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Indian Opposition’s Turn to Caste Politics Unnerves Ruling BJP

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Indian Opposition’s Turn to Caste Politics Unnerves Ruling BJP

Bihar state’s caste-based population survey could increase PM Modi’s challenges ahead of next year’s parliamentary election.

Indian Opposition’s Turn to Caste Politics Unnerves Ruling BJP

After launching the PM Vishvakarma Scheme to win OBC support, Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacts with artisans at the YashoBhoomi Convention Centre in New Delhi, September 17, 2023

Credit: X/Narendra Modi

On October 2, the government of the eastern Indian state of Bihar released the report of a survey on the state’s population by caste – a traditional hierarchical division in Hindu society. The state is ruled by a coalition of parties that are part of the recently formed opposition INDIA bloc.

Hours later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hit out at the opposition parties for dividing the country along the lines of caste.

“They divided the country in the name of caste in the past and are committing the same sin today,” he said while addressing a rally in the poll-bound state of Madhya Pradesh.

Bihar’s caste survey has triggered calls from several political parties for similar surveys in other states, even a nationwide survey. Such surveys could provide a boost to caste-based politics in the country.

This has India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worried. The forces of caste and Hindu nationalism have repeatedly collided for almost a century. Now, they could not only dampen the BJP party’s chances in the state assembly elections scheduled in November but also adversely impact its prospects in parliamentary elections that are scheduled to be held in April-May 2024.

The Congress-ruled northwestern state of Rajasthan, which goes to the assembly polls on November 23, has already issued a notification initiating a caste-based socio-economic survey. In BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, the Congress is looking to corner the BJP on this demand in the November election.

The caste survey in Bihar revealed that Extremely Backward Classes (EBC) and Backward Classes (BC) comprise 36 percent and 26 percent of the population, respectively. Together they are called the Other Backward Classes (OBC) and account for 62 percent, while the Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and general category (or forward castes) make up 19.7 percent, 1.7 percent, and 15.5 percent of Bihar’s 137 million people, respectively.

India provides for the reservation of seats for marginalized castes. 22.5 percent of seats in education, jobs, and legislatures are reserved for SCs and STs. While 27 percent of seats in central government jobs and education are reserved for the OBC category, they do not have any reservation in political representation.

The lack of data on the size of the OBC population has been a major political issue for decades. Yet, successive central governments have avoided counting them through any decadal census, even though SCs and STs are separately enumerated.

Different governments at the center have cited different arguments – from lack of parity in OBC lists of different states and the center to the latest argument that it “will adversely affect the integrity of Census exercise.”

However, according to psephologist and political activist Yogendra Yadav, no government wanted to count the OBC because they did not want to encounter “inconvenient truths.” Counting OBCs would reveal “the social, educational, and economic privileges of the upper-caste Hindus,” who comprise less than a fifth of India’s population but “occupy broadly 80 percent of all positions of power and privilege,” Yadav wrote in 2021.

The Congress, nevertheless, has been intensifying its push for a caste census for quite a few months now and pressed for it even during the debates on the Women’s Reservation Bill – in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha – in September.

Bihar’s caste survey revealing 62 percent OBC population has given the demand a new impetus and strengthened the demand for increasing the OBC reservation quota in jobs and education and introducing OBC reservation in political representation.

Jitni Abadi, Utna Haq (rights proportional to population share),” Congress parliamentarian Rahul Gandhi said soon after the Bihar survey report was released. Lalu Prasad Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal echoed Gandhi.

In Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state, which accounts for 13.5 percent of parliamentary seats, all major opposition parties, including the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and even the BJP’s ally Apna Dal, have indicated they are going to use this demand to build voter consolidation.

This has evoked concern in the BJP for multiple reasons.

The party, and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are ideologically opposed to caste politics. They vehemently defend the Vedic texts and social system that has come under severe criticism from caste-based politicians and parties.

Besides, the BJP-RSS ecosystem is dominated by Brahmins, the priestly caste at the top of the Hindu social hierarchy, while caste-based politics have frequently taken anti-Brahmin or anti-upper caste forms. It is mostly people belonging to the upper castes who would suffer if OBCs succeed in meeting their demands.

The BJP and the RSS also believe that caste politics disallows them from uniting Hindus on religious lines. It divides their Hindu support base.

Ahead of the 2015 Bihar state election, RSS helmsman Mohan Bhagwat called for a review of the caste-based reservation system in India. His comment was blamed for the BJP’s subsequent poor show in the election. He reiterated this view in 2019, soon after Modi returned to power for a second term.

The Modi government has been opposing the demand of counting OBCs since 2020 – from turning down proposals from the Maharashtra state assembly and the National Commission for Backward Classes to submitting affidavits in the Supreme Court.

The government has avoided releasing the caste data from the 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census. It told Parliament last year that it had no plan of releasing the data. It also tried to stop Bihar from releasing its survey report but the Supreme Court did not restrain Bihar.

This is despite Modi’s penchant for showing his own OBC background. In fact, just two days before Bihar released the survey report, Modi, while addressing an election rally in poll-bound Chhattisgarh, alleged that the Congress keeps insulting him to actually insult the OBCs.

With elections nearing and the opposition pushing for a nationwide caste census and OBC reservation in politics, the BJP and the RSS appear to be adjusting their strategy accordingly. In a major reversal of his previous stand on caste-based reservation, Bhagwat said in September that this policy should continue as long as there is discrimination in society. However, he was silent on OBC reservation.

In recent years, the BJP has managed to get the support of a large number of OBCs. It is apprehensive that with the opposition taking up the OBC cause, it could lose out.

To nullify the opposition campaign, Modi announced the “PM Vishwakarma” scheme in August with a financial outlay of around $1,562 million for artisans and craftsmen, who primarily belong to the OBC category.

The question is whether such schemes will be enough to counter the opposition’s demand for OBC reservations. Or, would it prompt the BJP to raise the pitch of its Hindu nationalist appeals?

In 1990, a month after the Union government announced 27 percent reservation for OBCs in central government jobs, the BJP’s then President Lal Krishna Advani embarked on a nationwide rally to mobilize support for the demolition of the 16th century Babri mosque and (re)construction of a Ram Temple at the same site in Ayodhya. The aim was to unite Hindus across caste divisions.

Now, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who rose from caste-based politics in the 1990s, has opened a Pandora’s box just a few months before Modi is expected to inaugurate the newly constructed Ram Temple.

It remains to be seen how the Hindu nationalists use Lord Ram to counter the opposition’s caste politics.