With , the chorus for a nation-wide caste census will only grow louder. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will be reluctant, since it depends a lot on the upper caste vote, though Other Backward Classes (OBCs) have become its bedrock of support in north India.
In theory, no one should oppose a census, any census, for it will give us updated figures on what the social composition of society is.
But, in theory, nobody should oppose the compilation of a National Register of Citizens too, for that too will tell us what the scale of the illegal immigration problem is. But the 'secular' parties will oppose this, by reducing the narrative to an assault of minority community citizens.
The real problem for the BJP is not the census itself, but reconciling its short-term and long-term interests.
In the short term, it could lose a part of its upper caste base if it shows great alacrity in accepting the idea of a national caste census. In the long run, all parties — and especially the BJP — will adjust to the new realities and expand the ambit of reservations.
Since the caste census will probably show that OBCs are in much larger numbers than previously assumed, the logical political trend will be towards more reservations in educational seats and jobs.
The conflict between short-term and long-term political interests is as obvious in the Congress and in the BJP.
In Karnataka, commissioned in its previous term of office because it may show a diminution of the Lingayat and Vokkaliga numbers. These two communities played a large role in ensuring a thumping win for the Congress in the assembly elections earlier this year.
But, in the long term, the Congress can ensure a larger coalition of non-Lingayat, non-Vokkaliga voters to create a viable majority. Again, it is about short-term and long-term interests.
Another leading light of the opposition alliance, in a state where politics has often revolved around class, not caste. This has been the elite political consensus, both under the Marxists and the earlier Congress regime.
A caste census would rock Mamata’s boat too in the short term. Over the longer term, she too can make the needed adjustment to overcome any caste-based deficit in her party.
The sad part of any nation-wide caste survey will be that the momentum of reservations will shift towards, first, the 69 per cent level (Tamil Nadu has already got there), and stop at nothing short of 75 per cent. Who knows if even that will be the limit.
At some point, when reservations alone will prove to be inadequate to deal with the problems of poor quality education and jobs, the needle may well move towards the extension of quotas to most private sector jobs.
Reservations with no terminal date are a bad idea, for it provides a reason for people to claim backwardness for prolonged periods even if their economic lot is better after benefiting from past reservations. But beneficiaries tend to prove to be a potent political force in any election, especially if they see a potential loss of benefits.
In another sphere, the old pension scheme (OPS) has proved to be a strong election issue with government employees, even though it is economically unsustainable.
So, political parties will offer OPS to employees in elections where a marginal tilt towards them will yield disproportionately large gains in terms of seat shares. This is what explains the Congress victory in Himachal Pradesh, and it could help them in Rajasthan too in the forthcoming elections.
Secondly, even after quotas are extended to 75 per cent, it is the creamy layer of each OBC or SC/ST (Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe) segment that will benefit more, and those left out will call for more quotas not less. It is a downward spiral that a first-past-the-post electoral democracy cannot stop.
Democracy’s ability to lead to economic profligacy will ensure two things: one, it will benefit the better off, creating more inequalities between the 'have-enough' and the 'have-less' voter segments, thus adding pressures for more and more quotas and freebies.
There is no limit to economic stupidity in such a democracy. For the BJP, the only upside is that they gained the most post-Mandal. Super-Mandalisation, which is what the caste census will create, will benefit the forces of Hindutva in the long run, for OBCs are the largest segment in Hindu society.
The BJP can survive super-Mandalisation, maybe even gain from it in the long run, but one wonders if the economy will.
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