By indicating a higher proportion of Other Backward Castes (OBC), at 63 per cent compared with the 55 per cent that has been speculated for a long time, the Bihar caste survey has given the opposition parties, especially the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), and its coalition partner the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a strong case to demand an all-India caste census. In fact, all the parties of the INDIA bloc have broadly supported such a move. There is a belief that we may be heading for a Mandal 2.0 moment, which could have a noticeable impact on the Assembly elections in 2023 and the Lok Sabha election in 2024.
Article 340 of the Constitution allows the President to appoint a commission to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes. Exercising this power, the President appointed the Second Backward Classes Commission in 1978. B.P. Mandal was the Chair of this commission, whose other members were Dewan Mohan Lal, R.R. Bhole, Dina Bandhu Sahu (replaced by L.R. Naik), and K. Subramaniam. The commission was to actively consider the possibility of reservation in public service posts if it was found that the backward classes were not adequately represented.
The First Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1953; chaired by Kaka Kalelkar, it submitted its report in 1955. The report found four criteria to identify socially and educationally backward classes: low social position in the traditional caste hierarchy of Hindu society; lack of general educational advancement among a major section of a caste or community; inadequate or no representation in government service; and inadequate representation in trade, commerce, and industry.
Accordingly, the commission prepared a list of 2,399 backward castes or communities and suggested a range of actions for their upliftment. The most relevant of these are caste-wise enumeration of the population in the 1961 Census; relating the social backwardness of a class to its low position in the Hindu hierarchy; treating women in general as a “backward class”; and reservation of 70 per cent seats in technical and professional institutions for qualified students from backward classes.
The second of these points was the most contentious, with even the Chairman disagreeing. The government tried to work around it and find a different criterion to classify backward classes, but all attempts proved too abstract or unwieldy. As a result of the lack of unanimity, the Centre did not implement the Kalelkar report. It recorded its views in a memorandum, which also stated that the Planning Commission would take backward classes into account in formulating its plans. On August 14, 1961, the Ministry of Home Affairs asserted that backward classes were best identified by economic tests and left it to State governments to determine their own criteria for backwardness.
The Mandal Commission submitted its report in 1980. During the commission’s term, the Janata Party government, which had sanctioned its functioning, went out of power, but the Indira Gandhi government extended its tenure three times.
“The Mandal Commission noted that OBCs constituted around 52 per cent of the population, while holding only 12.5 per cent of Central government jobs.”
Based on a series of surveys and field visits, the Mandal Commission arrived at the following findings: socio-educational backwardness and poverty are a direct consequence of caste-based handicaps; OBCs constitute around 52 per cent of the population, while holding only 12.5 per cent of Central government jobs; and given the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Articles 15(4) and 16(4), according to which the total proportion of reservation should be below 50 per cent (even though the population of OBCs was above 50 per cent), the Mandal Commission recommended a reservation of 27 per cent for OBCs in Union government services, in both Central and State public sector undertakings, state-funded educational institutions, and so on.
The Indira Gandhi government and the subsequent Rajiv Gandhi government kept the report on hold. When the Janata Dal’s V.P. Singh came to power in 1989, as part of the National Front, his government accepted the commission’s recommendations and declared that 27 per cent of all vacancies in Central government jobs would be reserved for people from the socially and educationally backward classes.
Arguments against Mandal
In a debate in the Lok Sabha, Rajiv Gandhi argued strongly against the way in which the National Front government had implemented the recommendations. His argument was that reservation was not enough to uplift the socially and educationally challenged classes and that changes were needed in the existing educational and economic systems. His second argument was that extending reservation like this would only serve those who were already in positions of privilege. Third, he argued that the limitations of the Kalelkar Commission (especially the lack of an objective criteria to determine these classes) extended to the Mandal Commission as well.
He stated: “… three important sociologists were involved with the Mandal Commission, Prof. B.K. Roy Burman, Prof. Srinivas, and Prof. Jogendra Singh…. But reading the newspapers recently, I found that they have declined the honour and they have clearly said that they were denied any real opportunity to participate in the findings…. The task of this team was solely to draw up a plan of studies—not to do the studies only but to draw up a plan of studies. They did not do the studies. This group was never consulted again. Then, the Srinivas Panel did meet only for five days. So, the research team met for three days, the Srinivas Panel met for five days.” (Proceedings of the Lok Sabha, September 6, 1990).
Rajiv Gandhi further pointed out methodological faults with the survey, arguing that the sample size was too small. Because the report stated that most people appearing before the commission belonged to the OBCs, he argued that the information was not unbiased. Lastly, he argued that making caste the exclusive criteria for backwardness was against three Supreme Court judgments and apparently against the view of the commission itself (which, according to Rajiv Gandhi, said that caste cannot be the only factor).
Despite Rajiv Gandhi’s objections, the report was implemented and provided OBCs 27 per cent reservation in Central government jobs and educational institutions. It has since been in place; from time to time, though, there have been demands from various castes in different States, such as Jats in Haryana, Marathas in Maharashtra, and Patels in Gujarat, demanding inclusion in the OBC list in order to avail the benefits of reservation.
- The release of Bihar’s recent caste survey, which reveals a higher proportion of Other Backward Castes (OBC) at 63 percent compared to long-held speculations of 55% , has rekindled the demand for an all-India caste census.
- This development has provided opposition parties, particularly the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a strong case to push for this census, with potential implications for the 2023 Assembly elections and the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
- As the nation revisits the legacy of the Mandal Commission, the political landscape seems poised for significant changes, with the BJP, which has been successful in courting OBC voters, facing a shifting terrain.
When the Maharashtra government extended reservation to the Marathas, it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2021 on the grounds that it took the reservation in the State beyond the 50 per cent limit. Besides, the 102nd Amendment took away the power of States to identify backward classes, with only the President having the power to notify any list that identifies backward classes and Parliament having the power to amend it. The 102nd Amendment was upheld, and it gave constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC).
This was reversed by the 127th Amendment that stated that only the President could notify backward classes for the purposes of the Central government, thereby enabling States and Union Territories to prepare their own lists of backward classes.
In a parallel development, the 103rd Amendment provided a 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections (EWS) from the general category (dominant caste Hindus and religious minorities). This was done by changing Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution and adding a clause that extended the powers of States to make reservation for people from the EWS categories. The EWS were supposed to be “… notified by the state from time to time on the basis of family income and other indicators of economic disadvantage”.
Extending a 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections took reservation beyond the Supreme Court ceiling of 50 per cent, and this was challenged in the Supreme Court. In 2022, a Supreme Court Constitution Bench ruled that the amendment was in line with the Basic Structure (3-2 split; the Chief Justice of India was in dissent).
Relevance of the 127th Amendment
The 127th amendment becomes relevant in light of the caste survey conducted and released by the Bihar government. It was one of Nitish Kumar’s and the JD(U)’s main political planks since 2019, and it was based on the fact that the 127th Amendment re-empowered State governments to create lists of backward castes. Arguing that it needed information to make such lists, the Bihar government embarked on a caste survey. In fact, the Kalelkar Commission had also recommended caste-based enumeration in the 1961 Census.
The Bihar survey was challenged in the Supreme Court twice, first in January 2023 when the petitioners filed a PIL petition arguing that only the Centre had the power to undertake a census. The Supreme Court dismissed it, calling it a “publicity interest litigation”. The second set of petitions are currently sub judice, but the court has refused to stay the release of the census data. The court said it could not stop the government from taking policy decisions, including any that proceeded from this survey.
The survey’s results show that Extremely Backward Classes (EBCs) form 36 per cent of Bihar’s population, followed by Other Backward Classes at 27.13 per cent, which makes up a total of 63.13 per cent. This paves the way for Bihar to introduce more reservation, more so since the 50 per cent limit has already been eroded by the 103rd Amendment. This could help the JD(U) and the RJD make further gains among OBC voters, which may hurt the BJP, which has converted to its side the most number of OBC voters across north India.
“Data from the Lokniti-CSDS surveys point to the BJP’s massive dependence upon the OBC support base to emerge as a dominant political force.”
Data from the Lokniti-CSDS surveys point to the BJP’s massive dependence upon the OBC support base to emerge as a dominant political force. This is not surprising given the size of the OBC population in many States. The party has worked hard, giving OBC leaders representation on party platforms as well as proposing them as candidates for elections, especially those from the lower OBC castes.
This vote base is crucial for the BJP if the party hopes to remain a dominant political force. While a decline in OBC support will not result in the BJP losing badly, it will certainly not be able to maintain the dominance it has today.
BJP on the back foot
The caste survey has thus put the BJP on a slight back foot since regional parties are expected to play politics around these numbers and press for an all-India survey. This could give regional parties some attention from voters and could be a matter of concern for the BJP.
Between 2009 and 2019, the BJP almost doubled its support base. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the BJP polled 18.6 per cent of the votes, which climbed to 37.6 per cent in 2019, largely because it managed to garner support among Dalits, Adivasis, and the OBCs, besides retaining its core base among the dominant castes. More importantly, the BJP managed to strategically attract the numerically larger lower castes among the OBCs. This expansion has been at the cost of both the Congress and the regional parties, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Between 1996 and 2009, OBC votes were more or less equally divided between the Congress and the BJP. The dominant regional parties used to get a larger share of OBC votes, as they were the core support base of parties like the RJD, the JD(U), and the Rashtriya Lok Samta Party in Bihar and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh. But the 2014 Lok Sabha election saw a shift in OBC voters towards the BJP, a trend that continued and even accelerated in the 2019 election. Findings from the Lokniti-CSDS survey indicate that 44 per cent of OBCs voted for the BJP in 2019, up from 34 per cent in 2014.
The numbers also indicate that the BJP got 40 per cent of the votes from the upper OBCs, but 50 per cent votes from the lower OBCs. This is true of the Congress as well, which gets marginally more support from the lower OBCs compared with the upper OBCs. This is largely because the upper OBCs are more sharply polarised in favour of regional parties.
These Lokniti-CSDS findings extend to Bihar as well, where the BJP alliance got 75 per cent of the votes from among the lower OBCs (referred to as EBCs in Bihar) and 42 per cent from the upper OBCs. Although the RJD and the JD(U) get votes from all the OBC communities, they are more popular, relatively speaking, among the upper OBCs than among the lower OBCs. It is important, however, to remember that the BJP is also trying hard to send out a message that it cares for the OBCs more than the regional parties do. The party was quick to cite the number of OBC MPs it has in Parliament, across State Assemblies, and as Cabinet Ministers. The BJP wants to convey the message that it has given sizeable representation to the OBCs and has not ignored them.
Also, to counter the opposition’s demand for representation in proportion to population, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a recent rally tried to build a counternarrative that it was the poor who are numerically large in India and it is they who need representation. Equally, one cannot forget that by championing the cause of one caste or group of castes, one could ignore other castes, resulting in countermobilisation.
There is a possibility of the caste census gaining some momentum in the coming months, but one doubts this will be Mandal 2.0. Voting patterns indicate that the OBCs are divided between lower OBCs and upper OBCs, which makes their electoral impact less effective. The 2024 election is still a few months away and new issues might surface that push the issue of caste to the back burner again.
Sanjay Kumar is a Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Aadyot Prakash is a student at St. Stephens College, University of Delhi, and a researcher with Lokniti, a CSDS programme. The views expressed here are personal.