New Delhi: The coordinated demand for a caste census by top Congress leaders over the past two days marked a significant change in the grand old party’s political strategy. It was the Congress-led UPA government which first conducted a Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011-12 but never released its data because of varied opinions about it within the government.
A decade after remaining out of power, Congress has warmed up to the idea of the caste census as a better metric for meaningful implementation of welfare and social security schemes. Over the past year, the party has been making positive strides towards the caste census. In the Udaipur Chintan Shivir in May 2022, its leaders supported the idea in principle but never quite took it up unequivocally in political campaigns. Even as it pondered implementing social justice-based reservations in party posts, the caste census was not debated much in the party circles.
On Monday, April 17, Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his urgent intervention in implementing the caste census. He said that having a scientific break-up of caste-wise data will help governments implement welfare and social security schemes better.
Kharge’s demand came a day after Rahul Gandhi declared the Congress’s three-point formula for the backward classes, Dalits, and Adivasis at an electoral rally in Kolar, Karnataka. Gandhi’s demands included making public the 2011 caste census, removal of the 50% cap on reservation, and a quota system proportional to the population of Dalits, OBCs, and Adivasis in India – a social equality formula first mooted by Kanshi Ram in the 1980s through his slogan “Jinki Jitni Sankhya Bhaari, Uski Utni Hissedari (A community’s share of power should be proportional to its numerical strength).”
With such a clear position on the caste census, the Congress has moved ideologically closer to the Mandal-based political parties which have been clamouring for the caste census’s implementation for over a year now. The Nitish Kumar-led government is already carrying out a census on caste lines. The Samajwadi Party and other smaller Mandal parties in Uttar Pradesh have cornered the Adityanath-led BJP government in Uttar Pradesh over the issue. Parties in the South have also shown their support for such an exercise across India.
The demand for a caste census was more vocally expressed by different opposition parties after the Narendra Modi government implemented reservation for the Economically Weaker Classes (EWS), which effectively gave a quota to the so-called “upper caste” groups. The EWS reservation was seen as an anomaly in the caste-based affirmative action policy because the criteria was poverty, and was perceived by various parties as a move to deny marginalised castes and communities their rights.
By clearly stating its support for a caste census, Congress has come a step closer towards forging an ideological unity in its efforts to unite all “like-minded” parties to take on the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. The efforts to create an opposition front are often criticised for the lack of an ideological anchor. With the Congress unequivocally espousing the demand for a caste census, the ideological dissonance between different opposition parties has reduced.
By taking up the caste census demand, the Congress has also responded to the BJP’s campaign that Rahul Gandhi’s digs at the “Modi surname” – which got him convicted and disqualified from the Lok Sabha – were an insult to all OBC communities. In fact, Gandhi hit out at the BJP directly at the Kolar rally. He said that the BJP’s accusation that he had insulted OBCs is merely political posturing before promising a caste census and proportional representation in the reservation system.
Kharge too was categorical about how a caste census would particularly be beneficial for the OBC communities. “In the absence of an updated Caste Census, I am afraid a reliable database so very essential for meaningful social justice and empowerment programmes, particularly for OBCs, is incomplete. This Census is the responsibility of the Union government,” Kharge wrote in his letter to the prime minister, demanding that a separate caste census should be undertaken along with the regular decennial Census.
BJP’s success in sidelining Mandal politics
The Modi-led BJP has been greatly successful in bringing a large section of OBCs under its fold. It has made tremendous efforts to shun its “upper caste, upper class” perception that restricted its reach earlier. It has either pitched dominant OBCs like Patels, Jats, Marathas, Yadavs against other OBC communities, or has shunted out influential leaders from the dominant OBC communities to consolidate the under-represented OBC caste groups under the Hindutva fold. The larger perception that most Mandal-based parties have only empowered a particular dominant OBC group only worked to the BJP’s advantage.
Both the Mandal parties and the Congress are now betting on the caste census to reclaim not merely their lost territories but also the social justice agenda as a whole. On one hand, the demand shows the willingness of the opposition parties to rectify their past mistakes, an admission of the fact that their parties may have favoured one OBC/Dalit group over another, but also its drive to take the secular, social democratic model of governance forward.
The electoral poles are clear at the moment. One that is attempting to bring the backward classes, Dalits and Adivasis together on the basis of social justice and equality as envisioned by Dr B.R.Ambedkar and other founding fathers of India, and the other which has made significant advances in consolidating the same groups under the Hindutva umbrella.