Bihar has launched a massive caste based survey, which is likely to usher in the second round of Mandal politics in the Hindi belt. The move is making the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) jittery. It cannot oppose it for obvious reasons, but also not support it openly for fear of antagonising its upper caste vote bank. The BJP’s dilemma is explained by the fact that it has supported the survey in Bihar, but has refused to undertake it at the national level.

On January 7, 2023 Bihar flagged off a humongous exercise of counting individuals belonging to each caste in the state. Over 5.24 lakh surveyors, mainly school teachers and other government staff, fanned out across the state to count 2.58 crore households in the first phase which will conclude on January 21, 2023. During the first phase only the households, both in rural and urban areas, will be counted.

The second phase will begin on April 1 and continue till April 30, 2023 in which the surveyors will count the number of individuals living in each household and enumerate their caste/sub caste, their socio economic condition, their literacy status, etc. This will also include collecting data from each household about those individuals who are living outside the state.

A total of 26 types of information will be collected during this phase. All this data will then be collated and digitised, and this exercise will get over by May 31, 2023. The survey will cover the state’s 2.70 crore population. The entire data will then be put forward on a public platform.

Chief minister Nitish kumar, who has been advocating such a caste census even when he was with the BJP alliance, described this exercise as a historic step which will provide the government with scientific data in order to undertake welfare measures for the truly backward people.

Even when Nitish was Chief Minister with BJP support, he had led an all-party delegation to the prime minister in 2021 putting forward the demand. Interestingly, RJD leader and now the deputy chief minister, Tejashwi Yadav, who was the leader of Opposition then, had accompanied Nitish Kumar then.

Tejashwi Yadav has also described the caste survey as a historic step. He said this was the only way to know the ground reality in Bihar. “The caste based survey will provide us a scientific database. This will help us know the financial condition of people in Bihar so that we can plan welfare schemes better for them,” he said. The Bihar Cabinet had on June 2, 2022 approved an all-party demand for a caste census in the state which was preceded by a unanimous resolution by the Assembly.

Interestingly, while the BJP in Bihar has been a vocal supporter of this initiative, it has categorically rejected the demand for any such exercise at the national level. In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on September 23, 2021, the Centre had outrightly rejected this demand saying this was “unfeasible, administratively difficult and cumbersome.”

This affidavit was in response to a writ petition filed by the Maharashtra government which demanded enumeration of caste in the 2021 census. The Maharashtra government also demanded that the raw caste data collected during the 2011 census be made public.

The Centre refused this demand as well, saying the 2011 data could not be made public because it was flawed. The Centre based its argument on the fact that the only caste Census done ever, in 1931, had enlisted 4,147 castes, but the 2011 caste data had thrown up 46 lakh different castes. The Centre has maintained that this was because no formal registration of caste has been done at the national level hence the 2011 data was not correct.

This argument by the Centre, however, is not justified because in 2016, the Census commissioner and registrar general of India told a parliamentary committee (standing committee on rural development) that 98 percent of its caste data was correct. The Census commissioner had said that out of 118 crore population surveyed, error was found in only 1.34 crore individuals. This makes it clear that the Centre deliberately does not want to indulge in such caste census at the national level.

The zealousness displayed by the RJD and JD(U) and reluctance by the BJP about a caste based census is understandable. The BJP, it may be mentioned, has been the main beneficiary of splintering of the caste-based support base of the regional parties.

According to a post-poll study done by the Centre for the Study of developing Societies (CSDS) in 2019, the BJP’s electoral success in 2014 and 2019 has been possible basically because of the OBCs support: the BJP garnered 23 percent of OBC vote in 2009 which almost doubled to 44 percent in 2019. It gained nine percent of the OBC vote from Congress and 12 percent from the regional parties.

The decline in representation of regional parties’ OBC support was in conjunction: from 69 seats in 2009, it dropped to 34 in 2019 Lok Sabha. The decline in their vote share was five percent which simply shifted to the BJP. This shift in OBC vote was made possible by the smart social engineering done by the BJP which targeted the non-Yadav, non-Kurmi OBC vote, which was finding itself marginalised in the Yadav dominated RJD and Kurmi dominated JD(U). Through various outreach programmes and welfare schemes, the BJP has managed to attract substantial support of non-Yadav and non-Kurmi OBCs.

Nitish Kumar, who has set his eyes on the national stage now, has realised that weaning away the OBC vote bank from the BJP was the only way to weaken it at the national level. This caste census, political observers say, is the launch of Mandal 2 by Nitish kumar.

How much dividend this will yield for him in 2024 is anybody’s guess, but he has definitely managed to put the BJP in a fix. Once the caste data is available, this will definitely give rise to demands for more share in power, and then demand for similar exercise in other parts of the country. If the BJP agrees, it will risk antagonising its upper caste vote bank, if it refuses, it is portrayed as anti-OBC.

Nitish Kumar, though stands to gain all the way. There are 200 castes in Bihar, of which 113 are OBC and EBC, eight are upper castes and 22 sub-castes. Bihar has 40 Lok sabha seats of which 39 were won by the BJP-JD(U) combine in 2019. If this exercise results in the BJP losing the support of even some sections of OBCs, then the BJP tally goes down.

If there is a ripple effect in other parts of the country, then 2024 will definitely be a difficult election for the BJP. It can be mentioned here that post Babri-demolition the BJP was checked by the regional parties only. It was only when the BJP managed to combine the Hindutva agenda with that of social justice in the Modi-era, that it could get electoral success. Mandal-2 could set into motion the rebound process.