Caste survey and quota hike: Bihar starts political churn ahead of 2024 polls
Experts weigh in on how the caste census data shared by Nitish Kumar can have an impact at a national level
PATNA: The recent announcement by the Nitish Kumar government to hike reservation to 75% in Bihar based on the findings of the caste survey presented before the Bihar Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, has infused new energy into the run-up to the 2024 general elections.
Such is the political valency of the issue of Bihar’s caste-driven electoral politics that all parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in opposition in the state, unanimously supported the CM’s announcement of tabling a legislation to effect this in the ongoing winter session itself.
It is not wrong to assume that the survey will also affect socio-political churning not dissimilar to what was witnessed during the implementation of the Mungeri Lal Commission report in former Bihar CM Karpoori Thakur’s tenure, or even during the Mandal Commission report in the reign of former PM VP Singh.
According to experts, for the I.N.D.I.A. coalition, the survey is meant to serve as an effective counter to the polarising Hindu-Muslim narrative. DM Diwakar, former director of AN Sinha Institute of Social Studies, said that the biggest impact of caste survey and increase in reservation could be the dilution of the polarisation on Hindu-Muslim lines, and this could hurt the BJP electorally. The demand for caste census in other states will add to its national resonance, he said.
“Congress leader Rahul Gandhi promising caste census in the country once in power is a big shift and a perception is being created that it is not the Congress but the BJP that is against the caste census, and this is why it has withheld the census. Bihar has managed to set the stage for the I.N.D.I.A. formation. It has set the agenda, unlike earlier when the BJP set the agenda for elections. The fissures due to the sub-castes' rising aspirations would also grow with time, but that will happen during the state elections. For the general elections in 2024, the newfound empowerment would galvanise the backward classes and that will be an effective counter to religious politics,” Diwakar said.
“The ‘Pasmanda’ politics of backward Muslims will gain heft. There is no monolithic cultural category and that will set new political trends with a demand for a caste survey finding national resonance,” he added.
Prof Firoz Mansuri, director of Pasmanda Mansuri Development Research Foundation (PMDRF), said that this was the first time the backward Muslims had got to know their numerical strength and they could use this information judiciously for their growth by aligning with leaders and parties who would work for them. “Pasmanda Muslims constitute the main chunk of Muslim votes, almost 85%, but they have remained in abject poverty. They would not like to be reduced to a mere vote bank without any development. Pasmanda Muslims will vote for safety and progress. We hope the leaders will understand and share our concerns. We will make them hear our voice,” he said.
Sociologist Prof Tanweer Fazal, co-editor of Marginalities and Mobilities Among India's Muslims, argued that while the census would not impact the way in which Muslims vote in Bihar it still remains to be seen how the upper castes would push back against the increase in reservation. “In sheer electoral terms, the caste census makes no difference to Muslim politics in Bihar. The bulk of the Muslim vote will be cornered by the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) comprising Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and other secular formations in Bihar. It, however, may give strength to the argument that some of Muslim caste groups under the ‘Pasmanda’ category need targeted attention insofar as social development is concerned, and may well receive it now that the EBC category reservation is expected to go up.”
Economist Prof Nawal Kishor Choudhary said that things already seemed to be moving in the direction of a revival of Mandal politics. “The rising caste consciousness is already showing its impact in the way the BJP or even Left is reacting. Left hitherto talked of class, now it is also talking of caste. The Right-wing is talking of the poor as a caste and extending free ration for another five years. All these indicate that the political churning has well and truly begun. Bihar has triggered it and the attempt is to make it pan-India, but only time will tell how far it goes,” he added.
While legitimate questions could be raised over the government’s role in the past few decades it has been in power, caste consciousness will nevertheless have an oversized influence. “Caste is seen as an antidote to religion. But all actions don’t necessarily have similar results. The timing is right and it remains to be seen how the momentum is maintained to take it across the country,” he added.
Poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who has been crisscrossing Bihar since last October on the Jan Suraj Padyatra to educate voters, feels that the survey and a hike in reservation might be counterproductive for the Grand Alliance (GA) and the impact could well be confined to Bihar.
“Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad have been at the helm for over three decades and why is it that they have realised the need to increase quota only now? It is sheer politics. There has been a gradual political awakening among all caste leaders to not allow any particular group to hold sway over others. It may prove counterproductive for those who hope to reap rich dividends out of it,” he said.
He said both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad should first explain why there have been no Muslim deputy CMs or home ministers till now, and how many EBCs (extremely backward class) persons have had a ministerial berth or portfolio in the government.
“One can get a feel of their love for OBC and EBC in the manner of ticket distribution also. The fact is that caste survey and reservation politics are only meant for divide and rule politics, but the castes who find themselves low in numbers are not ready to accept what the government wants them to believe. Who stopped them from giving representation to EBC and SC?” he asked.
Former Bihar CM Karpooriji Thakur, who belonged to the Nai community that constituted less than 1.6% of the state’s population in the 1970s consolidated the backward castes and divided them into Annexure 1 and 2 at a time when there was limited political space. This paved the way for the 27% reservation in government services that was granted on November 10, 1978. Thakur was a socialist and dared to do what no one before him had done. He was the first to feel the need to segregate the most deprived among the backward classes to bring them to the mainstream, a legacy that was later followed by both Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal United’s Nitish Kumar.
The new reservation formula based on the caste survey aims for a provision of 18% quota for backward classes (OBC), 25% for the extremely backward classes (EBC), 20% for the scheduled caste (SC) and 2%, for the scheduled tribe (ST). Hitherto, Bihar offered 50% quota — (SC (16%). ST (1%). EBC (18%), OBC (12%), as per the Supreme Court cap — apart from the 10% EWS quota.
After the new reservation formula based on the caste survey findings, the other backward classes (OBCs) constituting 27% of the state’s population and 33.16% of the poor families are the real beneficiaries, with their quota share going up from the existing 12% to 18%, while the quota for EBCs, who have a population share of 35.72% and account for 33.58% poor families, has increased from 18% to 25%.
The reservation share of SC and ST, with a poverty rate amongst their families of 42.93% and 42.70% respectively, have gone up by 4% and 1% respectively. Out of 27,668,930 families recorded in the caste-based count, OBC, EBC and SC account for 82.51% of the state’s population and constitute 86.27% of the total number of poor families with a monthly earning of less than ₹6,000.