The president of the Samajwadi Party believes a caste census would lead to equal opportunity and representation in politics and policymaking.
As INDIA alliance parties raise the pitch for OBC politics, Samajwadi Party president Akhilesh Yadav is confident that a social coalition of the backward classes, Dalits, and the minorities will turn the tide against the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, thereby precluding a third term for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In an interview to Frontline, the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh illustrated why the issue of reservation should not be confused with poverty alleviation, while iterating that the time for socialist politics has finally come. Excerpts.
You have welcomed the Bihar caste census and asked for it to be replicated nationwide. How is a mathematical headcount of backward communities and the question of equal representation related?
First of all, I would like to congratulate the Bihar government for coming up with a survey on castes, if not a census fully. It has been a long-standing demand of the socialist parties as well as some political parties in the south. During the Congress-led government [2010, UPA 2], the discourse on caste census attained a feverish pitch in the Lok Sabha, and on one occasion Neta ji [Mulayam Singh Yadav], Lalu Prasad Yadav, Sharad Yadav, and some leaders from the south rushed to the well of the House. The Congress was told about the common aspiration for a caste census, but it did not pay heed at the time. Later, the Congress assured us it would make the data on castes public, but that did not happen. It is nothing short of a miracle that contemporary politics is witnessing an overall approval for caste census. This is the outcome of increased awareness among the masses, who have woken up to their rights. A caste census will be a giant leap towards equal opportunity, both socially and economically, and for equal representation in politics and policymaking. It is a long road ahead, but we are moving in the right direction.
Prime Minister Modi has said that poor people should have the first right over the country’s resources as they form the biggest chunk of the population. Why should caste and not socio-economic conditions be the metric for reservation?
I recommend all those attempting to shift the focus from caste to poverty to read the preface of the Mandal Commission report. There is a chunk of people who consider themselves enlightened but still oppose caste-based upliftment programmes. When they read the preface, they will realise the root cause of poverty and discrimination. The Mandal report has clearly stated that in India poverty is linked to one’s caste. So, reservation has to be on the basis of caste, not poverty. The question of creamy layer, etc., is a separate debate. Those who are focussing on poverty are essentially shrouding the root cause of poverty, which is caste.
The Congress Working Committee has said it will lift the upper ceiling on reservation if voted to power. Are the Samajwadi Party and the INDIA bloc on the same page on that?
They [Congress] have their own agenda, they are talking about these issues now. The socialist parties have a long history of struggle for annihilating caste-based discrimination. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Ram Manohar Lohia wanted to eradicate caste. Social reformers such as Periyar and Jyotirao Phule tried to ensure equal opportunities for all and equitable distribution of resources. As far as the INDIA bloc’s position is concerned, I cannot unilaterally state it, but of course there is a political atmosphere today with more commitment to uplift the backward sections.
The problem has festered because of the lackadaisical attitude of previous governments. If they had been proactive, we would not have to still deal with it. When the Samajwadi Party was in power in Uttar Pradesh, we attempted to link welfare programmes with caste demographics. A caste census will help us assess whether the benefits of social schemes are reaching beneficiaries as per their numbers.
Now that it is a national debate, will you and the INDIA bloc parties be willing to reinstate Christians and Muslims in the list of beneficiaries?
That has been a long struggle. Look at the BJP which ended reservation even for Anglo-Indians. Clearly, the BJP will not be redressing such issues. If there is a demand from any community, it needs to be looked at and discussed.
“Those who are focussing on poverty are essentially shrouding the root cause of poverty, which is caste.”Akhilesh YadavSamajwadi Party president and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh
Your party and the INDIA bloc allies have steadfastly stood against religious majoritarianism. How do you justify caste-based majoritarianism?
Bringing the underprivileged sections into the mainstream is an old and valid issue. We are not saying we want backward castes to have a lion’s share of the country’s resources. Our campaign is for ensuring equal representation based on caste demographics, where backward communities are accorded equal status and treated fairly.
The onus of defeating the BJP in Uttar Pradesh is largely on your party. But as OBC politics warms up, it is anticipated that the BJP might subcategorise the OBCs. How do you and your allies plan to deal with that, particularly in Uttar Pradesh?
The stakes are high in Uttar Pradesh, and it is a big responsibility. The BJP performed overwhelmingly in the State in the last two Lok Sabha elections, but this time they are headed for a major setback here and Uttar Pradesh will ensure the ouster of the Modi government. Their performance has been a debacle, with every section of society dealing with economic downturn, joblessness, and inflation.
The Samajwadi Party and INDIA represent a sizeable social coalition, and we are focussing on the PDA programme, that is Pichde, Dalit, Alpasankhyak [Backward Classes, Dalits, Minorities]. We are strengthening our organisation and cadre, and a glimpse was seen in Ghosi [byelection], where we won with almost 50,000 votes. There is a groundswell of public opinion against the BJP’s divisive politics, its assault on the Constitution, and its covert bid to end reservation via privatisation. The common people are also fed up with the BJP’s relentless spending on PR while they grapple with price rise and unemployment.
Rajiv Gandhi had called the Mandal Commission report a bid to divide the country. Why should people believe in the INDIA bloc’s advocacy of OBC empowerment?
It is a miracle that parties that were traditionally opposed to backward castes are talking of espousing their cause today. I am hopeful that the desired social transition will take place.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has predicted an early Lok Sabha election. What do you think?
Though I don’t contradict Nitish Kumar’s observation, my assessment of the BJP is that they will not relinquish power for even a day.
What is your hope for 2024?
The reality of 2024 is that the BJP will have to answer many tough questions from the people. It promised to double farmers’ incomes. Show me one farmer from UP whose income has doubled. Under the BJP, wheat cultivators had to sell their produce to private companies who sell packaged flour and make more profit than the cultivators. This is because of the BJP’s commitment to capitalist interests. There is still no arrangement for procuring rice. Electricity bills are spiralling, but they did not set up a single bijli ka karkhana in the State. Despite a much hyped investment summit and defence expo, everything remains on paper. UP used to be the largest hub of MSMEs, but today government support eludes them. When it comes to education, 10,000 primary schools are staring at closure. Engineering and BCA colleges are shutting down. The medical sector is in a shambles, with photos of two dengue patients on the same bed going viral. All that this government does is brag about a trillion dollar economy.
But the BJP’s rhetoric on religion and nationalism helps it distract people from these issues.
This time it won’t be able to do that.