Caste census: Will the 'Bihar model' hurt BJP in 2024 Lok Sabha polls?

BJP has started with pointing out the flaws in the survey, saying it is manipulated

PTI10_04_2023_000110B JD(U) workers and supporters celebrate after the release of Bihar's caste-based census report, in Patna | PTI

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is the longest serving chief minister of Bihar, a feat managed through some astute political moves and careful crafting of new caste constituencies even when his own caste is less than three per cent of the state population. With an aim to strengthen position of his alliance, the state government published the caste data - first one since 1931 - which put the combined population of OBCs and EBCs at 63 per cent. It gives a fresh fillip to identity based-politics in the country.

In fact, the passing of the women reservation bill in Parliament and publication of caste census by Bihar, within two weeks of each other, are likely to set the narrative for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The relative ease of passing the reservation bill and growing debate around the caste census also showcase changing political scene in the country where parties are nuancing their positions. The BJP aims to reap the benefits of wooing the women as a big constituency, while the opposition looks at tackling the ruling party’s Hindutva politics with mobilisation in the name of social justice and caste in not just Bihar, but across the country. It is likely to bill the next elections as Mandal 2.0 versus Kamandal fight.

The publication of the Bihar census data indicates that the EBCs have the maximum of 36 per cent population followed by OBCs at 27.12 per cent, the Scheduled Castes constitute 19.65 per cent, while Scheduled Tribes is 1.7 per cent and the general population stands at 15.5 per cent. The Muslims constitute 17.7 per cent of the population. The OBC-EBC combined population which was believed to be over 51 per cent has jumped to 63 after the data. The JDU, RJD and Congress alliance stands to gain as they have hold over the EBC, Yadav, Muslim, and Dalit votebank, which makes it a formidable alliance as it was clear during the 2015 assembly polls when the alliance cornered 178 seats of 243.

The alliance will use the data to talk about social justice across the state to counter BJP’s claims on beneficiaries of central scheme, while making a case for more reservation for the other castes and the skewed ratio in government jobs. “Nitish Kumar has delivered what he promised. We have data on socio economic condition of people, it will show who received benefits. The country will follow the Bihar model,” JDU leader Neeraj Kumar said.

The data has sent out another subtle signal. As the Yadavs are at over 14 per cent - the largest caste group in the population - it makes Tejaswi Yadav the claimant for the top post.

The caste-wise breakup will bring out the aspirations of those castes which had gone unrepresented politically or did not have mass leaders. It will force the political parties in Bihar to look at all the castes and give out tickets based on caste population, a reality which no longer can be ignored.

The BJP aims to counter this caste narrative by focusing on the socioeconomic status of the population, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi had termed the poor as the biggest caste group. The party had supported the survey in the state but opposes it across the country as it feels it will divide the Hindu community among caste groups which will hamper the process of homogenisation of the religious community. The BJP has traditionally been seen as the party of the forward castes, which together constitute 15 per cent of the population. This includes Bhumihars at 2.89 per cent, Rajputs 3.4 per cent, Brahmins 3.66 per cent and Kayastha at 0.6 per cent, but constitute over 25 per cent in the state assembly and Lok Sabha. The state’s politics was dominated by the upper castes till Mandal changed the dynamics and Lalu Prasad Yadav became chief minister in 1990.

The BJP has started with pointing out the flaws in the survey, saying it is manipulated. The party is also putting forward its case that it has been the biggest beneficiary of the OBC community.

“There is lot of resentment among various castes in the state. Over 40 per cent of people are saying no enumerator ever approached them. It is a flawed survey. It is also manipulated survey where Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar have included many communities not included in the Mandal Commission as part of the EBC. They included several of the Muslim castes like Koliya, which has its roots in Yemen, Shershahbadi, (caste owing its origin to Sher Shah Suri’s army) and Sheikhria in the EBCs, which takes away the legitimate claims of other communities,” BJP MP and former state president Sanjay Jaiswal said.

The BJP says the survey will not harm it since it has been the biggest supporter of the OBCs. “We made an EBC deputy CM (Renu Devi). Our leader of opposition is from Nishad community. The last three state presidents including the incumbent were OBCs. Even our Prime Minister Narendra Modi belongs to the backward caste,” added Jaiswal.

In the state, 40 Lok Sabha seats are at stake. When Nitish Kumar had fought election as part of the NDA, the alliance had won 39 seats. Now, the NDA alliance has Lok Janshakti Party led by Paras Paswan and Chirag Paswan, Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha, and Upendra Kushwaha who have hold over their respective caste groups.

The state's Muslim population has sided with the RJD. In the last assembly elections, AIMIM party’s entry had hit at the grand alliance’s chances. In the new survey, over 90 per cent of the minority community has been placed in the OBC category. The BJP has been trying to woo the Pasmanda Muslims by highlighting their plight.