Bihar caste survey: A new strand to India’s identity politics
There is no doubt that the publication of the Bihar caste survey results is an important moment in national politics.
Here is what Bihar’s caste survey does not do. It does not tell us, yet, what will happen in 2024 and how the heartland’s political coalitions will get shaped and reshaped.
But here is what the survey does do. For the ruling alliance in Bihar, and the opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) nationally, it offers an opportunity to attack and fracture the BJP’s umbrella social coalition in north and central India, stitched carefully by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah over the past decade, by playing up the plank of the unity of the marginalised.
For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it offers a test, probably the biggest in its period of hegemony, of whether the party can continue to manage social contradictions, sustain what the late political scientist from Bihar Saibal Gupta termed as its “coalition of the extremes”, play up the plank of Hindu social unity while catering to its diversity, and continue its political project of “inclusive Hindutva”.
For both sides, while the disclosure of data in itself has created both opportunities and threats, how it will pan out will depend, first, on the interplay of the demand for a caste census on the national stage made by the national Opposition, with the possibility of sub-categorisation of other backward classes (OBCs) embedded in the Rohini commission report (a trick that remains up the BJP’s sleeve).
It will also depend on the question of political messaging for different social groups, organisational outreach on the ground, and how both the BJP and the INDIA alliance translate the new arithmetic into chemistry. And till that happens, it would be premature to say that this is a new Mandal moment with the same kind of dramatic and transformative impact that the implementation of the recommendations of the BP Mandal commission had on Indian politics. After all, 2023 is not 1989-1990.
But there is no doubt that the publication of the Bihar caste survey results is an important moment in national politics. And to understand its significance, it is useful to recap how India got here, the political calculus of the two national parties, and the expectations of the regional parties in Bihar at the forefront of the census.
The shifting political and social coalitions
Historically, the Congress relied on a coalition of the so-called “upper castes”, Muslims and Dalits in north India for its political success. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and later the BJP, fought the Congress to win a slice of the upper caste vote, but its rise was limited in the first five decades of Indian parliamentary politics because it never could go beyond this narrow traditional constituency.
But the rise of the backward classes, or who in contemporary political discourse are seen as the dominant OBCs, first economically and then politically, meant there was a vacuum crying out to be filled. It was this vacuum that “social justice” parties, be it VP Singh’s Janata Dal and/or the various avatars of the Janata Dal in Bihar and UP sought to fill. Once OBCs consolidated behind the third leg of Indian politics, and married their political assertion with the Muslims who sought security and voice, through the late 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, there were clear limits to the growth of the two national parties.
Through this period, the Congress decided its future rested in either going back to its upper caste-Muslim-Dalit coalition — at a time when upper castes had moved to the BJP, Muslims to regional parties, and Dalits to newer Dalit formations — or stitching temporary alliances with the same social justice parties that had broken its stranglehold over power in UP and Bihar. Neither was effective, and this explains why the Congress hasn’t returned to power in UP or Bihar for close to four decades.
The BJP struggled till Modi arrived on the stage. He systematically built on the formula that had enabled the expansion of the party in the first place in the 1980s and 1990s: Hindutva with OBC characteristics. If Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti and Vinay Katiyar, all OBCs, had expanded the base of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement under the tutelage of the then party general secretary Govindacharya, the upper castes in the BJP, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, had failed to sustain the widening of the Hindutva coalition subsequently.
Modi and Shah, however, proved to be astute sociologists who could see that Mandal era had produced its own contradictions, with some castes benefiting while others, far more numerous, were left out within the backwards. From 2014, all the way to this point, the BJP constructed its own new coalition — of upper castes who saw in it a natural home for its platform of nationalism, Hindutva and growth and return to dominance; of the extremely backwards who saw in the party a pathway for upward mobility and participation in a wider politico-religious umbrella rather than being confined to merely their subcastes; and of the poorer Dalit communities who hadn’t benefited from either reservations or political power and were provided cultural resources making them feel a part of a wider Hindu identity. Along with this micro caste-political engineering, the anti-Muslim strain of BJP’s politics helped sustain this coalition.
Responding to the challenge
For nine years, the Congress and other regional parties in north India have struggled to respond to this new BJP. They have the Muslim vote, and Muslims have told these parties that their vote is futile unless they can get more Hindu votes. The national Opposition believes they have found their answer with the caste census, returning to the old formula of playing on contradictions within Hindu umbrella. But break it down and the picture is more complex.
