Mallikarjun Kharge
Congress chief Mallikarjun Kharge at a rally in Sagar, Madhya Pradesh, on August 23. Image: Twitter

MP: Kharge launches frontal attack on BJP with caste census push

With guarantee for caste-based enumeration in the state, Congress chief has made a strong pitch to woo SC, STs and OBCs

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He may still brusquely snub his party colleagues for talking up his Dalit identity but Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge has certainly got on board with his party and the wider INDIA coalition’s strategy of using the polemics of caste identity politics to take on the BJP electorally.

On Tuesday (August 22), as he addressed a massive rally in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district, a part of the socio-economically backward Bundelkhand region, Kharge promised that if the Congress is voted to power in the state bound for assembly polls this October, its government would conduct a caste enumeration of the population.

The Congress president highlighted instances of rising atrocities in the BJP-ruled state against members of the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities, recalling the recent incident in which a BJP worker was caught on video urinating on a tribal man.

Chouhan slammed

Kharge slammed Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan for “indulging in theatrics” later, by washing the feet of the tribal man at the CM House in Bhopal to express regret. “Will washing his feet wash away the dishonour and humiliation that man had to suffer when your BJP worker urinating on his face,” Kharge asked, adding that the BJP “only thinks of Dalits, adivasis and backwards” in election season but “the Congress has always worked for them and will continue to do so.”

What was particularly interesting was Kharge’s articulation on the need for a caste census as he justified its need not only from the standpoint of better policy-making and targeted delivery of welfare schemes for backward castes but for the umbrella bloc of all marginalised and oppressed communities, including Dalits and tribals.

It is pertinent to point out that since SCs and STs are already enumerated under the existing Census system (though only as SC or ST and not on the basis of a specific caste or sub-caste), Opposition parties that have been demanding caste-based enumeration have largely pivoted the demand around the need for empowering OBCs.

Political significance

Kharge’s pitch for a caste census from Sagar, the second largest district in Bundelkhand, is politically significant as an overwhelming majority of the population in this region that spans across 16 districts of MP and UP comprises Dalits and backward castes that have, in the past decade, largely voted for the BJP.

Besides competing with the BJP across the seven Bundelkhand districts of Sagar, Damoh, Niwari, Chhatarpur, Panna, Tikamgarh and Datia, the Congress here has also been at an electoral disadvantage as several of the 29 assembly segments in this belt have a formidable presence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) which, in a multi-cornered contest, damage the victory prospects of candidates from the Grand Old Party.

Even in the 2018 assembly polls, which saw the Congress return to power in the state after a 15-year hiatus, the party could bag just 12 of these 29 assembly segments while the BJP won 15 and the BSP and SP got one each. Later, the Congress lost two of these seats – Bhander in Datia district and Surkhi in Sagar district – to the BJP as the incumbent MLAs defected to the saffron party along with 20 other legislators close to Jyotiraditya Scindia and subsequently retained their BJP in seats in the bypolls.

In Sagar, where Kharge was addressing the rally on Tuesday, the Congress was able to bag just three of the eight seats in 2018, with the remaining going to the BJP, including the two SC-reserved constituencies of Bina and Naryaoli.

By publicly offering a “guarantee” for conducting caste-based enumeration in the state, on the lines of what the JD (U)-RJD-Congress ruling coalition in Bihar has already initiated after an initial setback from Patna high court that had stayed such an exercise (the Supreme Court later vacated the stay), Kharge has made a strong pitch on his party’s behalf for wooing the SC, STs and OBCs.

Demand for caste census

The demand for a caste census had been backed by former Congress president Rahul Gandhi during the Karnataka polls with his “Jitni Abaadi, Utna Haq” slogan. Sources told The Federal that prominent ‘social justice parties’ in the INDIA coalition, such as the RJD, JD (U), DMK and the SP, along with the Left Front constituents and the Trinamool Congress had also been prodding the Congress leadership to be more vocal in its support for a caste census.

