As was widely expected, the Supreme Court has refused to entertain pleas challenging the ongoing caste census in Bihar. Besides the question about the merit of the petitions, there was an aspect which didn’t find explicit mention – that such a hearing could be viewed as an intrusion into the turf of executive functioning. Even though the court has suggested that the petitioners can approach Patna High Court, it’s unlikely that the latter’s view would be any different.
Meanwhile, the first phase of the ongoing caste census is set to end today. The second phase will start in April and the process is expected to be complete by May. The first phase has focused on enumerating over 2.5 crore households before the next phase verifies the caste identity details of over 12 crore people in the state.
The time frame for the census has been pushed by three months. In June last year, when the state cabinet had approved the decision to conduct the caste census, it was decided to wrap up the process by February. The cabinet decision was taken at a time when Nitish Kumar was leading the NDA government in the state with the BJP as key ally.
This was preceded by a unanimous decision at an all-party meeting in the same month. So no political party, in the government or the opposition, has in principle been against the idea of such an exercise. In August, as the Nitish-led JDU to form a mahagatbandhan government with the RJD, the foregrounding of two Lohiaite parties in power meant that the caste census would be a neat fit into the ideological pitch. The two post-Mandal parties, which have been rivals for the most part of their existence, eye the possible gains that the census might bring to their claims on different constituents of the OBC electorate. That, however, is too big a constituency to be out of sight for any serious political player in the state.
After the 1931 caste census during British rule, it was only in 2011 that a socio-economic and caste census was conducted, but the numbers were not shared in public domain. The then government at the centre cited methodological errors in data collection and its subsequent processing.
In Bihar, however, the exercise always held political appeal because of the nature of the electoral demography and the OBC caste group anchored power play across different parties. This becomes significant in view of the nature of party competition in the state where two leading regional parties claim the same Lohiaite legacy of socio-economic and political empowerment.
Though not backed by official figures, the estimated OBC share of 51 per cent in state population has been the pivot for electoral strategies for different parties attempting social engineering. Given this, a caste census carries the chances of recalibrating such strategies when a count of all the caste groups swells OBC numbers further or the break-up figures recasts the numerical pecking order within the large OBC constituency.
In a marked difference from the constitutional mandate for the Registrar General or Census Commissioner to give census data for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, the periodic enumeration of other caste groups, including those within OBCs, isn’t a constitutional requirement. It has to be the policy decision of the state or central government, something that a 2014 Supreme Court judgment made clear while setting aside Madras High Court orders.
As the OBCs form the electoral big chunk in Bihar, going against the call for enumeration of all castes is also tied to the prevalent perception that they are undercounted now and their numbers might go up.
The governing alliance parties – mainly the JDU, RJD and the Congress – are pitching it as the numerical measure they need to tailor welfare measures and affirmative action for the beneficiary groups. At the same time, as the OBCs don’t constitute a homogeneous voting group, it’s unclear which party is going to gain more electoral leverage. But, it’s perhaps the unifying lure of the possibility of raising reservation limits for the OBCs as a whole that’s spurring OBC mobilisation politics around it.
Different political formations have their own prism to look at the existing and the expected numbers of the count. Amid different variants of looking at it, two of them could shape many more.
First, the internal differentiation within OBCs and the relative numerical strength of each caste group within it will be politically important to grasp, as will sociologically a new numerical code to look at the Extremely Backward Classes vis-à-vis the upper backwards like the Yadav or the Kurmis. This process has sometimes led to a derivative subgroup called non-Yadav OBCs in Bihar as well as UP – as sociologist Satish Despande last year. This is particularly important for RJD,which has relied on its famed M-Y axis (Muslim-Yadav) support base where the dominant Yadav caste within the OBC fold is believed to constitute 11 to 13 percent of the electorate, along with the 16 percent Muslim voters. The other upper backwards within OBCs like Kurmis aren’t big numerically. The bigger chunk is tied to the EBC small caste groups, which constitute around 30 percent of state population, and are spread across 130 caste groups like the Dhanuks, Kumhars, Kahars, Noniyas, Kewats, Nais, Mallahs, Paneris, Telis, Tatmas, to name a few.
This has important repercussions for how the enumeration of EBC strength can play out in the power matrix. The strategies crafted by JDU and BJP against RJD have been alert to this facet of social configuration. Over the last two decades, besides cultivating Mahadalits and Pasmanda Muslims, the sub-categories within the Dalits and Muslims, the Nitish led- JDU focused on EBCs to counter its Lohiaite rival, and now ally, RJD. Moreover, some smaller parties, with support from one or more caste groups among EBCs, have also emerged in the last few years. Mukesh Sahani’s Vikassheel Insan Party, for instance, built its electoral base by advocating Mallah caste interests within the EBC fold.
In no small measure, this counter-consolidation was a response to RJD architect Lalu Prasad’s refusal to push for the application of the Bihar formula – also known as Karpoori Thakur formula of 1978 – in the deliberations over the Mandal quota in the 1990s. It didn’t go down well with the extremely backward castes, or 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. It also didn’t help that the RJD-led government was seen as the fiefdom of M-Y powerplay. That’s why EBCs and their actual strength became significant for a counter social alliance. This is something RJD would keep an eye on when census numbers come out, while JDU will hope for figures that aren’t exactly comforting for its current ally in the state government.
Second, contrary to what some Delhi-based political analysts have commented, BJP’s electoral base in the state now includes OBC caste groups, especially some EBC groups, in addition to the party’s stronghold among the upper caste groups like Brahmins, Bhumihars, Rajputs and Kayastha. In doing so, the Bihar unit of BJP has been replicating the ways the party has found to make inroads into OBC voting preferences across the country, particularly in the Hindi heartland. This is an aspect that’s backed by empirical work in political analyst Nalin Mehta’s . That is also evident in its representational strategy as OBCs and SCs constituted more than 50 per cent of its elected MLAs in the 2020 Assembly polls – it even chose two OBC legislators to be deputy chief ministers in the previous NDA government, one of them being from EBC category within OBCs.
This also implies that in wooing the EBC electorate, JDU is competing with the BJP, and a stronger EBC presence in the census can possibly further intensify this rivalry.
Enumerators might also grapple with some methodological issues of classifying castes and sub-castes, and the administrative scrutiny of these processes may play a part in what the eventual numbers tell. That, however, would only be a footnote to what’s an exercise in quantifying the relative strength of myriad caste identities that make the complex and stratified social mosaic of Bihar. In the process, the political players will look at the new numbers as tools to decode Bihar’s social configuration, even as a fine-tuning of welfare delivery and affirmative action limits remain the stated purpose.
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