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Mainstream, VOL LX No 25, New Delhi, June 11, 2022

Caste Census is precursor to war of attrition between Modi and Nitish for the top job | Arun Srivastava

Saturday 11 June 2022

by Arun Srivastava

With the opposition parties yet to project their candidate who can take on directly Narendra Modi at the 2024 Lok Sabha elections for the office of the prime minister, the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has thrown his cap in the ring. An astute politician, he refrained from making a public announcement, but he made his intentions known to the political fraternity by proclaiming to implement the caste census programme in Bihar.

Modi and his mentor RSS has been heavily dependent on political agenda of Hindutva, Nitish is planning to smash this politico-religious edifice of Sangh Parivar. In the UP assembly election, RSS and BJP managed to win over a section of the Other Backward Castes and Dalits by projecting Hindutva as the only binding force. They contemplate to repeat the same strategy in the 2024 election under the leadership of Modi. This strategy of RSS has not gone unnoticed. Nitish who along with Lalu Yadav has been keeping a close watch of the RSS and Modi’s move and has been raising this issue for more than five years, has intensified his move after the UP elections.

Nitish is aware that the urban middle class of the country has been communalised to such an extent by the RSS and Modi, that it would be impossible to defeat him by simply raising the issue of economic mismanagement and growing poverty. For defeating him it is imperative that the edifice of Hindutva should be smashed. This can only be achieved only by crushing Hindutva.

It is too early to say that Narendra Modi’s game is over, but one thing is certain that through his master stroke of implementing the caste census the Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has made Modi to bend. Modi during his eight year rule has not met with such a reverse swing. This is for the first time that he has been caught in a trap by Nitish just before the wicket or speaking precisely just head of 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Modi some time back had told Nitish who headed a delegation of the opposition leaders from Bihar, that it was not possible to implement caste census. Modi’s fear was not unfounded. He knew that once he agrees to the demand, the entire edifice of the Hindutva would crash and much against his usual rhetoric of being a leader from backward castes, Teli by caste, which he himself had revealed at an election rally in Chattisgarh. Modi knows that identifying himself as the leader of a particular caste would endanger his own political existence.

No doubt Modi is finding himself in a precarious situation. He knew conceding Nitish’s demand would ultimately lead to disintegration of the Hindutva assemblage. RSS has taken much pain to present a Hindutva collage constituting of various castes, upper and backwards. Itr is not that Nitish is unaware of the predicament of Modi. This was the reason that he continues to hammer on this weak point of Modi. Which is why once the BJP managed to win the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, Nitish intensified his campaign for caste census. This was the fool proof mechanism to put Modi on floor. Delaying the implementation would have enough time to Modi for consolidating his position. Raising the issue just after the elections, when the political situation is in flux in UP would provide enough scope to Modi’s adversaries, particularly to Nitish, to pull him on his knees.

Both the leaders were keeping a spirited watch on their respective moves. Once Nitish started visiting Tejashvi’s place and cementing his fractured relations with him, Modi too launched the programme to revive the much vaunted old agenda of RSS, the cultural nationalism. Both camps were in hurry to outwit the other. Though the BJP’s national leadership kept itself away from his move, it’s Bihar leaders responded to Nitish’s call. It even directed some of its senior leaders to attend the meet.

Any move of the BJP not to attend the meet would have proved suicidal and counterproductive for BJP. A party otherwise identified as the political arm of the rich and upper caste people would have become the victim of vilification campaign of being anti-poor and backward. The BJP which has put so much of efforts to rope in the support of the Dalits and backwards would not like to commit such silly mistake. The BJP secured 22% votes of OBCs against regional parties’ 42% in the 2009 elections. But the BJP’s support base among the OBCs surged in a dramatic fashion in the next decade. The 2019 elections saw the BJP secure 42% votes of the OBCs against 27% polled by the regional parties. There is clear evidence to say that the BJP’s support base among OBCs has increased in this period during Modi’s rule. RSS strategy to entice the backwards and Dalits to the Hindutva slogan has worked. Obviously it would not like to fritter away its energy and hard work it put in to fritter.

The OBCs are estimated constitute 52 to 55% of the population in the Hindi heartland. Once the Modi government accepts the demand of undertaking a caste census, these leaders would surely launch a movement to raise the OBC quota in government jobs above the existing 27%. And if it does not accept, these parties might attack the BJP for denying the poor their share in jobs and governance.

This has been the most worrisome situation for the BJP. While it cannot accept their demand for caste census, they also not in the position to exasperate them. Raising the topic of cultural nationalism and allowing its Bihar unit to go along Nitish was the only mid-course open to the RSS and BJP.

