A number of present and former chief ministers from different states and senior leaders across party lines, gathered together on Monday, 3 April, in an online meet to raise the demand for caste census and other social justice issues. The conference was organised by the All India Federation for Social Justice – a vehicle floated recently by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin.
The meet was attended by Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot, Jharkhand CM Hemant Soren, former Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav, Bihar Deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav, former Karnataka CM M Veerappa Moily, Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI General Secretary D Raja, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi chief Thol Thirumavalan, senior Nationalist Congress Party leader Chhagan Bhujbal and Rajya Sabha member Derek O'Brien.
All leaders vociferously supported the demand for the enumeration of castes in India's decennial census.
A Fierce Attack on the BJP
Bihar Deputy CM and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Tejashwi Yadav, in his address, stated that since state governments are not allowed to conduct a population census, the Mahagathbandhan government decided to conduct a caste-based survey.
Bihar has already finished the first phase of its caste survey and the second phase is supposed to begin on 15 April.
Yadav urged other state governments ruled by Opposition parties to also take up caste-based surveys.
While stating that the Bharatiya Janata Party works as per the ideology of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he appealed to the Opposition parties to keep their egos aside and fight as a united force.
"Only social justice politics can defeat the communal politics of the BJP," he claimed.
MK Stalin criticised the BJP-ruled Karnataka government for scrapping the 4% OBC quota meant for Muslims and transferring it to other communities.
He also launched a fierce attack on the EWS (Economically Weaker Sections) quota and stated that it was a quota for the upper castes and not for the poor.
"Those who said reservation is against merit are supporting EWS reservation. It is their grudge that reservation paves the way for the upward mobility for all communities, which makes them speak against reservation."– MK Stalin
Hemant Soren attacked the Union government for weakening democracy and democratic institutions and highlighted issues such as unemployment, poverty and inflation.
He also claimed that the Narendra Modi government is hollowing out reservations by encouraging privatisation and by not taking up fresh recruitment in public sector institutions like Railways, banks and the army.
Will Casteism Become an Important Election Issue?
The meet, which saw participation from 19 political parties, attains significance ahead of the number of assembly elections this year and the Lok Sabha elections next year.
If the speeches in Monday's conference are any indication, the Opposition may make casteism an important election issue.
The BJP does not shy away from stitching its electorial arithmetic around caste, however, the way it approaches the issue is categorically different from other parties. Its strategy usually involves reaching out to the castes in isolation and not as a part of larger blocs. It also prefers symbolic gestures such as praising and building statues of leaders and mythical figures important to a particular caste. Its focus is more on the politics of pride and identity than ending casteism.
If the Opposition voices get shrill around caste census and reservations, the BJP may find itself on the backfoot.
While India's decennial census, which was slated to be conducted in 2021, was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Modi government so far has showed no interest in resuming the operations. Census is a mammoth task, which requires about two years or more for collection and processing of data. Since India is only a year away from the Lok Sabha elections, it seems unlikely that the present dispensation, even if it starts operations in the next few weeks, will be able to conduct the census before its term ends in May 2023.
However, the Opposition can hammer at the BJP's unwillingness to conduct the census and link to its coyness around caste enumeration.
The DMK has never shied away from talking about caste. If the Samajwadi Party's recent attack on Ramcharitmanas and Akhilesh Yadav's sometimes tacit, sometimes open support to his leaders on the issue is any indication, the SP too seems keen to make casteism an important election plank. This fact was further buttressed by the party unveiling a statue of Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kanshi Ram in Uttar Pradesh's Rae Bareli.
The RJD and Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United) have already revealed their cards by conducting the caste survey in Bihar. They would surely like to reach out to the voters by flashing this achievement.
However, the parties like the Congress, TMC and NCP are not very open about taking casteism head-on. So it will be interesting to see if fight against casteism becomes a common agenda for the Opposition or remains limited only to a few parties.
While the social justice conference was attended by a litany of senior political leaders, women leaders, with the exception of DMK's Kanimozhi, were conspicuously absent.