Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday accused the opposition of “trying to divide the country in the name of caste”, in a sharp comment that came hours after the Bihar government released details of its controversial state-wide caste-based survey.
The Prime Minister did not refer to the survey or any specific party but, in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, he lashed out at the opposition for having failed to secure development while in power and attacked them for “playing with the feelings of the poor”.
“They played with emotions of the poor back then… and even today they are playing the same game. Earlier they divided the country in the name of caste… and today they are committing the same sin. Earlier they were guilty of corruption… and today they are even more corrupt,” he said in Gwalior.
The Prime Minister also called any attempt at “division on caste lines” a “sin”.
The PM’s comments were seen by many as a two-for-one swipe at the Bihar’s ruling Janata Dal (United), an ex-BJP ally, and the Congress, its primary opposition in Madhya Pradesh, and which has vowed to conduct a similar caste-based survey if it returns to power after elections later this year.
On Saturday Mr Gandhi – who has been vocal about the need for a caste census – said, “After coming to power, first thing we will do is to go for caste-based census to know exact number of OBCs…”
Responding to the Bihar government report today, Rahul Gandhi said on X, “… the Congress reiterates its demand that the union government conduct a national caste census at the earliest.”
“The (Congress-led) UPA government had, in fact, completed this census but its results were not published by the Modi government. Such a census is essential for providing a firmer foundation for social empowerment programmes and for deepening social justice,” Mr Gandhi’s party said today.
Pressure on the BJP to conduct a national caste census will increase after today, following the Bihar government report that said around 63 per cent of the state’s population hail from backward classes, and over 20 per cent are from Scheduled Castes or Tribes. The ‘general population’ – which includes so-called upper classes that dominated Bihar politics till the Mandal report – is about 15.5 per cent.
The report – released months before a general election in a state that has 40 parliamentary seats, 39 of which were won by the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the 2019 election – will ramp up tension as states push for similar exercises and the opposition demands the centre hold a nation-wide count.
It also suggests the opposition is likely to make this a poll issue before the 2024 election, something underlined at the INDIA opposition bloc meeting in Mumbai early last month, although the weight of that demand was affected by Bengal’s ruling Trinamool refusing to support the call.
However, state and national BJP leaders haven’t always been on the same page on this topic, with the former unable, or unwilling, to fully support or resist the move, unlike the latter.
Ex-Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi, once Nitish Kumar’s right-hand man, said it was the BJP-JDU Bihar government – before Nitish Kumar quit the alliance – that resolved to hold a caste survey.
Nitish Kumar, his deputy Tejashwi Yadav and RJD boss Lalu Prasad Yadav hailed the release of the caste-based survey report as a “watershed” moment. The Chief Minister also said he will call a meeting of all parties in the Assembly – including the Prime Minister’s BJP – to discuss the next step.
The last time a caste-based headcount was conducted was in 1931.
In 2011 the Congress-led UPA central government conducted a socio-economic caste census and, five years later, that data was published. However, data relating to castes was not, and has not since.
Bihar is the first state to have completed and published the results of such an exercise.
Karnataka conducted a caste-based survey in 2014 but did not make data public. Telangana announced one for 2021 but it was never carried out. Odisha, this year, said it too would hold a caste-based survey.