RSS and BJP opposing the census move would have provided Nitish with the opportunity to dump his alliance with the BJP and seek the support of RJD for continuing into power. In fact the recent bonhomie between RJD leaders Tejashvi and Nitish provides enough indication that they are too keen to ahead with the formation of a new government. In this perspective the remark, at the all-party meet, of Nitsih attains importance;” since the Centre has made it clear that a nationwide caste census cannot be done, the state has decided to conduct its own caste census.”

By joining the all-party meet on caste census, the Bihar unit of the BJP has in fact saved the situation and protected the image of the party from being maligned and also being identified as anti-backward caste force. With this tactical move RSS could temporarily salvage the situation. Modi continues to project himself and his government as the champions of the Backward castes and Dalits or their entire effort to identify with the Dalits and OBCs would have gone into sewerage.

Nevertheless it appears that Modi is confident of taking the wind out of Nitish’s sail and bounce back as the true representative of the backward caste. The block level units of the RSS has been advised to establish close contact with these castes and make them realise that their interest would be saved and served in a more beneficial manner as a Hindu. They are also made to understand that Nitish was raising the issue of Mandal for his personal gains. They have been citing how Nitish changed sides during his tenure of 15 years to remain in power.

While Nitish was holding the all party meet, the state executive committee of the BJP was busy discussing the cultural nationalism at Katihar. This has been old slogan of RSS and it primarily aims at highlight the repression during the Mughal period. This provides enough indication that RSS and BJP are reluctant to bring about any change in their communal programme and would continue to practice it. Obviously this meet also implied that only for the sake of continuing in power in Bihar they have agreed to the move of Nitish. But in reality they are against this move of Nitish. It is worth noting that the era of cultural revival began in India in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the BJP to power,. According to Amit Shah this journey will take the country to heights of glory it enjoyed earlier. From the BJP, state party president Sanjay Jaiswal and Deputy Chief Minister Tarkishore Prasad attended the meeting. The RJD was represented by Leader of Opposition Tejashwi Prasad Yadav and Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Kumar Jha. AIMIM Bihar chief Akhtarul Iman too was present.

Modi and Shah are conscious of the fact any dilution in its Hindutva policy or agreeing to hold caste census at national level would ruin the electoral prospect of the BJP in 2024. In this backdrop it is important to note what Amit Shah to say; “ after overcoming numerous adversities, India’s pride, culture and innate faith is now on course to be where it was long back when it showed the way to the world.” Many invaders attacked India and its culture, and the fight against them never ended, he said, naming several kings from different regions who battled with them and worked to “preserve and conserve” Indian culture.

It is absolutely clear that through this statement Modi has thrown a major challenge to Nitish and other opposition leaders. It is for Nitish and his opposition to evolve the mechanism to check his juggernaut. Publically the Bihar BJP and Modi will not oppose the Bihar government’s move to launch the caste census, the clear intention has been to arouse the sense of Hindu nationalism and keep intact the gain of the Hindutva politics.

Bihar BJP from the beginning has been supporting Nitish in his move to launch the caste census. It has been strategic move planned by the RSS and national leadership of BJP. True enough the Bihar BJP was also part of the state’s all-party delegation that met the Prime Minister last year to press for the caste census. It had sent minister Janak Ram to represent the party.

The manner in which BJP has been playing the game it is clear that it does not want Nitish to take political advantage from this issue. Senior BJP leader and former Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi maintains that his party has always supported the idea within and outside the Assembly. The strategy of the BJP has been to keep Nitish Kumar under check by pushing the caste census idea. With the lines of social justice getting blurred among parties, especially with the Modi government introducing a quota for the economically weaker section (EWS), the Bihar BJP has been trying to blunt the JD (U) m ove. However the JD(U), believes that differences in the BJP at the state and Central levels on the issue of caste census reinforces a narrative that is likely to “expose the BJP’s idea of social justice”.

It is not that Nitish does not understand the implication of the BJP move. He is fairly aware that Modi would resort to all kind of operations to thwart his plan to implement the caste census. To outwit Modi and expose him before the 2024 lok sabha elections, he intends to complete the task. Announcing that the census will include castes and sub-castes in all religions and the state government will conduct it, he set the dead line by February 2023 to accomplish the mission and for this the government would spend a sum of Rs 500 crores. Nitish also said; “We will publish advertisements on the census so that everybody understands about it. Every single thing related to it will be put in the public domain. We will do it through social media also. All the nine parties in the Assembly would be kept informed”.

It is worth mentioning that Nitish and Lalu Yadav have been demanding a caste-based census for around a decade, arguing that it would help in finding out the population of every caste, their level of progress, and enable the formulation of development policies in a better manner. After yesterday’s meeting some intellectuals and academics confessed that if the census had been carried at that stage it would have denied Modi and RSS to make an inroad in the Hindi heartland and even foiled the attempt of RSS to communalise the society by raising the slogan of Hindutva. The backward castes and Dalits would have benefitted much during these years.

