As the Election Commission of India (ECI) announced the dates of Assembly elections in five States, which are widely seen as the litmus test for the 2024 general election, political parties have heightened their campaigns, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi raising the pitch on a caste census.
The voting in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram is scheduled to take place next month, as announced by the ECI during a press conference in New Delhi on October 10.
Chhattisgarh will conduct its election in two phases on November 7 and November 17, while Mizoram will vote on November 7. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Telangana will hold their elections in a single phase on November 17, November 23, and November 30, respectively. The counting of votes will take place on December 3.
The BJP and the Congress have the most at stake in these elections, as the results are expected to set the larger political trend in the Hindi heartland. The INDIA alliance has shown unity against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-term regime, combining economic issues with identity politics based on caste lines. A Congress victory in two or more States would be a significant boost for the opposition.
Political analyst Rasheed Kidwai, who spoke to Frontline, believes that calling these assembly elections a semi-final is “not a media cliche but something substantial as it would indicate voters’ preference in the Hindi heartland States”. It also acts as a sort of referendum on issues such as caste-based census, reservations, and various quota-based formulas for jobs, education, and elected bodies, including the Women’s Reservation Bill, he said.
“Broadly at stake is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political prestige, or his ‘saakh’ (credibility), as the BJP has consciously downgraded the role of its regional satraps such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje Scindia, and Raman Singh,” said Kidwai. “The BJP or Modi strategy is ‘high stakes winner takes it all’ to showcase the prime minister as a singular, mighty figure capable of making the BJP win.”
The Modi government’s discomfort with the INDIA alliance is often evident, with Modi himself criticising the alliance as “ghamandiya” or arrogant. As contemporary politics focus on caste census and attempts to consolidate the OBCs (Other Backward Classes), these elections will determine whether this strategy can diminish the influence of Hindutva, which has become the cornerstone of the BJP’s politics, along with deep penetration into the non-dominant OBC castes.
The Congress Working Committee met on October 10 and later announced that if elected to power, it would conduct a caste census and remove the 50 per cent ceiling for reservations for Schedule Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and OBCs.
However, there is divided opinion on whether the OBC gamble will pay off for the opposition. Political commentator Manindra Thakur, for example, believes that the Opposition may have overestimated the utility of OBC politics for them.
Thakur suggests, “The Congress should have stuck with its centrist image and led the campaign with an economy-driven message that transcended caste and community lines, promising to address livelihood issues and focusing on nation-building. This approach could have boosted its prospects at a time when Rahul Gandhi’s image was improving after years of negative publicity.”
Thakur also anticipates that the BJP will counter the opposition’s move of a caste census by resorting to the Rohini Commission, which aims to sub-categorise the OBCs. The BJP is expected to target non-dominant OBC castes, which may be smaller in number individually but collectively represent a significant portion compared to the dominant OBC castes like the Yadavs.
Currently, the Congress holds power in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, while the BJP rules Madhya Pradesh, where it came to power by engineering a defection from the erstwhile Kamal Nath-led Congress government. The K. Chandrasekhar Rao-led Bharat Rashtra Samithi rules Telangana, and the Mizo National Front governs Mizoram. The BJP is heavily relying on incentives in Madhya Pradesh, amidst perceptions of a decline in the party’s fortunes in the central State. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress is expected to return to power, riding on Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s popularity and a weakened BJP.