The opposition has found a fairly significant subject to try and revive its fortunes with. In what can be called a unanimity of thought, all opposition parties in India are today of the firm belief that during the next census, a separate column on ‘caste’ must be put in place, to ensure the conduct of what is being called a ‘caste census’. It must be mentioned that scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are already counted during every census. The demand which has now caught wings, however, is that of including OBC caste counts in the census, as opposed to the policy of marking OBCs under the ‘General’ category.
Leading the charge is BJP ‘ally’ – Bihar chief minister and JD(U) supremo Nitish Kumar. Flanked by RJD chief and Leader of the Opposition in Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav; the BJP’s Janak Ram, a state minister; Congress leader Ajeet Sharma and those from Left parties; and Jitan Ram Manjhi, former chief minister and President of the Hindustani Awam Morcha, the delegation called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday.
After the meeting, Nitish Kumar said, “People in Bihar and the entire country agree on this issue. We are grateful to the Prime Minister for listening to us. We urge him to take an appropriate decision.” Tejashwi Yadav, meanwhile, said, “Our delegation met the Prime Minister today not only for caste census in the state… but in the entire country. If animals and trees can be counted, so can people… a caste census will be a historic, pro-poor measure.”
There is no miraculous calling that is making opposition parties come together, despite their glaring differences, in demanding a nationwide caste census. The fact is that regional parties know very well that a caste-based census would open up the floodgates for yet another spate of mandalisation of Indian politics. The post-Mandal Commission politics of India saw the OBC castes getting divided over their own identities, instead of uniting under one Hindu identity.
By putting up demands of a nationwide caste census, the opposition is looking to dent BJP’s politics, pre-2014 general elections. Even during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the regional parties won more OBC votes than BJP. While the saffron party won 34 per cent of the OBC vote in 2014, regional parties collectively polled close to 43 per cent in that demography. In the five years since, until 2019, BJP made a massive push to win over the OBCs and united them under a Hindu identity, leading to the party polling 44 per cent of their votes in 2019, while regional caste-based parties together won only 27 per cent of the OBC vote.
Nevertheless, the fact is that OBC support for BJP is rather new, and not as firm and consolidated yet as that of the upper castes and classes. Furthermore, BJP has mobilised the lower OBC vote much more successfully as compared to the dominant OBCs in many states in North India. Needless to say, the saffron party aims to do much more to bring the entire OBC vote upon itself by 2024, and regional parties demanding a caste census that counts the many sub-castes prevalent among the OBCs is not a strategy BJP is keen to follow.
The push for conducting a nationwide caste census is nothing more than a ploy of the opposition to dilute the BJP’s hold over the OBCs using the cause of Hindu unity. A caste census aimed at OBCs will only further consolidate caste identities, leaving the Hindu identity among such communities being side-lined, or worse still, forgotten entirely. This will be no good news for BJP. The Modi government is not in favour of a caste-based census, and it is highly unlikely that the same will be held until BJP is in power.
The opposition seems to have finally realised how BJP’s support base can be broken into bits and pieces. Much like how the British exploited castes to their benefit by dividing Hindus, the “united opposition” is looking to break the fortress of Hindu unity that BJP has been able to create. The saffron party must immediately take steps to ensure that the demand for a caste census does not gain momentum, and is nipped in the bud.