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Caste dynamics may shape elections in heartland states

By, Jaipur/bhopal/raipur:
Oct 12, 2023 06:19 AM IST

The demand for a caste census is an attempt by the opposition alliance to corner the BJP and side-line its Hindutva agenda.

Caste politics is heating up in the three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh ahead of elections next month in what some political experts see as the first test for the Congress’ pitch of caste census .

JD(U) workers and supporters celebrate the results of the Bihar caste survey, in Patna on October 4. (PTI)
JD(U) workers and supporters celebrate the results of the Bihar caste survey, in Patna on October 4. (PTI)

The Congress and some other members of the INDIA bloc of opposition parties see the caste census, potentially followed by proportionate reservations, as a way to combat the Bharatiya Janata Party and challenge its political dominance. These parties believe this will negate the success the BJP has had in appealing to non-dominant other backward classes (OBCs) and scheduled castes and tribes, sections of which now form a part of its voter base.

Also read: Bihar caste survey: A new strand to India’s identity politics

Although the last caste census was done in 2011, its findings were not released.

As per the OBC survey done by Chhattisgarh government in 2022, around 43.5 % of the state’s population comprises OBCs, the Madhya Pradesh Backward Classes commission has pegged state’s OBC population at 48% of the overall population and the Rajasthan backward commission estimates that 42% of the state’s population is made up of OBCs.

The governments in these states have tried to woo the OBC community.

In Madhya Pradesh, chief minister and BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan has approved nine welfare boards for OBC communities such as Kurmi, Teli and Vishwakarma; Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot has set up eight welfare boards for OBC communities such as Mehgwal and Dhanka; and the Chhattisgarh government has set four welfare boards for OBC communities. Many of these have been created in the past year.

In addition, the Rajasthan government notified a caste survey on October 7, two days before polls for five states were announced. Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has announced caste surveys in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh in the past one week, days after Rahul Gandhi termed the caste census as “progressive, historic and powerful step” for emancipation of the poor people.

All of this follows Bihar’s caste survey, conducted earlier this year, and headline results from which was released on October 2, showing that backward classes account for 63% of the state’s population.

BJP leaders on the other hand have maintained that the caste surveys can create “further divide” among castes.

Political commentator Narayan Bareth said that the demand for a caste census is an attempt by the opposition alliance to corner the BJP and side-line its Hindutva agenda. “The results in three Hindi heartland state will show whether it works or not.”

Rajasthan

In the run-up to the 2023 assembly election, almost all caste groups held mahasammelans (large meetings) as a show of strength, with more reservation and a caste census as major demands. To pacify them, Gehlot set up welfare boards for different castes and also announced a caste survey to gauge their backwardness and give them proportionate representation in reservation.

Rajasthan has 64 % reservation in government jobs and admission to educational institutions – 16% for Scheduled Castes, 12% for Scheduled Tribes, 21% for OBCs, 5% for MBCs (most backward classes) and 10% for those from the Economically Weaker Sections or EWS. There are 92 castes under the OBC category in Rajasthan including Jats, Gurjars, Muslims, Brahmins, and Rajputs.

Different caste groups have supported the CM’s call for caste census. Raja Ram Meel, president of the Rajasthan Jat Mahasabha said OBCs are the biggest chunk of the state’s population but they have not got adequate reservation. “The general category is only about 15% and they have 10 % reservation (the EWS reservation is meant only for forward classes) and OBCs are more than 50% and they have only 21% reservation because no one knows the real status. A census is required to get real data and give reservation according to that,” he said.

Claiming that the 5% reservation announced for Gurjars in 2019 improved their socio-economic indicators, Gurjar leader Himmat Singh said the caste census will show the real backwardness of their community and electoral strength. “The caste census will strengthen our case for seeking ST status.”

BJP spokesperson Laxmikant Bharadwaj said, “Gehlot and the Congress are trying to divide society. Congress was in power for 50 years in the country and Gehlot has been chief minister three times. Why was caste census not carried out then? At the fag end of his tenure, Gehlot spoke about a caste census. This shows his hypocrisy.”

Political commentator Bareth said the caste politics has become more prominent in the recent decades with caste-based organisations becoming stronger. “In elections, caste is a big factor in deciding tickets, after elections, each caste felicitates its candidates who win.”

Madhya Pradesh

In Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has projected himself as a OBC leader and the BJP not projecting him as the chief minister for November polls can have an impact, said a senior BJP functionary in Bhopal, commenting on the Congress promise of a caste survey. “I think the BJP will have to bank upon Chouhan as he is the biggest BJP OBC leader in the state,” he added.

As per 2011 census, tribals constitute 21.1% population of the state and scheduled castes, 15.6%. An official of the state’s backward classes commission said that though no OBC survey has been done, different studies estimate this segment to constitute around 48% of the state’s population.

A retired government official said that then chief minister Arjun Singh (of the Congress) initiated the process way back in 1982 to bring backward classes into the mainstream by instituting the Ramjilal Mahajan Commission. “Based on reports and feedback the commission found that the backward classes constituted about 52% of the population -- but it has always been a contentious issue.”

A second senior BJP leader said: “In Madhya Pradesh our party has always been cautious about the OBC factor. That’s why the party ensured that there was an OBC chief minister right from day one when the party defeated the Congress .”

Political analyst Dinesh Gupta said: “It is too early to say whether the Congress will benefit from the promised caste survey as the BJP has several prominent OBC leaders in the state including the CM. Now the BJP leadership may find it difficult to overlook Chouhan’s natural claim for a fifth term as the CM in case the party wins.”

Chhattisgarh

In Chhattisgarh, chief minister Bhupesh Baghel can be credited with the increased focus on OBCs. Political observers believe that the promise of a caste survey is aimed at bossting his OBC politics further. Baghel became the state’s first OBC chief minister in 2018.

Chhattisgarh is considered a tribal state but it has more OBCs than tribals. As per the state’s own data, 43.5% population is made up of OBCs and the 2011 census put 34.5% of state’s population as tribals. Political experts said that like most states in India, OBCs don’t vote in one block .

To foster his OBC politics, Baghel got two bills passed in state assembly in 2022 to increase OBC reservation from 14% to 27% and that of SC from 12% to 13% in the public employment and admissions. The 32% reservation for scheduled tribes or STs was kept unchanged. Besides, a provision of 4% reservation was also provided to Economic Weaker Section (EWS), taking the total extent of reservation in the state to 76%. The bill is pending with the Governor .

“Not getting approval from the governor shows that the BJP is anti-OBC. Their voice against caste census shows their arrogance towards deprived,” said Congress spokesperson R P Singh.

To counter the Congress, the BJP appointed Arun Sao, another OBC leader, as state party president and has given tickets to 29 OBC leaders out of total 85 of the 90 seats declared so far. In 2018, BJP gave tickets to 28 OBC leaders.

The BJP said it does not believe in OBC politics. “We have given tickets to OBC leaders on the basis of winnability. The Congress across the country is doing OBC politics to divide the people and destroy our country,” said Ajay Chandrakar, former minister and chief spokesperson of BJP.

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