While there has been a growing clamour for caste-based census from allies, its own MPs and the Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has categorically stated in Parliament that it won’t undertake a caste-based survey as a policy matter.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological mentor, does not believe in the caste system and discrimination. It is a big proponent of inter-caste marriages.
In 2018, the then Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, had promised a cast-based survey to identify Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and socially and economically backward classes (SEBCs). The U-turn now has baffled allies like Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal-United (JD-U), Anupriya Patel’s Apna Dal and Ramdas Athawale’s Republican Party of India - Athawale (RPI-A).
The JD(U) has said that it will mobilise other parties and intensify its efforts to exert pressure on the Modi government for caste-based enumeration to design policies and programs for the community.
The last caste census was done in 1931 when India was under British rule. A similar exercise was carried out in 2011, but it never saw the light of the day because of inaccuracies and inconsistencies.
The BJP government recently passed a Constitutional Amendment restoring the right of state governments to decide on their own OBC list. The entire Opposition backed this Bill in Parliament.
So, why is the BJP think-tank shying away from conducting a caste-based census? Because it could:
1. Open Up a Pandora’s Box
The caste census could prove to be tricky to handle. Currently, there is no clarity over the proportion of OBCs in the population. The Mandal Commission had estimated the figure to be 52%, school enrollment data suggest 45%, while the NSSO survey of 2007 puts the number at 41%.
There is no guarantee that the data collected by the Census would be accurate. What if there is a repeat of 2011?
There are already demands from communities such as Jats in Haryana, Patels in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra to be included under the OBC category. Such a census and its findings could result in a beeline for inclusion in the OBC list.
2. Increase Social Tensions
If the survey throws out a higher OBC number, upper caste and other groups could be vexed and challenge the same. On the other hand, if the census throws a lower OBC number, the backward classed won’t accept the findings. This could lead to tensions within various caste groups among Hindus.
The BJP’s vote block consists of upper caste as well as OBCs and it has managed to take along both the diverse (and often at loggerheads) groups. Hindutva binds these groups together for the party, and that has reaped dividends as the BJP has successfully shed its image of a party of upper caste and baniyas to a party of backward classes.
Congress and many regional parties have thrived for decades on the basis of the division of Hindu votes along caste lines. On the other hand, the BJP, after decades of hard work, has been successful in Hindu consolidation.
3. Lead To More Reservation Demands
No party before the BJP had been successful in creating a vote block out of OBCs because of the high number (2,633) of castes and sub-castes within this block.
It’s not a homogeneous vote block. Different castes have their own needs, issues, demands, aspirations. It has taken a lot of social engineering and ground-level work for the BJP to reach out to the larger community.
It is a well-known fact that reservations have not benefited marginal caste groups within the OBCs. As per reports, almost 97% of all recruitment and admissions in higher education institutions are cornered by 25% of the OBC sub-castes, and almost one-fourth of the jobs bagged by just 10 of the dominant OBC communities.
Caste census could revive the demand for higher reservations for the whole block in proportion to their population (as determined by the Census) and/or reservations within reservation for deprived sections. Currently, the OBCs have 27% reservation in government jobs.
This could even lead to a revival of demand for bifurcation of OBCs into backward, most backward and extremely backward classes, and an equitable distribution of quotas. Reservation is a very sensitive issue and better left untouched is what the strategists of the BJP feel.
4. Disprove Govt. Claims of OBC Upliftment
The socio-economic caste census could bring to light the plight of OBCs and cause embarrassment to the government. Even after three decades of reservations, the situation of backward classes has not improved as envisaged.
The representation of OBCs in the posts and services under the Central Government, as of 1 January, 2016, was just 21.57%. Even 12 years after the implementation of OBC reservation for faculty members, there is not a single professor from the community in most of the 40 central universities in India.
Many such skeletons could come out of the closet, and though this regime alone is not responsible for the situation, the aftermath will be difficult for it to handle.
5. Anger Loyal Upper Caste Vote Base
A caste-based census could be seen as an appeasement of the OBCs by the BJP and distance a section of upper caste voters from the party. There are already murmurs in Uttar Pradesh of Brahmins being unhappy with the party.
The OBC-fication of the party in the Modi era has hurt certain groups and they are currently backing the BJP only due to the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor.
It may also officially confirm the caste privileges existing in our society, that a lower than 20% upper caste population occupies 60% to 80% of jobs or seats in educational institutes or the seats in the legislature.
6. Distract People From Key Issues in 2024
Such a census may divert people’s attention from the main issues and the BJP’s ‘achievements’ on nationalism, Ram Mandir and Article 370, among others. It may deprive the party of the opportunity to determine the agenda for the 2024 general election and win the perception war.
7. Lead to Revival of Ex-Janata Dal Constituents
The OBC reservations were introduced by the VP Singh government. For around a decade or so, splinter groups such as Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP) and HD Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular), emerged as champions of the backward classes and minorities in their respective states.
However, their focus on their own caste groups — Yadavs and Vokkaligas — helped the BJP create a non-Yadav OBC block in the Hindi heartland and weaken the socialist forces. A caste-based census and its findings could provide ammunition to these parties for their revival.
To sum up, with OBCs now firmly with the BJP, the party would like to pacify the group by highlighting the OBC credentials of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and many of the Chief Ministers.
It will continue — while skirting the discussion on caste-based census — to claim that Modi 2.0, i.e., Modi’s second term, has the highest number of OBC Ministers and that no government has done so much work for the upliftment of the community like the BJP.
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)