BJP embarks on campaign to woo OBC voters, counter Congress’ offensive

It would be naïve to ignore how BJP bid to revitalise its support among OBCs coincides with a fresh alignment among Opposition parties which espouse social justice as a core agenda of their politics

democracy, Rahul Gandhi, India, Narendra Modi, PM Modi on Indian democracy
Modi slammed the Congress and other Opposition parties and asserted that the BJP was the only party promoting social inclusion. File photo: Twitter/BJP

The BJP’s OBC Morcha launched its Gaon Gaon Chalo, Ghar Chalo (visit every village, every house) campaign on Thursday (April 6). The 9-day mass outreach campaign, which will also mark the BJP’s 44th Foundation Day, will culminate on April 14, birth anniversary of the Dr BR Ambedkar.

The stated purpose of the campaign is to “expose the anti-OBC mindset” of the Congress and publicise, among the overarching community of OBCs, initiatives that the Narendra Modi government has taken for their benefit.

Earlier in the day, addressing an event at the party headquarters in New Delhi to mark the BJP’s Foundation Day, Modi also asserted that the priority of his government has “always been social justice and empowerment… social justice is not a matter of political rhetoric for us, but an article of faith”. The Prime Minister also accused his political rivals of “using social justice only for political rhetoric” and alleged that while “leaders of these parties worked for the welfare of their respective families, they did nothing for the communities they claim to represent but the BJP believes in social justice for all, without differentiating (between castes or communities)”.

Also read: Rahul disqualification: Congress holds satyagraha, asks if Nirav and Lalit Modi are OBC


Social inclusion

Modi slammed the Congress and other Opposition parties for being representative of “parivaarwaad, vanshwaad, jaativaad and kshetrawaad (dynasty politics, casteism and regional chauvinism)” and asserted that the BJP was the only party promoting social inclusion.

BJP insiders told The Federal that the pitch for social justice and inclusion that Modi outlined at the event will also be the message of the campaign. The two-pronged mass mobilisation drive comes in the backdrop of the BJP’s scathing broadside at its principal political rival in wake of a Surat trial court finding former Congress president Rahul Gandhi guilty of criminal defamation in the “Modi surname” case.

The Chief Judicial Magistrate court in Surat had, on March 23, upheld the complainant’s (BJP leader Purnesh Modi) contention that Rahul defamed the “entire Modi community” when, in an election speech in Karnataka’s Kolar in 2019, the then Congress chief cited examples of the prime minister and fugitive economic offenders Nirav Modi and Lalit Modi while wondering “why all these thieves have Modi as their surname”.

The trial court’s judgment, which came with a two-year jail sentence (currently suspended), has cost Rahul his membership of the Lok Sabha as well as his official 12, Tughlaq Lane residence in New Delhi.

The Modi surname does not imply a homogenous caste group. The Central List of OBCs prepared by the National Commission for Backward Classes doesn’t even mention ‘Modi’ while in most north Indian states where this surname is common, Modis can belong to Baniya, Brahmin, Parsi or even the Muslim community. However, given that the Prime Minister belongs to the Teli Ghanchi (oil pressers) caste, which commonly uses the Modi surname and is identified in Gujarat as a backward class, the BJP claims the verdict exposes Rahul and his party as being “anti-OBC”.

Also read: Sibal calls BJP’s claim of Rahul insulting OBCs absurd and insulting to our intelligence

Political purpose

This line of attack adopted by the BJP against Rahul, particularly at a time when the Congress is leading a joint Opposition onslaught against the PM and his government on the Adani issue, serves an obvious political purpose.

Beginning with Karnataka in May, the next six months will witness assembly polls in MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Telangana – all states with heavy concentration of the hugely amorphous but electorally significant OBC community.

The next Lok Sabha polls too are just about a year away. In this election-packed year, a concerted attempt by the BJP to portray Rahul and his party as being “anti-OBC” while hailing Modi as the “only prime minister” who has stridently worked towards the “upliftment and progress” of disparate backward classes aims to juxtapose a contrast.

K Laxman, the BJP OBC Morcha chief who is spearheading the Ghar, Ghar Chalo campaign told The Federal that his party wants “the biggest majority of the country, the OBCs”, which by some estimates, constitutes just over 40 per cent of India’s population, to know that the “Congress and Gandhi family have used you as a vote bank but they never respected you” while the BJP “works for every backward and oppressed community, for which our PM, who belongs to the OBC community, is abused by Rahul and his party”.

Laxman claimed that the goal of the Ghar, Ghar Chalo campaign is to “reach at least one crore (OBC) households at the village-level over the next week and tell them of the historic steps Modi has taken for their welfare in just nine years while highlighting how the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress party have historically been anti-OBC”. “This is just one campaign but we will have more on similar lines over the next few months to amplify this message,” he added.

Also read: 2023 Karnataka polls: BJP goes all out to woo Vokkaligas and OBCs

Countering Congress

At the face of it, the campaign is a targeted attack at the Congress and its former president. It is also a clear effort to counter the Congress’ offensive over Rahul’s conviction and his subsequent disqualification as an MP, which the Grand Old Party is portraying another sign of vendetta politics and undermining of democracy by the prime minister.

The Congress alleged that PM Modi is resorting to such moves, as he is rattled by inconvenient questions over his alleged patronage to industrialist Gautam Adani who has been accused in the Hindenburg Report of indulging in “market fraud and stock manipulation”.

However, does the stink that the BJP is raising over the Congress’s “anti-OBC mindset”, despite the evident absurdity of such a plank given the lack of class homogeneity within the Modi community, indicate there’s a larger political strategy at work here?

In several states where high outreach targets have been set for the Ghar, Ghar Chalo campaign – such as UP, where BJP volunteers have to reach out to 15,000 OBC dominated villages or Bihar, where a similar target has been given – the Congress has long lost its political ground either to its allies, the RJD and the JD (U) or to the BJP, and has no hope of regaining it in the near future.

Over the past nine years, Modi has consistently wooed the OBC community as a single electoral bloc as opposed to ‘social justice’ political parties, particularly outfits such as Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United), Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal, et al that were birthed in the post-Mandal era, which are often accused of patronising select communities.

The BJP of the Modi-era sought to break the political hegemony of those castes and communities from among the SC, ST and OBC bouquet which disproportionately benefitted from the Mandal outfits – the Yadavs by the SP and RJD, the Kurmis by the JDU, the Dalit Jatav community by the BSP, etc. Instead, it sought to diversify representation both within the BJP organisation as well as in its governments at the Centre and in states by picking leaders from various backward and oppressed communities that are numerically smaller but still constitute significant vote blocs.

Also read: BJP playing caste politics, defending Nirav, Lalit Modi: Cong slams Nadda

Sensing threat

In fact, the aspect that the BJP most highlighted about the last reshuffle of the Union Cabinet that took place in July 2021 was not the merit of the inductees but that, of the 43 newly sworn-in ministers, 14 belonged to various OBC communities, nine were Dalits and four were tribals and that most of them belonged to caste groups that had never shared a slice of the Cabinet pie.

The BJP emphasised what an “unprecedented” eclectic mix the new Team Modi was, considering that the Cabinet now had 27 OBCs, 12 SCs and 8 STs (collectively over 60 percent of the total strength of Modi’s council of ministers). The ministers, particularly those from the OBC communities, are now expected to take centre stage in the BJP’s Ghar, Ghar Chalo campaign.

It would be naïve to ignore how this renascent effort by the BJP to revitalise its support among the OBCs coincides with a fresh alignment among Opposition parties, including the Congress, which espouse social justice as a core agenda of their politics. Just earlier this week, Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin’s DMK had organised a social justice national conference that was addressed by senior leaders of all major Opposition parties.

Though the media publicised Stalin’s initiative largely as the DMK’s bid to join ongoing efforts of uniting like-minded Opposition outfits for a federal front against the BJP, the real thrust of the conference was on identifying social issues on which the Centre can be cornered. Foremost among these was the demand for a caste-based census. Sources told The Federal that efforts are underway to launch a joint Opposition campaign, most likely after the Karnataka assembly polls, on the demand for a caste census.

