Bhupesh Baghel: Social justice champion or protector of caste elite interests?

Bhupesh Baghel’s strategy to woo SC, ST, and OBC voters weakens the social justice agenda in a state where 80% of the population has only 20% share in the economy.
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel
Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh BaghelBhupesh Baghel |Twitter
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Bhupesh Baghel has been described in the media as a person with bigger ambitions than returning as the Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh in the ongoing Assembly elections. 

Going into the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, his supporters in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar have been rooting for him to replace Rajasthan CM Ashok Gehlot as the Congress party’s social justice mascot in the Hindi states. His supporters argue that he has greater cultural affinity with the people of this belt than Gehlot.

An evaluation of his claim to fame is useful, whether he wins this round or not, to understand what is today the flavour of the season in Indian politics — the assertion of regional leaders from electorally powerful communities listed under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) — and the Congress party’s desperate search for a leader who can ride this wave.

During the 15 years of BJP’s Raman Singh’s chief ministership, Baghel’s focus as an Opposition leader was on issues such as mining, Adivasi rights, and failures of the government on the development front. When he took power in 2018, he quickly rebranded himself as a champion of social justice and Chhattisgarhiya pride, and asserted his Kurmi identity. It has been his main plank in these elections too.

This rebranding helped him demonstrate why he was worthy of being CM for a full five years instead of sharing the term with his party colleague TS Singh Deo, who is seen as a representative of the old caste elite that ruled north India. 

“Deo belongs to an aristocratic line of the Rajput community, whose population in the state is less than 0.5%. The Congress leadership in Delhi understood that the mood in the country has changed,” said Naresh Kumar Sahu, a Raipur-based Ambedkarite Buddhist activist from the Sahu OBC community. Naresh added, “Pushing for a Rajput in a state where more than 95% of the population is Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), or OBC, that too in today’s context, would have outraged millions.”

Baghel made his first major foray out of the state in 2019, a little over a year after he became Chhattisgarh’s first OBC CM in the 23 years since it was formed. He was invited to be the chief guest of the first ever social justice conference organised with much hullabaloo in September 2019 by the Congress unit of neighbouring Bihar. 

The Bihar gala was projected as the Congress party’s answer to Nitish Kumar, also a Kurmi. It marked the first serious attempt by the Congress to organise a social justice-themed event to counter the non-Brahmin assertion started by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, which practically pushed the Congress out of the equation in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar more than three decades ago. 

Since the Bihar conference, Baghel has campaigned for the Congress in several state elections. 

It was also there that Baghel was first hailed as a pan-India champion of social justice for the string of direct benefit schemes he had introduced and, more importantly, for announcing that he would take reservations to a record-breaking figure of 76%.

The schemes and the promise of increased reservation helped create an image of  Baghel as a champion of social justice.

The economics of social justice

Economists, however, are divided over whether direct benefit or cash schemes should be dignified as welfare interventions or dismissed as ‘freebies’. 

But sociologists widely agree that such short term economic measures do little to demolish the unequal social structures that make direct cash handouts necessary in the first place. 

“These schemes that the Congress and BJP are advertising in the elections do not fundamentally change who or which social group controls capital and labour,” said Agnish Dev, who is pursuing his PhD in Sociology from the Department of Policy Studies at the Central University in Kasargod, Kerala. 

Agnish, who hails from the Satnami SC community of Chhattisgarh, is part of a growing national network of Ambedkarite scholars and student activists who have been collaborating since the 2016 Rohith Vemula movement. 

He is also part of a Neo-Buddhist Ambedkarite fraternity of scholars and intellectuals in Raipur, along with Naresh Sahu, which lobbies with leaders from anti-caste political parties in Chhattisgarh to take Ambedkarite positions on a variety of issues. This includes the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), Johar Chhattisgarh Party (JCP), Amit Jogi’s Janata Congress (JC), and Arvind Netam’s Hamar Raj Party (HRP). Together, these parties are expected to win a clutch of seats, and also about 7% of the vote in these elections by Baghel’s own admission in interviews to the press. 

Back in Kerala, Agnish is also a member of the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), which was formed at his university after the death of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University in 2016.

When we met with his fraternity in Raipur during the elections, Agnish said that it is his mission to use his ‘Ambedkarite lens’, which he has acquired over the last eight years through scholarly research and campus activism, to impact ideas on social justice policies in his home state. 

“For instance, if agriculture loan waivers are going to be a recurring phenomenon in the state, then it’s not unreasonable to pause at some point to ask what makes Chhattisgarhiya farmers incapable of improving their credit worthiness,” he said, adding, “What we should be asking is whether agriculture is an unprofitable caste occupation that a majority of lowered castes are forced to perform.”

