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Opinion: The BJP’s Stand On The Caste Census, Creamy Layer and Mandal Politics

The debate over the caste census, which is making  the rounds now across parties and assembly sessions, has created a national consensus largely in favour of conducting it.

Unlike the conventional census, which includes data on scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), a caste census shall collect socioeconomic data on the other backward castes (OBCs) or socially and educationally backward classes (i.e., castes)—something that hasn’t been done since 1931.

Despite pressures from all avenues, including its own allies, the union government remains reluctant to conduct the caste census.

Representational image. Photo credit: Ravi Kanojia, Express Archives.

There has been scholarly and journalistic critique on how a caste census shall reveal the over representation of upper castes, over and above their share in the population; and how an expanded Mandal bloc will strengthen the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) regional opponents.

However, this ongoing discourse has left a significant gap.

Why Support Reservation For OBCs, But Object To A Caste Census?

Personally, I can’t figure how the revelation of a numerically inferior bloc of forward castes would upset the ruling party.

Since the 1990s, the BJP has frequently resorted to social engineering of ethnic minorities, allied with Mandal forces, and vocally supported reservations for OBCs, to the extent that its share of OBC votes now exceeds that of brahmins and banias.

Indeed, the recent cabinet reshuffle that increased the number of OBC ministers and the ingrained Hindutva militancy of backward caste representatives who have been co-opted by the BJP, shows that OBC representation is nothing but the politics of tokenism for the ruling party.

What, however, a caste census will answer is why the BJP has seemingly risked its ideological roots in Hindutva by continuously supporting and executing OBC quotas. On closer inspection, the precise reason found is that the BJP’s move on the Mandal quota is not socially just.

It has deliberately neglected the patterns of social backwardness inside India’s largest bloc to create divides within it and dilute, not bridge, its socioeconomic gulf with the forward castes. The precedent to this conclusion lies in the measurement of the creamy layer.

No Longer Creamy

Firstly, it’s pretty basic that the alleged appropriation of opportunities by a creamy layer is not an argument against, but for the system of reservation.

An accurate identification of the creamy layer, by exempting the dominant and economically affluent castes within the OBCs from benefits, reflects a socioeconomic gap between the OBCs and the Savarna castes.

This gap is wider than what prevails without such identification—thus, the precise need for such reservations.

Conversely, a gross misidentification of the creamy layer by majorly relaxing the thresholds beyond which benefits are cut off, can dilute the real gap between the OBCs and the Savarna castes, as reserved seats shall be cornered by the socioeconomically privileged castes.

The influx of the creamy layer candidates into the quotas will uphold a perceived equivalence between the privileges of quota-holders and that of the upper castes.

Most dangerously, there would be no empirical grounds to identify this misallocation, since census data on the distribution of economic, social and cultural capital amongst the backward castes will not be available.

Internal conflicts within the OBCs would follow and the OBC reservations would be rendered unnecessary. This is the end that the BJP so pursues—diluting and eliminating the Mandal bloc while not openly resisting the OBC reservation.

Where Does The Creamy Layer Miscalculate Backwardness?

While the service rank is the exclusive standard of measuring creamy layer for candidates with parents in civil services, public sector jobs and undertakings; for candidates with parents in private sector employment, it is their parents’ gross annual income.

The present income threshold, after revision in 2017, is ₹8 lakh per annum (p.a.). The upcoming threshold negotiated between the DoPT (department of personnel and training) and the National Commission for Backward Classes, is ₹12 lakh p.a.

As the Financial Express noted, the centre is pursuing to increase the income threshold of the creamy layer by 33%, as compared to the 14% increase in the average household income between financial years 2017-2020, beyond which the pandemic-induced dip is bound to have occurred.

This move shall enable 99% of the OBCs to avail the reservations—the severity of this damage will be understood only when the difference between “who can avail” and “who avails” is located.

Even if we assume that the share of the privileged OBCs, earning within the differential zone between the preceding and the upcoming income threshold, is not substantial; logically, such a share can still saturate a 27% quota which is both inadequate and static in relation to the expanding OBC population.

A share that was estimated at 52% of the total population by the Mandal Commission in 1990. A caste census with valid enumeration of the OBC-count shall reflect the proportional amount by which the Mandal quota needs to expand.

Consequently, it will force a much-needed removal of the 50% cap on the size of reserved quotas, to meet appropriate representation levels.

However, with the cap retained and the caste census restricted, the centre’s generous gifting of autonomy to the states to create their own OBC lists is as nonsensical as claims of merit by the privileged.

What About The Bullock Capitalists?

The measurement of the income threshold excludes agricultural income or salaries for those households having members in the public sector or owning agrarian holdings.

Many of the rural middle castes are self-employed, middle-sized landholders—a group termed as “bullock capitalists” by Susanne Rudolph (1987).

Not dependent on tenancy, sharecropping, or wage labour, they share almost non-antagonistic production relations with the other agrarian classes.

They were also the main beneficiaries of the Land Ceiling and the Zamindari Abolition Acts, as well as developmental projects like the green revolution.

Their numerical supremacy and economic self-sufficiency, combined with their social identity as backward classes (castes) made them a dominant political bloc in rural India.

This implies that the exclusion of the agricultural income of this sizeable group from the measurement of the creamy layer causes the income threshold to be higher than its justified levels.

The BJP’s combination of an inflated income threshold and its resistance to the caste census is thus, largely in-sync with the Sangh’s project of a ‘brahminical samarasata‘ (harmony).

Members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh march in unison. Representational image. Photo credit: IANS.

While its para-state militias do the social job, its state-ist front strategically pursues the de jure (practices that are legally recognised, regardless of whether the practice exists in reality) redundancy of the Mandal bloc.

It is doing this by diluting the OBCs’ economic gulf with the forward castes, enabling the excesses of the creamy layer to expand the anti-reservation rhetoric among its Hindu, orthodox voter base; as well as strengthen intra-OBC conflicts in order to weaken their mobilisations.

Ultimately, through all of it, the party consistently retains a seemingly pro-reservation and caste-positive outlook to fall back on, whenever elections kick in.

Featured image, taken from Wikimedia Commons, is for representational purposes only.
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