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A file photo of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: AP
A file photo of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. Photo: AP

Development vs caste: déjà vu

If there is one single theme that is dominating discussions in the run-up to Bihar elections, it is caste

In the run-up to the crucial state assembly elections in Bihar, the knives are out; and this even before the Election Commission has announced the dates of the contest. If there is one single theme that is dominating discussions at the moment, it is caste.

All the political contenders are scrambling to display their respective caste credentials or their opponent’s lack of it. While the incumbent chief minister Nitish Kumar, backed by his friend-turned foe-turned-ally Lalu Prasad, is drumming up a narrative about how the union government is suppressing the data on the caste survey conducted in 2011 (the last caste census was conducted in 1931), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is appealing to the powerful Other Backward Classes (OBC) in the state by pointing out that prime minister Narendra Modi is one, too—and that a third of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh were reserved for OBCs.

In these rhetorical exchanges, amplified by the electronic media, some basic facts are being overlooked. Firstly, in the previous election to the Bihar state assembly, Kumar (along with his then ally, BJP) swept the polls on the promise of development. Second, and more importantly, is the misrepresentation of facts.

It is rather intriguing that Kumar would ignore his enviable legacy over the last two terms in delivering basic economic development to Bihar. Not only did his regime work towards restoring the local administration’s mojo, but he pushed hard on infrastructure investments as well. These actions led to Bihar logging some of the fastest growth rates in India. Together with the entitlement spending, this resulted in a spectacular fall in the level of poverty in Bihar from 54.4% in 2004-05 to 33.7% in 2011-12.

And even more confusing is that he would associate with Prasad to make half-baked claims on the status of the caste survey. Even before the BJP-led union government responded, the former Census commissioner showed up the claims for what they are worth.

In a column published by The Hindu on 15 July, M. Vijayanunni, implies that if anyone has to answer for the missing caste data it has to be the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)—Prasad was part of the government in its first tenure. According to Vijayanunni, the UPA performed a series of flip flops, which eventually undermined the sanctity and objective of the project—to ascertain the actual caste composition of the country.

Despite committing to Parliament that the caste survey would be tagged to the 2011 Census, the UPA decided against it. Instead, it announced that a caste census would be conducted by the Census commissioner of India between June to September of 2011. However, it reneged on this commitment, too and, worse, disassociated the Census commissioner from the task.

Thereafter, the UPA announced that it would be a survey of caste as well as poverty and would be undertaken by the state governments and it was christened the “Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011" (conducted during June to December 2011).

“It was clear to me (referring disassociate the Census commissioner) that this would make the entire exercise casual and perfunctory with an extremely high rate of coverage omission. This has been proved right by the way this poverty-cum-caste survey has turned out," Vijayanunni said.

The big question is: Why was the UPA so casual about the caste survey, especially since there was such a groundswell of political support? After all it is better to base affirmative action on actual data rather than unverified claims. And how come the political class did not challenge the UPA for failing to live up to its commitment to Parliament?

Part of the reason is what sociologist Gail Omvedt describes as the “three-monkeys" policy: see no caste, hear no caste, speak no caste. In a lecture delivered after the decision to conduct a caste census was made, Omvedt elaborates her point: “To a large extent it has been the abiding method by which the Indian elite has tried to ignore the issue and thus justify their own, unexamined, position within the system. It is thus only gradually, and more recently, with the relentless—and democratic—assertion by subaltern groups that caste (and in particular efforts to overcome it) has come to be admitted into legitimate political discourse."

And another reason is that politicians love to operate in grey areas. It helps them spin convenient narratives. Rarely has a political narrative intersected with empirical evidence.

This brings us back to the basic question: development vs caste. In a crunch situation, politicians, especially the likes of Prasad, will stick to their comfort zone. And the BJP is responding similarly. If this narrative holds till the elections, it does leave us with a sense of déjà vu about the abiding influence of caste.

Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@livemint.com. His Twitter handle is @capitalcalculus

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