Just ahead of a Nitish Kumar-led Bihar cross-party delegation's meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi today to ask for a caste-based census, BJP leader Sushil Modi said in tweets that his party is not averse to such an exercise. His comments betrayed the ruling BJP's tightrope walk on the subject weeks after the government told parliament that it had decided not to carry out a caste-based count as a matter of policy.
"The BJP was never against caste-based census, we have also been part of resolutions passed in the legislative assembly and council in its support. The delegation that will meet PM Modi also includes a BJP representative," Sushil Modi wrote in a series of posts on Sunday.
The BJP's Janak Ram, a Bihar minister, is part of the delegation that includes opposition leader Tejashwi Yadav, Congress leader Ajeet Sharma, Left leaders and former Chief Minister and President of Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) Jitan Ram Manjhi.
"I am part of the delegation led by Nitish Kumar Ji that will meet the Prime Minister. On the issue of the caste-based census, whatever decision the Prime Minister takes should be acceptable to us," Janak Ram told news agency ANI just before the meeting this morning.
All parties in Bihar have called for a caste census, but for the BJP it is a politically tricky subject with the state agenda at odds with the national view. While the central government has long held that a caste-based assessment may deepen divides, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar says it will only help formulate better policies and benefits for neglected sections of the society.
"Caste-based census would be not just for Bihar, people in the whole country will benefit from this," Nitish Kumar said after he landed in Delhi on Sunday.
Sushil Modi, Nitish Kumar's former deputy, said in 2011, the BJP's Gopinath Munde had spoken in favour of a caste-based count in parliament. "When the then government conducted a social, economic and caste-based assessment, there were shortcomings in data. The number of communities ran into lakhs. That report was not made public because of the errors. It was not part of the Census," Mr Modi said.
The last time a caste-based count took place was in 1931, under British rule, when Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha were one entity.
"At the time, of around 1 crore people in Bihar, only people of 22 castes were counted. After 90 years, there are big differences now - economic, social, geographical and political. There are technical and practical difficulties in a caste-based census, but still, the BJP supports it in principle," Mr Modi tweeted.
The former Bihar Deputy Chief Minister's tweets were seen to defend the BJP's stand against the perception that the ruling party is cold to the idea and that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had to wait too long for an appointment with the Prime Minister on the subject. The posts are being interpreted as belated realisation that it has proved politically very costly for the BJP to "miss this bus" in the past and even now, this could easily play out to the advantage of Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav.
On July 20, in a written reply to a question in parliament, Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai had said: "The Government of India has decided as a matter of policy not to enumerate caste-wise populations other than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the census."
After Independence, leaders like BR Ambedkar had argued that a caste census would be inimical to an equitable society. Every census since 1947 has only counted Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.