The Congress has historically been the natural party of upper castes in India. Even when it has embraced social reform, or has enhanced representation for other groups, India’s grand old party has always been careful in not alienating the upper castes of Bihar and UP. But Rahul Gandhi has made a decisive break. He appears to have calculated that upper castes will remain with the BJP, and so be it, even if it means taking positions that may alienate them further. Instead, he believes the Congress needs to “de-Brahmanise” and turn to other social groups, including OBCs, the set of Hindu caste groups with which the party has been historically distant. By deciding to promote Mallikarjun Kharge as party president and even as a possible PM face, the Congress believes it can recapture its older Dalit vote. But by backing the caste survey, declaring that it stands for proportionate representation (an unprecedented position for a national party) , and pointing out its most prominent chief ministers are OBCs, the Congress is sending a clear message to a group it has never wooed systematically. Whether it can indeed expand its support among backward classes and Dalits, and whether that will be sufficient without the power and support of dominant castes, is to be seen.
For regional parties, the calculation is more complex. From being seen as wider social justice formations speaking for the entire backward community, both Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have struggled because they are now seen to have become a party of families (the Yadavs in both cases) and limited social coalitions (of Muslims-Yadavs in both cases). Even if they have attempted to widen representation by including other caste groups in their parties, the formula hasn’t worked because of the baggage of the past. For its part, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) has struggled to retain its base among extreme backward communities as the BJP has made substantial inroads among the “ati-pichdas”. But the self image of these parties remains that of strong forces which mobilise the majority of the dispossessed, among backwards. And they believe that the caste census, which will show that OBCs remain a much wider grouping without commensurate representation and power, will allow them to speak for a wider bloc and pose an existential political challenge to the BJP.
The BJP’s options
Existential or not, there is no doubt that the BJP faces a challenge — and has a set of options to deal with it.
The primary objective of the BJP, one can assume safely, is retaining its 60% coalition (of upper castes, extreme backwards and poorest Dalits while excluding Yadavs, Muslims, and the somewhat more empowered Ambedkarite Dalits from the calculation) in states such as Bihar and UP.
This 60% is possible only when upper castes, a majority of extreme backwards, and a majority of the poorest Dalits vote for the party. It may stem from the fear of losing power, but irrespective of motivation, upper castes are uncomfortable with the caste census; to them, it speaks of even more diminished representation across educational, governmental and political institutions; and it echoes attempts to divide the Hindu vote. This is what the BJP has to deal with when it carves out its own position on the survey.
At the same time, the caste survey results also show that BJP’s support base spans both segments of dominant OBCs (Kurmis for instance) as well as the larger share of non-dominant OBCs; these groups can see that their numbers are way higher than their share in power and can smell an opportunity to seek remedial justice. The BJP has to deal with this, too, when it carves out its position.
If this was the older pre-Modi BJP, one could have assumed that an instinctive, cultural, political opposition to the caste census and its results would be the default response.
But this BJP, of Modi and Shah, is extremely careful about retaining its wider social umbrella. In that case, it has either the option of using its welfarist appeal to point out that across poorer communities, the BJP’s governance model has delivered and play up class instead of caste. But this may not work enough given that sub-identities can sometimes prove to be as powerful as macro-identities in a society with such deep caste fractures and the scarcity of resources and opportunities means intense competition across the axis.
It has the option of pointing out that the BJP has indeed enhanced the representation of castes and communities which didn’t have a voice earlier and will continue to do so. In this context, it has the option of bringing into play the Rohini Commission recommendations, which point out that a limited number of OBC subcastes have cornered a majority of the benefits, and sub-categorise reservation benefits. But a push to implement this will reinforce the demand for a national caste census; doing this also has unpredictable consequences, for some of the dominant OBC groups who may lose out remain BJP’s supporters.
Or it has the option of countering subcaste politics with even a stronger Hindutva push to project Muslims as the other and unify Hindu social groups beyond caste identities. But whether bigotry will suffice amid a cry for wider representation and power is uncertain.
Or it could do all of the above — playing on class, governance, Hindu identity, while also catering to issues of sub-categorisation.
The India of 2023 is an India with a dramatic level of connectivity and migration; where rural-urban boundaries are blurred, where caste identities remain extraordinarily powerful but are neither the basis for occupations nor necessarily the only determinants of voting behaviour; where aspirations for a better life are common across social groups even if the paths they adopt and objectives they can strive for depends on the level of privilege and deprivation; and where, to paraphrase and reverse a descriptor used for Bihar, people vote their castes but also cast their votes on other grounds.
If Bihar showed the way in pioneering anti-Indira Gandhi politics in the mid 1970s and then reshaping Indian politics through Mandal, a son of Bihari soil, in the 1980s, it has opened up Indian politics again with its pioneering caste survey. How it plays out will illustrate how Indian society has changed, or not changed, in the past three decades.