The INDIA constituents have been hoping that their caste census pitch would be a strong electoral counterweight against the BJP, which has assiduously tried to bring the Dalits, adivasis and backward castes under the overarching Hindu-identity umbrella while simultaneously wooing each of these communities by offering tailor-made welfare schemes for them and also through ostentatious celebrations of their historical and cultural icons.

Interestingly, Kharge also used the Sagar rally to suggest that the Congress’s decision to increase the representation of Dalits, tribals and backward castes in its highest decision-making body, the CWC, was evidence of its commitment towards emancipation of the historically oppressed communities and the caste census.

“As Congress president, I promise you, when we come to power, we will get the caste census done so that we know which sections of the society are poor, backward, landless, uneducated... we have already taken steps within our party by increasing representation,” Kharge said while telling the crowd that the CWC reconstituted on August 20 also has a “backward class ka naujawan (a backward class youth)” from MP.

New working committee

He was referring to 49-year-old Kamleshwar Patel, who has been included as one of the 39 regular members of the CWC. A second term MLA from the Sihawal constituency in MP’s Sidhi district, Patel is the son of late Congress stalwart and seven-term legislator Indrajeet Patel, a tall backward class leader from the state’s Vindhya region that adjoins Bundelkhand.

“In the earlier working committee, we had only one member from the backward class, now we have six; earlier we had three SCs but now we have five... this increased representation was promised by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and I had the opportunity of fulfilling that promise,” Kharge said, clearly leveraging the social diversity of the reconstituted CWC for electoral grandstanding.

Kharge also took a leaf out of the BJP’s book while addressing the rally in Sagar, catching even some Congress leaders present at the rally by surprise. He announced that the Congress, once voted to power, will build a university named after Sant Ravidas in the state to propagate the teachings of the Bhakti-era poet revered by large sections of the Dalit community across parts of MP, UP, Punjab, Bihar, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra. As he made the announcement, Kharge turned around to tell MP Congress chief Kamal Nath, the party’s undeclared chief ministerial candidate, “I have made a promise, you have to deliver... don’t tell me later that I gave the guarantee without your knowledge”.

Kharge’s surprise announcement, clearly meant to woo the Dalit voters who number over one crore in the state’s 7.5 crore electorate and influence the electoral outcome in over 50 of the state’s 230 Assembly seats, came days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sagar to lay the foundation stone of a temple-cum-memorial dedicated to Sant Ravidas that is being built by the state government on a budget of over Rs 100 crore.

Referring to that grand event, the Congress president slammed Modi alleging that the Prime Minister “only remembers Sant Ravidas during elections”. Kharge then waved a clipping of a news report to the crowd and said, “they are building a temple dedicated to Sant Ravidas in MP because there are elections due here but on August 14, 2019, the BJP demolished a Sant Ravidas temple in Delhi... here is the news report, you can all see it”. He also attacked the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government saying, “you have been in power in MP for 18 years, if you had respect for Sant Ravidas, why did you not make the temple in all those years; why only now when elections are months away”.

The Congress president also made it a point to repeatedly pay rich tributes to the late Hari Singh Gour. A member of the Constituent Assembly, Gour was a native of Sagar. He remains a cultural icon in the Bundelkhand region due to his contribution towards education in the region as he had famously spent his life’s savings on building the Sagar University in 1946; later rechristened the Dr Hari Singh Gour University in 1983 during the tenure of the Congress’s Arjun Singh-led government.

More vocal demand

Party sources told The Federal that Kharge is expected to get more vocal in his push for a caste census and in his criticism of the BJP’s “lip service towards the empowerment of Dalits, tribals and backward classes” as the election season gains momentum. He is likely to reiterate the points made in Sagar when he addresses a rally in Rajasthan’s Jaipur on Wednesday (August 23), though with suitable modifications since the poll-bound desert state has a Congress government.

Other Congress leaders who will take the party’s campaign forward in MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram – the five states that will simultaneously go to polls this October – are expected to buttress Kharge’s stand on the caste census in their public outreach. Additionally, the issue is likely to be pushed more aggressively by the INDIA constituents too once the coalition’s third conclave scheduled in Mumbai concludes on September 1.

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