Bihar caste survey: Why it’s problematic for the BJP?

The Bihar caste survey has become an albatross around the neck of the BJP. It can neither tolerate nor oppose it due to political compulsions.

Bihar caste survey: Why it's problematic for the BJP?

Bihar caste census data was recently published

The caste survey in Bihar has stirred trouble for the ruling bloc in New Delhi, which it tried preventing for a long time. The findings of the Bihar caste survey have severe combustible substances that can have tremendous repercussions for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s federally ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The latest caste census data of Bihar, which is the first one since 1931, shows that the upper castes—often called “forward castes” in North Indian parlance—which so far enjoyed 50% reservation under the “general category” for government jobs and education opportunities are only 15.5% of Bihar’s 130.72m people.

This caste group’s privilege to enjoy 50%—plus an additional 10% reservation under Modi’s Economically Weaker Section (EWS) category—while having only 15.5% population in the state shows how the skewed reservation system that the upper castes vehemently oppose in public has helped them acquire monopoly in government jobs and educational institutions.

On the other side, the Bihar caste survey shows that the other backward classes (OBCs) and extremely backward classes (EBCs) collectively consist of 63.11% of the state’s population. Among these, the OBCs are 27.1% of the total population, while the EBCs are 36.01% of the population.

Although they have one of the major shares of the population, the OBCs are entitled to a total of 27% quota in the reservation system. There has been a recommendation to provide a quota to the EBCs within the OBCs, which would shrink the opportunities for the members of these communities.

The Bihar caste survey will amplify the clamour for increasing the OBC quota, which has been raised by different political parties of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other states for years. However, due to a Supreme Court ruling in the Indira Sawhney vs Union of India (1992), there has been a ceiling on 50% of caste-based reservations in India, which provides a leeway to the upper castes.

Apart from the OBCs, the Bihar caste survey also shows that 19.65% of the population is comprised of ostracised Dalits, who face severe caste oppression and discrimination in all walks of life. After the Jharkhand state was carved out from the tribal-dominated areas of Bihar in 2000, the tribals are now just 1.68% of the total population of Bihar.

Why does the Bihar caste survey pose a challenge for Modi’s BJP?

Although the BJP was one of the nine parties that attended Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s all-party meeting on the caste survey in Bihar and approved it, the saffron party has been opposing the idea of caste survey on a national scale.

There are several reasons why the BJP is wary of the caste survey on a national scale.

(i) A lower proportion of the “general category”

The BJP and its parental body Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have been seen as the party of the upper castes in northern Indian states, where the caste-based discriminations are acute and the grotesque caste lines are prominently visible.

For years, before Modi’s ascension to power, the RSS and the BJP had been objecting to the concept of caste-based reservations and promoting the idea of reservation based on economic conditions.

Due to the lack of caste census data for over 90 years, the Hindutva camp portrayed the upper castes as victims of an allegedly discriminatory caste-based reservation system, which they claimed didn’t benefit anyone except a ‘creamy layer’.

For decades the upper castes have shared their sheer despise for caste-based reservations and called it a roadblock for merit. The upper castes even blamed India’s backwardness in terms of science and technology, medicine, and industrial development on caste-based reservations.

Members of the upper castes generally lamented about the loss of opportunities for their community members in public educational institutions and government sector jobs due to the presence of reservations.

However, the Bihar caste survey revealed the real picture of one of India’s most populous provinces. It showed how correctly the Dalit and OBC rights activists have been claiming that the upper castes are only a small fraction of the society enjoying over 50% reservation in education and government jobs using their caste clout over the state machinery.

With the real numbers for the upper castes revealed by the caste survey in Bihar, the upper castes can’t cry foul anymore, and they can’t blame the caste-based reservation policy that the framers of the Constitution of India mooted to root out centuries-old discriminatory practices and compartmentalisation of the society.

Now, the upper castes, who happen to be the BJP’s major vote bank in crucial states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, etc, will have to justify their 50% quota. If the caste-based reservation matrix is altered to suit the updated census data, then it can bring an end to the hegemony of the upper castes in government jobs and educational institutions.

Union minister Jitendra Singh tabled a report in the Rajya Sabha—the upper chamber of the Indian Parliament—on March 17th, 2022, regarding the caste-wise representation in the Union government’s workforce. This report exposed the underrepresentation of the OBCs in the government’s workforce, and the overrepresentation of the upper castes, who use the “general category” route.

The data, which excluded the Indian Railways, India’s largest public sector employer, showed that out of the total of 512,000 Union government workforce, around 90,000 or 17.58% of employees, are Dalits, around 34,000, or 6.64%, are tribals, around 103,000 or 20.12% are OBCs, and around 283,000, or 55.27%, belong to the “general category”.

