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Focus 13000 villages: Why the backward caste arithmetic is on top of RSS' mind

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The RSS resolution on crafting the 'correct narrative' of India, stressing on bridging social fault lines in the Hindu society, at its recently concluded all-important Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS) meeting in Haryana correctly senses that the perceived threat to Hindutva in 2024 comes not from a divided opposition, but an opposition, which can get its backward caste arithmetic in order.  

That the RSS will supplement the BJP's 2024 poll preparations, which rest on the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, can be in no doubt. However, nothing can be taken for granted, and certainly not a tiny backward caste swing in the Hindi heartland and the big states, which could make or unmake political fortunes.

Over the next year, Sangh cadres will fan out across the country with the stated agenda of minimising 'instances of caste discrimination’, which could mean only one thing -- intense RSS grassroots mobilization as the country goes into the election mode.

In the last one year, the Sangh has 'studied' 13,000 villages for the prevalence of caste discrimination, which was summed up by RSS general secretary Dattatreya Hosabale at the conclusion of the meet. 

"The shakhas have to work towards ensuring social harmony, fighting untouchability, ensuring everyone gets entry into temples, everyone has equal access to crematoria, everyone sits and eats together at village weddings. Wherever our workers have been successful in achieving this, we have decided to compile such efforts," he stated.

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RSS leaders are stressing on the opposition stoking caste fault lines even as the two Lok Sabha elections have proven that "people are rising above caste and voting for the Modi government", Hosabale said.

But caste is perpetually the X-factor. While the permutations apply to the country as a whole, its impact is most likely to be felt in the Hindi belt.

The crux of the argument was that the re-alignment in Bihar, when Nitish Kumar walked out of its alliance with the BJP, was stitched with the larger objective of forming a credible opposition front against the BJP in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls. And the Congress was a third yet critical piece in the agreement between the Mandal outfits from the heartland states.

For opposition parties seeking to build an alternative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bihar is the first piece of the jigsaw that has to fall into place. The numbers stacked in the last two Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019 tell the story. To seriously challenge the saffron party, the opposition needs to whittle down the BJP's strength in north, east and central India.

That can only be done –- if at all -– by a new set of caste alliances. In the 120 Lok Sabha seats in UP and Bihar, the BJP is seriously challenged by the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal. The BJP has done exceedingly well, in the last two Lok Sabha elections, adding more than 80 seats to its kitty both in 2014 and 2019. If the BJP adds 14 seats from Jharkhand to this, the figure goes up to more than 90 Lok Sabha seats. That is almost one-third of the number required to secure a simple majority in the 540-strong Lok Sabha. 

The BJP's massive political mobilization in the three Hindi heartland states is built around two social groups: the upper caste and the numerically small but influential Other Backward Castes (OBC). These non-Yadav OBCs have thrown their lot behind the BJP to counter the hegemony of the dominant Mandal castes like Yadavs within the regional parties of UP and Bihar.

The message from the last two assembly elections in UP and Bihar was clear. In UP, Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party did well only in pockets where it could add smaller intermediary castes to its kitty and in sections of western UP, where Jayant Choudhary's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) was dominant along with party's traditional Muslim-Yadav voters.

In adjoining Bihar, Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal (United), with a support base among non-Yadav OBCs and a section of Dalits, has carved a swing constituency that holds the levers of powers firmly in its hands. These communities led by Kumar, a Kurmi, have demonstrated their ability to swing the elections in favour of both the RJD and the BJP at different times. 

Non-BJP parties will seek to build a more extensive OBC mobilisation outside Bihar in 2024, especially in other heartland states like UP and Jharkhand, where Kurmis, like the Yadavs, are a dominant OBC caste. It is precisely why waters are being tested in UP to see if Nitish Kumar can contest from Phulpur in eastern UP, a seat once held by India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and later by his sister, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit. The Kurmi consolidation here can be gauged from the fact that BSP patriarch Kanshi Ram lost to his once protégé, Jang Bahadur Patel, a Kurmi leader in 1996.

The Akhilesh Yadav-Mayawati alliance was formed in Phulpur when the SP defeated the BJP in the 2018 polls necessitated by the resignation of the UP deputy Chief Minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya.

That this larger OBC mobilization is being framed around Nitish Kumar with the two Yadav parties making tactical concessions, makes good strategic sense. Whether Kumar will be formally anointed as the face of this alliance, will be clear in the days and weeks ahead.

The other major battleground states that may determine the final tally and government formation in 2024 will be states in the north, central and west where the Congress and BJP are in a direct contest -- Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh.

The Congress campaigns in two out of these three states were led by strong OBC faces -- Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattisgarh. The three-time Rajasthan CM belongs to a backward community that has traditionally been associated with commercial gardening.

The Bihar Accord and the Congress' presidential polls are tactically coupled. It is hardly surprising that Sonia Gandhi has asked Nitish Kumar to continue to work towards building opposition unity and take matters up with the new Congress president. Nitish Kumar's subtle projection is a part of messaging to not just the Kurmis of Bihar and Jharkhand but the influential Patidars of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, and the Kunbis of Maharashtra.

The die is cast and there is little doubt that to rattle the Hindutva juggernaut, caste mobilisation is the only way out to break the logjam. No wonder, the RSS is keen then on avoiding this come 2024.   (THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS)

435 Days ago