
And it worked, giving the BJP even more seats. It doesn’t matter that the OBCs themselves may not have seen much progress on their socio economic indices.
Politics of caste
This is why we are seeing opposition parties up the ante for a caste census. They want to revive the politics of caste and push for better representation of OBCs across the board. This is what the BJP is afraid of.
Because a caste census will give us clear data on the caste wise break-up of the population and the BJP is worried that this will lead to a clamour for more reservations and a new movement for social justice where they may be on the back foot.
It will also expose the utter lack of representation of OBCs in many institutions which continue to be dominated by upper caste elites.
A report by The Hindu newspaper said that in 2019, there were only 4 SC/ST secretaries to the Government of India out of a total of 82. And only 12 per cent of serving secretaries, joint secretaries and additional secretaries were SCs and OBCs.
Officially, the government has told the Supreme Court in an affidavit that a caste census is not feasible due to “administrative difficulties”.
The RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat has publicly spoken out against reservations in the past.
Could OBC politics be the glue that holds the opposition together in 2024? It won’t be so easy this time as Narendra Modi himself is an OBC and has wooed backward castes aggressively too. This could define the battle for 2024.