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For Chhattisgarh BJP, the elephant in the room is demand for caste census


 Union Minister and BJP leader Smriti Irani during a road show ahead of the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections, at Keskal in Kondagaon district, on Nov. 5, 2023.

Union Minister and BJP leader Smriti Irani during a road show ahead of the Chhattisgarh Assembly elections, at Keskal in Kondagaon district, on Nov. 5, 2023.
| Photo Credit: PTI

Even though 12 of the 20 seats going to polls on November 7 in Chhattisgarh are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, both the ruling Congress and the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are fervently courting Other Backward Class (OBC) voters, who comprise a significant portion of the population in areas like Rajnandagon, Kabeerdham, Kanker district, Jagdalpur, Dantewada, and Bastar. This is despite many of the seats having over 50% Adivasi population. 

While the Congress is banking on the promise of a caste census, farm loan waivers, and community centres for each community, the BJP is principally relying on representation of OBCs in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, the number of OBC Chief Ministers from the party, and the fact that the PM also hails from the community. But amidst this, even BJP campaign workers at the district and constituency levels are unable to escape conversations around a caste census, with some even admitting, albeit at a personal level, that one such survey should be held and that the party leadership’s silence was not helping. 

About 150 km west of Raipur, in the lanes of Mohla block, a Tempo Traveller stood outside a small two-room Congress party office. The building was covered with posters of the party’s candidate for the Mohla-Manpur Assembly constituency  and incumbent MLA Indrashah Mandavi. Reserved for the Scheduled Tribes, the constituency was until recently part of the Rajnandgaon district. Eager party workers waited to welcome the State’s national secretary in-charge, Chandan Yadav, for a campaign meeting. 

In the meeting though, what the workers were asked to do was primarily reach out to backward classes. “Will our Sahu brothers and sisters vote for us based on loan waiver and MSP increase? Check if all different communities are happy with the community centres opened for them,” Mr. Yadav tells the workers, asking them to focus on the households in their respective villages that had not voted for the party in 2018 in a bid to “turn” them. 

In addition to this, throughout the campaign in Chhattisgarh, all senior Congress leaders – from party president Mallikarjun Kharge and Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel to Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra – have stressed on caste census on the campaign trail – asking why the BJP was opposed to it. 

But even as Home Minister Amit Shah broke his party’s silence on the caste census in a measured remark saying it was not particularly opposed to the idea, the saffron party’s workers at the ground level have been conspicuously avoiding bringing this subject up with voters even though they are unable to resist talking about it amongst themselves. 

At a swanky campaign office at the heart of Dantewada Assembly constituency, another seat reserved for STs, the BJP’s district in-charge G.D. Bairagi sits with tea after a long day in the field with his candidate Chaitram Atami.

When asked what the party’s strategy with OBC voters is, Mr. Bairagi said, “There is a significant OBC population here in Dantewada and the PM and his Cabinet are the biggest signs of what the BJP has done to uplift the OBC community.” 

Another BJP leader from Jharkhand, who was helping out with the campaign said, “The Congress keeps talking about caste census so why did it not release the caste census data when it was in power?” 

Mr. Bairagi, himself from an OBC community, however interjected, “Look, I have been a teacher all my life and I know the importance of counting population. Even we would be better off in the campaign if we knew the exact number of people from each community. This is, of course, my personal opinion,” as party workers nodded in agreement.

This opinion was echoed by functionaries at the village and block levels in constituencies like Bastar, Kanker, and Sukma as well. They told The Hindu that they thought the census should be done but suspected if the Congress could be trusted with it.

Of the 20 seats going to polls on Tuesday, the Congress has incumbent MLAs in 19. Dantewada and Rajnandgaon constituencies had voted for the BJP’s Bhima Mandavi and former CM Raman Singh respectively, but in the bypoll necessitated after Mr. Mandavi’s murder in 2019, the Congress’ Devti Karma had turned the seat, leaving Mr. Singh as the only remaining BJP MLA fighting to keep his place in this region.

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