After Bihar released its caste survey data, the Congress party in Madhya Pradesh declared its intention to prioritise caste surveys as a significant electoral issue leading up to the upcoming election. The party's central election committee, in a recent decision, emphasised that conducting a comprehensive caste survey would be their primary agenda if they assume power in the state.

Addressing the media, senior Congress leader Randeep Surjewala stressed the importance of the caste census for the Congress in Madhya Pradesh. “Our primary objective is to ensure justice for our OBC, SC, and ST communities,” Surjewala said. According to sources, former CM Kamal Nath and other Congress party members from Madhya Pradesh “underscored that the caste census would be the party's top priority.”

The Bihar caste survey, which resumed after a temporary halt in May due to a Patna High Court ruling, provided valuable demographic insights. The data revealed that Extremely Backward Classes (EBC) constituted 36.01% of the state's population, with Other Backward Classes (OBC) contributing an additional 27.12%. Scheduled Castes (SC) comprised 20%, while Scheduled Tribes (ST) made up 1.6%, and the general category accounted for approximately 15%.

This caste census has escalated into a national political issue, with the I.N.D.I.A. bloc of opposition parties pressuring the Union government to conduct a similar nationwide survey. Notably, the Congress-led UPA government conducted a Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC) in 2011-12. However, the data from that survey was never publicly released, adding to the intrigue surrounding the current caste discourse in Indian politics.

Speculations abound regarding whether this emphasis on caste politics will benefit the Congress or potentially backfire. In this central Indian state the politics of social justice has not historically been a prominent discourse, unlike in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh despite the significant population of Tribals and OBCs in the state.

In the Sanjay Nagar cluster of Bhopal city, an area predominantly inhabited by the working class, and home to a large population of OBCs, SCs, and STs, citizens interviewed for this story shared their perspectives. Many said that while they do not consider caste when voting, it is important to discuss and acknowledge questions of representation and social justice.

Sunita Yadav, a 36-year-old domestic worker said, “we don't vote solely based on our caste in elections, but rather on the offerings presented by each party. Currently, both Congress and BJP seem to be making promises, ranging from affordable LPG cylinders to direct financial assistance. However, we have not yet decided whom we will vote for. It's a decision that requires careful consideration of what each party truly stands for and how they address our needs and have to offer.”

Sudhir Kushiram, a local tea stall owner, holds the belief that while the impoverished residents in their area don't vote strictly based on caste lines, discussions surrounding caste issues are crucial for uplifting their living standards. “It's a fact that our votes aren't solely determined by caste; we predominantly vote for candidates who work towards the overall welfare of Hindus.

“Nevertheless, I appreciate that Congress isn't just showing reverence for Hinduism; they are also addressing the concerns of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and OBC communities. Understanding the factors contributing to our poverty and backwardness is essential, and being part of the lower castes is just one aspect among many," Kushiram said.

He emphasised the significance of acknowledging the multifaceted challenges faced by their community. While religion “might guide their political choices”, Kushiram acknowledged that recognising and discussing barriers imposed by caste distinctions is an essential step toward progress. He appreciated Congress's approach, and said that it was an effort to address complex social factors, and aim for a more equitable society.

Madhya Pradesh, established on November 1, 1956, emerged as a distinct entity after being carved out from the Madhya Bharat province. Initially, it held the distinction of being the largest state in the country until its eventual bifurcation into Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

According to the 2011 Census data, Madhya Pradesh, with a total population of 7.26 crore, showcases a diverse social fabric. Among its inhabitants, 42 per cent are believed to be from the Other Backward Classes (OBC), while the census revealed that 15.6 per cent are classified as Dalits, 21.9 percent represent the Tribal communities, and the General Caste constitutes 20 per cent. This intricate demographic composition reflects the intricate tapestry of the state's society.

In this intricate social mosaic, challenges pertaining to social equality, economic opportunities, and political representation become evident. Interestingly, despite its complex caste composition, the state has not experienced a dominant political discourse centred on social justice, unlike Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Experts argue that discussions about a caste census could offer the Congress party a chance to challenge the BJP's growing consolidation of the Hindu vote bank through the lens of Hindutva. This is precisely why Congress's Chief Ministerial candidate, Kamal Nath, has consistently emphasised the necessity of conducting a caste census in Madhya Pradesh.

