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Bihar polls: can Lalu's caste census card trump NDA?

Badri Narayan | Updated on: 19 August 2015, 20:30 IST

The election

  • On the surface, Bihar elections seem to be about Nitish Kumar\'s development plank and BJP\'s promise of change
  • But caste still dominates the state\'s polity. Who knows this better than Lalu Prasad?

The strategy

  • Lalu is demanding that the Centre released the data of the Socio-Economic Caste Census 2011
  • The data can be used by backward communities to demand a greater share of the reservation pie
  • This could be Lalu\'s way of weaning away the NDA\'s Mahadalit and OBC votes

As Bihar gears up for elections, the state's landscape is dotted by Nitish Kumar's slogan 'Badh Chala Bihar' on one hand and the BJP-led alliance's promise of 'parivartan' on the other. But scratch the surface, this discourse of 'development' and 'change' gives way to the caste-based calculations that have been a hallmark of Bihar's politics.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's recent rally in Muzaffarpur is a case in point. During his speech, he specifically invoked the caste identities of Mahadalits and Yadavs, two numerically large communities in Bihar.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar might be using hi-tech methods of canvassing, his alliance partner Lalu Prasad is playing the caste card. And he has found an interesting tool in his endeavour: caste census figures.

The use of caste based data may sound misplaced in an election centered around development, change and transformation. Why then is Lalu Prasad demanding that caste census data be made public?

Caste data and politics

In the colonial period, census had two purposes. First, it provided exact information to the colonising country, which helped them frame policies. Second, it became the basis for communities to demand more benefits from the State.

Caste was an important category in the census. The 1931 census gave birth to new administrative categories like scheduled castes. It is for this reason that the 1931 census forms the base for comparing caste data.

Caste data can help communities demand a greater share in government schemes and reservation

In independent India, government policies were based on these State-decided categories. Even commissions like the Mandal Commissions as well as many social justice organisations used these categories.

The data became the basis for caste groups demanding a share in welfare schemes and reservation. As there was no caste based enumeration after 1931, these groups have been demanding a caste census. This culminated in the Socio-Economic Caste Census of 2011.

Lalu's gameplan

One reason behind Lalu's demand could be that the data can be used to demand an increase in the quantum of reservation. This would benefit OBCs as well as Dalits.

Another reason could be that once the data is released, there could be demand for better distribution of reservation and welfare schemes. It could provide better representation for the most backward sections within OBCs and Dalits. This tendency may be seen as intra-caste competition. The mobilisation of Mahadalits is an example of this process.

In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP bagged a significant chunk of Mahadalit votes. It further strengthened its case by embracing Jitan Ram Manjhi. By raising the caste census issue, Lalu Prasad is probably trying to wean this section towards his alliance.

BJP's efforts

BJP has been playing the caste card to the hilt. Last week, party president Amit Shah proudly showcased that it was the BJP which gave India its first OBC prime minister in Narendra Modi.

He is also publicising the large number of OBCs in his team. The party is trying to accomodate the leaders of MBCs and non-Yadav OBCs at the Centre.

In such a scenario, the release of caste census data through Lalu's efforts, could set the cat among the pigeons. The RJD chief could then emerge as the main protagonist of their fight for justice.

If the Modi government doesn't release the data, he could use it to project the BJP as anti-backward.

New kind of 'poor'

Not just caste data, the SECC has other interesting aspects that could shape political faultlines in the future. For instance, a socio-economic analysis of the Indian Census data reveals that 56% of the rural populace is landless.

Most of them are agricultural labourers, labourers in search of work, or helpless migrant labourers. Even these sections could become politically important if the data is used as a tool for mobilisation. Ever the astute politician, Lalu Prasad understands this perfectly.

He realises that social and economic equations are changing, leading to the emergence of a new kind of 'poor'.

The politics of caste and social justice is going through a churn in the Bihar elections.

First published: 19 August 2015, 20:30 IST
Badri Narayan @CatchNews

The writer is a Social Historian and Cultural Anthropologist and currently Professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad