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Bihar: Is Nitish Kumar Under BJP Pressure to go Slow on Caste-based Census?

Political watchers say Nitish Kumar faced political compulsion to take a stand favouring the caste census following the Centre's decision not to go in for such an exercise.
caste census

Patna: Nearly six months after Chief Minister Nitish Kumar announced to hold an all-party meeting to conduct a caste-based census in Bihar, he is yet to call the much-awaited meeting. The delay in finalising the plan for a caste-based census in the state has raised eyebrows. It is widely seen as a political move not to antagonise his ruling ally, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In recent months, senior BJP leaders, including Nitish Kumar's cabinet colleagues, have publicly voiced opposition to a caste-based census in the state.

Political watchers said it was a political compulsion for Kumar to take a strong stand in favour of the census last year following the Centre's decision to not go in for such an exercise. But the BJP did not allow him to move ahead with this agenda.

According to the experts, Kumar was helpless after his political ground weakened and the BJP had been taking advantage of the situation. Kumar is under pressure from the BJP to play differently over the issue of a caste-based census. Ever since the victory of the NDA in the Bihar Assembly elections in 2020, it has been more or less clear that Nitish Kumar is set to play second fiddle to his powerful ally BJP.

Kumar, on February 14, reiterated that he has decided to hold the all-party meeting but was silent on when he would call it.

Political commentator DM Diwakar said Kumar was an expert in taking different stands for public consumption, and it was not new. By promising to call an all-party meeting on the caste-based census, he had confused people by creating an illusion, and he was well known for it.

Diwakar, former director of the A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna, said Kumar had demanded a caste-based Census out of compulsion in view of the aggressive posture of the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and others. "Is it not a fact that Nitish understands more than others that the BJP has been pursuing anti-reservation policies? But he is not opposing that for the sake of power," he said.

Diwakar recalled that Nitish Kumar had initially taken a different stand on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act but later supported it; his party Janata Dal-United (JD-U) voted in the parliament in favour of the controversial law and helped the bill to pass.

Satyanarayan Madan, a political watcher, told Newsclick that Kumar's demand to the Centre to reconsider its decision to conduct a caste-based census followed by an announcement to conduct it in the state were face-saving attempts. The BJP formally may not be against the caste-based census, but its leaders had sent a message to Kumar that the party was not in favour of it. This was enough for Kumar to put the issue in cold storage by promising to call an all-party meeting. "There is no chance that he will call an all-party meeting in the coming days. This is simple. His statements were part of his move to send a message to the public that he, too, wants a caste-based Census. In the recent past, Nitish Kumar took a different stance on some issues but ended up supporting the BJP's agenda. This will be repeated again. He has a track record of doing so in the past on other issues," Madan said.

"What is the need of an all-party meeting on the issue? The Bihar Legislative Assembly already passed a unanimous resolution for conducting a caste-based census in February 2019 and February 2020 consecutively and sent it to the Centre. Notably, the BJP and JDU had supported the resolution calling for a caste-based Census in 2020. Kumar is now playing politics as the BJP does not look too keen on it now," Madan said.

According to Madan, with the BJP as big brother in state politics, Kumar realised he had to go slow and delayed calling the meeting. "How can it take months for him to call such a meeting despite the fact that all political and administrative activities have been taking place as usual?" he asked.

Another political activist said Kumar promised to go for a caste-based census as a result of the opposition RJD's aggressive stand against the Centre's decision. "Kumar is a shrewd politician who understands the message of BJP for him to continue in a comfortable position as chief minister. Kumar is yet to call an all-party meeting due to opposition from the BJP," he said.

The opposition Mahagathbandhan included the RJD, Left parties, and Congress. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav, who is also the Leader of the Opposition in the state Assembly, on Monday questioned the delay in the meeting and asked why Kumar was afraid to call it.

Yadav last week said Kumar was not serious on the issue as he failed to call an all-party meeting for the caste-based census. "People fail to understand what is stopping him from calling the meeting despite repeatedly claiming to hold it since September 2021," he said.

Yadav said RJD chief Lalu Prasad had consistently demanded a caste-based census. Since 2015, he had been demanding that data from 2011 be made public to "ensure the empowerment of all those lagging behind in development."

The central government released the Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011 only in 2015 but still withheld the caste-based data. It said that it was only concerned with the economic data, which would help in the effective implementation of its programmes.

According to a senior JD-U leader from OBC background, the BJP was not keen and comfortable conducting a caste-based census as demanded by Kumar. In the last few months, several BJP leaders publicly opposed the caste-based census and termed the demand useless.

"Last month, Kumar himself expressed dismay over the BJP's reluctance to attend the much-awaited all-party meeting to support the conduct of a caste-based census. Kumar made it clear that all parties in Bihar, except the BJP, had made known their stance on conducting a caste based census in the state and stated that we are still awaiting a response from the BJP to decide on an all-party meeting," the JD-U leader told Newsclick on the condition of anonymity.

He admitted that differences have cropped up from time to time within the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) over conducting the caste-based census.

However, Bihar, which is known for its caste-ridden politics, Both Nitish Kumar's JD-U and Lalu Prasad Yadav's RJD have been 'pro-Mandal' and the caste-based census is an old demand of both the parties.

Nitish Kumar, who belongs to an agrarian OBC caste (Kurmi) himself, said that a caste-based census exercise should at least be conducted once. He said it would help to know the number of people belonging to different poor and marginalised castes in different regions. The last caste census was conducted in 1931 before India's independence from the British.

The BJP, which rules Bihar in alliance with Nitish Kumar's JD-U, is uncomfortable with the growing demand for a caste-based census in the state. The saffron party seems to fear that an actual count of the OBC population might prod the regional parties to demand more quotas in central government jobs and educational institutions.

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