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Rahul Gandhi as the Poster Boy of 'Mandal vs Kamandal' 2.0

Rahul Gandhi had raised the demand for caste census during his Bharat Jodo Yatra as well.

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Slowly but surely, political parties seem to be coalescing around the issue of caste census and social justice. After the Bharatiya Janata Party tried to corner Rahul Gandhi by characterising him as anti-OBC, the Gandhi scion has now given a challenge to the saffron party – 'If you really care about the Other Backward Classes, count their numbers!'

Showing his new-found mastery over symbolism and drama, Gandhi chose the city of Kolar in Karnataka to fire this salvo. It was here, in 2019, that he had uttered the now (in)famous sentence about the Modi surname and "thieves."

After a sessions court in Surat convicted him of criminal defamation for it, the BJP ran around the town claiming that the insult of Modi surname amounted to insulting the entire OBC community. Even though many a commentator painstakingly pointed out that the Modi surname is found in multiple castes and religions and doesn't equal to the OBC group, the BJP didn't seem to budge.

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After his speech in Kolar, Gandhi has changed the contents of this controversy by bringing substantive issues in the discussion.

He asked the Union government to make the Socio Economic Caste Census data public so that the OBC population can be known and also demanded to lift the 50% cap on reservations.

Soon after, the party chief Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking to make SECC data public and include caste enumeration in the decennial census. Other Congress leaders, such as Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bupesh Baghel, too chimed in.

This concerted activity of Congress leaders makes it clear that the grand old party wants to make caste census an electoral issue in the upcoming Karnataka assembly elections as well as the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Regional Parties Have Stolen the Lead

A number of regional parties have already shown their keenness to rally around the demand for caste census. The Mahagathbandhan government of Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar has taken up its own caste-based survey in the state, which will be completed soon. A similar survey will soon begin in Odisha, which has the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal government at the helm. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has been appealing to the Union government to amend the Census Act, 1948 to allow state governments to conduct population censuses at the state-level so that they can take up their own caste censuses.

The DMK, under the leadership of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin, recently organised a social justice conference, the primary agenda of which was the demand for caste census.

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This conference brought together an array of leaders from across the country, including Ashok Gehlot, Tejashwi Yadav, M Veerappa Moily, Chhagan Bhujbal, Farooq Abdullah, Sitaram Yechuri, Akhilesh Yadav and Derek O'Brien. Most of the leaders raised the issue of caste census in their speeches.

Veteran Congress leader Moily too was emphatic in demanding caste census. Rahul Gandhi himself had raised this demand last year during his Bharat Jodo Yatra. It was again iterated in the party's 85th plenary session held in Raipur early this year.

In the same session, the Congress also amended its party constitution to reserve 50% seats to SC/ST/OBC/Minorities in its working committee and all party positions. The party also promised a separate OBC ministry, reservations in higher judiciary and quotas in private sector. Currently, the Congress president is a Dalit and two out of three Congress CMs are from an OBC background. This shows that the Congress is warming up to the basic tenets of social justice.

However, the party's past record on this count means people may still remain sceptical whether Gandhi's and Congress' newfound love for the OBCs and caste census is genuine or if it's just an electoral ploy.

Congress' Past Record

The demand for caste enumeration is as old as the nation state. The First Backward Classes Commission, popularly known as the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, which submitted its report to the Jawaharlal Nehru government in 1955, had listed it in its recommendations. However, the Congress government didn't implement it in the 1961 census or anytime later. It also didn't make any affirmative action provisions for the OBCs. The Kalelkar Commission report wasn't liked much by Nehru and it found itself in the trash can.

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Twenty-five years later, Indira Gandhi-led Congress government similarly refused to act on the Mandal Commission report. It was the VP Singh-led National Front government that finally introduced reservations for OBCs in 1990, 43 years after independence. For most of these 43 years, it was the Congress party that was in power at the centre.

The grand old party, though, can take credit for introducing OBC reservation in central government-run higher educational institutions such as IITs and IIMs, but it can also be questioned why it had to wait till 2006 for this decision.

Congress leaders like Rahul Gandhi, M Veerappa Moily and Mallikarjun Kharge are trying to take credit for the SECC. But the truth is, the United Progressive Alliance government was facing attacks from all sides to enumerate castes in the 2011 decennial census. It relented only after a long campaign by many political parties and leaders, including Moily himself, who was rapped by the party for his outspokenness on the issue.

Also, the SECC was a compromise; the Congress party refused to include caste enumeration in the main census. The UPA also didn't make the SECC data public till the end of its term in 2014.

Interestingly, the BJP was in favour of caste census at that time – then Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj had advocated for it.

Also, as Congress' Gurdeep Singh Sappal pointed out on Twitter, even erstwhile home minister Rajnath Singh had said in September 2018, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, that OBC count would be a part of the 2021 decennial census. However, it has now changed its stance, stating that no caste enumeration will take place in the census.

Despite this history, Congress' whole-hearted support to the demand for caste census and welfare of lower castes, whether sincere or not, may make social justice an important issue in the general elections and may also give a definite direction to the opposition parties' fight against the Modi juggernaut.

(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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