Opinion | Comment

Why Nitish Kumar is counting on a caste count in Bihar

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. File

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. File | Photo Credit: PTI

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has, of late, been holding his political cards close to his chest, revealing them at moments of his own choosing and resisting the urgency of public debates and events — whether it be in the run-up to the announcement of the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Alliance, of which his Janata Dal (United) is a constituent, or on the Agnipath scheme for recruitment to the armed forces. What he has taken up most emphatically and unambiguously, however, is the demand for a caste-based census. 

Also read: Explainer | The Bihar government’s caste-count

On June 1, after chairing an all-party meeting in Patna, he announced that Bihar would begin a caste-based census. The case for a caste-based census has been often made. But now Mr. Kumar’s push for the census brings into focus the reluctance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the NDA, on the issue, as well as the timing of the demand. 

Rationale for the census

The census conducted at the beginning of every decade does not record any caste data other than for those listed as Scheduled Castes. In August 1990, the V.P. Singh government announced the decision to implement the Mandal Commission report, extending reservation to castes grouped together as the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The last census to record caste was conducted in 1931, and the Mandal panel’s determination that OBCs accounted for 52% of the population drew heavily from that. It was not clear then, nor is it now, whether this 52% was up-to-date. Is it more, or is it less? Are only a few castes among the OBCs cornering the benefits of reservation? Only a caste-based census can answer these questions. 

This is the argument deployed by Mr. Kumar and other Opposition parties, including his key political rival in Bihar, the Rashtriya Janata Dal. 

The June 1 announcement did not come out of the blue. The Bihar Assembly had unanimously passed a resolution seeking a caste-based census in February 2019, and then another one exactly a year later. It is a historically longstanding demand that consecutive governments in Delhi have sought to ignore. So far, a few State governments have carried out such exercises on their own.  

In July 2021, the JD(U) once again stepped up pressure on the Centre by passing a resolution at its National Executive meeting held in Delhi that a delegation of its MPs would meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to press for a caste-based census. The Prime Minister did not entertain the delegation. But they met Home Minister Amit Shah. Then Mr. Kumar decided to step in himself. In August last year, he led a delegation of 10 parties to meet the Prime Minister in Delhi

The Centre’s stand

A month later, on September 23, the Centre clarified its stand in a submission to the Supreme Court. The Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment told the court that caste census of the Backward Classes was “administratively difficult and cumbersome”. It was replying to a writ petition filed by the State of Maharashtra to gather Backward Classes’ caste data in the State while conducting Census 2021

The government in its affidavit said that excluding any castes other than the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was a “conscious policy decision” adopted since the 1951 census, and that there was a policy of “official discouragement of caste”. Moreover, the government said that enumerating Backward Castes was an “administratively difficult and cumbersome” exercise. 

The only time the Central government has showed any inclination to conduct a caste census was in 2011, when the Congress, buckling under pressure from allies, announced a Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) to get data on the caste and economic status of every household in the country. The socio-economic data from the census was made public in 2015, but the caste data was withheld, citing discrepancies. In its September affidavit the Centre explained why the data was unusable. The government said that in the 1931 survey the number of castes was 4,147 while the SECC figures showed that there were more than 46 lakh different castes. The government was unable to explain this exponential growth in the figure.

Mr. Kumar’s renewed demand for a caste-based census is part of his effort to retrieve his earlier leadership position in the NDA in Bihar, which has been considerably eroded after the Bihar 2020 elections. The JD(U) won just 43 seats, compared to 70-plus five years earlier. Though he continues to be Chief Minister, a caste-based census could help him dominate the political narrative in the State once again.

There is fear among caste-based parties, including the JD(U), that their political relevance is fading. The warning signals came loud and clear with the BJP’s victory in the 2019 general elections. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance, hailed as a unique political experiment that appeared formidable on paper, trailed way behind the BJP. The alliance had sought to bring together Yadavs, Dalit and Muslims. The BJP countered this by mobilising a much varied but a larger caste coalition of non-Yadav backward castes. Many Yadavs and Dalits also moved under the BJP’s large Hindutva umbrella. A similar story played out in Bihar too, where the RJD’s careful balancing of caste equations by bringing on board allies from all communities failed to make a dent. Barring the Kishanganj Lok Sabha seat that the Congress won, the alliance could not get any seats. 

The caste-based census, while administratively essential, would also politically benefit the JD(U) and the RJD. It will foreground the caste narrative over the Hindutva one. Mandal will be back in focus instead of Kamandal. And this is exactly why the BJP is afraid of it. 

Towards the 2025 polls

The BJP’s ambition is to make it to the Chief Minister’s Office in Bihar on its own in the next round of Assembly elections in the State in 2025. And for this, the party would need to draw voters away from the captive vote banks of both the JD(U) and the RJD. This can only be done if the caste-based narrative is replaced by a ‘Hindutva-development’ narrative which would subsume caste. 

A caste-based census is a mammoth exercise, and the next round of Assembly elections are still three years away. The BJP’s hope would be that the exercise will not be complete before those elections.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2022 6:33:50 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/why-nitish-kumar-is-counting-on-a-caste-count-in-bihar/article65556396.ece