With the Bihar caste survey results out, it would become too difficult for the saffron party to defend the overrepresentation of the upper castes in the Union government’s workforce and the marginalisation of the Dalits, tribals and the OBCs.

The BJP’s inability to defend them would irk the upper castes in Bihar and other states, which can have fatal consequences for the saffron party in the forthcoming state assembly elections and the 2024 general elections.

(ii) Return of Mandal politics

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the former constituents of Jayaprakash Narayan’s Janata Party raised the demand for greater representation for the OBC community in government jobs and education, following the recommendations of the BM Mandal-led commission’s report, the RSS, using its outfits like the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others started the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which culminated with the razing down of the 15th-century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

While Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, along with several others in Karnataka, Maharashtra and other states started the political mobilisation of the OBCs in the wake of the Mandal Commission report, the BJP tried to wean away the community under the banner of Hindutva to consolidate the Hindu vote bank.

Despite hiccups, due to its unapologetic advocacy for the upper castes, the BJP finally managed to wreck the OBC vote banks in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh after the ascension of Modi in 2014. The Hindutva juggernaut, driven by sheer Islamophobia, riding on the fissures between the OBCs, Dalits and the minority Muslims, managed to bulldoze the Mandal movement, especially in Uttar Pradesh.

With the release of the Bihar caste survey report, the situation is going to change, as the OBCs and EBCs may demand for greater share of reservations citing the socio-economic backwardness of the communities. This would reawaken the spirit of the Mandal movement and hurt the cause of Hindutva, which has been a magic wand for the BJP in winning elections.

The BJP can’t allow the rise of a new lease of Mandal politics, which would politically bleed it in the Hindi heartland and divide the so-called unified Hindu vote bank. Neither the BJP can openly oppose the OBCs and EBCs nor can it commit a political hara-kiri by antagonising its loyal upper-caste vote bank.

(iii) Bihar caste survey results can influence the outcome of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections

With the 2024 Lok Sabha elections approaching, several opposition parties have joined hands leaving aside their rivalries to form the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), which poses a serious threat to the BJP, as the bloc can prevent the split of the opposition votes.

Eyeing 2024, the INDIA members, especially Indian National Congress (INC) leaders like Rahul Gandhi have been advocating the completion of a nationwide caste survey to find the exact numbers of OBCs and EBCs. Gandhi has already called for reservations based on the proportion of the population.

This demand of the INDIA bloc, which resonated with most of its constituents, has the potential to influence OBC votes in several crucial states, thereby impacting the BJP’s prospects. In case the INC manages to win the crucial assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and announce caste surveys in these provinces, then that can raise the hopes of the OBCs and the EBCs in other parts of India as well, exerting a pressure on the BJP.

The BJP realises that if the INDIA constituents contest the forthcoming assembly polls and the Lok Sabha elections with the demand for caste survey, following Bihar’s template, then it can wreck the saffron camp’s OBC base. This would cause a major setback.

Hence, Modi himself launched a scathing attack on Gandhi, alleging that the INC is dividing the people based on their caste. Modi, who enlisted his caste as an OBC in Gujarat, knows that if the same demand is raised in the BJP-ruled states, it would cause a major embarrassment for him. Thus, the BJP is keen to nib the bud at the earliest by discrediting the Bihar caste survey as insignificant.

Why should the States emulate the caste survey in Bihar?

For nine decades India didn’t have a caste survey as Dalit rights activists allege that the upper castes were worried that it would wreck their hegemony in the power corridors. Though the Mandal Commission report brought a new awakening among the backward classes, the fact that a minuscule percentage of the population has been enjoying the lion’s share in the caste-based reservation system was earlier merely an allegation, but now, at least in Bihar’s case, it has been proved.

With their caste surveys, the States can bypass the Union’s reluctance to carry out a similar pan-India exercise. The data would not only help amplify the demand to alter the reservation pattern in India but can also help the States to take effective steps for the overall empowerment of the backward classes, the Dalits and tribal people, and ensure their proportionate representation is ensured at every level.

While 42.7% of the members of the Parliament (MP) in India are from the “general category”, only 22% of them are from the OBC community. The Dalits have 84 seats out of the 543 in the lower house reserved, while the tribals have a reservation for 41 seats. A caste survey by the States can help in the political representation of the marginalised sections.

Facing severe opposition from the BJP, it’s to be seen how the Opposition manages to take forward the demand for the emulation of the Bihar caste survey in other parts of the country and how can it bring forth a new reservation scheme for the OBCs and ensure maximum representation to the marginalised communities in all fields.

Tanmoy Ibrahim is a journalist who writes extensively on geopolitics and political economy. During his two-decade-long career, he has written extensively on the economic aspects behind the rise of the ultra-right forces and communalism in India. A life-long student of the dynamic praxis of geopolitics, he emphasises the need for a multipolar world with multilateral ties for a peaceful future for all.

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