Bihar Caste Census: A Political Masterstroke?

The recently released caste survey in Bihar has created political ripples. The move has the potential to shape India’s political discourse and alignment going forward. However, how much will it benefit the INDIA alliance electorally remains to be seen.

The old-timers, students, and enthusiasts of politics would remember the political rumbles unleashed by the tussle between Mandal and Kamandal in the late 1980s. The then prime minister VP Singh decided to implement the findings of the Mandal Commission during his short yet highly-tumultuous stint, which recommended reserving 27% of government jobs for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Many saw this move as an affirmative action for historically marginalized communities, which was on the lines of the reservation system for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, granted by the constitution since India’s independence. However, it also led to the emergence of LK Advani as the mascot of Hindutva politics, who undertook the famous Rath Yatra to promote the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. The idea was to unite the Hindus under one umbrella and pose a counter-narrative to the budding caste politics.

While Advani was successful in catapulting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) onto the national scene, helping the party bag its highest-ever numbers in the 1991 general elections, it also altered the nation’s political landscape, leading to the rise of regional satraps like Kanshi Ram, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav, and Nitish Kumar. This transformative moment in Indian politics was marked by a struggle for social justice, caste-based reservations, and a reconfiguration of power dynamics, galvanizing OBC communities, which now command a lion’s share of India’s political power. It also unleashed the rise of the coalition politics, which remained a force to reckon with until the 2014 general elections, where BJP, led by PM Modi, became the first party since 1984, to storm to power and get a simple majority on its own.

Some thirty-four-odd years later, a recent caste census undertaken by the government of Bihar has the makings of yet another seismic shift in Indian politics. Bihar, like many other states in India, conducted a caste census in 2021. The undertaking sought a more comprehensive understanding of the socio-economic landscape in one of India’s most populous states. Aimed at collecting detailed data about the caste-based demographics and socio-economic conditions of the state’s population, the census sought to offer insights into the distribution of various caste groups, their economic status, access to education, healthcare, and other key socio-economic indicators. The census was conducted as part of the larger Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) initiative launched by the Government of India, eyeing a comprehensive database to create policies around social justice, reservation, and welfare programs.

Mandal Commission: A Background

The Mandal Commission, officially known as the Second Backward Classes Commission, was constituted in 1979 by the Indian government, led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai, and chaired by B.P. Mandal.

The commission’s primary mandate was to identify socially and educationally backward classes among the population and recommend measures for their upliftment.

The Mandal Commission recommendations unleashed a political firestorm in India. On one side, there were vociferous proponents of the reservation policy who argued that it was essential to rectify historical injustices and uplift the marginalized sections of society. On the flip side, others vehemently opposed it calling it “reverse discrimination” and an attack on meritocracy.

The Mandal Commission report of the late 1980s was a watershed moment, leading to significant changes in the country’s political landscape. It brought the issues of social justice, affirmative action, and caste-based reservations to the forefront, reshaping the dynamics of power and representation. The legacy of the Mandal Commission continues to influence and shape Indian politics and society.

The Key Objectives of the Caste Census

  •  Unravelling the state’s caste dynamics: The government of Bihar sought an updated picture of the distribution of various caste and sub-caste groups, which it suggested was crucial for identifying marginalized communities and addressing their specific needs.
  •  Socio-economic profiling: Beyond caste, the census collected data on the economic and social conditions of households. This data could help formulate targeted welfare schemes and addressing disparities in access to education, healthcare, and employment opportunities.
  •  Policy formulation: The data gathered from this census is expected to play a critical role in shaping policies related to reservations and affirmative action programs. It can help ensure that these policies benefit the most marginalized sections of the population.

The data collected in the recent caste census is expected to have far-reaching implications for Bihar, helping design policies and programs that could address deeply-entrenched socio-economic disparities, improve access to education and healthcare, and uplift marginalized communities. Additionally, it can paint a better picture of the distribution of resources and opportunities, ensuring that they reach they most needy.

Why the Political Storm?

Like previous caste censuses in India, the 2021 exercise has not been without its share of challenges and controversies. BJP and other parties opposing the census suggest that the exercise is setting a dangerous precedent and trying to divide the country on caste lines. Reading between the lines, the exercise threatens to derail the BJP’s attempts to consolidate Hindu voters just before the all-important 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The INDIA alliance, meanwhile, views this as a masterstroke that can derail PM Modi’s juggernaut.

PM Modi’s sharp reactions and frontal attacks on the INDIA alliance and the idea of the caste survey indicate that the BJP remains vary of the development, especially as it gears to fight polls in five crucial states, in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. The census has already been challenged in the Supreme Court and the apex court has refused the petitioners’ request to stop the state government from going public with the data findings. The INDIA alliance has been buoyed by the findings, and senior Congress leaders like Digvijay Singh, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, have gone public to say that they would implement a similar survey if voted to power. Even BJP’s allies like Anupriya Patel of Apna Dal have echoed similar sentiments.

Rahul Gandhi’s idea of political representation based on population can open a new Pandora’s Box for political parties vying for 120 seats in the Hindi heartland (Bihar and Uttar Pradesh cumulatively send 120 members of parliament), which holds the key to BJP’s chances of securing a third straight mandate since coming to power in 2014.

The census catapults Nitish Kumar as a champion of backward castes and a frontrunner in the race to become the face of the INDIA alliance, should the multi-party alliance be able to grab a sufficient number of seats. Much remains in the realm of ambiguity, judicial examination, and the outcome of the soon-to-be-held state elections in Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh. If BJP is able to hold onto power in Madhya Pradesh, dislodge Gehlot in Rajasthan, Bhagel in Chhattisgarh, and emerge as a key player in Telangana, it would have enough firepower to shape the narrative. On the contrary, dismal performances in key state elections will only embolden non-BJP state governments to fiddle with the idea of a state caste census, creating a counter-narrative to BJP’s Hindu consolidation.

Politics aside, some of the other key issues around such an exercise are the lack of accuracy of self-reported caste data, potential disputes over categorization, and worries about the misuse of information for political purposes. Those against the idea of caste-based reservations also argue that focusing singularly on caste may not suffice in addressing diversity-related challenges like gender, religion, or regional disparities, and may not lead to adequately inclusive and comprehensive policies.

Nitish Kumar’s bold gambit has put the ball in BJP’s court. Mandal 2.0 will have far-reaching consequences, or will it? Only time will tell.


Shashank Shekhar is a freelance journalist, keeps track of political and social issues.

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