Successive governments fiercely opposed conducting a caste survey—until Nitish Kumar’s government conducted one in Bihar. The results could be a game changer for the Lok Sabha elections. In the first part, we looked at the results and what they mean for the BJP. Today, we look at how they could realign the national debate—and perhaps the Opposition’s fortunes. Or not.
A quick refresher on the caste census
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 was thrown under the ‘general’ category. And that has remained the norm—since a survey would likely reveal the unhappily small numbers of the upper castes—and raise all sorts of unpleasant questions about representation.
That’s until Nitish Kumar decided to conduct a caste census in Bihar—and release the results—a political dhamaka whose impact is still being decoded.
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.
- 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.
- However, upper castes are only 15.5% of the population—confirming their worst fears. Brahmins are a mere 3.66%.
- In fact, if you add SC/ST communities to OBCs and EBCs, the total comes to a staggering 84.4%.
What this means: The results pose a serious challenge to the 50% ceiling on reservations imposed by the 1992 Supreme Court ruling. 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.
Mandal 2.0: A return to caste politics?
A bit of history: Between 1989 and 2014, Indian politics were driven by three forces: “Mandal, masjid, and market.” The Mandal Commission—which broadened caste reservations to Other Backward Castes—helped fuel the power of regional caste-based leaders—be it Lalu Yadav or Mayawati. Meanwhile, BJP soared on the back of its aggressive Hindutva campaign around Babri Masjid. And the entire polity was transformed by the forces of liberalisation.
Kamandal politics: ‘Kamandal’ is the water pot used by sadhus and symbol for BJP’s big-tent Hindutva ideology. It promises upward mobility to the most marginalised communities—based not on their caste identity but as Hindus. A backward caste prime minister—both a former chaiwala and RSS leader—epitomises that promise. Of course, this unifying Hindu identity is shaped and strengthened by its opposition to the ‘outsider’ or ‘other’—i.e Muslims. It’s a zero-sum game—any gain for Muslims is always at the expense of Hindus, and vice versa. Hence, the push to take reservation quotas away from Muslims and reallocate them to backward castes.
Mandal vs Kamandal: When LK Advani took out his rath yatra to raise support for the Ram Mandir in 1990, he faced the fiercest opposition from Lalu Yadav—who refused to give him permission to pass through Bihar. Mandal politics revolves around a very different polarity: forward vs backward castes—not Hindu vs Muslim. When one worldview wins the other loses ground—among backward castes. This is how the BJP toppled caste-based parties like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh.
It also explains why the INDIA coalition hopes the pendulum will swing the other way thanks to the caste census. ‘Sabka saath, sabka vikaas’ suggests prosperity comes through unity. But the Congress’ new mantra is ‘Jitni aabadi utna haq—ye hamara pran hai’ (rights according to the size of the population—that’s our resolve). The messaging is all about representation—and who deserves a greater slice of the development pie. Same is true of Lalu Yadav’s response to the Bihar census: “Jitni hissedari utni bhagidari” (participation in accordance with the population).
Aap arithmetic samajhiye: The BJP math is straight-forward. Hindus represent almost 80% of the population—compared to Muslims who are only 14.2%. If we subsume Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists under the Hindu rubric—as the RSS does—then Hindus mop up most of the remaining 6%. That glaring disparity is both the basis of BJP’s strategy—and its genuine belief that India is a Hindu nation. Over the past two elections, the party has decisively proved that it does not need a single Muslim vote to win—either in a state or national election. Rather, it can actively target that 14.2% to help consolidate the remaining 80%—while distributing benefits through targeted welfare schemes etc.
The Bihar census: reveals a new kind of math—as The Wire points out. In Bihar: OBC + EBC = 63.13% of the population—but they collectively only receive a 27% reservation quota. Upper castes = 15.52%. Yet, the BJP created a special 10% quota for the Economically Weaker Sections to benefit the poorest members of the upper castes. That kind of arithmetic is political kryptonite in an election year. It represents a very different kind of majority-minority split—and is no less powerful than the Hindu-Muslim kind.
Does INDIA know how to add?
In order to do any kind of damage, the Opposition will have to translate those numbers into a cohesive mobilisation strategy—that significantly eats into the BJP’s OBC vote bank in the Hindi belt. They have some clear advantages:
One: Many of the key faces in the INDIA coalition are from backward castes. Congress has its president Mallikarjun Kharge—and a number of key CMs: Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh. Leading regional parties also represent backward communities: DMK chief MK Stalin, Kerala CM Pinaryi Vijayan—and in Bihar, Nitish Kumar and Lalu’s son Tejashwi Yadav.
