The census is an important administrative exercise as it brings the necessary legibility of populations for reasons of governability. However, beyond policy imperatives, it also has significant political implications for electoral democracies around the world. For example, in India, enumeration has provided the mediation for political mobilisation of communities along religious and caste lines. While rallying around religion had a debilitating effect on the democratic health of the country, caste mobilisation by Dalit-Bahujans has been instrumental in the democratisation of Indian society.
Ironically, in the course of nation-building, no distinction was made between religion and caste and both of them were seen as antithetical to the project of national cohesion. This explains the erasure of caste enumeration from census exercises in Independent India. In this regard, while the Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) of 2011 was a promising move, it eventually became the victim of this erroneous understanding of nation-building.
In a polity centred around mobilising caste as the central cleavage of doing politics, it is nothing less than a scandal to not enumerate it. Seen in this way, Bihar’s caste survey is undoubtedly an extraordinary moment in Indian politics, something which potentially seeks to revitalise Bahujan politics. But any such possibility is contingent upon its politicisation and constant propaganda in its favour. Without it, any such exercise is deemed to fail in its targeted goal of changing the course of electoral politics. It is here that Bihar’s ruling coalition seems to have failed miserably.
Our successive visits to different parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the last few months have only revealed that the caste census is hardly an electoral or emotive issue on the ground. This is in a context when it seems that there is an emerging national consensus over its desirability among the Opposition parties. As a result, this extraordinary survey has turned out to be nothing more than a dull administrative activity. People are mostly clueless about its objectives and the socio-political ramifications it may have. They see it as a routine exercise which might help them in availing meagre governmental benefits such as ration, money, subsidies, etc. Apart from disaggregated anxiety and resentment among the upper castes, there is hardly any passionate opposition or support for it. What is most surprising is the indifferent and lacklustre response of the majority of the other backward classes (OBCs), the primary target group and the potential beneficiary of the survey.
One might argue that it is premature to downplay the centrality of the survey, and its electoral impact will be felt only once the data is made public. Though partially valid, for now, it seems that the ruling alliance in the state has failed in politically cashing in on the survey. The passion and urgency of Bihar’s ruling dispensation on the issue are in stark contrast to the cold response that the survey is evoking on the ground. The gap in response tells us something important about the contemporary plight of social justice politics in the country. We highlight three reasons that explain this gap.
Firstly, caste, as we see it today, is largely a result of the colonial census. Unlike Bihar’s caste survey, there were two things that made the colonial census a highly politicised and contestable issue. One, while Bihar’s survey is only limited to codification, the colonial census also attempted to rank caste in a hierarchical order. It was this obsession with ranking which gave rise to endless competing claims over status by different social groups, resulting in the mushrooming of caste associations.
Moreover, different caste groups saw the colonial census as an opportunity to concretise their demands for material incentives, such as affirmative action policies. In contrast, Bihar’s survey is being conducted in a context in which backward social groups are already enjoying reservation benefits. Political consensus on whether it might lead to an extension of reservations has remained elusive. This is one reason why different social groups have failed to generate a political stake in the survey.
Secondly, seeing the cold response that the survey has generated, one is forced to ponder whether the ‘sociology of conflict’ in Bihar now stands transformed. Much of post-Mandal politics in the state has revolved around the political axis of backwards versus forward. Has this political binary lost its political relevance? If Mandal politics was marked by rallying around larger solidarities of OBCs or Bahujan, post-Mandal politics signifies incessant fragmentation. Political allegiances now seem to be directed centrally towards one’s own caste. That is why caste-specific outfits are on the rise and larger collectivities are waning. This fragmentation of caste solidarities was partly Mandal’s own making and partly the result of BJP’s political acumen to tap into the nascent politicisation of individual caste groups.
Thirdly, it is high time that social justice parties realise that the background economic context in which the state operates has drastically changed in the last three decades of neoliberal reforms in the country. The fact that issues of reservations in jobs have been reduced to a middle-class agenda with little political currency is a concomitant result of the economic changes. The psychological desires of its constituent voters have also decisively shifted since then. It has resulted in the fashioning of a self which veers towards self-care and has resulted in the erosion of the idea of welfare centred around identity.
Considering these structural constraints, it is unlikely that there will be an easy translation of this policy gamble into immediate political dividends. Therefore, to make caste survey a politically vibrant issue, the ruling alliance in Bihar needs to do at least two things immediately: launch a massive awareness campaign in its favour and accompany it with a promising social narrative of allocating substantial material benefits to each segment of marginal caste groups.
To conclude, lower caste politics in North India is at a critical juncture. While the caste survey in Bihar aims to consolidate the backwards, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with its sub-categorisation theatrics aspires to decimate the very idea of Bahujan unity.
(Supriy Ranjan and Pankaj Kumar are PhD candidates at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal.)