Affirmative action through reservations in government jobs and education is one way of demolishing these structures. And Baghel has done well on that count to propose an increment in quotas to better represent various sections in proportion to their population. In 2022, he passed two bills to provide 76% reservation for SC (13%), ST (32%), OBC (27%), and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS, 4%).

One could argue that this is not enough, that the OBC reservation should be 45% because that's the estimate of their share in the population. Actually, if settlers from other states are subtracted from calculations, the percentage of SC, ST, and OBCs who are indigenous to Chhattisgarh shoots up further to more than 95% of the population. You could argue that 95% should be the minimum cutoff before the EWS quota can be added in the state. Not to forget the long standing demand that SC and ST categories should not be treated as homogeneous blocks and that there should be further categorisation based on the size of individual social groups that have been lumped together in these two categories.

“It can also be argued that Baghel’s move is a positive interim measure until a proper caste census is conducted to establish the true numbers of the the ruling castes, the various non-Brahmin castes in the OBC list, as well as the groups under SC and ST,” said Agnish, pointing out, “The ball is in the Prime Minister’s court.”

To Baghel’s credit, his cabinet too was more reflective of the enormous diversity of Chhattisgarh. 

The previous BJP cabinet led by Raman Singh was filled with ministers from privileged castes, starting with the Chief Minister who belongs to a Rajput family hailing from Pratapgarh in Uttar Pradesh. 

Singh’s government was also perceived to represent an old settler-colonial class of merchants and mine owners from the Brahmin-Bania castes, hailing from Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Bihar. 

“The most prominent ministers in the Raman Singh government were Brahmins and Banias hailing from outside the state like Rajesh Munath, Brijmohan Agarwal, Amar Agarwal, and Prem Prakash Pandey. In Baghel’s cabinet, TS Singh Deo is one of the few upper castes,” said Naresh Sahu, who is also a centrally-sponsored postdoctoral fellow at Raipur’s PRS state University. 

Businessmen from these groups, Naresh said, have been prospecting here ever since the outside world learnt of Chhattisgarh’s natural riches more than a century ago — medicinal plants, rare forest produce, timber, iron ore, coal, bauxite, and, more recently, diamonds.

Social justice or old wine, new bottle?

Ashna Singh, an assistant professor of Law at the National Law University in Bengaluru who teaches a course on Caste and Law, said that the emergence of OBC leaders across the country has also taken a toll on the Dalit agenda in the anti-caste movement. 

Ashna, who hails from the Chamar SC community of Uttar Pradesh, started her PhD research at the NLU in Lucknow the year Rohith Vemula passed away. She said that the intensity of the nationwide ‘Justice for Rohith’ struggle pushed her to go beyond her PhD research to explore Ambedkarite theory. Ambedkar’s insights on the legislative process, she said, helped her analyse anti-caste law-making and politics in the Hindi states. 

“The Rohith struggle had a profound impact on my study of relations between Dalits and all other so-called progressive groups in the country,” she said.

She recalled that it was after Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder that several Dalit intellectuals began to ask hard questions about non-application or improper implementation of reservation policies. “This became part of popular public discourse on social media and elsewhere and political parties sensed the pulse of the marginalised masses,” she said. “Riding on this new-found understanding of what common people from marginalised communities want, political parties began to push for caste census and an increase in the quantity of reservations,” Ashna added.

Ashna is also a supporter of the recently formed All India Independent Scheduled Caste Association (AIISCA), started by Rahul Sonpimple, former JNU leader and co-founder of the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association (BAPSA).

Sonpimple’s organisation is led by his Dalit comrades from different parts of the country who were part of various Ambedkarite student movements of the last decade. At their inaugural conference at Nagpur in Maharashtra last month, which Ashna attended, the AIISCA declared that their main demand is reservations in the private sector, which includes a share of government contracts as well as privately held capital. 

Ashna sees the Ambedkarite Buddhist movement and the politics of the AIISCA as efforts to consolidate the Dalit movement after the turbulence of the last decade. She described them as “nation building projects”.

According to her, the new kind of anti-caste politics triggered by the Rohith movement created two major problems for Dalits who are not just oppressed by the most privileged castes but also by communities listed under OBC. 

“First, the caste census and upward revisions in reservations mainly cater to the dominant castes that form a major chunk of votes in several states. In such a situation, the Dalit cause tends to be subservient to an overall vision of ‘Bahujan’ emancipation.

“And second, the quantity of reservations itself will not make much of a difference as public sector jobs are increasingly being contractualised or there is no recruitment, or stay orders on recruitments that remain unresolved for years. A quantitative increase in reservation means very little or is an illusion when the pie is already shrunken. 

“The private sector is not even a part of this pie. Further, such quantitative increases will most likely end up in courts as they breach the 50% rule set by the Supreme Court in the Indira Sawhney case. Therefore, these measures might pass the test of the electorate but fail the test of the court. The anticipated beneficiaries are placed in a situation where they have to bear the larger risk that comes with these illusory measures,” she said.

