With the Congress pushing for a nationwide caste census and increasing representation for oppressed castes, it has turned the spotlight on the OBC and Dalit leadership within the Congress, be it party president Mallikarjun Kharge (who is a Dalit) or chief ministers like Ashok Gehlot, Siddaramaiah and Bhupesh Baghel, all of whom are OBCs.
In Chhattisgarh, caste politics hasn't quite taken root due to prevailing issues like Maoism, mining, tribal rights and corruption.
However, CM Bhupesh Baghel has led a government that focusses a great deal on his own personality and background.
Can he emerge as an OBC poster-boy for the Congress?
This article will try to answer these three questions:
How has Baghel played the OBC card in Chhattisgarh?
How Baghel has ideologically countered Hindutva
What are the challenges that lie ahead of him?
Baghel's OBC Card
Politics in Chhattisgarh was centered around Upper Castes on one hand and tribals on the other. After bringing an end to 15 years of BJP rule, Baghel brought OBCs to the centre-stage of state politics.
As there hasn't been a caste census in Chhattisgarh, the exact proportion of OBCs in the state isn't known. Some estimates put it as high as 43.5 percent of the state's population.
Baghel, who belongs to the OBC Kurmi community, has always taken pride in his identity as an OBC leader and a farmer’s son from Chhattisgarh.
He hasn't shied away from taking on the BJP and RSS, projecting himself as the "son of the soil," a true Chhattisgarhiya leader, and emphasising the "Chhattisgarh model."
Moreover, Baghel has successfully connected with the masses, unlike the previous BJP regime and leaders, including CM Raman Singh, who were seen as 'distant and disconnected' from the public.
Baghel stood tall throughout his tenure as Chhattisgarh CM and didn't take any of his opponents' attacks lying down. The Congress will showcase this aspect of Baghel's personality as its pitch to OBCs.
Baghel projected himself as a leader who is locally-embedded, likable, proud, and decisive. This helped him counter the BJP's Hindutva tactics.
The success of Baghel's tactics can be seen from the fact that the BJP removed Vishnu Deo Sai, a tribal, as party chief and instead appointed an OBC, Arun Sao.
The party has also given a ticket to Ishwar Sahu, father of riot victim Bhuneshwar Sahu, in the Assembly elections. The BJP's strategy seems to be to create divisions within the OBCs, by wooing Sahu voters.
Baghel's Hinduism vs Hindutva
The Congress may have only now thought of pitching the caste census and the OBC card as a counter to Hindutva. Baghel had perfected that pitch much earlier, especially by putting forward his own version of Hindu assertion against Hindutva.
This was clear in the government promotion of popular festivals such like Govardhan Pooja and Teeja Pora and the importance given to late OBC leaders like Khubchand Baghel and Chandulal Chandrakar. Then a number of new schools were named after Swami Atmanand, who himself was an OBC.
Senior political commentator and renowned writer Diwakar Muktibodh said that Baghel's motto has been 'vocal for local'.
"Bhupesh Baghel has, on the ground, implemented the idea of vocal for local. He has lit the lamp of pride among the residents of Chhattisgarh with his politics as well as his actions. He has adopted the culture, folk sentiments, beliefs, identity, and mannerisms of Chhattisgarh, and by actively participating in it, he has developed himself as a very strong grassroots leader," said Diwakar Muktibodh.
According to a senior journalist who didn't want to be named, Baghel has followed a two-fold approach to counter BJP's Hindutva.
"He began by countering the BJP's Hindutva by portraying himself as a pro-Hindu leader. His government started working on the Ram Van Gaman Path, promoting Ramayan festivals, and he took steps to restore the Mata Kaushalya temple in Raipur. The second layer of his plan involved focusing on the inclusive regional identity, which he termed Chhattisgarhiyavaad," the journalist said.
Baghel's influence wasn't limited to Chhattisgarh alone; the Congress gave the responsibility of managing elections in other states as well, such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh.
Ashok Tomar, a political commentator based out of Chhattisgarh, observed that CM Baghel garnered substantial admiration among OBC communities as he campaigned in other parts of the country during Assembly elections.
"Mark my words, in the future, he will be the OBC face of the Congress pan-India. For example, when he canvassed in UP and went to Allahabad, now renamed Prayagraj, he connected with the locals. After the rally in Phulpur, he became very popular among the OBCs of the area," Tomar said.
A senior Congress leader points out that Baghel has already been a star campaigner for the Congress in several states and it is natural that he would be a key part of the party's strategy regarding OBCs.
What Challenges Does Baghel Face?
Before being CM, Baghel didn't really pitch himself as an OBC leader. Till 2018, his focus was more on issues like mining, atrocities against tribals and unemployment.
It was only after coming to power that he began trying to change the discourse of state politics, bringing his OBC identity at the centre.
However, this comes with its own pitfalls.
"The focus on OBCs comes with the threat of divisions within this section. In Chhattisgarh, three communities constitute the majority of OBCs —Kurmi, Yadav, and Sahu. Focusing on OBCs could lead to competition between them. Keeping them united would be a major challenge for the CM."Ashok Tomar
Political analyst Harsh Dubey points out that in 2018, Sahu voters who have traditionally been BJP supporters, shifted to the Congress due to anti-incumbency.
He suggests that it is possible that the community could switch back to the BJP because Congress leaders like Tamradhwaj Sahu were overshadowed by Baghel.
To emerge as a national level OBC face, Baghel would need to retain the united support of Chhattisgarh's OBCs.
Then there's competition at the national level as well.
Former state election commissioner Sushil Trivedi points out that Congress already has OBC leaders like Ashok Gehlot who have proven their political acumen time and again and would pose a major challenge to Baghel's chances.
"Gehlot is a very strong OBC leader in Congress. He has proven to be a leader with a magic wand. He held his ground against strong BJP attacks and silenced his arch-rival Sachin Pilot within the party. If he pulls off a win in the upcoming Rajasthan Assembly elections, his stature will rise further in the party and the public. Furthermore, Karnataka's chief minister, Siddaramaiah is also a strong OBC leader. So yes, Baghel has a chance, but it will take time for him to take centre-stage as a national OBC leader for the Congress."
A lot would depend on whether Baghel is able to score a resounding win in the upcoming Chhattisgarh Assembly elections.