Over the past year, and more so since last November when the Supreme Court upheld the Centre’s bid to carve out, through a constitution amendment, a 10 percent quota in government jobs and educational institutions for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), various Opposition parties have been periodically raising the demand for caste-based enumeration of the Indian population.

Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD, which has been at the vanguard of this struggle, had then reached out to various Opposition parties following the SC’s EWS verdict and urged their leaders to jointly demand a caste-based Census. The Congress had backed the demand as had SP, JD (U), DMK, the Left Front and various other outfits.

Also read: No place in democracy for those who don’t believe in it: Nadda to Rahul

Caste-based census

Many in the Opposition believe that a sustained political campaign on the demand for a caste-based census, to which the BJP has been non-committal, has the potential to push the BJP into a corner and expose “false claims by Modi of being committed to the cause of social justice and affirmative action”.

At the DMK’s social justice conference, RJD MP Manoj Jha’s call to “boycott Census, if there is no caste census” was welcomed by leaders of all Opposition parties – among them were Congress’ Ashok Gehlot and Veerappa Moily, CPM’s Sitaram Yechury, AAP’s Sanjay Singh, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav and National Conference chief Farooq Abdullah.

Jha believes that the “easiest way” to expose Modi’s tall claims of “BJP being the only party committed to social justice” is to seek from the Centre “a commitment for the caste census” as the saffron front’s discomfiture with the notion of affirmative action is well known.

“Once you agree to a caste-based socio-economic enumeration, you will also have to align your government’s policies with the findings. Nearly 80 percent of our population comprises of the Dalit, tribal and OBC communities but there is no official data about the individual castes that collectively form these groups. This allows the BJP to get away with building false narratives on how they have brought these communities out of socio-economic backwardness and undermine the constitutionally guaranteed affirmative action policies,” Jha told The Federal.

Ajay Yadav, who heads the Congress party’s OBC department, agrees with Jha. “The BJP has no moral right to hand out certificates about who is anti-OBC or anti-Dalit or anti-tribal. Modi claims his government has ensured uplift of these communities so then why is he scared of getting a caste census done? His fear is that such an exercise will expose his lies. Besides, go through any official data and you will see that atrocities against each of these communities has increased manifold under BJP rule and is the highest in BJP-ruled states; economic backwardness of these communities has worsened too,” Yadav said.

Also read: PM Modi takes veiled swipe at Rahul Gandhi

Pre-empting realignment

Lucknow-based political commentator and Dalit activist Ravikant Chandan believes that there are “only two things rattling Modi right now – the first is the issue of Gautam Adani and the second is the fear that BJP’s clever amalgamation of social engineering with a cocktail of Hindutva and pseudo nationalism, which has helped the party establish its electoral dominance, will begin to crack if the Opposition truly unites on the issue of social justice”.

Chandan says that the BJP knows that “this amalgamation is extremely unstable” because livelihood issues such as growing unemployment, price rise coupled with communal strife – all of which were raised by Rahul during the Bharat Jodo Yatra – would eventually “re-ignite social consciousness against the failures of the Modi government”.

This is one reason why Chandan believes the BJP has sought to create “the bogey of a laabharthi (beneficiaries of government schemes) vote bank” which would transcend caste and class consciousness because “unfortunately, politics has become extremely transactional in nature where people are forced to believe that free ration compensates them for the social oppression they face under the BJP”.

If the Opposition unitedly launches a mass mobilisation of the Dalit, tribal and OBC communities by highlighting their continuing plight under the Modi regime, Chandan says, the BJP’s electoral flight will “go in a tailspin”.

Thus, the BJP’s anti-OBC diatribe against Rahul appears to be as much a counter-strike against the Congress as part of a larger political narrative that Modi wants to build against a Congress-led Opposition in the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, pre-empting any national realignment of his rivals on the plank of social justice.