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Challenge to Hindutva

THE TRIBUNE DEBATE BIHAR CASTE SURVEY The clamour for a caste census can redefine political equations and alliances in the run-up to Lok Sabha polls

Challenge to Hindutva

STRATAGEM: The new caste template gained momentum after CM Nitish Kumar released the findings of Bihar’s caste survey. PTI

Radhika Ramaseshan

Senior Journalist

THE upcoming Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana have got inextricably linked with three factors — the Bihar Government’s release of a comprehensive caste survey (CCS), the Congress’ promise to conduct a similar caste count if elected to power in these states and the BJP’s response to frame the discourse in a different idiom, featuring leitmotifs drawn from the Hindutva ideology.

As the BJP garnered a little over 40 per cent of the OBC votes in the 2019 elections, largely by projecting Modi both as an OBC mascot and a Hindu icon, the Congress was bereft of any such attribute.

A little before and immediately after the Bihar CCS demonstrated the potential of resurrecting the issue of the empowerment of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or backward castes, the Congress strongly advocated for a caste count. Former party president Rahul Gandhi described it as an ‘X-ray’ that would reveal the socioeconomic condition of the OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis and challenged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lay bare the findings of a socioeconomic caste survey undertaken during then PM Manmohan Singh’s tenure. Rahul claimed that the Congress governments in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh had initiated a process to carry out a CCS — brave words from the Congress, which belatedly recognised and acknowledged the seriousness of OBC empowerment in shaping the politics of the Hindi heartland.

Successive Congress Prime Ministers — from Jawaharlal Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi — did not pursue the recommendations of the Kaka Kalelkar Commission, the first Backward Classes panel, which submitted its report in 1955. It identified 2,399 backward castes in the country, with 837 of them classified as ‘most backward’. The commission also recommended undertaking a caste-wise enumeration of the population during the 1961 census and establishing a connection between the social backwardness of a caste and its low position in the traditional caste hierarchy, among other suggestions.

The Congress ignored the Mandal Commission’s report mandated to identify the socially and educationally backward castes and adopt ameliorative measures to bring them on a par with the upper and intermediate castes. While the BJP was quick to grasp the political ramifications of the Mandal report and co-opted large OBC sub-groupings under the Hindutva umbrella, the Congress was convinced that its time-tested coalition of the upper castes, Muslims and Dalits/Adivasis would endure an epic churn. As it happened, the amalgam came apart and the party lost its base in the heartland, except in pockets. As the BJP garnered a little over 40 per cent of the OBC votes in the 2019 elections, largely by projecting Modi both as an OBC mascot and a Hindu icon, the Congress was bereft of any such attribute. Now, the party is making a concerted effort to position, front and centre, its OBC Chief Ministers Siddaramaiah (Karnataka), Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh) and Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan), despite the high command’s express misgivings about Gehlot.

The belated wisdom of a national party such as the Congress plunging headlong into sectional politics discomfited some of its insiders, who believed that it should focus on the economy’s big picture, inflation and livelihood and leave matters like a caste count to the identity-wedded entities it is aligned with in the regions. Insiders said that would be more in keeping with the ‘character’ of these players, some of whom, incidentally, are products of the post-Mandal period.

There is more than a grain of truth in this belief if the rejoinder coming from a regional party is an indication. Flagging the caste count issue in Telangana, Rahul contextualised his rationale with the alleged corruption by the Bharat Rashtra Samithi government, Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao and his family. A caste survey, Rahul claimed, would bring to light the extent to which the KCR clan had ‘looted’ Telangana. Can caste become a synonym for corruption, considering that the party of Lalu Prasad, whose household is enmeshed in graft charges, is a Congress ally and the Rashtriya Janata Dal draws its sustenance from identity politics? Can the RJD survive without its Muslim-Yadav support?

The Telangana Government was not in slumber. In 2014, it carried out a household survey of the OBCs which showed that they made up 51 per cent of its 3.6 crore population. With the Dalits and Adivasis, the figure went up to 85 per cent.

The Chief Minister is from the Velama community, a dominant caste of agriculturists, but in his two stints in office, he made space for OBCs such as the Gouds, Yadavs, Munnuru Kapu and Padmashali as ministers and Rajya Sabha MPs. Having been vociferous about a caste count, the Congress might be hoist by its own petard because its OBC leaders have clamoured for three Assembly seats each in Telangana’s 17 Lok Sabha constituencies that add up to 51 OBC candidates in the 119 Assembly segments.

The Chhattisgarh Government’s OBC survey in 2022 puts their population at 43.5 per cent, while as per the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan Backward Classes Commissions, the figures stand at 48 per cent and 42 per cent, respectively. Confronted with the data, the three governments — Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are Congress-ruled, while MP is BJP-helmed — have made OBCs the centrepiece of their policies and welfare initiatives.

Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan set up dedicated welfare boards for specific sub-castes, as have Gehlot and Baghel. Rajasthan earmarked 64 per cent reservation in government employment and educational institutions with 16 per cent for the Dalits, 12 per cent for the Adivasis, 26 per cent for the OBCs and most backward castes and 10 per cent for the ‘economically weaker’ sections. In MP, despite the BJP high command’s manifest distrust of Chouhan, he was nominated again from his Budhni seat shortly after the caste census and the accent on OBC empowerment gained currency. Chouhan is from a backward caste. In Chhattisgarh, Baghel legislated an increase in the OBC reservation quota from 14 to 27 per cent and that of the Adivasis (a sizeable population) from 12 to 13 per cent in public employment and educational admissions.

It’s premature to conjecture if caste is a robust counter to the BJP’s Hindutva. But the BJP’s strategy of employing religion to heighten a pan-Hindu identity among the non-upper castes might be past its shelf life, at least in the state elections.

#Bihar #BJP #Caste census #Chhattisgarh #Congress #Lok Sabha #Madhya Pradesh #Rajasthan #Telangana

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