Congress leader Rahul Gandhi addresses the party workers during a public meeting in Mumbai recently. Congress can’t be expected to carry out a caste campaign unless Rahul gets obsessed with it. Image Credit: ANI

The Indian National Congress has often been criticised for vacillating on its ideology about religion: Congress is secular but doesn’t speak up for secularism. Rajiv Gandhi made Ram Mandir a political issue, Narasimha Rao looked away as the Babri Masjid was demolished, and yet Congress is secular.

Critics haven’t pointed out with similar force that the Congress party has similarly been confused and clueless about having a caste strategy.

If you look at the Bharatiya Janata Party they have a clear caste strategy: an unshakeable upper caste base and a consolidation of lower OBC (Other Backward Castes) votes. Like any good demographic strategy, the BJP is often clear about who they are wooing and, therefore, who they are not wooing. They’re usually not keen to woo dominant OBC voters, for example, the Jats and Yadavs.

The Congress party in its heyday used to have an umbrella coalition of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims in north India. In every state, it had different caste strategies. Often they had acronyms, such as “KHAM” in Gujarat (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) or “AHINDA” in Karnataka (minorities, backward classes and Dalits).

Nationally, however, the Congress party has come across as not having a caste strategy since the early ‘90s. The Mandal movement made OBC politics dominant in at least Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, displacing the Congress hegemony.

Since then the Congress party has sometimes tried to woo OBCs, sometimes tried to get back its Brahmin base. One day we’ll see a Congress-led government extend OBC quotas to central educational institutions (Arjun Singh), and another day we’ll be told that Rahul Gandhi is a “janeu-dhari” or thread-wearing Brahmin.

At the heart of their conundrum has been the OBC question. The Congress was never an OBC party, and at the top it remains dominated by the upper castes. But India has moved on, and OBC politics is now dominant.

A clear shift

Lately, however, the Congress party has adopted the demand for a “caste census” as a frontal agenda. If the Congress makes a campaign out of it, rather than just use it to corner the BJP in press conferences and parliament, then it could finally give the Congress party a caste strategy.

The Congress has four chief ministers today, of which three are OBCs. Arguably, their caste is a big reason for the success of Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan, Siddaramaiah of Karnataka and Bhupesh Baghel of Chhattisgarh.

The Congress-led UPA government did order a caste census in 2011, but it was so poorly executed that the data could never be compiled properly. The Bihar government’s recent caste census is stuck in legal wrangles. The truth is that upper castes don’t want a caste census, as the cat will come out of the bag. It could reveal that upper castes are a small minority who effectively have a 50 per cent quota in jobs and education. This is called “general”.

A good caste census can also reveal which castes are badly off and which are prospering. Since the Indian government has extensive policies of reservations and welfare based on caste, it is inexcusable that the last official caste census was in 1931. Many conversations about caste in Indian policymaking are based on estimates drawn from the 1931 data.

Sonia Gandhi
Congress Parliamentary Party Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury at the new Parliament building during the Special Session in New Delhi on September 20, 2023. Congress and other Opposition parties have begun putting their weight behind the demand for a good caste census. Image Credit: ANI

Towards Mandal 3

With the clarity of numbers, underprivileged communities might start demanding more reservations and welfare measures. The old Kanshi Ram slogan — Jiski jitni sankhya bhaari, uski utni hissedari — might return to the fore. It means your share of resources must depend on your population.

In the Modi era it has sometimes appeared that Mandal politics is dead. The BJP has successfully consolidated small, scattered, poorly organised OBC communities. Prime Minister Modi is himself from one such community.

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But a caste census could be a headache for the BJP, as it might drive a wedge between its upper caste base and the swing OBC vote. This is why the Congress and other Opposition parties have begun putting their weight behind the demand for a good caste census.

If Congress and other Opposition parties can make a campaign out of it, the issue could become a long-term gamechanger. It could become a ‘Mandal 3’ moment, placing difficult choices before the BJP. In the short-term, even for the 2024 Lok Sabha election, it could help the INDIA alliance set at least some agenda, forcing the BJP to respond. It’s usually the other way around.

Taking the message to the masses

Realistically speaking, one doesn’t expect the Congress to be able to carry out such a campaign unless Rahul Gandhi gets obsessed with it, like one of his once-in-five-year obsessions (Rafale, Bharat Jodo).

Even if they do such a campaign, converting it into OBC votes for Congress will take some booth-level organisation that Congress is not capable of. Yet the point is simply that there’s an opportunity here. Can the Congress grab it?