Despite Caste Survey Politics, Is OBC Vote Eluding INDIA?

There is a distinctive and polarised pattern of voting among SC/ST and OBC communities. The key question is, to what extent, will the politics around caste census work in the cow belt states apart from Bihar in the run up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.

Whatever the final results of the Assembly elections, going by some credible exit polls, a noteworthy aspect is the caste-wise voting pattern in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan. This is particularly interesting in the context of the Opposition campaign to push for a caste census in various states and the Congress’ radical shift towards wooing backward castes in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Poll survey agency Axis My India, which has an excellent track record for accuracy, has done a detailed constituency-level survey for the India Today group, which shows that in MP, Rajasthan, and Chattisgarh there is fairly sharp caste polarisation wherein the BJP has a big lead over Congress in garnering OBC votes. However, the Congress is ahead of the BJP in capturing Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe votes in these three states. Of course, the BJP also has a much higher share of upper-caste votes, which is a continuing trend. This polarised pattern needs to be examined by the Opposition parties for political strategising around the caste census. The key question is, to what extent will the politics around the caste census work in the cow belt states apart from Bihar in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls?

In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has 56% of OBC votes and the Congress has merely 32%, as per the Axis/India Today survey. In contrast, the Congress(45%) leads the BJP (41%) in securing SC votes. The Congress also has a lead of 3 percentage points over BJP in the ST category in MP.

Also read: Need of the Hour: A Selfie Called Caste Census – India Must Confront its Truth

In Rajasthan, Congress with 57% SC votes massively leads the BJP with just 26%. Among STs in Rajasthan, Congress has a 51% vote share and BJP merely 29%. However among OBCs in Rajasthan, the equation reverses with the BJP having 55% and Congress 29%. That is a huge gap.

This distinctive and polarised pattern of voting among SC/ST versus the OBC is interesting in the context of the politics around the caste census. Chhattisgarh shows a similar voting pattern for Congress and BJP. The BJP seems to have done well among OBCs in Chattisgarh by fielding a large number of OBC candidates from the Sahu community. This is also a bit surprising, given the overall popularity of Congress’ much projected OBC Chief Minister Bhupesh Bhagel.

If Axis My India’s caste voting pattern is to be believed, then the Opposition alliance INDIA may have to think very hard about how to woo OBC voters in the Hindi belt outside of Bihar, the state which triggered the caste census politics. Bihar is the epicentre of the politics of OBC empowerment linked to the caste census, but Rahul Gandhi’s open articulation of a commensurate share of power for the OBCs, which began during his Karnataka election campaign, may face roadblocks where the Congress and BJP are in a direct fight in the Hindi belt. In the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress will have to get a higher share of OBCs in MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh to make a significant dent in the BJPs vote and seat share. With the OBCs and upper castes overwhelmingly voting for the BJP, as indicated in the Axis My India survey, the Congress will have to toil  harder to work its new politics around the caste census in these states.

Interestingly, the Congress has been able to make a big dent among the OBCs in Karnataka and perhaps in Telangana, where it was traditionally propelled by the upper caste Reddy community. However, the challenge of penetrating the substantial OBC vote bank in the broader Hindi belt remains quite daunting for the Congress. This task becomes tougher with the BJP managing to radicalise significant sections of OBCs towards Hindutva ideology in the cow belt, especially in UP.

Traditionally, when the Congress system flourished under Indira Gandhi and later briefly under Rajiv Gandhi, it enjoyed a substantial chunk of the SC, ST, Muslim and upper caste vote, which seemed an unbeatable combination. But today, the Congress doesn’t have a big chunk of the upper caste vote to add to the combination of  SC, ST and Muslims. This seems to be the case in MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, where the Congress has a good chance of recovering from the collapse of its Lok Sabha tally in 2019. The BJP had almost swept these states in 2019. Penetrating the OBC vote in these states is therefore crucial to the exercise of the Congress reviving its fortunes in MP, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh. This is especially so because Rahul Gandhi has taken a decisive call to go for the OBC vote rather than focus on getting back the upper caste vote, which the Congress had lost over the years.