Despite caste census, empowering EBCs not an easy task

Extremely backward communities need to have their own leaders. Their fate cannot be hitched to stars of the well-off OBCs.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

As conception and conviction, the Bihar caste count—officially termed as a comprehensive caste survey or CCS—opened the doors and windows to another phase of empowerment of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The CCS’s socio-economic significance lies in its potential to bring redistributive equity to a vast swathe of the population classified as the Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs), particularly in the Hindi heartland which lies far behind the curve ascended by the social reformers and political radicals of the south who struggled hard and attained a measure of parity for the OBCs and EBCs in the education and job sectors. 

The CCS nailed down a well-kept secret that Bihar’s political parties were always privy to: that OBCs and EBCs cumulatively formed over 63 per cent of the state’s population, marking an increase of over 10 per cent from the estimates in the 1931 caste census. Together with a revised figure that put the Scheduled Caste (SC) population at 19.5 per cent (3.5 per cent more than the 2011 census count), the OBCs, EBCs and SCs overwhelmingly dominate the demography, with the upper castes or ‘savarna’ down to 15.52 per cent.

Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh—part of the cow belt—await a similar census to carry forward the corollary obtaining from the 1990 implementation of the epic Mandal Commission’s report, which paved the way for the statutory empowerment of the OBCs through reservations in education and employment in government. The execution was skewed in that reservation selectively benefitted those castes that had reached a certain measure of economic parity with the non-reserved castes thanks to the scrupulous enforcement of the land ceiling law and a vibrant cooperative movement in UP. Therefore, these groupings that primarily comprised the Yadavs, Kurmis and Lodh-Rajputs were better positioned to cream off the spin-offs of the 27 per cent OBC quota and with time, evolved into an elite class that, however, has to catch up with the confidence levels of the dominant ‘savarna’.

Therefore, the crux of the issue, wrapped in bare-bones statistics, is that in the thirty-three years after Mandal agitated the political, social and economic hierarchy of the heartland, the EBCs stayed largely out of its ambit. To this humungous population, quotidian living was as intense a struggle as that for the Dalits. Indulging in politics was as much of a luxury for them as aspiring for a higher social station was unthinkable.

While the Yadavs, Kurmis and Lodh-Rajputs could dream big and realise part of their ambitions, principally in politics, the EBCs have a long way to travel before evolving an independent political consciousness. The well-off OBCs minted a powerful line-up of leaders that included Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Kalyan Singh and their heirs. The EBCs are still in the process of seeking their leaders unless an Om Prakash Rajbhar or a Sanjay Nishad (UP) or a Mukesh Sahani (Bihar) emerge to champion and coalesce caste interests around their personas. The parties they formed still represent limited identities and are not placed to become independent entities.

Redistributive justice will become a reality only if the CCS’s inferences are less tinged by politics and shaped more by genuine intent. Just as Mandal 1.0 became a tool for its political votaries and detractors to grandstand, the temptation to tread the same path with the Bihar survey is palpable. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister, can justifiably claim that as a legatee of Karpoori Thakur, who first created a space for the OBCs, he is steering Thakur’s initiative to its logical culmination. Rajiv Ranjan Singh, Kumar’s confidant and the national president of his party, the Janata Dal (United), articulated the possible political spin-offs in a media interview, suggesting that the CCS will be a dominant theme in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. He claimed Kumar set the agenda and a similar demand will emanate from other states, turning CCS into a major issue.

For some time, reports indicated that Kumar, who convened the first meeting of the Opposition’s Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance or INDIA, felt he was not accorded the primacy he deserved. By pegging the Opposition’s blueprint to caste and the centrality of a national caste census, Kumar might well be on the way to regaining his salience in the INDIA coalition. He has the Congress on his side with Rahul Gandhi’s recent discovery of the OBCs and his attempt to position himself as their saviour. This after the Congress virtually slept through the post-Mandal era, hoping that its traditional upper caste-Muslim-Dalit axis would stand it in good stead. This coalition has unravelled.

To be noted is that while the CCS exercise is aimed towards bringing the under-empowered EBCs within the post-Mandal gamut, if leaders such as Nitish and Lalu Prasad placed themselves front and centre and spoke on behalf of the marginalised EBCs, is there any scope for fostering the next logical steps to raise and nurture an independent leadership from these communities? Will their fate be forever hitched to the stars of the well-off OBCs? Mandal 2.0 might not pan out in the way that some visionaries imagine because of the multiplicity of entrenched and conflicting interests at every level.

The usually proactive BJP was perceptibly out of whack after Patna lobbed the caste bomb. Unlike the Congress, the BJP was quick to grasp the complex dynamics set off by the Mandal panel. The party deployed the best possible counter-strategy in the circumstances. It first worked on the OBCs who were sidelined by the ascendancy of the Yadavs, such as the Kurmis and Lodh-Rajputs, and constructed a base to which other backward castes were added to raise a pyramid that helped the party shed the identification with the upper castes in people’s perception. The BJP’s pro-OBC strategy touched its apogee with the anointment of Narendra Modi, who comes from Gujarat’s backward caste Teli or oil-pressers, as the PM.

The BJP has yet to fashion a cogent response but the statements contained in Modi’s public addresses in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan indicated that the cohesion associated with the leadership’s articulation was missing. His line of attack was framed as a battle between the “poor” as a homogenous mass versus the EBCs and OBCs, which was out of tune with his recent offensive depicting the Congress as anti-backwards castes.

Since the nineties, the BJP’s success lay in its adept marriage of the two major strands of contemporary politics: Mandal and Kamandal, the latter symbolising the water pot used by ascetics as a metaphor for political Hindutva. Like the Congress, the BJP will perforce have to court and co-opt the smaller identity-based parties in the heartland to augment the scope of its social alliances. It’s a challenge but given the BJP’s history of perfecting caste equations, the task is not beyond its purview.

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