Caste Census the Ideological Glue for Anti-BJP Front
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In 1990, when he was Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi had vociferously opposed then Prime Minister VP Singh government’s decision to implemented the Mandal Commission report. It heralded the weakening of Gandhi’s Congress Party’s grip over the backward classes and emergence of parties that represented the beneficiaries of the commission.
The Congress—by far the largest national party in the nineties—steadily lost its larger constituency of backward classes to parties that championed the cause of the backward classes. Its support base among these communities shifted to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s political outfits in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively.
Soon after the Mandal report was implemented, Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani embarked on the Ram Rath Yatra from Somnath in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, ushering in what came to be known as the “Mandal versus Kamandal” battle. The BJP managed to make inroads among the social groups that constitute the Other Backward Classes by accommodating and projecting its leaders, alongside some Dalit leaders, within its rank and file. But the Mandal-based parties—Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar—maintained their superiority in terms of their hold on the backward-class constituency.
However, the emergence of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah brand of politics, based on radical Hindutva ideology, has created a volatile situation in the country. Their rise has allowed various militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) wings, from the Bajrang Dal to Durga Vahini, Gau Raksha Dals (Cow Protection Force), to Ram Sena, to radicalise and weaponise the youth and target minorities in diabolically cruel ways.
Hindutva militants have, apparently, established their sway, particularly in Uttar Pradesh—the most populous State that has elected 62 BJP leaders to the Lok Sabha, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi from Varanasi. The public murder of former Member of Parliament and don Atiq Ahmed and his brother Ashraf in judicial custody, purportedly by Hindutva militants who shouted Jai Shri Ram while shooting, and the Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh administration’s selective bulldozing of minorities’ homes and establishments are largely considered a manifestation of Hindu supremacists ruling the roost in the “Modi-Yogi” rule.
Son ‘Corrects’ Father
Thirty-three years down the line, Rajiv Gandhi’s son, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, has decisively “corrected” his father. Addressing an election rally at Kolar, Karnataka, on 17 April, the embattled Nehru-Gandhi scion said, “When we talk about the distribution of wealth and power, the first step should be to find out the population of every caste”. Then he advocated for the removal of the Supreme Court’s mandate of a 50% cap on the job reservations quota, and said “reservations for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other weaker sections should be in proportion to their population”.
Two days after Rahul’s speech, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, seeking urgent intervention in conducting a caste census. Kharge said in his letter that a scientific break-up of caste-wise data will help governments implement welfare and social security schemes better.
Thus, the Congress, for the first time in over 30 years, is in sync with the social justice parties—the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Janata Dal (United), the Samajwadi Party, and others—on the caste census and job quotas. This census, and the demand for reservations in jobs proportionate to the share in the total population of the castes concerned, is turning out to be an ideological glue for Opposition parties working to build an united and ideologically cohesive front against the BJP.
In the present time, it is Bihar led by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, which is the real architect of the demand for caste census—as a core idea against Hindutva.
Much before other parties began talking about this census, RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, who was the Leader of Opposition in the Bihar Assembly, had demanded Bihar conducts a caste-based survey. A resolution to this effect was adopted in the State legislature once Nitish Kumar accepted the proposal. Subsequently, it became the basis for the JD(U) to dump the BJP in and join the seven-party Mahagathbandhan in August 2022.
The Grand Alliance government is already in the middle of conducting Bihar’s caste survey. Its report is likely to be released in May, on the basis of which the State government might raise the job quota for the backward classes and the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in proportion to their population at the state level. This will surely step up the pressure on the Narendra Modi government to do the same at the national level.
Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav are also repeatedly demanding a caste census at the all-India level.
The Sangh Parivar has a genuine problem in accepting the demand and implementing the job quota for the historically disadvantaged groups in proportion to their population. The problem arises because the RSS—the ideological parent of the BJP—primarily preaches and practices a Brahmanical order in which the elite castes and business communities enjoy primacy. Despite the BJP accommodating a large number of OBC and Dalit leaders in its rank and also in governance at the Centre (and in Uttar Pradesh) its leadership continues to be in the hands of members of elite Varnas.
In such a situation, the BJP might decide to step up its aggression towards the minorities to keep its militant cadres united. The Bihar Chief Minister—now easing into the role of the anchor of Opposition unity—will have to be alert against more vitriolic rhetoric to fuel communal clashes in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
The author is a senior journalist, media educator, and independent researcher in social anthropology. The views are personal.
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