Kamal Nath, who is the state Congress Committee president, had earlier told the media that, “A caste census is crucial for maintaining balance. Why should it not be conducted? What are these people (referring to the BJP-led state and central government) afraid of, and what are they attempting to conceal? The caste census should be carried out without delay.”

Talking about the history of caste politics in the state and why there hasn't been a movement around social justice like other states of the Hindi Heartland, journalist and commentator Shams Ur Rehman Alavi believes that the fragmentation within the OBC and tribes has deprived the state of politics around social justice.

“Unlike Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where a significant portion of the OBC population is concentrated within the Yadav community, OBCs in Madhya Pradesh are fragmented and lack a unified bloc. Additionally, forming a coalition similar to the Muslim-Yadav alliance seen in other states is challenging. This fragmentation is a significant factor contributing to the limited presence of social justice-oriented politics in the state," Alavi explained.

However, he also noted that there have been periods when regional parties founded on specific identities appeared formidable enough to sway election results. Nevertheless, larger parties have either absorbed these regional entities or suppressed their influence.

"There was a time when the Gondwana Gantantra Party had the potential to impact elections, emerging as a strong regional outfit rooted in local aspirations. However, it splintered into two factions. Similarly, there was a period when the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was gaining significant traction in the state, raising the possibility of leading a third front. Unfortunately, internal divisions among the party's leadership hindered its progress,” Alavi recalled.

The absence of a strong alliance capable of championing social justice politics in the state perhaps allows the Congress party to focus on OBCs. The grand old party understands that initiating a discussion on caste census and representation alone may not significantly impact its standing in these states without a robust coalition capable of forming a regional force.

Renowned journalist, and political commentator N.K. Singh expressed his views on the current political landscape, suggesting that the BJP might face challenges in the upcoming elections due to the emphasis on caste census. He pointed out that this focus could further complicate the party's position, especially when they are already contending with the anti-incumbency factor.

“The politics surrounding OBCs is not a new phenomenon in Madhya Pradesh. Back in the 1980s, when Arjun Singh was the Chief Minister of the state, he established the Ramji Mahajan Commission to assess the situation of OBCs comprehensively. This commission played a crucial role in recommending affirmative actions to uplift the OBC communities, and Arjun Singh's administration strategically leveraged these initiatives, gaining substantial political support in the process,” Singh explained.

He pointed out that the current discourse around caste census in Madhya Pradesh politics mirrors the past emphasis on social justice, “this renewed focus not only aims to secure OBC votes, a vital electoral segment but also strategically challenges the prevailing Hindutva consolidation, a core ideology for the ruling party.

“By delving into the complexities of social and economic disparities, the Congress party appears to be positioning itself to tap into the historical resonance of OBC-focused policies, potentially reshaping the political landscape in their favour.”

However, Singh also warned that this approach might alienate Congress from its ‘upper-caste’ voters in urban areas. Nonetheless, their numbers are relatively small, making it unlikely to significantly impact the electoral outcome.

Meanwhile, State Home Minister Narottam Mishra raised a pointed query about the Congress party's selective emphasis on "caste census among Hindus and not among others." When questioned at a press conference held at the state BJP media centre.

He said: “In the past, the Congress played a significant role in the partition of our country. Those behind this division were the ancestors of Rahul Gandhi. Similar divisions were attempted in Kashmir and Punjab.

“Now, curiously, there's a concerted effort to divide Hindus based on castes. What's puzzling is the exclusive focus on these divisions among Hindus. Why isn't this conversation extended to other religious communities?”

Mishra raised another question, and asked, “additionally, why does the Congress limit its concerns to issues like Ram Mandir and Mahakaleshwar? There are various matters of national interest, yet the party seems fixated on specific topics. It raises questions about their broader agenda and priorities.”

In the midst of these developments, certain leaders within the BJP are of the opinion that the absence of a clear projection of Shivraj Singh Chauhan as the Chief Ministerial candidate in the upcoming election could potentially impact BJP. This concern arises particularly because the Chief Minister has frequently presented himself as a representative of the OBC community.

“It was crucial for the central leadership to nominate Shivraj Singh Chauhan as the Chief Ministerial candidate to counter Congress's caste census politics. However, since that hasn't occurred, the party will need to devise alternative strategies to counter Congress's manoeuvre," a BJP leader shared with The Citizen on the condition of anonymity.