Ashna said that Baghel’s handling of the reservation question has all these contradictions that are visible in the rest of the country and pointed to the entire rigmarole that his much-touted Bills got into.

In August this year, under pressure from anxious students and job seekers, the Baghel government decided to revert to the reservation matrix of 58% created by the Raman Singh government. This was after the Supreme Court lifted a ban on the previous BJP government’s move to raise reservations to 58% from the figure of 50%.

As for his own two Bills that took the figure to 76%, they are languishing before the Governor. It is ironic that Anusuiya Uikey, who was the first Adivasi Governor of the Adivasi dominated state, stymied the most important social justice legislation pushed by the state’s first OBC CM. Uikey and Baghel were colleagues in the Congress unit of undivided Madhya Pradesh until she quit to join the BJP in 1998. 

Ashna dismissed the whole exercise as a charade for votes, saying, “I don’t think Baghel realistically thought it would make it past the Governor, let alone the courts.”

A small share in a small piece of the pie

All these numbers and percentages raise a simple question — 58% or 50% or 76% of what? Whatever it means in terms of seats in educational institutions depends on which institutions follow the reservation system and those that are exempted from following it. As for government jobs, they are less than 2% of the job market.

To understand the Chhattisgarh economy, we went into the latest economic surveys. It turned out that 80% of the population is involved in agriculture in one way or another. It is important to say ‘one way or another’ because this doesn't mean that 80% of the population owns farmland. In fact, OBCs own a disproportionately large share of the land in relation to their population. Adivasis and Dalits own less land than their share in the population of the state.

Chhattisgarh has emerged as one of the states with the fastest growth rate in the country on the back of its mining, manufacturing, and allied services that have boomed under Baghel. Agriculture contributes only 20% to the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP), despite employing 80% of the population. Mining and manufacturing and the services sector stood at a whopping 73% of the economy in 2022-23. 

We met Chandrashekhar Verma Dangania, the president of the Chhattisgarhiya Vanijya Evam Udyog Mahasabha, or the Indigenous Chambers of Commerce, to better understand how the economy works in the ST, OBC, and SC dominated state. Chandrashekhar said that his organisation was formed to counter the influence of capitalists from outside the state.

“Let me give you the real sense of the Chhattisgarhiya vs Pardesiya (outsider) issue that Baghel has built his brand on,” he said, “My organisation has units in all districts and tehsils of the state. We have 10,000 registered business people.

“But guess what business they are into? Shopkeepers and petty traders, most of them. The biggest moneybags we have are transport and labour contractors who service the mining and manufacturing sectors. Comparing outsiders and locals is like comparing haathi aur cheenti (elephants and ants).

“More than 80% of our people are into agriculture, while nearly 80% of the economy is controlled by outsiders.

“Chhattisgarhiya vs Pardesiya is not just a regional sentiment like it is in south India. This is a state where more than 95% of the population is from oppressed castes. The regional agenda in Chhattisgarh is at once a social justice and anti-caste agenda as well,” Chandrashekhar said.

He said that Baghel has done nothing to rationalise the ownership of the mining sector, which is the springwell of all industrial activity in the state. The core business of exploiting the state’s resources is still in the hands of a few corporations headed by Sindhis, Marwaris, and Brahmins from outside, he said. The mining sector provides raw materials for the manufacturing sector and the services sector is dependent on the first two for survival. 

“Mining is like the sanctum of a temple, only a few castes can enter. Seriously, we are not even big enough to bid when the auctions happen. There is not one single Chhattisgarhiya in the entire iron ore and coal mining business, which generates billions. 

“In manufacturing, we might have a few people in low-value and downstream industries such as sponge iron manufacturing. We have a few people in fabrications and construction materials, forging and casting. The best performing sector is furniture manufacturing. For this, we depend on the big corporations for timber. There is hardly any ST or SC in all of this. 

“A few STs, mostly Gonds, are in the services sector, but they do not own large companies. Just some small transport or manpower businesses. 

“Couldn’t Baghel have helped our local business people by providing credit or by helping the formation of cartels for joint bidding? 

“After all, it is the government that’s inviting bids, shouldn’t social justice be a component in this as well? Is it wrong to ask that 76% of the share in the mining business be reserved for ST, SC, and OBC groups that are indigenous to the state?”

Chandrashekhar said that whether it is Baghel, Raman Singh, or the various rulers that have come and gone in the last century, nobody has dared to disturb the mining-processing-manufacturing industrial lobby. 

“It is what gives them the slush funds for their political campaigns and the revenue for their so-called farmer welfare projects,” he said, adding, “I am also a Kurmi like the CM. I can speak on behalf of our community’s entire business class when I say that we have not received any great benefits from this government, not even small contracts from the Industries Development Corporation. Baghel wants us to remain farmers.”

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