Sources said at recent meeting, BJP OBC leaders were told to assess the impact of the Oppn campaign’s and the demand for a caste count at the state level
On November 2, while addressing the media in poll-bound Chhattisgarh, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said: “The BJP has never opposed the caste census, but decisions have to be taken after careful thought.”
Hours earlier, he had met top OBC leaders from at least 10 states in Delhi, in talks that went on till midnight, to discuss strategies to keep the BJP’s support base among the communities intact. Those present included Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Maharashtra Deputy CM Devendra Fadnavis.
🔴 On October 28, the BJP appointed Nayab Singh Saini, an OBC leader, as its Haryana president. Saini replaced Om Prakash Dhankar, who belongs to the influential Jat community.
🔴 On October 27, Shah announced in Telangana that the BJP would make a leader from the backward classes the chief minister if elected to power in the state. In an interview to The Indian Express, its former Telangana president Bandi Sanjay Kumar said the BJP had told all its OBC leaders in the state to prepare to fight the November 30 Assembly polls.
AS THE countdown begins for the next Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has started taking steps to consolidate its hold on OBC votes, notwithstanding its public stand that it is not worried about the Opposition’s combined demand for a caste census.
Shah’s statement was a shift from the BJP’s stance on the caste census issue, with the party careful about not committing itself one way or the other. This was despite its own allies with OBC vote bases openly proclaiming support for a caste census. Such a count is expected to, above all, put OBC numbers at much higher than the share of the reservation they are currently entitled to.
The recent Bihar caste survey was an indication of this gap, putting the OBC population in the state at 63.1%.
The BJP government at the Centre is wary that a caste census could give rise to contesting demands as well as arouse other dormant quota calls, shattering its delicate caste balancing. At the same time, BJP leaders have come to realise that the party cannot continue its silence on the issue.
This silence is more jarring given how the Opposition is building its anti-BJP campaign over the issue. Some talk openly of unwittingly letting Congress leader Rahul Gandhi emerge as “a champion of OBC causes”, with his ‘Jitni aabadi, Utna Haq (rights according to numerical strength)’ slogan carrying punch.
A number of BJP leaders are also anxiously watching the Opposition’s demand for an OBC quota within women’s reservation. This has, to an extent, taken the bite out of the BJP government’s achievement in getting the legislature passed.
Sources said that one of the instructions by the BJP high command at the OBC leaders’ meeting on Friday was for them to assess the impact of the Opposition campaign and the demand for a caste count at the state level.
Some state leaders, especially those from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, are believed to have raised concerns about the Opposition’s attempts to create cracks in the BJP’s OBC vote base, made vulnerable due to anti-incumbency.
Since it came to power at the Centre in 2014, the BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has wooed the backward communities aggressively, including fielding larger numbers from among them as candidates and putting them in ministerial as well as party posts.
As per BJP leaders, the party is represented by 113 OBCs, 53 Scheduled Caste (SC) and 43 Scheduled Tribe (ST) MPs in the current Lok Sabha, constituting almost 70% of its total MPs. This is a far cry from the BJP’s long-lasting reputation of being a Brahmin-Banya party.
According to a CSDS-Lokniti data analysis, the BJP’s share among OBC votes has been rising – from 19% in 1996 to 23% in the next election, coming down to 22% in 2009 but jumping to 34% in 2014 and further to 44% in 2019. This seems to be at the cost of the Congress, which got 25% of the OBC votes in 1996 but just 15% in 2019.
The CSDS-Lokniti analysis also found that between 2014 and 2019, the BJP vote share increased by 12% among the poor, 5% among the lower classes, 6% among the middle classes and 6% among the upper-middle classes, attributed largely to the Centre’s welfare schemes and the BJP’s efforts to reach out to the labharthis (beneficiaries). Some of that share too will now dwindle due to disenchantment over the price rise and growing unemployment.
Any support from OBC groups would be additional to the Opposition’s consolidation of minority votes. The BJP is watchful of that, as well as the reasonably successful recast of Rahul Gandhi as a leader with the interests of the marginalised at his heart, with his Bharat Jodo Yatra.