For the first time in independent India’s history, the next census to be completed in 2021 will collect data on the Other Backward Classes, a vast collection of castes that make up over half the country’s population. The decision, announced by the Centre on August 31, addresses a long-standing demand to include caste in the decennial census alongside religion.

It is, however, also being seen as the latest move by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to add large sections of the Other Backward Classes to its core upper caste voter base.

Counting caste

The British rulers regularly collected census data on caste but the practice was discontinued in independent India, except when it came to counting Dalits and Adivasis.

In 1990, when the VP Singh government granted reservation to the Other Backward Classes, it effected a major change in India’s democratic polity. The Other Backward Classes acquired new power, making it difficult for political parties to ignore them. In 2011, responding to the demand for a caste census, the Manmohan Singh government did a Socioeconomic and Caste Census – separate from the regular census – which, for the first time since 1931, collected caste data. The results of that census, however, are yet to be released. Both the previous government and the current one have claimed the quality of the data is too poor to be of any use but some activists have contended that the data is being kept under wraps at the behest of upper caste interests.

It was apparently to prevent backlash from the Other Backward Classes for refusing to publish the results of the Socioeconomic and Caste Census that the BJP government decided to count them in the next census. The party also sees it as a way to woo the backward castes ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. This is not the first time the BJP has tried to attract this collection of castes after taking power in 2014. In October 2017, it set up a commission to create sub-quotas for smaller, less powerful castes in the Other Backward Classes category, purportedly to keep the dominant castes from monopolising benefits from reservation.

All this is intended to help the BJP curry favour with lower castes among the Other Backward Classes in states such as Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, in April, the BJP government in the state announced a plan to designate 17 Other Backward Classes castes as Scheduled Castes. In August, Parliament passed legislation giving constitutional backing to the National Commission for Backward Classes. Until then, the commission could only identify castes for inclusion or exclusion from the Other Backward Classes category and decide income limits for the “creamy layer”, which is excluded from reservation. Now, the commission has the powers to hear and redress grievances about matters such as reservation and violence against backwards castes.

‘A good idea’

No matter the political calculations that informed it, the decision to count the Other Backward Classes in the next census is seen largely positively by experts. “If we have reservation and schemes targeted at the Other Backward Classes, we must know who they are,” said NC Saxena, former secretary of the Planning Commission whose work analyses the role of caste in poverty alleviation. “Counting OBCs will help the government target them better and reduce corruption in matters such as caste certificates. Right now, many people, especially Muslims, are excluded from OBC benefits.”

Sonalde Desai, demographer and senior fellow at the National Council for Applied Economic Research in Delhi, agreed that counting the Other Backward Classes is a good idea and advised the government not to count all castes, including the upper castes that are currently not eligible for reservation. “Some general category castes [may well turn out to] be eligible for reservation while some OBC castes might not,” she said.

Pointing to the ongoing agitations by the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Jats in Haryana and the Patels in Gujarat demanding inclusion in the Other Backward Classes category, Desai said, “Till we count Jats, Patels and Marathas, the problems that these movements pose will not go away.”

Desai’s proposal was opposed by PS Krishnan, who was secretary in the Ministry of Welfare when reservation for the Other Backward Classes was implemented in 1990. “Detailed enquiries into the backwardness of castes has already been done by the government,” he said. “The census will not change anything. Jats, Marathas and Patels are not socially backward. Some of them might be poor but that’s different. They can be given monetary help in education but reservations are only meant to target social backwardness.”

OBCisation of politics

Saxena described how the Indian state’s view of caste has changed over the decades. “Caste was dropped in the 1951 census because it was thought that by not counting it, we could get rid of the evil of caste consciousness,” he explained. “But over the years, people realised that caste is a reality. The way people in the United Kingdom think of themselves as English, Scot, Welsh, people here think of themselves as belonging to a specific caste”.

Krishnan mentioned how the country’s dominant national parties, the Congress and the BJP, changed their mind about the Other Backward Classes reservation. “Till 1990, anything that was for the welfare of the backward castes was evaded at the Centre and in the North Indian states,” he said. “But then parties realised that they could not come to power without backward castes. And while earlier crumbs worked, post-1990 the backward castes started demanding a proper share of the loaf.”

This “OBCisation” of Indian politics is starkly visible in parties such as the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, both of which are led by the Other Backward Classes. It can also be seen in the BJP. The party’s victories in the 2014 general election and the 2016 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election were due in large part to a significant number of the Other Backward Classes castes voting for it. “The BJP is now trying to project itself as an OBC party,” said Harish Wankhade, who teaches at the Centre for Political Studies in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Wooing lower OBCs

Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, explained that the BJP is particularly targeting lower castes among the Other Backward Classes. “The OBC segment is very large, ranging from 45%-50% in every state,” he said. “In many states, upper OBCs are already polarised in favour of a regional party – Uttar Pradesh’s Yadavs for the Samajwadi Party or Karnataka’s Vokkaligas for the Janata Dal (Secular). So, the BJP is trying to woo lower OBCs who are not strongly aligned with any one party. This in itself is a huge segment. Nearly one in every four Indian voters would fall in this lower OBC segment.”

This is a calculated decision by the saffron party, Kumar said. “The BJP was for a long time a largely urban, upper caste party which meant that it had an upper limit of 25% of the nationwide vote share,” he explained. “It was only because a large number of Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis moved away from the Congress that the BJP could come to power on its own in 2014. If it is to repeat the 2014 result, the BJP will need to retain this Dalit-OBC-Adivasi vote. Otherwise it will slide to its core upper caste vote and end up with the vote share it got in 1998-1999.”