If there is one community that holds the answers to who will form the next government in Gujarat after the December assembly polls, it is the state's OBCs, the intermediate castes who are officially known as other backward classes, a leading sociologist says.
"They can influence the outcome of the polls in at least 70 (of the state's 182) seats. That is much larger than Muslims (35), Adivasis (26) and Dalits (13) as well as upper castes. They can very well decide the future government," Gaurang Jani, sociologist at Ahmedabad's Gujarat University said.
"According to the 1931 caste census, OBCs formed 40 percent of Gujarat's population. Since 1931, no caste census has been conducted, either in Gujarat or in India. But we can definitely say that OBCs are without a doubt the largest caste group in the state," said Vidyut Joshi, emeritus sociologist at the Gujarat Vidyapith in Ahmedabad.
The OBC vote in Gujarat currently is split equally between both the main political parties. There is a reason for this.
After 1960, when Gujarat was formed, the OBCs supported the Congress. "OBC support for the Congress peaked in 1985 when the Congress led by Madhavsinh Solanki (himself an OBC) won 149 seats. Thereafter, when the 'Mandir' agitation started, many OBCs were attracted to Hindutva and threw in their lot with the BJP," Jani said.
Chief Minister Narendra Modi is himself an OBC from the Hindu Ghanchi community, which is the Gujarat equivalent of the Teli (oil presser) caste of northern India.
And therein lies the rub. Most critics of the BJP and Modi complain that while he himself is an OBC, he has hardly ever projected himself as one, preferring to be known as Hindutva's poster boy. In the process, he might have alienated his own caste bretheren.
"Just consider their (OBCs') issues. The fruits of land re-distribution have not reached them. Patels and Rajputs are still the big landlords in the state. Literacy among them is very low. Consequently, they are socially backward. There is also unemployment. Most OBCs have been left out in the privatisation drive in most government departments. The OBCs, like the tribals, are the real poor of Gujarat," Jani said.
"Till now, Modi has done nothing for the OBCs. He has just hobnobbed with big business and forgotten his own," he added.
Dalsukh Prajapati, president of the Congress' OBC cell, agreed. "Sixty percent of OBCs in Gujarat are poor, whereas the BJP is a rich man's party. Subsidies for us in employment and business have been stopped. Modi himself might be an OBC, but he has been led astray by those behind him who are Brahmins, Patel or other upper castes. They have made him focus on big business while forgetting the poor of the state."
Natuji Thakor, an OBC and BJP MP from Mehsana, disputed this. "We have started the 108 Ambulance Service, organised Garib Kalyan Kendras, given loans for business and employment, given two million new houses and brought in Narmada water for OBC farmers. What more do you want?"
Whatever the argument, one thing is clear, say analysts. And that is that the OBCs will assert their caste basis in this election.
"OBCs till now have not asserted their political and caste consciousness. But they are now asserting their identity and this will be a factor," Joshi said.
"They (OBCs) did not get power in the BJP governments since 1995. They did not profit from the fruits of development. There is no doubt that the caste factor will reassert itself again," Jani said.
The OBCs in Gujarat, found across all five regions of the state, are divided into three categories: fisherfolk who live along the coast; agriculturists, including small farmers and sharecroppers, who live inland; and artisan communities.
Gujarat's two-phase polls will be held Dec 13 and Dec 17. Counting will be done on Dec 20.
The BJP has been in power in Gujarat since 1995. Modi first assumed office in October 2001 and is now bidding for his third term.