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The numbers game: why hiding caste survey data might hurt the BJP

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:16 IST

By not releasing the caste data from the Socio-Economic and Caste Census of 2011, the Narendra Modi government may have unwittingly given a cluster of opposition parties a strong rallying point, especially in poll-bound Bihar.

Parties born out of the struggle for the empowerment of deprived sections, the so called Mandal movement, such as the Samajwadi Party, the RJD and the JD(U) had fought hard, through 2010-11, to persuade the UPA government to include caste enumeration in the census. In fact, the three OBC-dominated parties had stalled Parliament for days to get their demand accepted.

Already, the three parties have announced a united front against the NDA and two of them, the RJD and the JD(U) have allied to keep the BJP from power in Bihar.

The RSS stopped the release of the data to preserve the upper castes' monopoly on Hindu society: KC Tyagi

RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav has gone on the offensive. "We will carry out a march from Gandhi Maidan to Raj Bhavan on 13 July to put pressure on the Centre and tell people about the betrayal. When the survey has been done on caste lines, why are caste figures not being divulged? Just like the BJP was opposed to the Mandal Commission, it looks opposed to revealing a caste breakup to help us understand society better economically," he said in Patna on Sunday, 5 July .

He asked why a Prime Minister who claims to be a chaiwala's son and an OBC to boot is scared of releasing the data on castes.

The NDA government, on the other hand, is on the back-foot in the wake of backlash to its land acquisition ordinance and its senior leaders' role in the Lalit Modi saga. It is, therefore, baffling that it could hand the opposition another issue to corner it.

Why has it withheld the data then?

It doesn't add up

Prof Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, said one reason could be that the census threw up a higher number of OBCs than expected, say 42-44%. Since most regional parties have a strong OBC base, the government may fear they will demand an increase in reservation.

Also, Prof Kumar pointed out, OBCs are nearly 48% of Bihar's population and since the RJD and the JD(U) have a strong following among them, they will use this issue to derive maximum electoral benefit, likely at the BJP's cost.

Hence, the BJP government's reluctance to publish the data, much to the delight of JD(U)-RJD strategists.

Indeed, Rajya Sabha MP and JD(U) spokesman K C Tyagi was quick to blame the RSS, saying the BJP's parent organisation prevented the release of the data because it wants to maintain the upper castes' monopoly on Hindu society.

Tyagi confirmed his party will make this a campaign issue in Bihar, besides raising it in the monsoon session of the Parliament.

RJD MP Jai Prakash Narayan Yadav called the move a conspiracy against the backward classes. If the government doesn't reverse its decision and release the data soon, Yadav warned, it should get ready to face the consequences in the Parliament.

Cracks appear within

Much to the BJP's chagrin, it's not just the opposition that is ranged against it. The party's ranks have several mass leaders who represent the backward classes. In fact, in 2010-11, a group of the party's OBC MPs, led by the late Gopinath Munde, had joined the campaign to pressurise the UPA government to include caste enumeration in the census.

Already, one senior OBC leader has come out against his own government's decision. Five-time MP Hukmdev Narayan Yadav told Catch he will write to the prime minister to demand publication of the data.

'May be there are more OBCs than expected, say 42-44%, and the government fears they'll seek more reservation'

Asked why the data was being withheld, Yadav, a junior minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, said some people do not want the OBCs to realise their numerical strength lest their voice is strengthened. He also said programmes for the social upliftment of the backward classes won't be effective if their actual numbers are not known.

Yadav's assertion is a clear indication that the decision has not gone done well with OBC leaders across the political spectrum.

The BJP, with an eye on the polls in Bihar, and in Uttar Pradesh two years later, recently formed, for the first time ever, a national OBC wing. The question is: can the ruling party win this game of wooing the OBCs while keeping data on them secret?

The OBC voters of Bihar will answer in a few months.

First published: 6 July 2015, 5:52 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.