We don’t count caste in our national census—except for scheduled castes and tribes. And successive governments have fiercely opposed it—until Nitish Kumar’s government conducted a caste survey in Bihar. The results are out—and they could be a game changer for the Lok Sabha elections. In the first part, we look at the results and what they mean for the BJP. Part two will see how the Opposition could profit from this political weapon.
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
First, a bit of background
Here are some facts you may not be aware of when it comes to castes and numbers in India.
Fact #1: We have not counted the number of castes or the people who belong to each of them in independent India. The Indian Census under British rule included all castes, but the first census in free India only counted members of scheduled castes and tribes. Everyone else is thrown under the ‘general’ category. And that has remained the norm ever since.
Fact #3: We also have no clue about the number of people who fall under the Other Backward Caste (OBC) category—the vast swathe of lower and intermediate castes that lie between the upper castes and Dalits. Therefore, our affirmative action schemes for these castes are arbitrary—and have zero basis on actual demographics.
Fact #4: In 1992, the Supreme Court placed a cap of 50% on all reservations—which was not based on any demographic data. And in 1993, it ordered the government to ensure that the “creamy layer” of any backward caste be excluded from reservations—since “seats and posts reserved for backward classes are snatched away by the more fortunate among them.” Again, since there is no socio-economic data for OBCs, this ruling too was made in the absence of any hard data backing up its claim.
Fact #5: There are however regular national surveys—based on samples not actual counts—that offer some indication of caste in India. For example: the National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) and National Sample Surveys (NSS). And these typically reveal what we already suspect:
It is seen that a majority proportion of ‘upper’ caste households report their principal occupation in public services/white-collar jobs category, while the majority of STs in agriculture/fisheries, SCs in manual labour, and OBCs in blue-collar jobs. It is ironic that even after years of Independence, the occupational profile of the population still coincides, to a large extent, with the unjust division of labour as prescribed in the archaic Varna system.
Point to note: In 2014, Congress-ruled Karnataka ordered a caste-based survey to rationalise its OBC reservation quotas. But then it promptly suppressed the results—because they showed that Scheduled Castes were the largest community, followed by Muslims. And that posed a problem for the powerful Lingayats and Vokkaligas—who are assumed to be the more numerically dominant—as it would upset traditional vote calculations. As one insider said:
The opposition came not from a community perspective; they do not worry that their community will lose out on benefits. They don’t worry that their community people will not get education or jobs. They think that if the report is made public then the Lingayats and Vokkaliga leaders will no longer be able to hold important and influential positions.
This is why counting castes has always been a potential bombshell in Indian politics. FYI: this Big Story has lots more on the debate over why we should conduct a caste census—or not.
The first caste census in Bihar
Counting castes has always been on the agenda of regional parties—since many of them are built around caste identities. So it isn’t surprising that Janata Dal-United (JD-U) led by Nitish Kumar has been pushing for one since 2019. But he was held back by his alliance with the BJP—which is firmly opposed to the idea. That changed when Kumar broke with the NDA and joined the Opposition in 2022. Hence, for the first time ever, the results of the caste survey in India have been released to the public.
The results: Here’s what these results show:
- The total population of Bihar is around 130.7 million (13.07 crore)—and backward communities make up around 63%. Muslims account for 17.7%.
- The split is as follows: 36% are from an Extremely Backward Class, 27.1% from an Other Backward Class, 19.7% from a Scheduled Caste and 1.7% from a Scheduled Tribe.
- Extremely Backward Classes are the poorest among the OBCs—and have been counted separately ever since CM Nitish Kumar mobilised them as his political base.
- This means the upper castes are only 15.5% of the population—confirming their worst fears. Brahmins are a mere 3.66%.
- OTOH, the dominant OBC subcaste Yadavs are also the largest in the state—accounting for 14.2% of the population. This is very good news for Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and Deputy CM Tejashwi Yadav.
What this means: The results pose a serious challenge to the 50% ceiling on reservations imposed by the 1992 Supreme Court ruling. More so, since the same Court upheld a special 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS)—defined as the “poorest of the poor”—even though it breached the cap. That 2022 judgement declared that the cap is neither “inflexible nor inviolable for all times to come.”
In fact, one of the Court judgements seems to predict the results in Bihar:
Suppose for instance a State has a large number of backward classes of citizens which constitute 80% of the population and the government, in order to give them proper representation, reserves 80% of the jobs for them, can it be said that the percentage of reservation is bad and violates the permissible limits?
