Bihar Caste Census: Nitish Kumar’s Attempt At Mandal 2.0
The first phase of the caste-based census has begun in Bihar under the leadership of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. The "historic step" will provide scientific data for carrying out welfare schemes for weaker sections of the society, claims the Mahagathbandhan government in Bihar.
Nitish, after breaking ranks with the BJP last year, has been a strong votary of a caste-based census. He aims to find out the true Other Backward Classes population and stir the Mandal pot again, ahead of the general elections next year.
Mandal 1.0 To Tame Kamandal
In August 1990, the then Prime Minister VP Singh of Janata Dal, made a historic announcement that OBCs would get 27% reservation in jobs in central government services and public sector units on the recommendation of the Mandal Commission.
The political motive was to checkmate BJP, which was conducting a Rath Yatra led by Lal Krishna Advani demanding construction of a Ram Mandir at the then disputed Babri Masjid site.
Janata Dal and its spin-offs/subsidiaries, namely Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, and Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal United benefited hugely from this exercise, as it propelled them to power in the Hindi heartland for close to three decades.
These parties garnered a good chunk of OBC votes at the expense of Congress, including in states like Odisha (Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal) and Karnataka (Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal Secular). These parties played a key role even in national politics in the coalition era of 1989-2009.
BJP Emerges As First Choice Of OBCs In Modi Era
However, with the emergence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the national scene, BJP has emerged as the preferred choice of OBCs. The party has played the OBC card well, projecting that the PM hails from the community, and it has given maximum representation to the OBCs in the Union Cabinet.
The Janata Dal constituents have largely catered to the upper OBCs—Yadavs/Kurmis/Koeris in U.P. and Bihar; Vokkaligas in Karnataka; Jats in U.P. and Haryana. There are more than 2,600 sub-castes among OBCs and BJP has targeted the lower OBCs, which is now called as the Non-Yadav OBCs in the Hindi heartland.
The OBC support for BJP has almost doubled from 23% in 2009 Lok Sabha elections to 44% in 2019, a gain of 9% from Congress and 12% from regional parties and independents.
The BJP, over the years, has employed differentiated/targeted messaging to woo OBCs. From the highest political representation to OBCs, to binding lower OBCs through the thread of Hindutva, to social welfare programmes for the poor, it has managed to partially convert caste-based voting to class-based voting.
This has reduced the clout of ex-Janata Parivar/Dal parties at the national level. The loss of lower OBCs and a section of upper OBCs has halved the Lok Sabha tally of these parties from 69 in 2009 to 34 in 2019. They have also registered a vote share decline of 5% during this period, which has been pocketed by the BJP.
The Bihar Tangle
Nitish has flipped sides in Bihar for the second time and joined hands with friend-turned-bete noire-turned-friend again Lalu Yadav.
Nitish wants to stop the BJP juggernaut in the national elections where NDA won 31 and 39 seats out of 40 in 2014 and 2019, respectively. JD(U) won 16 seats out of the 39 in 2019 in Bihar, in an alliance with BJP.
Nitish hopes to reap the benefits of caste census and consolidate OBC votes—36% of population—in his favour. Along with Muslim-Yadav—31% of population—vote bank of Lalu, JD(U) and RJD are a formidable combination as witnessed in the 2015 state elections.
The Nitish-Lalu jodi trumped Modi-Shah duo, bagging more than three-fourth of the seats in 2015. State elections is not his immediate worry, though. He needs to retain majority of the 16 seats won by JD(U) for having his Deve Gowda moment in 2024 in case the verdict is hung.
In the Modi era, whichever party JD(U) has aligned with in state elections, goes on to win the elections. Nitish has developed a dedicated vote bank of Kurmis, lower OBCs and Mahadalits, who have been loyal to him in state elections. He is also popular among women through his schemes.
However, when it comes to national elections, where the PM candidate matters a lot, JD(U) struggled when it contested alone in 2014 winning just two seats. It won 16 seats in 2019, in alliance with the BJP, benefiting from the Modi factor. This is what is troubling Nitish.
According to a CSDS Survey, 25% of voters of BJP’s allies would not have voted for them if Modi was not their PM candidate.
The table below shows caste/community support for various parties in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. On the face of it, with JD(U) switching sides, the MGB (JDU+RJD+INC) would have been leading across all groups, except upper caste.
However, as soon as you adjust JDU’s support for the Modi factor, we see MGB trailing in all caste groups in 2019 (shown in red) except for Muslim-Yadav voters, traditional supporters of Lalu.
The lead, which BJP enjoys among OBC voters, is huge at 20% (52%-32%) and this is what Nitish hopes to cover through this caste census exercise.
BJP Avoiding A Nation-Wide Census
The BJP has categorically denied carrying out such a census at a national level, but allowed state governments to create their own OBC list. The caste census could open a pandora's box and more communities could demand inclusion in the OBC list. It could create social tensions between its core vote blocks of upper caste and OBCs.
It could lead to more reservation demand for OBCs, as many Janata Dal constituents have raised a slogan ‘Jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, uski utni hissedaari'. It could disprove government claims on upliftment of OBCs. It could anger its core vote block of Brahmin-Baniya, who is not very happy at the OBC-fication of the BJP. It could distract people from key achievements like Ram Mandir, Article 370, etc. It could also lead to a revival of ex-Janata Dal constituents.
Nitish Hopes To Kill Many Birds With One Stone
Nitish, who is at the last stage of his political career, hopes to achieve multiple objectives through this move.
He aims to puncture the BJP’s prospects in Bihar next year by consolidating the OBC vote. He wishes to create a national perception that BJP is anti-OBC. He hopes a Mandal 2.0-type fever grips the state/country and becomes the lead issue in national polls.
He wants to prevent Hindu consolidation in favour of BJP and wean away OBC votes from the saffron party. He wishes to pitch himself as a consensus prime ministerial candidate of opposition. He wants to position himself in the ranks of VP Singh and emerge as the tallest OBC leader of his times. He aims to retain power in Bihar in the 2025 state elections.
The Ram temple would be ready by Jan. 1, 2024, just three months ahead of national polls. BJP is likely to make it a big election issue, hoping to strike an emotional chord with the Hindu voters.
It is a deja vu moment for Nitish as he hopes Mandal 2.0 would prove to be second-time lucky and tame Kamandal 2.0.
Amitabh Tiwari is a political commentator, strategist, and consultant advising political parties and leaders. He was previously a corporate and investment banker.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BQ Prime or its editorial team.