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Caste consensus

Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad have clinched a major issue by getting the government to include caste in the 2011 census in return for their occasional support in Parliament, reports Vikas Pathak.

delhi Updated: May 10, 2010 00:10 IST
Vikas Pathak

“If the government can count trees and nallahs (drains), what is the problem in counting castes (in the census),” other backward caste leader Mulayam Singh Yadav asked in the Lok Sabha on Thursday.

Just as one thought the star of north India’s best-known OBC leaders, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad, was falling, the duo seem to have been revitalised with the government conceding their demand to include caste in the census.

Two emotive issues on the OBC political agenda have lost steam: quotas in government jobs, implemented in the early 1990s, and reservations in education, taken up during the United Progressive Alliance’s first avatar (2004-09). OBC chieftains, without much success, tried to whip up emotion recently by denouncing the women’s Bill as anti-OBC.

A caste census may just help them reactivate the OBC agenda.

We may finally know after 80 years which castes are the most numerous in India, and which number the least. The British enumerated castes from 1871 to 1931, after which the caste-based census in India was discontinued.

It wasn’t revived post-independence, for it was thought to be divisive.

At present, censuses do show the numbers of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and Muslims – three social groups seen to be on the margins of India’s growth story – but leave out the OBCs, the fourth group seen by many as backward.

OBC population figures are thus just estimates, ranging from 52 per cent as stated by the Mandal Commission to 41 per cent as given by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO).

“This will open another Pandora’s Box and activate fresh demands,” political scientist Jyotirmaya Sharma of Hyderabad Central University told HT. “It has not been spelt out what a caste census would achieve in principle.”

Delhi University historian Pradip Kumar Datta disagrees. “The caste census would provide useful data on groups that are getting state benefits. The argument that it will increase casteism is unconvincing. Elections too are fought on caste issues. Will you ban them too?”

Not being a favourite of the OBCs in UP and Bihar — states that account for almost a fourth of the 543 Lok Sabha seats — the Congress is unlikely to gain from a caste census; the reason why the party has been reluctant. But an apparent understanding with Lalu and Mulayam, who may support the government during number-counts in Parliament in return for a caste census, seemed to have done the trick.

This is at a time when the SP and RJD — hostile to the government in recent times — have made some positive gestures. The two parties have supported the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill and walked out of the Lok Sabha during the cut motion vote, indirectly helping the government.

Three of the five Congress leaders who spoke during the debate on the topic in Parliament opposed the idea.

True, the party’s political interest would normally lie in leaving the OBCs alone and enlisting Muslim support, breaking the RJD and SP’s Muslim-Yadav bastion. The Congress’ support base in the Gangetic plain till about 1990 was upper castes, Dalits and Muslims.

The Ranganath Mishra report, which recommended that a part of the OBC quota pie be given to religious minorities, has been seen as a Congress step at attracting Muslims and marginalising OBC parties like the SP and RJD.

However, it is the BJP — dubbed a Bania-Brahmin paty for long — that has sprung a surprise by backing a caste census. The reason: as Muslims in UP and Bihar are likely to shift towards the Congress after the Sachar and Ranganath Mishra reports (the Sachar report highlighted the plight of Muslims in the country), the BJP wants to attract OBCs.

With the Yadav population in UP and Bihar estimated at 8.7 per cent and 11 per cent, respectively, the SP and RJD may fare poorly without the support of Muslims (18 per cent of the population in UP and 16 per cent in Bihar).

BJP leader Gopinath Munde, the present OBC face of the party, had said during the party’s recent national council in Indore: “We will not allow minorities eat up the quota share of Hindu OBCs, as recommended by the Ranganath Mishra Commission.”

The BJP enjoyed steady non-Yadav OBC support in UP in the 1990s, which was lost by up to 20 percentage points after 2000, aiding the party’s decline. It also lost OBC leaders Uma Bharti and Kalyan Singh. However, it still has prominent OBC Chief Ministers in Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan.