OBC narrative fading for Cong, but farm policies likely to help | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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OBC narrative fading for Cong, but farm policies likely to help

By, Durg
Oct 25, 2023 01:15 AM IST

Voting for Chhattisgarh is scheduled to be held in a two-phased manner on November 7 and 17, and the results will be declared on December 3

The rusting board, just off the dusty, teeming Tarighat road in Patan says “Yash Saloon”. There are three chairs inside, fraying at the edges, and there are three people. One has just finished a haircut, two are in the middle of a shave, but don’t mind the interruption. On a waiting bench behind them are four Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers in crisp white shirts, orange gamchas around their necks.

Voting for Chhattisgarh is scheduled to be held in a two-phased manner on November 7 and 17. (PTI)
Voting for Chhattisgarh is scheduled to be held in a two-phased manner on November 7 and 17. (PTI)

The challenge ahead of them is difficult, the heat is beating down, and Patan after all, is the chief minister’s constituency. But just for a second, they seem to have found an opening. Dinesh Sahu is on the first chair, happy with his new trim, but otherwise animated. “For four and a half years, I have only heard Bhupesh Baghel Chhattisgarhiya, Bhupesh Baghel OBC leader. But he is a Kurmi leader, and has done nothing for the Sahus that are the biggest OBC caste,” Sahu says.

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As one BJP worker vigorously nods his head, looking to seize the moment, Sahu cuts him off quickly. “Lekin baat yeh bhi hai, ki Congress ne kisaan ko mahatv diya, unka haq diya (But it is also true that the Congress has given the farmer importance, given them their rights.)” It is between these two arguments, seemingly now pitted against each other, that the fate of Chhattisgarh’s agrarian plains, and a crucial assembly election may now rest.

With tribal populations to the north in Surguja, to the south in Bastar, and along the borders in some parts, there is a separate and crucial battlefield in the centre of Chhattisgarh; full of lush paddy fields, and some renewed conversations on caste and society. It is a region with 46 seats across six districts where the Baghel-led Congress did exceedingly well in 2018, winning 28 seats of the eventual 68 it won in a 90-member assembly. But of the 15 seats the BJP did win, 12 came from this region, a sign that it is here that the organisation is strongest.

It is therefore unsurprising that it is from this region, his home, that Baghel has framed most of his politics; of a strong regional, son of the soil, Chhattisgarhiya leader. He has walked on stilts as cameras flashed around him on the occasion of Hareli, a local festival, and stood grimacing as his arm was whipped eight times in a Govardhan Puja tradition. He is a Kurmi, and his OBC identity has been part of his political rise, used for the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh, and to rally support in Chhattisgarh. Over the past two weeks, both he and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra have assured a caste survey on the lines of Bihar. In August, Baghel wrote to PM Narendra Modi asking him to include an OBC column in the census, and in December, passed two laws that took OBC reservation in the state up to 27%, pending assent from the governor.

In the village of Kopidih, 18 kilometres away from Patan district, another group of five people are deep in discussion, sitting under the shade of a banyan tree. There are two Kurmis, one Sahu, and two Yadavs in the group. To them, this political emphasis on caste is new — and irrelevant.

One of two Yadavs, a local Congress worker is critical of his own party’s strategy.

“We should move on from this OBC, regional identity conversation. Its impact is limited. First, geographically, because even if it does, it only works in the plains. Even here, it is not really a factor. We had a Thakur chief minister(Raman Singh) for three terms and he didn’t lose because he wasn’t an OBC, just that people were tired of him. But even if some people do vote on caste, there is no unified OBC vote. Otherwise, six months after the assembly elections, why did the Congress do so poorly in the Lok Sabha elections under an OBC chief minister? We even lost Durg, where four ministers come from. In fact, if we focus on this too much, the Sahus will move away from us further,” the worker said, as the others nodded in agreement. This notion of Sahu anger is worrying for the Congress, because while there is little official data available on the caste break-up in the absence of a targeted census, both the BJP and the Congress calculations show they form the biggest chunk, around 12 to 15% of the population; followed by the Kurmis at between 6 to 9%.

