What’s driving Nitish Kumar’s demand for a caste census?

Internal party politics and shifting electoral demographics.

ByAnand Vardhan
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What’s driving Nitish Kumar’s demand for a caste census?
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Multiple meanings can be attached to Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s renewed support for doing a caste census in India. The same goes for how Lalan Singh, the new leader of Nitish’s Janta Dal United, an ally of the BJP, made the demand when the Lok Sabha unanimously passed the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill, which restores the power of the states to create their own Other Backward Class lists and thereby enables them to decide which caste groups can get OBC quota benefits. Given the high stakes of OBC politics, it was not surprising that the bill found acceptability across party lines. The subject of conducting the first caste census since 1931, however, remains contentious. In this context, Nitish’s call seems to be driven by both immediate calculations and long-term plans.

The immediate motive lies in murmurs of minor recalibrations within the JDU. After former party president Ramchandra Prasad Singh joined the union cabinet last month, there seems to have been some reappraisal of the cosy rapport he was believed to have developed with the BJP. There was also a perception that the former president bypassed Nitish while dealing with the BJP within the National Democratic Alliance.

Now with Lalan Singh at the helm, Nitish is trying to be more assertive in positioning the party’s voice within the NDA as well as ensuring that no line of communication within the party or the NDA can leave him out. Some political observers see the party’s renewed emphasis on the caste census in the light of this reassessment that Nitish has made by putting a new president in charge.

There is, however, a more significant strand which is woven into the demand and also emanates from it. The social justice plank of Nitish’s JDU and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal now has other claimants, and so it has entered a phase of diminishing returns. Both legatees of Lohiaite politics and the JP movement who have ruled Bihar for over three decades, as contenders or collaborators, must now compete with the other forces on the same turf as well as in new forms of voter mobilisation.

As a creative grafter of Lohiaite politics, Nitish’s reading of the power play is important at a time when the BJP has gained the support of significant sections of the OBCs in Bihar. Its electoral significance can’t be overstated in places where the OBCs, comprising over 130 caste groups, are more than half the electorate. Even in representation, the primacy of the OBC presence is obvious. In the current Bihar assembly, for instance, the proportion of MLAs from OBC caste groups is high in all three leading parties – 31 out of 74 in the BJP, 26 out of 43 in the JDU, and 50 out of 75 in the RJD. In this context, the caste census could have different, even unforeseen, implications for different political forces in the state.

Speaking in the assembly over a year ago, Nitish recalled how former president Giani Zail Singh had talked to him about the need for a caste census when Nitish was a minister in VP Singh’s National Front government in 1990. It can only be an anecdotal footnote to Nitish’s long association with applying the Lohiaite social, educational and political empowerment template to the specifics of state quotas.

Broadly speaking, this association had three phases. The first was when, acting on the Mungerilal Commission report, and imbued with Lohia’s saikre saath approach to empowering the state’s marginalised groups, chief minister Karpoori Thakur announced the Bihar formula for OBC reservation in government jobs. The formula, announced in 1978, kept 12 percent within the 20 percent OBC quota for the extremely backward castes among OBCs and eight percent for the upper backward castes, meaning relatively prosperous groups such as the Yadavs and the Kurmis. It also set income ceilings for the beneficiaries.

As a young and emerging leader, Nitish could grasp the importance of the EBCs in an OBC-led front since he was one of the contributors to the Bihar formula. Also, in the late 1970s, Nitish’s writings in Samayik Varta, a Patna-based Hindi fortnightly of contemporary Lohiaite thought, had made it clear that EBCs were going to be an important part of his imagination of OBC socioeconomic empowerment.

The second phase was the Mandal period of the early 90s. In Bihar, Lalu’s refusal to push for the application of the Bihar formula – also known as the Karpoori Thakur formula – in the deliberations over the 27 percent nationwide OBC quota didn’t go down well with the EBCs. While the Karpoori formula was seen as more sympathetic to the diverse claims and different conditions of the EBCs, among the OBCs, the centrally mandated Mandal quota in Bihar was seen as benefiting the upper backwards only.

This period, thus, gave rise to what commentators would call the Muslim-Yadav consolidation, or simply the Yadavisation of OBC politics, with Lalu showing more interest in consolidating the support of his own caste group – Yadavs, who are around 11 percent of the population – among the OBCs to go with the nearly 17 percent vote of the Muslim community.

Ideologically as well as strategically, Nitish waged a long battle against the post-Mandal surversion of the EBC claims through the RJD-led Yadav dominance of OBC politics in the 90s.

The third phase, marked by Nitish’s rise to chief ministership in 2005, saw his attempt at a post-Mandal social engineering. This meant that the EBCs were key beneficiaries of various government progammes, along with Mahadalits, a sub-category of more marginalized Dalit caste groups.

At the same time, the JDU’s ally BJP got working on expanding its social base. It has since made significant inroads into sections of OBC and Dalit electorates in the country, particularly in the Hindi heartland.

The task of bringing different caste groups within its broader fold has always been a project that the party, and its precursor Jan Sangh, found important, as political scientist Vinay Sitapati details in his book Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi. More recently, the progress made in consolidating the party’s appeal among the OBCs, and extending it to Dalit groups, has been analysed by social historian Badri Narayan in The Republic of Hindutva. The fact that the frontline of BJP leadership has OBC leaders at various positions, including the prime minister, shows the change in the social profile of the rank and file of the party as well as that of the top brass. However, it faces the dilemma of building on this expanding social base or bringing various caste groups within the larger fold of Hindu identity. In a way, this explains its confusion over the demand for a caste census. In Bihar, where the BJP’s growth in recent years has been driven by wider acceptance among various OBC groups along with its core voters, the same dilemma is evident.

The dilemma isn’t restricted to identity politics, however, or to the parallel ideological causes of a party. The opposition to the caste census has come from many quarters. Nearly a decade ago when the caste census got the government’s nod in principle, political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta saw it as an exercise that would subject Indians to “the tyranny of compulsory identities” and described it as a case of “misidentifying remedies”.

“At one stroke, it trivialises all that modern India has stood for, and condemns it to the tyranny of an insidious kind of identity politics. The call to enumerate caste in the census is nothing but a raw assertion of power wearing the garb of social justice, an ideological projection of Indian society masquerading under the colour of social science, and a politics of bad faith being projected as a concern for the poor,” Mehta wrote.

The exercise was aborted because of methodological flaws, but the dividends of identity politics and appeal of state benefits as a tool for upward mobility ensured that the demand for the caste census continues to be justified on a social justice plank. Interestingly, the new forms of mobilization seen in the last decade also make it uncertain how the politics, or the results of caste census, may play out for different political stakeholders. Whether it will lead to a moment of political ferment or not is anybody’s guess.

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