Point to note: OTOH, the BJP seems to have given the baton back to upper caste leaders in key states:
The more interesting twist in the BJP’s history would come after the party acquired a simple majority in the 2014 general election and the compulsions of coalition politics disappeared. Along with moving on core ideological issues, the party also gave leadership in the nation’s two most significant states, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra, back to upper caste leaders. Yogi Adityanath is a Thakur, while the then relatively unknown individual selected in the post-2014 euphoria to lead Maharashtra was a Brahmin: Devendra Fadnavis, once Chief Minister and currently Deputy Chief Minister.
And the party will not have a convenient punching bag in an upper class/caste Rahul Gandhi—who has made it clear that he is not interested in the PM post. The handy chaiwala vs spoilt scion narrative won’t fly this time around.
Two: Back in its heydays, Congress relied on upper castes, Muslims and Dalits to win in the Hindi Belt. It first lost the Dalits to regional parties—and then ceded the upper castes to the BJP. It appears to have finally accepted their loss—thanks to Rahul Gandhi:
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 backing the caste survey, declaring that it stands for proportionate representation (an unprecedented position for a national party)... the Congress is sending a clear message to a group it has never wooed systematically.
It isn’t clear if there are any takers for this rejiggered ‘message’—but it’s an effective ‘pivot’.
Fascinating point to note: Even Uddhav Thackeray has been working to take the Shiv Sena back to its anti-Brahmin roots:
The Hindutva brand that Uddhav espouses now is, in a sense, that of his grandfather Keshav Thackeray. Hindutva for the Thackeray patriarch meant self-rule and a strike against Brahmin priesthood. Keshav was known for his staunch anti-Brahmin, lower-caste politics... Uddhav too has lately been calling out the Brahmin in the room, by hinting at the damage caused by the RSS’s Brahminism.
In fact, Keshav Thackeray—popularly known as Prabodhankar—was a close ally of BR Ambedkar back in the 1950s. Earlier this year, their two grandsons—Uddhav and Prakash Ambedkar—formally announced their decision to band together against the BJP. All of which is made more interesting by the fact that Fadnavis is Brahmin.
Three: Bihar. Nitish Kumar has long been a stalwart champion of the Extremely Backward Classes—and has a strong hold over their loyalties. That’s 36% of the state’s electorate. Now add his ally RJD’s base of Yadavs plus Muslims—which together account for 32%. That’s a pretty daunting challenge—despite the inroads made by BJP into Kumar’s EBC constituency. Bihar accounts for 40 Lok Sabha seats—of which the BJP swept 39—in alliance with Kumar. Losing a great chunk of those seats could affect its majority in the Lok Sabha.
Counting those Lok Sabha chickens…
It’s far too early to predict how the caste census will play out—and if it will have any effect on the final outcome in 2024. There are plenty of wild cards still left to play.
For example, Modi: What happens in Bihar will have a knock on effect on the battle in neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh—where BJP allies are already clamouring for a caste census. But the party’s hold on the OBC vote is far stronger thanks primarily to Modi—who is expected to mitigate any damaging caste arithmetic:
Political experts felt that the BJP would now rely on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, its most charismatic leader, to bail them out. “See Prime Minister Modi has already started speaking about his backward status. In his election rallies across Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, he has been talking of his ‘pichda (OBC)’ status and slamming the Congress for being anti-backward. This line would soon become the party line,” said Mirzapur-based political expert Rajesh Patel.
Regional parties in UP like the Samajwadi Party are also far weaker than its Bihari counterparts—and Mayawati seems determined to sit on the sidelines. FYI: Uttar Pradesh accounts for 80 Lok Sabha seats—and is necessary for any Lok Sabha victory.
Also, the Rohini Commission: The BJP can easily wrest the issue from the Opposition—and own it instead. It has already constituted a commission to look at subcategories within backward castes—and whether they are being cheated out of benefits of existing quotas. If the party implements its recommendations—and diverts more to EBCs—it will take the wind out of INDIA’s sails. After all, the Opposition can only make promises. A ruling party can deliver asap.
Hitting self-destruct: Not everyone is sold on the caste census. AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal hasn’t said very much—and Mamata Banerjee has been less than enthusiastic. Both are Brahmins—and can fray the INDIA coalition. And not many are keen on about Nitish Kumar playing lead—which will be inevitable if backward castes become the primary issue. The census could just as easily tear the coalition apart.
The bottomline: The OBC vote will be critical in a number of upcoming state elections—in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan etc. These will be the first tests of the Mandal 2.0 narrative. They will also give the BJP time to tweak its response to the challenge. To repeat a cliché: picture abhi baaki hai.
Deccan Herald and Hindustan Times are best on the history of Congress’ electoral base—and its pivot away from upper castes. The Wire, Al Jazeera and Mint explain why the census is a game changer. For more on Nitish Kumar and the dynamics in Bihar, read the Indian Express (paywall), The Wire and The Hindu. The Print and Deccan Herald argue that the BJP can easily meet the caste census challenge—and India Today offers a lengthy report toward that end. The Print looks at divisions within the Opposition—and inside the Congress party.