Shikha Mukerjee | Caste census and quotas: It's a political minefield

The Congress agreed to a caste census and then ended up by substituting it with the Socio-Economic and Caste Census in 2011

Equivocation is invariably the political response to demands for a scientifically designed, statistically robust full-fledged caste census, because it shrinks the wriggle room that ruling national parties need to dodge the demand for corrections on the one hand and address the issue of equity, inequality, justice and positive action on the other.

The middle order of the Other Backward Castes is like an unchecked minefield. Dissatisfaction and a growing sense of discrimination and relative deprivation of this very large but heterogeneous constituency of voters exerting pressure for inclusions as backwards with all benefits and an increase in the bundle of benefits is politically impossible to reject or even disagree with. To accept and agree to a caste-based robust decadal headcount of all individuals is to plunge into a political maelstrom.

A proper caste census, the last such census being the one done in 1931, is a long-standing demand that ruling national parties have managed to put off by substituting the census with a slightly different methodology that has far-reaching consequences. The Congress agreed to a caste census and then ended up by substituting it with the Socio-Economic and Caste Census in 2011. The data on caste was never fully released.

The BJP is in much the same boat. It agrees that a caste count should be done, but it refuses to commit to a census. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with the all-party delegation led by Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, which included leaders from the BJP, Tejashwi Yadav of the Opposition RJD, Dipankar Bhattacharya of the CPI-ML) Liberation and his non-committal response on it says it all.
Neither he nor the BJP can disagree with the demand for a caste census, nor can they afford to accept and agree to such an exercise. A caste census is not simply a head count; it comes with a commitment to reframe policies that fix the problems of inequality, relative deprivation and the skewed distribution of benefits to those castes and sub-castes that are found to be worse off and it reveals both the successes and the failures of the State in addressing the problem of marginalisation and deprivation and backwardness.

One estimate indicates that of the 2,633 OBC sub-castes that figure in the Centre’s list for reservations in jobs, almost one-fourth or 25 per cent have been filled from about 10 dominant OBC sub-castes.

The overwhelming bulk of recruitment and admission to higher education institutions, that is 97 per cent, for OBCs has been captured by a select 25 per cent of OBC sub-castes. Depriving the privileged 10 dominant castes by redistributing the benefits to other OBC sub-castes is asking for trouble on a largescale. Correcting the skew in recruitment and admission of OBCs in educational institutions is equally politically dangerous for a party that is heavily dependent on votes from OBCs in Uttar Pradesh to give it the scale of wins it needs to stay in power in the state and at the Centre.

Across politically crucial states, the BJP’s success in pulling in OBC voters -- that is, the middle order that understands its strength and has learnt to use it -- has delivered some outstanding victories as the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies survey report reveals. In Uttar Pradesh in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2017 Assembly polls, the BJP pulled in between 41 per cent and 47 per cent OBC votes. In Karnataka it pulled in 50 per cent OBC votes for the Lok Sabha and 43 per cent for the state Assembly. In Bihar, in the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP pulled in 26 per cent OBC votes; in the Assembly elections in 2020, the BJP pulled in only 19 per cent of OBC votes while the RJD garnered 29 per cent.

The difference in voteshare between the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls is the challenge that OBCs and the various sub-castes into which they are divided present to a ruling national party that is seeking re-election. The difference in the way OBCs voted is the capacity they have to negotiate.

Passing the buck to the states as the BJP did with graceless haste in the recently-held Monsoon Session of Parliament by passing the 127th constitutional amendment that restores to the states the power to draw up their own OBC lists has not distracted politically savvy OBC leaders from their demand for data with which they know they can drive a much harder bargain.

Kamandal or Hindutva identity politics is simple and cheap. The cost of discrimination and deprivation is borne by the Muslims, who are an insignificant group in terms of votes for the BJP. Mandal or OBC-SC-ST politics is vastly different. The cost of exclusion is borne by others within the same category of voters. The BJP has a successfully tested playbook for the mobilisation of Kamandal sentiments to add to its core voters, though the playbook was an inglorious failure in West Bengal.

It has no playbook for managing Mandal politics; all the BJP has is a rudimentary Excel sheet. The Excel sheet worked in UP for instance to show the BJP where opportunity lay for mobilising voters unhappy with the tilted preferences of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. But in 2022, there are other pools of unhappy OBC-SC voters and the BJP needs a really sophisticated playbook to keep together all OBCs and SCs that voted for it in the past and tap into new voters going forward.

The habit of denying responsibility perfected by Narendra Modi in his seven years as Prime Minister may not work for caste politics. Having allowed Mr Modi to play the OBC listing card, the BJP is now faced with the task of either doing it or ducking it. In both situations it will have to pay for the dissatisfaction that will follow from drawing up a fresh list of OBCs and the creamier layer; in key states including UP, Karnataka, Gujarat and Bihar, where it is in power, and in states like Rajasthan, Odisha and Maharashtra, where it is the party in waiting, the BJP has made its life more difficult.

Caste politics, as the Bihar delegation’s visit underscored, is not a parcel that can be passed. It is a field of unchecked landmines that can explode under the slightest pressure. To negotiate about marginalisation within an already marginalised group based on contending perceptions, because Mr Modi will not call for a caste census, is dangerously risky. Using an Excel sheet to calculate the incalculable effects of perception and dissatisfaction will be the BJP leadership’s biggest challenge.

Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist in Kolkata

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