Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar pressing ahead with the caste-based reservations in the State is not an isolated event, but part of an emerging larger political trend in the country. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi flagging Caste Census as being high on his political agenda, is indicative of a larger Opposition plan.

With Rahul Gandhi making Caste Census, with the slogan, ‘Jitni Aabaadi, Utna Haq’, as his political centrepiece, the Opposition is marching ahead on its social justice plank. Surprisingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who always wears his ‘chaiwala’ image on his sleeves and never fails to flaunt that he is from an OBC, has finally turned his back on Caste Census. The Opposition was quick to seize upon its new-found advantage.

Taking advantage of being in power, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar acted with alacrity. On November 7, the Caste Survey was tabled in the Bihar Assembly and on November 9, 2023, it approved an increase in the Reservations for the weaker sections of the society.

The Bihar Assembly gave nod to raising the reservations for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Extremely Backward Classes (EBC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC), from the existing 50 percent, following a cap imposed by the Supreme Court, to 65 percent. Only Tamil Nadu has already raised reservations to 69.5 percent.

The Mandal Commission Report favoured 27 per cent reservations for OBCs. That was when the Upper-Castes felt cheated, fearing a major chunk of seats in educational institutions and Government jobs would be lost out.

This time round, there is a commitment to give 10 percent reservations for Economically Weaker Sections among the Upper-Castes. This is expected to take away the sting from the resistance to reservations.

In fact, this is an idea evolved by P. V. Narasimha Rao in 1993, helped in building a consensus on the issue of reservations, by proposing 10 percent reservations for the Economically Weaker Sections among Upper-Castes. Thus, Rao was able to peacefully implement the Mandal Commission Report by making the first OBC appointment in the Government in 1993.

This was in sharp contrast to the ugly phase of agitation that rocked the nation in 1990, when Prime Minister V. P. Singh hastily announced his Government decision to accept the Mandal Commission Report, which was done more as a reaction to the Rath Yatra rolled out by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L. K. Advani in September, 1990, and not as a well thought-out policy decision.

Now, the trend seems to be on a step-by-step process, aimed at achieving greater good, without getting on to the wrong side of the law. The law requires a basis for arriving at a decision on reservations.

A study has already been conducted by the Kalelkar Commission set by the Government of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in 1953 and the follow up Mandal Commission set up by the Janata Party Government in 1979. Now, what is required is the latest data, which can be provided only by Caste Census. This is the reason why Rahul Gandhi is stressing on Caste Census.

Such a Caste Census was done in 2011 by the Congress-led UPA Government, but tabulation of data was time-consuming. The Congress-led UPA Government demitted office and Prime Minister Modi, who came to power in 2014, consistently refused to make the data public.

A fresh Census was due in 2021, but taking shelter behind Covid pandemic, the Modi Government did not conduct the Census at all, even after the pandemic ended. Perhaps, this has happened for the first time.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar created a flutter by tabling the Caste Census data in Bihar Assembly on November 7 and followed it up with the Assembly passing the Bill, raising reservations across the board.

The Scheduled Castes are to have 20 percent reservations, while OBCs and EBCs together are to get 43 percent reservations. The remaining 2 percent are to be reserved for STs.

With the 10 percent reservation for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among the upper castes, a fourth of Government jobs and seats in educational institutes are to be reserved.

This is based on the startling figures of poverty levels among Weaker sections, revealed by the Caste Survey.

According to the Bihar Caste Census data, over 42 per cent of families from Scheduled Castes are poor, while 42.70 per cent of families from Scheduled Tribe are poor. The data highlighted that 33.16 per cent of people from Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and 33.58 percent of people in Extremely Backward Classes are poor.

About 25 percent of people from General Category are poor. The survey results are alarming. In the fastest-growing economy, there is a large tract of the poor, which should serve as a wake-up call.

In fact, all of this has not happened suddenly, overnight. The Bihar Assembly unanimously passed a Resolution for Caste Census, twice: first on February 18, 2019 and again on February 27, 2020. On August 23, 2021, an all-party delegation, including the BJP, went to Delhi to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi to urge him to conduct a Caste Census in the country.

The Modi Government said in the Lok Sabha that as a matter of policy it has decided not to enumerate a Caste-wise Census. This provided the trigger for the Bihar Government to press ahead and go on for the Caste Survey.

In June, 2022, the Bihar Government issued Notification for conducting Caste Survey in the State on its own. Subsequently, the Bihar Government allocated Rs 500 crore from its Contingency Fund for this exercise.

Bihar is not an isolated instance. On the other hand, the Opposition seems to be working on a larger strategy to corner the ruling BJP on the issue of OBC Reservations.

This seems to be part of a larger Opposition strategy to bring focus back on to Reservations for Weaker Sections, by raising the issue of the need for fresh Caste Census. Rahul Gandhi has promised nationwide Caste Census, if the Congress comes to power at the Centre in 2024.

Clearly, Rahul Gandhi pitching for Caste Census is only to make known his intent to turn the heat on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to act on OBC Reservations.

Gandhi often quotes how the Indian Government is run by 90 top officials at the rank of Secretary to Government, along with Prime Minister Modi. Out of these 90 officials, only three belong to the OBCs and spend only five per cent of the budgetary sanctioned amount.

The Mandal Commission, which submitted its Report in 1980, pegged the OBC population at 52 percent of the population. But, Caste Census alone can provide us with exact figures of the percentage of the population, based on which the Government can draw up policies and schemes.