When Nitish Kumar first came to power in Bihar in 2005, one of his constant refrains was that he believed in the politics of jamaat (masses) and not jaat (caste). But over the years, his affiliation to caste politics has increased.
Caste-based census is a national debate now with the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led opposition representing the two different sets of opinion on the issue. There is no denying that the debate is going to get fiercer in the coming days but even as the issue is bandied about such a head count has already begun in Bihar.
Chief minister Nitish Kumar, who broke away from the BJP some time ago to form a new government with his new Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) allies, has said that the census will help the state ascertain the socio-economic status of every group.
Incidentally when Nitish first came to power in 2005, one of his constant refrains was that he believed in the politics of jamaat (masses) and not jaat (caste) but over the years his affiliation to caste politics has increased because of obvious reasons. Nitish, like his old friend and present ally Lalu Prasad Yadav, has realized that importance of caste cannot be ignored in a state like Bihar. He had initially sought to supplement it with good governance ( sushasan) but its political returns have been dwindling. Therefore, his thrust on caste which is being seen as his attempt to revive the Mandal politics and slow down the BJP’s attempt to saffronize his party JD(U)’s vote bank.
In 2006, Nitish had brought in 20 per cent reservation for the Extremely Backward Caste (EBC) in panchayats and local bodies. In 2009, he divided Dalits by creating a separate ‘Mahadalit’ group consisting of 21 sub-castes of Dalits. After ending his party’s alliance with the BJP, he put caste survey on the forefront of his political agenda.
The Nitish Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan government’s caste census is seen by many as a move that may change the contours of politics, particularly in the Hindi heartland, in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. Involving door-to-door surveys it will cover 12.70 crore people divided among 204 castes across 38 districts of the state.
The exercise will be carried out in two phases – the first from January to April involving the counting of the households and the second from April to May 31 where information on the caste, skill, income and religion of the individuals will be collected. The exercise is estimated to cost Rs 500 crore.
Sources said that the British administration, too, had carried out a caste census in 1931. On the basis of that head count the backward castes categorized as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the Mandal Commission report were estimated to constitute 52 percent of the population in north India. This became the basis of socialist politics in the Hindi heartland including the states of UP and Bihar for quite some time.
In the late 1980s Mandal commission report became a weapon to counter the Hindutva wave often referred to as Kamandal politics. The ‘Mandal versus Kamandal’ reached a flash point after the then BJP chief LK Advani embarked on his famous Rath Yatra in the wake of VP Singh government’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission report that gave 27 percent quota to the OBCs in government jobs.
The post-1990s saw the rise of parties backing the slogan of social justice and using it to oppose the saffronites. However, over the years these parties weakened as they suffered multiple splits in states like Bihar, UP and Haryana. The BJP, too, cleverly co-opted some of these castes to broaden its social base.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, realized the importance of accommodating the OBCs in states such as UP where they have a sizeable population and which is the most populous state of the country. He not only created a new and large group of beneficiaries drawn from Dalits and OBCs but also drafted in tall OBC leaders like Keshav Prasad Maurya. However, the BJP did not have the same success with this strategy in Bihar where Nitish, himself an OBC (kurmi) leader, did not yield him any space.
Now, Nitish as one of the partners of Mahagathbandhan has embarked on the caste survey exercise to revive Mandal politics to counter BJP’s aggressive Hindutva plank. The aim of the Bihar chief minister, whose national ambitions are no more a secret, is to first unite the OBCs at the ground level and then unite the splinter groups of social justice at the national level. But will this actually upset the BJP’s applecart is a question only the future can answer.