There is another reason for simmering Sahu anger; a botched leadership struggle. In the wake of a sweeping Congress win in December 2018, uprooting the BJP that ruled for 15 years under Raman Singh, there were four claimants to the post of chief minister for the Congress: Baghel, TS Singhdeo, Charandas Mahant, and Tamradhwaj Sahu.

As the Congress dealt with personal ambition in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh as well, there was a nervous wait in Chhattisgarh in the days after the counting day.

Eventually, all four leaders were called to Delhi. And for a while in Pauwara, Tamradhwaj Sahu’s village in Durg, right next to Patan, there was a wave of celebration. “We got information that he would be made CM. But by the same evening, it became that it was between Baghel and Singhdeo and our tallest Sahu leader, who headed the OBC cell of the AICC, was pushed aside. Since then, he has been home minister but Baghel has controlled everything. Two months ago, they made Singhdeo deputy chief minister, and even then Sahu was ignored. Is this how an OBC party treats the tallest leader of the biggest OBC group?” asked Siddeshwar Sahu of Pauwara.

Chandrashekar Sahu, former MP and advisor to the Sahu mahasabha said, “It is true that in 2018 the Sahus turned towards the Congress which was very important in the party’s sweep of the elections. This time, it seems the Sahus are returning to the BJP fold. However, there are some mistakes in candidate selection in around six seats that could cost them (the BJP).”

But Sandeep Sahu, chairman of the Telghani Board said that the Sahus were happy, and put it down to “pro-farmer schemes.” “Secondly, several Sahu leaders were given important posts by the Congress which never happened in the BJP rule.”

Harsh Dubey, a Chhattisgarh-based political commentator said, “The Sahus are the biggest OBC chunk in the state, after which it is the Kurmis. Traditionally the Sahus were with the BJP except in 2018. Baghel is a Kurmi leader so it is likely that a majority of the Kurmis will vote for him. There are other factors, like Tamradhwaj Sahu not becoming chief minister or deputy chief minister, and the communal incident in Biranpur where a Sahu boy was killed. The BJP has sensed this and centered their campaign on the Sahus in the plains.”

Back at Yash Saloon in Patan, Dinesh Sahu continues to spell out his dilemma. As a Sahu, he wants to vote for the BJP. But as a farmer, his choice is clear.

“Just look at the difference between the BJP and the Congress on paddy,” he says. The conversation is not new, for paddy has always been a political motif in the state, perhaps the most significant issue running through the state’s 23-year history. Over his 15 years, at least for the first decade, Raman Singh was known as “chawal vaale baba” for his work on procurement, and the strengthening of the public distribution system.

But it was also rice that was the BJP’s downfall, for the party struggled to live up to promises of a paddy bonus it made before 2018, juxtaposed with the Congress promise of a loan waiver and higher rates. “The BJP would give us 1,900 per quintal, and even that they did only at the end. For five years the Congress has always given us higher and they waived loans. Right now we get around 2500 per quintal, and the government has said it will procure 20 quintals from us per acre instead of 15. The difference is clear,” Sahu says.

In a sign that with polls to this region three weeks away (the plains go to the polls in the second phase on November 17), there are signs of a Congress pivot towards agriculture. On Monday, CM Baghel announced another loan waiver for farmers in a rally in Sakti, promising more such guarantees in the future.

A senior Congress leader told HT that they were conscious that going forward, farm issues had to be front and centre of the campaign.

“We also anticipate that the BJP manifesto, that hasn’t come out yet, will say something around farmers. We are waiting for that. But when they do, our attack will be on their credibility. They didn’t do anything in 15 years, while we did in our five years. Besides, they have always argued against subsidies while the Congress believes in putting money in the hands of people,” one Congress strategist said, asking not to be named. As he gets up to leave, Dinesh Sahu shakes the hand of the four BJP workers, with a final flourish.

“If the BJP has a promise about paddy to make, I’m still listening. If they don’t, my choice will be made. At the end of the day, my home has to run, and that can only happen if I have money in the bank.”

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