Nevertheless the party leadership has told the opposition leaders in no uncertain words that the caste census alone cannot ensure social justice, and that the BJP has taken several steps to realise its goal of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’. The BJP has also set up a national panel on the OBCs. It is interesting to watch that in order to counter Nitish and Lalu’s move the BJP has fielded a considerable number of OBC and dalit leaders as the candidates for the Rajya Sabha elections.

But Nitish is impervious to these moves of the BJP and RSS leadership. He not goes ahead with gearing the mechanism in Bihar, instead he also said that similar names of sub-castes are present across different castes and proper attention would be paid while enumerating them. “Our intention is to take the people on the path of progress, to ensure that everybody develops properly and nobody is left out. The caste-based census will reveal who are the poor,” Nitish said. The caste census conducted in 1931t had put the Backward Castes population at around 52 per cent. The data became the backbone of the reservation policy of the central and the state governments. Incidentally Mandal Commission had “duly identified OBCs among Muslims”.

Meanwhile Jamui MP and Lok Janata Party (Ram Vilas) chief Chirag Paswan said, “We mooted the idea of counting castes among Muslims and other minority groups as we have a federal structure and there are state and central lists. Unless we know the exact number of beneficiaries in a caste group, the benefits of reservation and welfare schemes will not reach them. Now that we are meeting to have our own caste census, let us count them all — castes and sub-castes, irrespective of their religion.”

The political picture prevailing in the country would how far succeed in dictating the electoral perspective would become clear by 2023. Nitish in 2005 itself had claimed; “Rajneeti mein mujhe koi bewakoof nahin bana sakta; mujhe koi jhansa nahin de sakta (No one can fool me in politics; no one can bluff me)”. Notwithstanding RSS and BJP leadership adopting offensive tactics against him, they could weed him out from the political frame of the state. He ironically has turned indispensable for BJP. Though the RSS and BJP let him become chief minister, they resorted to every tactics to let him down.

The BJP’s fear is rooted in three broad reasons: first, despite its much vaunted social engineering, the upper castes constitute the nucleus of the RSS-BJP’s power structure; secondly, the BJP has credible evidence that it will lose the 2024 polls in Bihar if OBCs and Muslims unite against and thirdly, despite staying in power for quite long now, the BJP has no one to match Nitish and now, Tejaswhi Yadav, in terms of a larger acceptance among the backward classes of the state. Even today while the RSS and BJP, especially Modi, claim to work for the uplift of the backward community, in the UP election, a state having high ratio of OBC and Dalits, the party has 43 per cent legislators coming from the upper castes. The OBCs, who make up 50% of the state’s population, have only one-third of the BJP’s MLAs among them.

Modi is so smitten with the eulogy showered on him by his sycophants and bhakts of his being the strongest and most powerful politician India ever had in its 70 years of political existence that he prefers to roam around in his make believe world taking inspiration from the political support and guideline of the RSS ignoring the basic ground realities. He has been so obsessed with the obscurantist mission of RSS of turning India into a Hindu Rashtra that he even preferred to ignore the happenings of doomsday that Hitler met with.

It is an open secret that Modi nurses the perfidious traits of an autocrat and dislikes the person who does not carry out his diktats. But this time he has been rebuffed and shown the proper place by none else but by his friend and alliance partner, Nitish Kumar. Both have been strange bed fellows, no one relies the other. But continue to maintain the façade of being a friend in public eyes.

First step of Nitish towards confronting Modi has been denial of Rajya Sabha ticket to RCP Sinha, Though Sinha has been the protégé of Nitish in 2021 to get a berth in the Union cabinet, he shifted his loyalty to Modi, but continued to represent Nitish’s JD(U). Denial of ticket to Sinha has wider implication. Nitish instead nominated Jharkhand state JD(U) president and former MLA Khiru Mahto in his place. This has been a direct rebuff to hegemony of Modi. No BJP leader had expected Nitish to go against the wishes of Modi. Being described as master stroke, Nitish has proved his political supremacy to Modi. In 2021 Nitish had insisted four ministerial berths—two cabinet ministers and other two of the ministers of state – for his party, but Sinha could restrain his greed and accepted only one berth for the JD(U) in the Modi cabinet.

It was perceived by Nitish as a move to cut down his political stature by Modi. At that time he did not join issue with Modi and simply waited for the right opportunity. The Rajya Sabha election has provided him with the right occasion to assert his identity. Nitish has grabbed this situation to present him as the leader capable to challenge Modi.

