The 2024 Lok Sabha elections are poised at a decisive threshold. On the one hand, the BJP, defying most forecasts, has romped home with emphatic wins in the three important states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. On the other, the Congress has strengthened its position in the South by winning Telangana. The Congress’s loss in the three big states with less than six months to go for the 2024 general election has dealt a symbolic blow to the Opposition’s electoral arithmetic based on the demand for a pan-India caste census to garner the support of the overwhelming Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and other marginalised communities.
In all three states, the Congress promised to carry out a caste census if voted to power. But the results seem to indicate that its pitch didn’t find much traction with the electorate despite a significant portion of the population comprising Dalits, Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Extremely Backward Castes (EBCs). The Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey of the four states—Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana—presents some hard facts to the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) in general, and to the Congress in particular, to have a relook at its dependency on the demand for a caste census.
But despite the offsetting results, the Opposition does not seem to have lost hope in its slogan of “Jitni Abadi, Utna Haq (representation according to population of various castes)” and is drawing up the battlelines for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls primarily on it along with other issues of unemployment, price rise, and Adani’s alleged corruption. Reiterating the demand for a caste census as recently as December 12, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi said, “The real issue is caste census only. The BJP is trying to deflect from it by raising non-issues.”
पंडित जवाहरलाल नेहरू जी ने हिंदुस्तान के लिए अपना जीवन दे दिया, वर्षों तक जेल में रहे।
अमित शाह जी को शायद इतिहास की जानकारी नहीं है, वे सिर्फ मुद्दे से गुमराह करने की कोशिश कर रहे हैं।
असली मुद्दा सिर्फ जाति जनगणना का है।
हम जाति जनगणना के मुद्दे को उठाएंगे और गरीबों को… pic.twitter.com/7CdPW3GW9l
— Congress (@INCIndia) December 12, 2023
Wary of the possible dangers posed by a caste census to the BJP’s electoral arithmetic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has changed tack. From glorifying his image as an OBC earlier, which was successful in winning elections, he is now cleverly trying to redefine caste by taking a leaf out of the Marxian lexicon of have-nots. At first, he proclaimed at a Chhattisgarh rally in mid-November that the only caste in India is that of the poor. By the end of the assembly elections, he refined it further, insisting that there are only four castes for him—women, the youth, the poor, and farmers—in the country who need to be empowered.
Based on the Lokniti-CSDS survey, political analyst-turned-politician Yogendra Yadav says that the BJP’s dominance among the OBCs in all three Hindi-speaking states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, should be a cause of worry for the Congress. The BJP has expanded its lead over the Congress by a big margin in these states, despite the grand old party’s concerted effort to raise the pro-OBC pitch in the run-up to the elections.
The survey shows that the Congress’s OBC support dwindled from 36% of votes in 2018 to 33% in 2023 in Rajasthan, from 41% to 35% in Madhya Pradesh, and from 42% to 39% in Chhattisgarh. In comparison, the BJP increased OBC support from 40% of votes in 2018 to 45% in 2023 in Rajasthan, from 48% to 55% in Madhya Pradesh, and from 42% to 49% in Chhattisgarh.
The question that begs an answer is why the OBC votes firmed up in the BJP’s favour when a just proposition for them was in the offing through the proposed caste census. The answer lies in the BJP’s ability to adjust a small fraction of different OBC castes in its ministries and the party hierarchy to create a perception of providing adequate representation to them. It is another matter that the influence of the OBC community is very limited in the BJP’s—or the government’s—decision-making process.
To blunt the caste census card of the Opposition again, the BJP leadership in Delhi appointed an OBC member, Mohan Yadav, as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, and a Scheduled Tribe (ST) member, Vishnu Deo Sai, as chief minister of Adivasi-dominant Chhattisgarh.
