Navigating the way around UP caste politics is not easy for even hardened practitioners of identity politics - the reason why the Congress is understating the rather radical changes it has quietly brought about in the caste composition of its candidates for the assembly elections.
After the announcement of 323 of the 357 seats the party will contest in out of the 403 in the state, the determination to reduce the upper-caste dominance in the Congress is evident. The OBCs, SCs and Muslims have got an unprecedented share in party nominations, though still much less than their proportion in the total population. "Yes, the shift is deliberate though we still do not know how it will pay off," said a Congress functionary involved in the selection of candidates.While party general secretary Rahul Gandhi's avowed stance is opposition to identity politics, he has addressed the question of representation through a managerial approach - ensuring all sections get into the organisation. Simultaneously, the question of poverty and deprivation among the lower rungs of society has appeared as a governance challenge in Gandhi's campaign. Though he has avoided direct appeals to caste loyalties, special efforts to pull in hitherto under-represented sections are evident. "We cannot outsmart purely caste-oriented regional parties. The effort is to broadbase our support," said a party strategist.
In 2007, upper-caste candidates in the party contested 172 seats, while OBCs just 79. Dalits contested only the seats reserved for them - this time at least six Dalits are contesting from non-reserved seats. In 2012, 86 seats have already gone to OBCs out of the 323 seats announced. And after the Congress announces the remaining 34 seats, mostly in Muslim-predominant western UP, the representation of the Muslims will be well above the 2007 figure of 56.
Among the backwards, Yadavs and Kurmis have got the lion's share - 27 and 22 seats, respectively. More than 20% of the candidates have been drawn from elected leaders in local bodies. However, some known unknowns in this experiment are evident; a) Will the backwards warm up to Congress and how will the large number of Yadavs the party has fielded in Samajwadi Party strongholds perform? b) how successful will be the efforts to bring the Jats and Muslims under the same social alliance in Western UP, given the absence of warmth between the two? and c) will the upper castes accept the new reality with sobriety?