The unanimous support extended by Opposition Parties in passing the Constitution an amendment bill to restore the power of the states to draw their own lists of Other Backward Classes (OBCs), may have come as a breather for the BJP government after facing three weeks of unrelenting protests in the Parliament. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now has another daunting task of keeping its flock together on the vexed issue of the caste-based census for identifying and enumerating the SEBC/OBCs, a long-standing demand of the NDA allies.
The central government’s negative response to a caste-based census has angered its important constituents- Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar-led JD (U), Uttar Pradesh-based Apana Dal (S) and RPI (Athawale)- inviting sharp criticism from the parties.
In July, the government has informed the Parliament on unequivocal terms that it won’t undertake a caste-based survey and as a policy matter, it will enumerate the SCs and STs in the 2021 census.
As Assembly elections are due early next year in five states including politically crucial Uttar Pradesh, tough posturing by its allies has put the saffron party in a spot. The Bihar government may conduct a state-specific caste survey if the Centre does not pay heed to its demand, says JD (U) national spokesperson and general secretary KC Tyagi.
Speaking to Outlook, Tyagi said that JD (U) will mobilize other parties and intensify its efforts to exert pressure on the Modi government for caste-based enumeration.
“In 2018, the then Home minister Rajnath Singh promised a cast-based survey to identify OBCs and SEBCs. What is stopping the BJP from doing it now? What happened to their slogan of ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas and Sabka Vishvas’?” he asks. The Bihar assembly has passed two resolutions in this effect, he points out. Tyagi adds that apart from many state governments, National Commission for Backward Classes has also urged the Union government to count the population of OBCs as part of Census 2021 to draw policies and prepare programs for them.
Currently, data is collected on various parameters such as age, gender, education, religion, language, SC and ST, profession, and other details during the Census exercise.” The government only needs to insert additional columns for SEBC, OBC, and other castes,” says Tyagi adding that lack of data makes it difficult to ascertain the deprivation levels and implement affirmative programs.
Though Mandal Commission estimated the OBC population at 52 percent, Constitution expert Prof G Mohan Gopal points out that in the absence of reliable data, there are internal conflicts over the inadequate resources that are available to the backward classes. “Once population share comes in, there will be a lot more unity amongst the backward classes,” says Gopal, a former director of National Judicial Academy and National Law School of India University, Bangalore.
The last caste census was done in 1931 and a caste count is imperative to wipe out social tensions and antagonism among communities, says KC Tyagi. Though the JD (U) is at odds with the BJP over Pegasus snooping scandal and other issues, Tyagi maintains that the alliance is not under strain.
“BJP and JD (U) have different political ideologies and philosophies. We disagree with them on many things. Our party continues to press for our demand and I don’t think it will impact our ties,” says Tyagi.
However, it will prove costly for the BJP if it turns a blind eye towards its crucial ally Apna Dal (S) is also raising the demand for a separate ministry for OBCs and caste survey to ascertain the population in Uttar Pradesh.
Speaking to Outlook, Ashish Patel, working president of Apna Dal, says that his party has been raising the demand since 2014. Apna Dal leader Anurpiya Patel is also the Minister of State for Commerce and Industry. Ashish Patel, husband of Anurpiya Patel, expressed confidence that the BJP government will accede to its demand.
“No caste census has been done after 1931. Our party’s stand is that a caste-based survey should be done to estimate the exact population of each category of the backward. Once the survey is done, policy decisions and Programmes can be formulated in proportion to the population,” says Patel.
Patel belongs to the Kurmi community, an OBC category. As Samajwadi party Chief Akhilesh Yadav has already promised a caste census if he comes to power, the political fight intensifies over the vote bank of OBC, the largest political constituency in the state.
Another eyewash in the offing?
While there are indications that the BJP government may initiate a socio-economic caste census (SECC) after census 2021, experts feel that it will be another futile exercise on the lines of SECC undertaken by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government in 2011. The mammoth exercise involving Rs 4,893.60 crore was conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation.
Though the details of socio-economic data were published by the two ministries in 2016, the caste data never saw the light of the day. The BJP-led NDA government even set up a panel under Niti Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya in 2015 to analyze the caste data, but nothing came out of it. Now, the 2011 exercise seems to be of no relevance as the BJP government calling the data ‘incorrect and outdated’ in the Parliament early this week. Experts also point out that it indicates the government’s reluctance to use the 2011 caste data for future purposes.
“The BJP government may undertake another caste survey similar to the UPA exercise to pacify its allies. The UPA government was also complicit in subverting the data in 2011. No governments will want to reveal inconvenient truths where the upper class will be reduced to a social minority,” he says.
G Mohan Gopal says that a caste census will also necessitate a relook on the 50 percent ceiling on reservation policy. “27 percent reservation of OBC is not a reflection on the population share. What if the population share is 80 percent? Then we may need to take a relook at the 50 percent ceiling too,” he says.