Rahul Gandhi’s Caste Census Pitch Game Changer In Hindi Heartland

BJP's popular face, PM Modi, is also from a lower OBC community

Since 2014 we have seen how the Bharatiya Janata Party has consolidated its hold over the Hindi heartland. We see the BJP win every single seat in Lok Sabha elections in Rajasthan and Gujarat, for example, and that too twice in a row.

Things are better for the Congress and regional parties in state elections but only relatively. The BJP’s dominance in the Hindi heartland rests on its consolidation of the Other Backward Classes or OBCs, particularly the lower OBCs.

It helps that the BJP’s popular face, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is also from a lower OBC community. Along with dogged booth-level engagement of OBCs, the BJP has managed to consolidate what used to be a fragmented caste group. Lower OBCs, often small and fragmented, used to be the ultimate swing voters. These were the voters who would change governments, as votes like Muslims, upper castes and Dalits tend to have strong party and ideological affiliations.

For the opposition and particular the Congress to cut through the dominance of the BJP, it is essential to move the lower OBC vote. In close contests even a slight shift of this vote can shift seats from BJP to Congress.

This is why Rahul Gandhi’s pitch of a caste census and greater representation of OBCs is a game changer. You will see the impact as early as this December, in the results of the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Turning The Page

Rahul Gandhi has effectively buried any hesitation the Congress ever had about identifying itself as an OBC party. He has rightly pointed out that three out of our Congress chief ministers today are OBCs.

We see caste groups demand greater representation in almost every state. There are agitations which sometimes turn violent. Today’s OBC is empowered with smartphones and a sense of history. The 50 per cent limit for total reservations is getting a pushback from state after state.

It has hence become important to have accurate and current data about caste demography. The last official caste census was in 1931. In 2023, caste census is an idea whose time has come. Bihar has just show it is easy and possible. Rahul Gandhi has therefore caught on to the right issue at the right time.

The release of the Bihar data will make it apparent to OBC youth across India how they can benefit from caste census. It bolsters their demand for breaking the 50 per cent ceiling.

Rahul Gandhi has further attacked the BJP for limiting their OBC push to tokenism. He has pointed out that the top echelons of the bureaucracy are dominated by upper castes, and that women’s reservations in assemblies should have OBC reservations within it.

A good caste census will give us clarity not just about caste demography but also the economic status of various castes. This has further potential for both social justice and the Congress party.

Wooing OBC Youth

In the 90s the Congress was a victim of the process of Mandalisation of Indian politics. Rahul Gandhi’s caste census pitch can turn a weakness of the Congress into a strength.

Caste census data can reveal how well or how badly a community is doing. This will lead to valid and just demands to increase and decrease the quotas through sub-categorisation. In this way, the Congress can firmly ally itself with lower OBCs, who have seemed to be attached to the BJP with Fevicol ka jod.

If the Bharat Jodo Yatra consolidated the Congress party’s hold over its own core voters, the caste census pitch can bring it new votes. Even a 2-3 per cent vote shift from the BJP to Congress on this account could make electoral politics in the Hindi heartland a less one-sided affair.

The potential of Rahul Gandhi’s pitch goes beyond its contest with the BJP. Even regional parties will be worried about the Congress expanding into their vote bases.

By consistently backing caste census and greater OBC representation, Rahul Gandhi is showing the way for expanding the Congress party’s national vote-share, which has been stable at 19-20 per cent since 2014. With unemployment as the biggest concern for Indian youth, unemployed OBC youth will see new opportunities opening up for them through an increase in OBC representation. This has the potential to attract new youth votes towards the Congress – even first time voters. This is a segment where the BJP has been particularly strong with PM Modi’s appeal.

Given the BJP’s discomfort with the caste census issue, Rahul Gandhi may just have found his own ‘polarisation’ to take them on.

(Author: Naresh Arora, co-founder of DesignBoxed. Source: NDTV.com)

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