Caste census offers a self-propagating campaign for the Opposition

It changes three things for the opposition: gives them concrete agenda that resonates with a bigger population, confronts PM Modi’s image as champion of OBC and reinvigorates Mandal parties

Updated - October 04, 2023 10:15 am IST

Published - October 03, 2023 10:07 pm IST - New Delhi

An enumerator collects information from a resident in Patna. File

An enumerator collects information from a resident in Patna. File | Photo Credit: PTI

With the Bihar caste census, the Opposition feels that it has been handed over a self-propagating campaign that could fuel their campaign for the 2024 general elections, especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi remarked during a public meeting in Chhattisgarh that the biggest community in the country is the “poor”.

It materially changes three things for the Opposition — provides them with an agenda that resonates with a significant section of the population, confronts Prime Minister Modi’s carefully cultivated image of being pro-Other Backward Classes (OBC) and reinvents caste-based politics in a way that will reinvigorate the parties born out of the Mandal movement.

The survey puts the combined OBC strength at 63%, which is 10% more than the estimates based on the last caste census done in 1931. The State government is also expected to provide the socio-economic profile of the caste groups.

“Bihar has shown the way. Now, whatever reasons the Narendra Modi government may list to avoid a caste census will not be acceptable to the public. And it can not deny that there is a need to assess numerical strength and socio-economic status of caste groups. The fact that they instituted the Rohini Commission to look into sub-categorisation of the OBCs is an admission in itself that there is a requirement,” RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari said. There will be demand from across the country in all States for a similar exercise, he asserted.

Former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi at the last meeting of the INDIA bloc in Mumbai had said that the Opposition must confront PM Modi’s image as a champion of OBC. Now, they have the perfect tool for it. “The BJP government broke the 50% reservation ceiling to accommodate a 10% quota for the Economically Weaker Section among the forward castes. Which means the forward castes, which are about 15% can possibly corner 50% reservation. By refusing to hold a caste census, the BJP government is choosing to ignore the historical discrimination and its socio-economic impact on the OBC, clearly exposing its anti-backward class character,” senior Congress leader Rajeev Gowda said.

The caste census once again highlights the caste cleavages that electorally were subdued by the BJP’s sustained campaign to unite all castes under the capacious Hindutva umbrella. “The fact that he is choosing to nullify caste as a factor and instead frame the equation as rich versus poor suits us. This brings the economy to the forefront. This is not a battle for social justice alone. It is a battle for economic-social justice. When we are asking for a caste census, we are basically demanding the data to help for equitable distribution of the State’s resources,” JD(U) leader K.C. Tyagi said.

To build the momentum around this, the INDIA bloc is now planning to hold its first rally in Patna.

Though the Opposition has its own set of problems around the caste census, it brings Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has been feeling alienated in the INDIA bloc, to pre-eminence. It was Mr. Kumar who first carved out the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) and now the statistics vindicate him with EBCs constituting the biggest bloc — 36% of the population. This will not be welcomed by all allies, who are careful enough to avoid appointing a convenor for the INDIA bloc — something that Mr. Kumar has been hankering after.

Not all the parties that comprise the INDIA bloc are on the same page. Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee dismissed the caste census when RJD and JD(U) spoke about it in the last meeting.

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