Opposition-ruled states, Rahul Gandhi bet big on elusive caste surveys | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Opposition-ruled states, Rahul Gandhi bet big on elusive caste surveys

Mar 07, 2024 03:19 PM IST

With a burgeoning caste-neutral middle class and so-called Hindu consolidation, these surveys could be last ditch efforts to derail BJP Lok Sabha aspirations.

When Jharkhand chief minister Champai Soren tweeted ‘Jiski Jitni Sankhya Bhari, Uski Utni Hissedari’, (jobs based on numerical caste strength) announcing the Caste-based survey in his state, it seemed the era of Mandal 2.0 had dawned. Jharkhand became the third state to announce a Caste-based survey, after Andhra Pradesh and Bihar.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addresses the crowd during the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Ratlam on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addresses the crowd during the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Ratlam on Wednesday. (ANI Photo)

PTI reported the Jharkhand government as saying that the survey will be conducted based on data collected between 7 January and 2 October 2023.

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According to 2011 census figures, Jharkhand has a population of 3.30 crores, with a nearly equal male and female population of 1.69 crores and 1.60 crores respectively. It is home to 32 tribal groups: this large number of Scheduled Tribes make up almost 30 per cent of its population; with Scheduled Castes forming a significant 12 percent.

Around the same time last month, the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh launched a comprehensive census to enumerate all the castes in the state. The current estimated population of the state is approximately 9.5 crores.

Essentially, the name of the game is to catch the politically crucial Other Backward Caste (OBC) vote, which can easily tilt the balance in the favour of - or against - any political party. Critically, there is no real-time data available on castes in India. According to the National Family Health Service (NFHS) 2015-16, the OBC population of India stood at 42.2 per cent of the population. The Mandal Commission on the other hand, had estimated their population to be 52 percent.

On 2 October 2023, marking Gandhi Jayanti, Bihar government published its ‘Bihar Caste-based Survey 2022’, revealing that extremely backward classes (EBCs) and other backward classes (OBCs) together were nearly 63% of the 13-crore population, making it the state's largest caste group. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who belongs to the OBC Kurmi caste (2.87%) has nurtured the EBCs and emerged as a successful state leader.

Rahul Gandhi, as he traverses the country with 'Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra,' has been advocating the Caste census - much against the stated Congress position. He promised a nationwide caste census and the removal of the 50 per cent cap on reservation, if the opposition INDIA bloc comes to power after Lok Sabha polls of 2024; rarely has the bloc announced programmes to dovetail social justice, education, employment generation together when social and economic inequalities are growing.

Caste surveys, like the raunchy risque hit of the 1990s Choli ke peeche kya hai, seem to be the theme song of the 2024 electoral season, with voters wondering what lies behind it all.

The political reality, however, could be startlingly different – never mind those backing the caste cause as an antidote to the predominant Hindutva political strain.

Says Nizamuddin Shaikh, a senior member of All India Milli Council, New Delhi, an umbrella body of Muslim organisations, “It’s a political strategy that cannot be denied. Caste survey is a longstanding demand which was rejected by both Congress and BJP. Now the Congress, with its back to the wall has started promoting the idea, which it had ignored earlier. The BJP-RSS combine has made unprecedented strategic moves and blurred caste lines in today's evolving politics. It was a successful counter to Mandal politics. At a time when communal rhetoric is prevailing over development and in absence of ideological counter, the INDIA alliance is taking this call to play caste politics against Hindutva politics. It’s kind of luring the OBCs away from the ruling BJP.”

Whether that will happen or not in today's changed circumstances, where the Hindu vote bank is being increasingly consolidated, is another matter. The world is radically different from 34 years ago when the 'Mandal Messiah' Prime Minister VP Singh, on 7 August 1990 announced in Parliament the decision to implement the Mandal Commission's Report. In that historic speech, he had pledged to provide 27 per cent reservations to ``socially and educationally backward classes" for jobs in central services and public undertakings.

Says political analyst, Amitabh Tiwari: ``The opposition caste-based census is mostly diluted. Even though reservations have been raised to nearly 65 per cent in Bihar, there is no protest - or even a welcome. Why? Because reservations have lost their sting. How do they matter, when 50 per cent or more jobs in the government reserved category are not being filled up in any case.’’

He added: "The history of such reservations suggests that jobs have been cornered by the dominant OBCs and the numerically smaller ones have been left out. So, what’s the interest of these smaller backward groups in a slogan like the one coined in Bihar 'Jitni Abadi, Utna Haq’ – on the lines of Jharkhand. It means a repeat of the old job formula – the bigger group will grab the bigger cake.”

At the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2014, 'The Caste Question and the Historian’s Craft' was the focus of its conference. It enumerated how caste was simply resolved during the freedom struggle as a 'social evil', an aberration of the pristine Vedic past. "And in envisaging the birth of a new nation such divisive, parochial remnants were not crucial as that of a recovery of India’s self. Caste is increasingly articulated as a product of the imagination of the Indologists and Orientalists who represented it as the very essence of Indic civilization,” it said.

Ten years down the line, this debate has moved beyond the realms of theory. Says Sanjay Kumar, Professor and Co-Director of Lokniti at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), whose core area of research is electoral politics: ``Potentially, such caste surveys can upset calculations, but not this time around in 2024, when the Hindu vote has consolidated behind the BJP. Added to it is the fact that the opposition is not united. That is the message going out to the voters.”

``It is also instructive to remember that the BJP is playing its own caste card. The party’s consistent narrative is that it is the biggest OBC party in India and that it has more OBC and Dalit MPs than any other political party. As to the opposition leaders and the three states ordering a caste census, they need an issue to fight the elections. But it is not going to work in 2024, for sure,” he told this reporter.

This year, with more caste surveys on the cards, can it possibly influence the political course of the general elections? Apparently not, argues Amitabh Tiwari. ``Regional opposition parties are either region-based or caste backed. With a strongly emerging caste-neutral middle class aspiring for a better life in an economy, caste is not the factor it used to be. People are looking for employment in the private sector, to invest in stocks and aspire to the benefits of a rapidly expanding economy,’ he explains.

There is no doubt that the middle class is the fastest-growing major segment of the Indian population in both percentage and absolute terms, rising at 6.3 per cent per year between 1995 and 2021. It now represents 31 per cent of the population and is expected to be 38 per cent by 2031 and 60 per cent in 2047, according to People Research on India’s Consumer Economy (PRICE), an independent, not-for-profit think tank.

It is anyone’s guess - without making too much of an effort - to how this vast segment swings in the forthcoming elections. Besides, if the Hindu vote has consolidated behind the BJP, as most experts agree, then the caste, till the last millennium a power to reckon with, stands much diluted today.

Of course, if reservations were to be extended to the private sector, the employment paradigm could be said to have shifted radically. But that is not happening anytime soon.

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