Meanwhile at the initiative of Nitish and Lalu Yadav the opposition parties across the country have decided to force the Modi government to launch nationwide caste census. RLD meeting also adopted a resolution saying “The last caste census in India was done in 1931 and all government policies are framed according to the numbers enumerated back then. Therefore, it is imperative for us to implement a caste census immediately to inform data-driven decision-making as is the case in almost all spheres of our life whether in medicine, sciences or business”,

The more the BJP and Modi government are opposing this move, the more the anti-BJP parties are forcing the Modi government. The BJP leadership is apprehensive that any such movement will give rise to Mandal and Kamandal politics and the BJP will lose its support base. With this the Hindu community will be vertically split. Thew Modi government had informed the Supreme Court in 2021 that such an exercise would not be feasible, in Bihar, which is run by the saffron party along with the JD(U).

RSS and BJP leadership is scared that if the caste census is launched in that case the Sangh would lose the support base it has prepared during the eight years of Modi Raj. It will ultimately benefit the regional parties. On his part Nitish is firm on holding the all party meeting for implementation of caste based census. He said “We will call an all-party meeting to know their views on caste-based census and have spoken to some parties to conduct the meeting. The proposal of all-party meeting will go to the State cabinet meeting and then we will start work on conducting caste-based census”.

Modi government’s submission in the Supreme Court does not prohibit the State governments from carrying out the exercise. In Bihar the BJP cannot manoeuvre the issue, It will have to go along with Nitish’s decision. Any opposition to the move is fretted with the threat of getting isolated and branded as anti-backward party.

Denial of nomination to Sinha is virtually an act of punishing him. Some senior BJP leaders confess that Modi and Shah cannot dare to antagonise Nitish and show him the door as this would amount to committing hara-kiri. These leaders view cosiness of Nitish with the RJD, his attending Iftar party at Tejashvi’s invitation, as a precursor to form a new mahagathbandhan government in Bihar. It is worth mentioning that both the parties, RJD and JD(U), have common roots in the social justice movement and are thus natural allies.

The exigency of the RJD to identify with the aspirations of the Dalits and extreme backward caste people could be underlined from its nominating a washerwoman from Biharshariff to contest the Legislative Council election. There are two primary reasons behind opposition pressing the demand for caste based survey. Of course the first is the design of the RSS and BJP to win over the SC and STon the plea of Hindus. The regional parties hold the view that Sangh was not at all sincere to the cause of this section and was exploiting them. The second is, it will also prevent the backward and dalit youths from being turned into mercenaries.

It is significant to mention that a day after Amit Shah emphasised the resolve to implement the uniform civil code, JDU national president Lallan Singh and parliamentary board chairman Upendra Kushwaha spoke out against it, saying, “A uniform civil code is not in the interest of a nation full of diverse cultures and customs.” Notwithstanding decline in percentage of votes and reduced number of MLAs, Nitish is in an enviable position. BJP can’t do without Nitish in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. In case Nitish shifts his allegiance to the RJD, the saffron party will lose the 2024 battle in Bihar. The bargaining power of Nitish deters Modi and Shah from taking to offensive measures.

Though Modi and Shah claim to have a major section of the Dalits and OBCs as their party members, the fact remains that still continue to be depend on the support of the upper caste Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars and Banias for their survival. The leaders of regional parties strongly nurse the feeling that Modi and RSS were not paying them the recognition and honour they deserve. Even the state governments run by these parties are denied their share of resources. While caste census would underscore the exact numbers of the different castes it would also reveal the exact number of the disadvantaged segments living at the bottom of the ladder. This nature of revelation would rock the RSS and BJP boat and expose them in the eyes of the poor people.

Nitish and Tejashvi are aware of the fact that RSS and BJP refusing to go along with the caste census in Bihar would expose the anti-dalit and OBC character of the BJP and mke people understand that it is a party of upper-caste people having vested interest. It is worth mentioning that the demand has gained more urgency after the BJP managed to win UP assembly election this year. The party has been desperately trying to win over the non-dominant Dalitss and non-dominant OBCs. The election results also portrayed that the BJP is trying to diversify its social base. A caste census would simply jeopardise its electoral cause.

It is wrong to construe that caste census is peripheral to governance. All the government policies and programme are framed keeping in mind the electoral relevance of the castes notwithstanding the fact that the governments strive to promote the vested interest of the capitalists, rich and upper caste people. There is no doubt the caste census would make the members of these castes more conscious of their social and economic status, the economic clout they preserve, their relevance into the electoral politics of the country and the political economy ideology they should pursue and practice. This would expose the claims of the government what it has done to educationally empower the proletariats, Dalits and OBCs.

A section of the media and academics that the parties should be more concerned of the lack of contemporary economic data. They ought to realise in a country like India economic datas are more relevant for the Dalits, obcs and proletariats than the rich and capitalist classes. The economic indices and datas underline the efforts made by a government to bring these people out of the morass of the backwardness and empower the politically and socially.

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