A few months earlier, when Gandhi for the first time raised the issue of very few OBC secretaries in the Modi-led government, controlling a meagre 5% of the country’s total budget, the BJP’s vast messaging apparatus had swung into action. The spin masters of the party, with participation of the mainstream media, pointed out that the BJP had sent more OBC lawmakers to the Parliament and Assemblies.
The issue raised by Gandhi was the disproportionately low number of people representing the lowered caste populace in the upper echelons governance structure, but the amplified response of the BJP was legislative representation.
The BJP also immediately started questioning the rationale of the argument. BJP President J.P. Nadda hit back, saying that 85 out of 303 BJP MPs are from the OBC community which accounts for 29%; 365 or 27% of its 1,358 MLAs across the country are from the OBC community; and 40% or 65 of its 163 legislative council members are from the OBC community. Modi also emphasised that his ministry has 27 OBC ministers, the highest number since Independence, at a public rally in Hyderabad in November.
The BJP took the opportunity to craft a sharp political message by conveying that it’s the legislators and ministers who are the public interface and not the secretaries in the bureaucracy, who actually move the levers of power. By giving people from the lowered castes greater legislative representation, the party projected that it was more pro-OBC than the Opposition.
The BJP also rejigged its organisation heads in Uttar Pradesh where caste equations matter. It changed 69 (around 70%) of its 98 district unit presidents in September and appointed 36 OBC presidents, given that they had played a major role in its win in previous elections.
Given the BJP has successfully combined religious polarisation with a certain degree of social engineering to reap rich electoral dividends over the past 10 years, the Opposition needs to come up with a better gameplan on the caste census issue. It should take the cue from the Bihar government’s caste census.
Its findings bolster their demand for a nationwide caste census and commensurate share of opportunities more emphatically and in a manner that is easy to understand. It is clear that the Opposition did not get enough time to use the caste census data during the assembly elections since the data was released on October 3 and the notification for the elections came out on October 9.
A look at the Bihar caste census report throws up some startling facts that the Opposition parties can use to weave a coherent message of its benefits to people who are pretty much last in line.
- Bihar’s population is 13.07 crore, of whom OBCs and EBCs together constitute a whopping 8.25 crore or 63%, SCs are 2.57 crore or 19.65%, STs are 22 lakh or 1.68%, and the Upper Castes are 20.3 crore or 15.52%, including nearly 5% of Muslim upper castes.
- The 15.52% upper castes’ share in government jobs stands at 31.3% percent; while the job share of the 27.13% OBCs is 30.4%, 36% percent EBCs’ share is 22.6%, and of the 19.65% SCs is merely 14.2%.
- Only 25% of the upper castes in the state survive on less than ₹6,000 a month—the threshold of poverty in the survey. The figure goes up to 33% for OBCs, and 42% for SCs and STs.
- Only 9% of forward castes, 4% of backward classes, 2% of EBCs and 1% of SC families earn more than ₹50,000 a month.
- For every 10,000 people, the number of those with PG, PhD, CA, BTech, or MBBS/BAMS qualifications are, respectively, 387 among upper castes, 125 among BCs (Backward Castes), 63 among EBCs, and merely 39 among SCs.
- A whopping 95.49% of the population doesn’t own a vehicle, only 3.8% own two-wheelers, and 0.11% own four-wheelers. Out of the state’s population of 13.07 crore, 12.48 crore people don’t own a motorised vehicle.
- Just 11.44% of upper castes work as labourers, whereas 13.74% of BCs, 18.62% of EBCs, 21.3% of SCs, and 18.5% of STs do so.
A detailed study of the Bihar caste census numbers make for a strong case for a countrywide exercise. The caste census report provides many robust data points for the Opposition to craft political messages that can disturb the BJP’s social alliance. This is the reason for Modi’s deft attempt to alter the very definition of caste.
Jitni Abadi, Utna Haq can be a counter to Modi’s classification of four castes only if the raging issues of unemployment and price rise remain the fulcrum of the Opposition’s war cry.