Parliament’s budget session ended on Friday amid accolades for the UPA regime that until a few weeks ago seemed tottering on the brink over the women’s reservation bill.
But should its floor managers be patting themselves on the back for acceding to the non-Left Opposition’s demand for a caste-based census?
Not really. The UPA about-turn could prove to be dangerously myopic, driven as it is by the anxiety to stabilise the House arithmetic disturbed by the Samajwadi Party, the RJD and the BSP’s strong disapproval of the Congress’s agenda of 33 per cent gender quota in assemblies and the Lok Sabha.
There is no clear long-term political objective behind the move. A top Congress leader admitted, in fact, that the Treasury went by the sense of the House where most parties, including the BJP, backed the demand led by OBC-oriented parties. “I had to do it because I’ve to run the House,” he averred.
The argument didn’t cut ice with skeptics. The last caste-based census was in 1931, under the rule of the British who thrived on social contradictions in a colonised India.
In the obtaining context, the gigantic exercise could help the weakened Mandal lobby to expand its reach while accentuating caste cleavages in existing citadels. The casualty: the politics of development.
“Their relentless pitch for OBC/Muslim quotas within the women’s quota is as a much a throwback on the Mandal era,” said a woman MP. The CPM’s Sitaram Yechury isn’t against taking the OBC count that will help allocate funds and frame schemes for their uplift.
But census isn’t the right medium for the cumbersome exercise, driven as it is by information volunteered by interviewees, he said.
A case in point for a more scientific approach is the 4.34 crore gap between the Planning Commission’s figure of the 6.52 crore below poverty line households and the aggregate of BPL cards distributed by states.
On the flip side, a minister contended the raw census data would be analysed to obviate error margins. But there are no easy answers to myriad apprehensions of social tensions, impersonations for OBC benefits, proliferation of caste, sub-caste based parties in an already fragmented polity and Mandal practitioners using undistilled data for seat-sharing with coalition partners.