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Caste Census: How BJP is in a Spot and JD-U, RJD & SP Are Making Most of It

BJP is damned if it does and damned if it doesn't concede to the demand for a caste census.

Updated
Politics
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav led a delegation of Bihar leaders to meet the PM to demand a caste census.</p></div>
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The leaders of 11 parties led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and the state's leader of the Opposition Tejashwi Yadav met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 23 August demanding that the Centre initiate a caste census. The delegation even included a leader from the BJP, besides representatives from the Congress, Left and HAM(S) chief Jitan Ram Manjhi.

The show of unity by the two arch rivals in Bihar – Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal – is significant as it represents some kind of resistance by social justice parties against the BJP's efforts at breaking their influence.

But the larger issue here is the BJP's own dilemma. It has explicitly stated that it had no intention of carrying out a caste census.

Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai, a key Yadav face of the BJP in Bihar, had stated in Parliament in July 2021 that the government won't be carrying out a caste census, except for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. This is the practice that governments have been following since the British discontinued caste as a census category in 1941.

However, party leader Sushil Modi contradicted the Centre's view ahead of the 23 August meeting and said that the "BJP was never against caste census".

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Sushil Modi's comment reflects the dilemma BJP is in.

With parties like JD(U) and RJD in Bihar and Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and BJP's allies like Apna Dal and NISHAD party in Uttar Pradesh raising the demand for a caste census, BJP runs the risk of being tagged as anti-OBC for its refusal to conduct a caste census.

There are two elements to this: BJP's tricky social engineering and the pushback from social justice based parties.

BJP's SOCIAL ENGINEERING

The BJP took three important steps to keep several caste groups happy with the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections in mind.

  • First, it inducted a number of new ministers from UP belonging to the OBC category in cabinet reshuffle in July. These include Anupriya Patel and Pankaj Chaudhary (both Kurmis), BL Verma (Lodh) and three Dalits - Kaushal Kishore, SPS Baghel and Bhanu Pratap Singh Verma. It later initiated a yatra to showcase the newly appointed ministers to the electorate.

  • Second, it passed a legislation giving states the right to change list of castes in the OBC category.

  • Third, the Uttar Pradesh Backward Classes Commission recommended the inclusion of 39 new castes in the OBC category. These included castes like Hindu Kayasthas, who are otherwise associated with upper castes.

All three decisions can be seen as being part of BJP's social engineering in Uttar Pradesh.

Since 2014, the BJP has succeeded in creating the perception of Yadavs grabbing most of the benefits within the OBC category and Jatavs within the SC category. The aim was to win over smaller castes within these two categories towards its fold.

The revision of the OBC list seems a direct challenge to the Yadavs, who are a strong vote bank of the BJP's main rival in UP – the Samajwadi Party.

However, the BJP's decision had a major side-effect: it brought caste back at the centrestage of the political discourse ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections, something that goes against the party's core narrative of Hindutva under Yogi Adityanath.

The caste-census demand is a way by which social justice parties, including BJP's own allies, are countering the BJP's social engineering.

PUSHBACK BY SOCIAL JUSTICE PARTIES

Social justice-based parties have been a major obstacle to the BJP's aim of complete Hindutva consolidation.

Even in 2019, which was probably the most polarised election for the BJP, it could manage less than 60 percent consolidation of Hindus in Uttar Pradesh. Though still substantial, it was far from a complete consolidation.

Communities that held out were Yadavs (77 percent votes against BJP), Jatavs (83 percent against BJP) and non-Jatav Dalits (52 percent against BJP), besides Muslims at 92 percent votes against BJP.

Even in Bihar, the party has had to be dependent on Nitish Kumar's JD(U) and Ram Vilas Paswan's LJP to remain in power. In the 2020 Bihar elections, the BJP tried to kill two birds with one stone by using the LJP to undercut the JD(U), thereby weakening both the parties. However, Kumar's base remained resilient though his party lost a number of seats with small margins.

Now, he seems to be pushing back with the help of RJD by raising the caste census issue.

Kumar is a wily political customer and he is closely looking at the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections to decide his next course of action.

Remember, it was after the BJP's massive win in the 2017 UP elections that Kumar dumped the Mahagathbandhan and joined the NDA. Many say this was because he understood the way the winds were blowing and saw this as the only way of political survival.

Kumar would want the BJP to emerge weaker from the 2022 polls as it would increase his bargaining power within the NDA or, if the situation so arises, with the anti-BJP forces.

The caste census is important to Kumar for another reason. More than any other politician, Kumar has mastered the process of sub-categorisation with reserved categories to both ensure an equitable distribution of the benefits of quotas while also expanding his own base among EBCs and Mahadalits. He would be the best place to take advantage of what happens after such a census.

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WHAT LIES AHEAD

As things stand today, there is a great deal of resentment among OBCs, even non-Yadavs, against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. And this is the main reason why the party accommodated OBC representatives in the cabinet reshuffle and is showcasing them through its Yatra.

However, despite the dissatisfaction, this section is said to be in a dilemma due to lack of alternatives.

The SP - which is emerging as the main challenger to the BJP - is now trying to use the caste census demand to win over non-Yadav OBCs and expand beyond its core base of Yadav and Muslim voters.

The SP could try to forge an alliance with smaller caste based parties like the SBSP, which has a base among the Rajbhar OBC community, the Sonelal faction of the Apna Dal, with its base among Kurmis of East UP and the Azad Samaj Party of Chandrashekhar Azad that is trying to make its mark among Jatavs of West UP, especially the youth.

With the battle for UP becoming increasingly bipolar for the first time in decades, there is a possibility of broader anti-incumbency votes across caste lines, veering towards the SP.

The BJP would soon have to take a call on the caste-census demand. The longer it stays in the political discourse in UP, the more it is likely to harm the BJP.

However, conceding to a caste census could harm the BJP in a more long-term sense because if the proposed census shows OBCs accounting for a much larger share than the present estimate of 52 percent, it could open up the demand for doing away with the reservation ceiling of 27 percent for OBCs.

Such a demand could push back the Hindutva project in a very significant way.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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