Welcome to The India Fix by Shoaib Daniyal, a newsletter on Indian politics. We have an early edition for you this week in order to try and break down Bihar’s caste census: a possible gamechanger for Indian politics as the country heads into the the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
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In 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party won a massive victory in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The party got two thirds of the seats in the Assembly with nearly 40% of the vote. In some ways, it was, as we had written at the time, an even bigger victory than Modi’s historic Lok Sabha win in 2014. Uttar Pradesh was the heartland of Indian politics. The BJP had run a remarkable programme of social engineering to craft a massive victory, handsomely beating the results of the Indira Gandhi Congress and, in one instance, even the Nehruvian Congress in this critical state.
How had the party done it? Under Amit Shah, the BJP had crafted, for the first time in post-independent Indian history, a voting coalition of Hindus across castes. The BJP had managed to get a significant number of backward caste and even Dalit votes while retaining its core upper caste base to become, as one analyst called it, “an inclusive Hindu party”. The party did this by providing representation to backward castes within the party, talking of their issues, and maybe most importantly, positioning the Muslim as the “other” that could herd Hindus across castes into one political bloc.
This strategy proved incredibly successful in the populous Hindi belt, even giving the BJP another massive victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and cementing the saffron party’s position as the central pole of Indian politics.
After years of floundering in the face of this brilliant political strategy, on Monday, the Opposition INDIA alliance fired a major salvo to try and undercut the BJP in the Hindi belt. The state of Bihar, ruled by a coalition led by the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, released the first tranche of data from a caste census. The Other Backward Classes, a vast, heterogeneous collection of middle castes, made up nearly two-thirds of the Bihari population. In contrast, Hindu upper castes were only a tenth of the state.
In effect, what the INDIA bloc was trying to achieve was to break the BJP’s “inclusive Hindu” vote bank in the HIndi belt and build, in its place, a cross-communal “bahujan” bloc consisting of backward caste and Dalit Hindus along with Muslims. Given just how big this number is, on paper, this is a winning strategy.
But, of course, defeating the BJP will be hardly a cakewalk.
On Monday, Prime Minister Modi launched his party’s counter attack, taking up the Congress’ slogan of “jitni abadi, utna huq” – rights or resources should be proportionate to a community’s population. Though the Congress used that slogan to talk of backward caste rights, Modi turned it around to rhetorically centre Hindus as the majority. “Whose population is more?” Modi asked. “Congress must clarify this. Should Hindus take all rights? They want to divide Hindus and destroy our country.”
To further push home this Hindu-Muslim binary, Modi referred to a 2006 speech by then prime minister, Manmohan Singh where he spoke about inclusive growth taking along disadvantaged sections of society such as Dalit, adivasis and Muslims. The BJP has long used this speech as a dog whistle to accuse the Congress of “appeasing” Muslims – a key strategy when building its Hindu, cross-caste bloc.
The 1990s saw an immense backward caste and Dalit assertion in the Hindi belt. At the time, it was seen as common sense to talk of this trend as being opposed to Hindutva, which was also bursting out at the time, with the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992. The pithy Hindi phrase used to refer to this was “Mandal versus kamandal”, with the Mandal Commission that first recommended OBC quotas used as a symbol for backward caste politics and a water pot commonly carried by Hindu ascetics as one for Hindutva. Turning this on its head, Modi’s BJP has created a “Mandal and kamandal” bloc, channelling backward caste energies into Hindutva.
However, as we saw with the Mandal surge itself in the 1990s, good identity politics has not translated well into economic upliftment. The employment situation in India is dire. India under Modi has been unable to transition people from agriculture to industry. This situation naturally plays out in its most extreme form in the poor Hindi belt, which is forced to send out migrant workers to other states. Modi has till now managed this contradiction with some smart welfare populism, prioritising highly visible private goods such as cooking-gas cylinders and cash transfers for building rural homes. Of course, the band aid of welfare can only do so much if the economics pie itself is not growing.
The INDIA alliance’s solution to this is an expansion of caste quotas, the first step of which is the caste census. The idea seems to be to brandish the massive population of Indians eligible for reservations and then compare that to actual quota. In Bihar, for example, the OBC quota is 27% versus an actual OBC population of 63%. Under the Congress’ “jitni abadi, utba huq” slogan, this would mean an expansion of the OBC quota and hence a commensurate reduction in the general category seats, currently dominated by upper castes.
In law, quotas are capped at 50% as per a Supreme Court order. However, that does not mean political influence cannot play a part to try and change it. In 2022, for example, the Supreme Court held that the new economically weaker sections quota did not need to conform to the 50% cap. Moreover, Tamil Nadu has always crossed the limit and while technically the judiciary is hearing the case, it is quite clear that one should not expect a verdict soon. In effect, by not delivering a verdict on the matter, the judiciary has silently approved the Tamil Nadu exception.
Of course, like welfare itself, quotas are a stop-gap solution to the problem of economic development in the Hindi belt. The government jobs they open up employ small numbers of people and increasingly that number is dropping. However, the INDIA alliance would be hoping that these long-term problems are put aside for the moment as enough economically-distressed backward caste Hindus leave the BJP and cross over to the Opposition.