Bihar shows the way to Mandal 2.0

Why the renewed promise of empowerment along caste and class lines threatens the BJP’s bid to rally the Hindu vote

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (centre), deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav and others at an all-party meeting on the caste survey data, Patna, 3 Oct. 2023. (Photo: Getty Images)
Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar (centre), deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav and others at an all-party meeting on the caste survey data, Patna, 3 Oct. 2023. (Photo: Getty Images)

Malay Mishra

The data from the comprehensive caste survey (CCS) released by the Bihar government on Gandhi Jayanti has caused a flutter, reviving memories of the early 1990s. The release of the Mandal Commission report and the L.K. Advani-led rath yatra were two events that triggered the politics of Mandal–Kamandal.

The V.P. Singh government’s efforts to implement the Mandal Commission report and provide caste-based reservation to OBCs in the name of social justice gave a fillip to regional parties based on caste identity.

The rath yatra for the Ram Temple, spearheaded by the BJP’s emerging Hindutva phalanx, culminated in the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Both captured the public imagination—and votes.

The CCS certainly appears to be the prelude to growing clamour for a nationwide caste census from opposition parties and even smaller caste-based groups in the ruling NDA coalition such as the Anupriya Patel-led Apna Dal. It may be noted that the last caste census was conducted in 1931.

It is also noteworthy that the last decadal census was conducted in 2011, and the census that was due in 2021 was not held due to Covid-19 and subsequent apathy on the part of the Modi government. Conducting the first caste-based census post-Independence is a promise made by the Congress if it comes to power at the Centre as part of the INDIA bloc.

Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP has systematically increased its profile, membership and vote share by consolidating the Hindu base and bringing all caste groups of the Hindu hierarchy under one broad tent.

A large chunk of the BJP vote share comes from its militant projection of being the Hindu party that protects the interests of Hindus. To this end, the party has supported the upper castes—Brahmins, Banias, Rajputs and Kayasths—as well as a broad chunk of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Extre-mely Backward Classes (EBCs) in an amorphous grouping where the lower castes have subjugated their interests to become part of a coalition for power-sharing.

This strategy has served the party well in both 2014 and 2019. With the next general elections coming up a few months after assembly elections in five states (including three in the Hindi belt), the Bihar caste survey has revealed that OBCs and EBCs comprise 63 per cent of the state’s population with Scheduled Castes (SCs) accounting for 19.65 per cent.

Adding the SC and ST groups, as belonging to the broad spectrum of Hinduism, the total percentage of the lower-caste groups moves up to over 83 per cent of the population, while relegating the upper castes to just about 15.5 per cent. This includes 5 per cent upper caste Muslims out of a total Muslim population of over 17.7 per cent.

These figures not only upset the BJP’s electoral calculations but also work towards redrawing caste configurations for the purpose of higher reservations, proportionate to their population share, in educational institutions and employment. Rahul Gandhi’s call for ‘jitni abadi utna haq’ has found an echo among the opposition groups, which have added their voices to the increasing demand for a nationwide caste census.

The Supreme Court ruled against a stay on the CCS, supporting the Patna High Court’s order of 1 August, which had allowed the state government to go ahead with its caste survey despite the Centre’s objections that only the Centre—as per the 7th Schedule of the Constitution, the Census Act, 1948 and Census Rules, 1990—was empowered to conduct a census, and that the privacy of respondents could be breached in such surveys.

Calling the CCS a ‘social survey’, the Bihar government has committed itself to bringing out its socio-economic dimensions in a month and a half, in time for the next sitting of the state legislature, so that targets can be fixed for allocating governance benefits and marking reservations for groups hitherto unaccounted for.

A day after the survey was released, the Nitish Kumar government allocated a 10 per cent quota for the economically weaker sections in the state judicial services and state-run law colleges and universities, thus stealing a march over the BJP that had introduced such a category to assuage the upper castes by fixing an income criterion with an annual ceiling of Rs 8 lakh.

Karnataka, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana have already completed their OBC surveys while Rajasthan has committed to bring it out after the state elections.

Once the socio-economic status data of the state caste surveys are out, the states can identify the most vulnerable groups and plan policy measures and empowerment schemes accordingly. This will lead to the upliftment of the lowest rungs of society and allow for the emergence of new caste leaders, with new groups aiming for a greater share of the social pie.

The clear demarcation of caste configurations will throw up a number of regional and sub-regional leaders, enabling coalitions at both base and intermediary levels.

This is a situation rife for a Mandal 2.0. Greater bargaining power among the lower castes will erode the dividends the BJP hopes to gain from the opening of the Ram temple in Ayodhya (scheduled for early next year). It will also substantially cut into the ruling party’s vote bank in the Hindi belt.

Seen in this light, Nitish Kumar, along with the RJD, has made an astute move to steal a march over the opposition while aspiring for a major role within the opposition alliance. No wonder the BJP leadership seems confounded.

PM Modi has made disjointed statements accusing the opposition of playing the caste card while mentioning that poverty is the biggest caste, meaning that state governments should be more mindful of addressing poverty instead of dividing society in the name of caste.

This seems like a knee-jerk reaction. The ruling party may not be able to contain the rising tide of OBC and lower-caste demands through their local and regional interlocutors. The BJP’s ideologically-hammered harmony and equality for the subaltern classes is very likely to give way to a constitutionally sanctioned equality, buttressed by judicial scrutiny at the highest levels.

Dr Ambedkar in his iconic tract, The Annihilation of Caste, had called for a total de-identification of Dalits with Hinduism in order to evolve a new language of protest, and a new voice and identity for real empowerment. That, alas, is not going to happen. Rather, the obverse will come true—of further fragmentation of the OBC groups in a bid to regain their identity within the superstructure of organised religion.

However, in this quest for a new identity and the aspiration to be equal stakeholders in societal development, the OBCs should not lose sight of their ongoing demand for greater attention from the State for their security, prosperity and justice.

(Malay Mishra is a retired diplomat. Views are personal. Courtesy: The Billion Press)

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