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Opportunity for INDIA

THE TRIBUNE DEBATE BIHAR CASTE SURVEY Even as the BJP has tried to sidestep the demand for a caste census, the Opposition is trying to corner it on this issue to reinforce cracks in the Hindu right and its homogenisation project across castes.

Opportunity for INDIA

The new caste template gained momentum after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar released Bihar’s caste survey results, which revealed that the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) constitute 63 per cent of the state’s population. - File photo



Zoya Hasan

Professor Emerita, JNU

SAFEGUARDING constitutional democracy, secularism, social welfare and social justice are the four principal concerns of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). The demand for a caste census is one of the key issues in this matrix to ensure social justice, with the Congress using ‘jitni aabadi, utna haq’ (rights in proportion to the population) as its slogan to mobilise electoral support. Social justice is not a new idea, but its adoption by INDIA is significant as its all-encompassing reach grounds the bloc’s narrative in everyday social and economic realities.

The new caste template gained momentum after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar released Bihar’s caste survey results, which revealed that the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) constitute 63 per cent of the state’s population. This survey provided an impetus to the demand for a nationwide caste census to map the social demography of castes to substantiate changes in the policy of reservations. This has brought the Congress closer to its regional allies, although it can threaten existing political equations and calculations in some states, especially as the Congress has decided to go it alone in the upcoming state polls and is showing an unwillingness to share seats in these states. Nonetheless, the Congress is hoping that it will be a collateral beneficiary of the Opposition’s OBC politics.

In the past, the Congress was the biggest loser from the upsurge of OBC politics. Its decline in the late 1980s was foreshadowed by the rise of OBC-dominated parties, although they themselves later lost out to the BJP. The BJP expanded its tent on an unprecedented scale with the consolidation of OBCs, while the Congress’ longstanding disapproval of OBC reservations and the compromising overtures and tactics towards the demands of various religious communities hugely dented its political base in the Hindi heartland.

More than three decades after the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations, the Congress is charting a different path. The change is not limited to tokenism; it is walking the talk by giving greater representation to OBCs in the party and in the government. Three of its four Chief Ministers belong to OBCs — Bhupesh Baghel, Ashok Gehlot and Siddaramaiah — all of whom are strong votaries of a caste census. The election of a senior Dalit leader, Mallikarjun Kharge, as the Congress president further fortifies its attempt to project the power of caste. Charanjit Singh Channi was the Dalit face of the Congress’ election campaign in Punjab in 2022. Though that did not bring electoral dividends for the party, it was a step towards regaining the support of the historically oppressed social group.

The Congress’ stunning victory in the Karnataka elections earlier this year reinforced the party’s changed approach to caste politics. The victory in that state was led by two OBC leaders. Flanked by the party’s Chief Ministers in four states, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi led the charge for a caste census. He said the party’s working committee had taken a ‘historic decision’ to support the idea of a nationwide caste census, asserting that it was a ‘very progressive’ and ‘powerful step’ for the emancipation of the poor, thus embedding the concept of social justice in material realities, and not just the social hierarchies of caste.

The return of OBCs to the political centre stage presents an opportunity for INDIA to blunt the BJP’s dominance by disrupting its meticulously planned social engineering strategies and the wedge it has created between lower and upper OBCs, who have benefited the most from reservation. Even as the BJP has tried to sidestep the demand for a caste census, the Opposition is trying to corner it on this issue to reinforce cracks in the Hindu right and its homogenisation project across castes.

The emerging politics on caste holds the potential to redefine and change settled electoral equations and alliances in the forthcoming elections. It is too early to say whether the issue of a caste census will lead to a paradigm shift in Indian politics, but it has already changed the narrative somewhat. The demand for a caste census overshadowed the special session of Parliament and the passing of the historic Women’s Reservation Bill, which has not yielded the expected benefits for the ruling party as the honours are evenly shared by it and the Opposition and women’s organisations associated with it, which had spearheaded the demand for women’s legislative quota. The sudden push for ‘one nation, one election’ is another attempt to counter the consolidation of INDIA.

Social justice is an important goal for INDIA, but the electoral implications of a caste census remain unclear. The BJP has leveraged the caste matrix to its own advantage and whether INDIA can do the same remains to be seen. However, by demanding a caste census, Opposition parties have highlighted a significant difference between the ruling dispensation and the non-BJP parties, more particularly between the two national parties on the broader politics surrounding social justice. A counter-narrative of social justice flowing from the Bharat Jodo Yatra and the formation of INDIA has challenged the BJP’s overarching nationalism pitch and cultural politics that in the end couldn’t counter the Opposition in Karnataka. The changing narrative may not produce a torrent of electoral upsets, but a cumulative process of accretion can change the course of politics.

Whether it will yield electoral dividends for the Opposition will depend on the unity of INDIA, which has to reconcile the national ambitions of the bloc with the regional aspirations of parties at the state level, coupled with more informed and reformed public policy on matters of social justice. While there is no clarity on alliances in the state Assembly elections, the primary focus of INDIA seems to be the 2024 General Election. For now, the politics around the caste census has provided the Opposition an opportunity to challenge the hegemony of the Hindu right at the national level.

#Bihar #BJP #Caste census #Congress #Democracy


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