Mismatched numbers: Right now, there is a glaring discrepancy between the total number of people who belong to backward classes and the reservation quotas:
EBCs constitute 36% of the population while currently they are being given 18% reservation in jobs, while OBCs, at 27%, are currently being given 12% reservation. At present, there is a provision for 30% for EBC and OBC together in Bihar, whereas according to caste-based calculation, their population is at 63%.
The caste census therefore opens the door to a mass mobilisation of backward classes demanding a bigger share.
A great challenge for the BJP
The party’s winning formula: The 1992 Mandal Commission was the first to establish significant quotas for the OBCs—expanding reservations to communities other than SC/STs. ‘Mandal politics’ were a boon for regional parties led by upper class OBC leaders—until the BJP deployed its ‘Kamandal’ strategy. The mix of Hindutva and welfare-driven populism targeted the poorer sections of the OBCs and Dalits—adding to its firm hold on the upper castes. This has been a wildly successful electoral base in the Hindi belt:
Modi and Shah, however, proved to be astute sociologists who could see that the 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.
As a result, the party demolished the hold of regional parties—like Samajwadi Party in UP—over the OBC vote. In the 2009 national elections, 22% of OBCs voted for BJP and 42% for regional parties. In 2019, 44% backed BJP–and only 27% opted for regional parties.
The caste census challenge: The BJP has the proverbial ‘rock and hard place’ problem. If it backs the caste census, it will alienate its upper caste supporters—who already resent reservation quotas. In fact, the new 10% EWS quota was meant to benefit poorer members of upper caste communities. It can try to again emphasise class over caste—as Modi seemed to do in a recent rally. He declared the “biggest caste are the poor”—and challenged caste-based reservations in its entirety:
If the Congress wants rights and benefits to be proportional to a community’s population share, then who has the first right, he asked the crowd. “Pehla hak kiska hoga? Abadi kiski zyada hai (Who should have the first right? Whose population is the largest)?” he asked. The crowd's answer appeared unclear. "So, should the Hindus, who have the largest population, come forward and take all their rights?" the Prime Minister asked…
"Congress kisi bhi kimat par desh ke Hinduon ko baat kar Bharat ko tabah kar dena chahti hai. Congress garibon ko baatna chahti hai (The Congress wants to divide the country's Hindus at any cost and devastate Bharat. The Congress wants to divide the poor).”
But, but, but: Sweeping aside caste identities in favour of a broad ‘pro-poor’ plank is a highly risky strategy in India, as Prashant Jha points out: “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.”
Also this problem: OBC voters often split their vote—favouring regional parties in state elections even though they vote BJP in the Lok Sabha elections. This suggests its support base among these communities is not as solid as it is amongst the upper castes and upper classes—who vote for the BJP in large numbers irrespective of its performance.
Pressure from allies: As we noted before, the NDA today consists of 38 small regional parties—many of whom are supported by a single subcaste in a region. But together they add up to winning numbers in key constituencies. These parties are now calling for a caste census in UP—and they control key OBC votes:
All three allies of the BJP rely on OBC communities for support: the Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party (SBSP) is dominated by the Rajbhars, an OBC caste, and is led by Om Prakash Rajbhar; the Nishad Party champions a traditional boatmen community, and is led by State Minister Sanjay Nishad; and the Apna Dal (Sonelal), which gets supports from the Kurmis, among the most numerically dominant OBC groups in U.P. after the Yadavs.
The bottomline: The BJP may be beleaguered but it still has its superpower: Narendra Modi whose personal popularity with OBCs and Dalits is indisputable. He could convince them to keep their faith in him—and his broader ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikaas’ promise. But the other big unknown is how the INDIA coalition will use this new-found weapon. We look at that in part two of this series.
Indian Express and The Hindu are best at crunching the numbers–and the big takeaways from the caste census. Prashant Jha in Hindustan Times and Sanjay Kumar in Indian Express have the most detailed analysis of the challenges facing the BJP. The Hindu offers an interesting take on why the BJP loses when questions of justice win over Hindu unity. Outlook places the results in the context of recent political history—and the shift from Mandal to Kamandal politics. A must read to understand the bigger picture: our Big Story on the history of the national caste census–and the fierce debate over it.