It’s 11am. Dappled slats of sunlight filtered through flecks of dust and soot warm Kunti Devi’s humble tea shop at the kachha crossroads outside Tundri village. Balancing on her haunches as the winter sun bakes her mottled skin, Devi struggles with the edges of the smudged sheet of yellow tarpaulin that protects her shop from the elements before poring over a woodfire. It’s past work time on a weekday but small clots of young men mill about, sitting on wooden planks propped up by bricks – makeshift benches for daily discussions on chunavi mahaul (election buzz) in Chhattisgarh. As milky tea pass hands in mottled glasses, the discussionmeanders from one topic to another – Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the record of chief minister Bhupesh Baghel, the competing paddy sops announced by both major parties, the cash transfer pledges for women and the prospect of government jobs for young men in the area.
Then one man mentions the Congress’s repeated refrain on the campaign trail of a nationwide caste census and the tempo abruptly dips. “What’s that,” Devi asks, putting down the dregs of her tea on the table, her villagemen suddenly quiet. “Is it related to getting a new ration card?”
Around the table, a ripple of uncertainty courses through the men who were confidently holding forth on which party’s paddy promise was better a minute ago. Madan Sahu thinks counting castes will be divisive, but changes tack when his friends say the Congress is promising the move. “I don’t know much but I will vote for Congress,” he says. To his left, Murli Sahu is more strident . “There is no benefit of the caste census. It is merely a tool of Congress to win elections,” he says. But why – Manish counters him. Surprised at his friend’s response, Murli’s confidence ebbs. “I don’t know much about it,” he admits.
In this confusion playing out in the flatlands of Chhattisgarh days before a crucial round of polls lie the possibilities and pitfalls of the Congress’s emerging strategy around projecting a nationwide caste census as a major election issue. The five-state assembly polls that began earlier this month are the first electoral test for the Opposition’s gambit to use physical headcounts of castes to try and pry away chunks of the other backward classes (OBC) vote that has become instrumental to the success of the BJP’s electoral machine. Making official the numerical superiority enjoyed by backward communities could, the thinking goes, destabilise the BJP’s rainbow Hindu coalition. Cant it? Over the next week, HT will profile four prominent backward caste groups from each of the four major poll-bound states to explore how this issue is shaping up on the ground,
In Chhattisgarh, where the Congress has repeatedly promised a caste survey if it retains power, the Sahus are the biggest OBC group. They are spread across the fertile plains of the state that hold the bulk of the state’s population and assembly seats. Comprising 14% of the state’s population, the Sahus have the ability to influence around 25 of the 90 seats in the state and are a landowning, largely agrarian community.
Capturing the support of this dominant community is also a key narrative this elections. After backing the BJP for 15 years, the Sahus moved to the Congress in 2018, contributing to its landslide victory. This time, the BJP has doubled down on its Sahu outreach in an attempt to fracture this support, prompting the Congress to also sharpen its campaign around welfare, poll guarantees and community pride. Chandrapur – the assembly constituency Tundri village falls in – reflects this dynamic. The BJP won it in 2008 and 2013, only for the Congress to capture it for the first time in 2018. This time, the BJP’s Sanyogita Judev, the daughter-in-law of the late Dilip Singh Judev, is fighting against Ramkumar Yadav, the sitting Congress legislator.
Despite dominating national headlines, conversations around the caste survey have only started to permeate through the countryside in Chhattisgarh. In Tundri, village chief Kanahiya Lal Sahu says he believes that the elders in the community are slowly coming around to understanding the benefits such an exercise can hold. “Each and every benefit of the central and state government will be distributed according to the population of the caste. We will get more representation in politics, employment and other sectors,” he says.
In the past decade, as agrarian incomes have dipped and cropping patterns become more uncertain, more young men from the community have moved to cities in an attempt to buoy their disposable incomes and ready their children for jobs that are alien to the village economy.
Pradeep Sahu is one of those thousands, living in Bilaspur and running a construction materials business. He is more aware of the debate around the caste survey but believes its impact in these elections will be limited. “The Congress is not talking about the benefits of caste survey in a simple manner . There should be a proper campaign to give a message to the OBCs that caste survey is important for them… Mere announcement will not help,” he says.
Community leaders point out that despite the focus on the OBC identity this election season, Chhattisgarh has never been a state with an active backward classes movement – unlike, say, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. As a result, communities have voted based on concerns related to livelihoods and economics — Rakesh Sahu in Manendragarh district is backing whoever has a better pledge for urban youth and Ramesh Sahu in Chandrapur is focussed on paddy bonuses.
“There is no history of movement in Chhattisgarh over caste, particularly among OBCs. But some Sahu leaders now understand the benefit and support the caste survey… Probably in the next few years, things can change,” said Chandrasekhar Sahu, former parliamentarian and now a member of the Sahu Mahasabha, an umbrella group.
Despite the confusion apparent on the ground, the Congress is certain the caste survey has pan-national appeal and will grow roots. “The OBC understands that Congress is for them,” said senior leader and spokesperson RP singh.
The BJP hit back. “The major issue is corruption here..The caste survey will only divide the society and people understand this,” said BJP spokesperson Sachchidanand Upasane.
Back in Tundri, the winter sun has given way to darkness and a nip in the air. Devi’s ramshackle stall is now deserted, leaving her to dismantle the bricks, drag the planks back inside and pull the soiled yellow sheet over her wares. Yet, the embers of the heated discussion linger in the air. Seva Sahu, a college student, is not daunted that the most tangible benefit of the caste census is a government job. “My father runs a tea stall and my elder brother works as a labourer No one in my family has ever dreamt of a government job,” he said. “I want one…”