‘Why are you asleep?’ Rahul Gandhi pleads with India’s low castes to vote out Modi

<span>Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Varanasi on 17 February as part of his national tour.</span><span>Photograph: Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images</span>
Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Varanasi on 17 February as part of his national tour.Photograph: Ritesh Shukla/Getty Images

His voice hoarse from all the speeches he had made during his 4,000-mile march across the breadth of India, Rahul Gandhi urged people at a rally in Uttar Pradesh state to think hard.

Specifically, to think hard about caste. “Are there any of you Dalits or other low castes in the judiciary?” the leading face of India’s opposition Congress party, asked the crowd. “Are any of you in the media? Do any of you own even one of India’s 200 top companies? Of the civil servant class which rules this country, are any of you among them?

“Why are you all asleep? Don’t you see you’re being fooled? There are hardly any of you in these institutions. You are 73% of the population. What kind of society is this where you don’t make any decisions?”

Gandhi is the fifth generation of the illustrious first family that used to tower over Indian politics but which has lost some of its aura in recent years. As he makes his third attempt to defeat the Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, after defeats in 2014 and 2019, he has pitched himself as an unlikely man of the people, calling for a “caste census” that would shine a light on who owns wealth and wields power.

At the heart of his campaign ahead of the election, which is likely to be held in May, Gandhi has been walking across the country, from east to west, holding rallies every day.

Last week the march took him through Allahabad, a town closely linked with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which has given India three prime ministers.

His cavalcade set off from Anand Bhawan, the historic house, now a museum, from where his great grandfather and grand­father took part in the freedom movement against British rule.

By the time he reached a local landmark, a former cinema called Laxmi Talkies, a huge crowd had assembled. Although Gandhi used to be an indifferent speaker, the long march with its endless rallies has lifted his oratory. His voice carries more conviction. He is more adept at working a crowd. Long dismissed as an irrelevant dilettante by the ruling Bharatiya Janata party of prime Minister Modi and scorned as an entitled dynast, Gandhi has proved on this march – and on his first march last year which took him from south to north – that he can handle the grind of grassroots politics and connect with ordinary Indians.

India, says Gandhi, is in the dark about caste, the rigid Hindu system of social hierarchy. “You’re nowhere,” he tells the crowds. “You have to find out what is your share in the country’s wealth. How much wealth do the 73% castes have in this country? This will reveal everything.”

India’s affirmative action of the past few decades has been based on estimates. The last caste census was in 1931, under British rule. The findings of a census in 2011 were never made public. Late last year, the government of Bihar state, ruled by a local party, became the first to carry out a caste census. It revealed that more than two-thirds of its 130 million people belonged to so-called “backward” or marginalised communities, a much higher figure than most people imagined. Gandhi is demanding a similar census in all of India’s 28 states. He wants more clarity on the respective sizes of each category of caste that has been the basis for affirmative action.

Despite decades of such action, social inequality remains extreme. The privileged castes still control the bulk of the country’s resources and make most of the decisions. In its 2023 Davos report, Oxfam said 60% of the country’s wealth was held by the richest 5% of citizens.

Whether Gandhi’s demand will win voters is an unknown. “He has nothing else. His party tried a soft version of the ruling BJP’s Hindu nationalism and it didn’t work,” said Asim Ali, a political researcher. But, he added: “This focus on caste has come a bit late. It will need five to 10 years to mobilise opinion on this. It’s too late to have an impact on this general election.”

The opposition alliance of which Congress is a member has been lurching from crisis to crisis. Beyond wanting to topple Modi, little unites the more than two dozen parties in the India coalition, as it is known by its acronym. Compared with the monolith of the BJP which exudes confidence about coming back with an even larger majority – together with its partners it won 353 of the 543 parliamentary seats in 2019 – the India alliance is struggling even with the basics such as seat-sharing arrangements in key constituencies.

On the caste census, it’s quite clear that Gandhi feels he is on to something and is running with it. On its own, maybe it would not fly but if he can latch it to unemployment and inflation, his party feels there is a chance to undercut the BJP’s support.

As Sanjay Jha, a former Congress leader and now a political analyst, points out, among those devastated by the pandemic and reeling from economic hardship, the call for a caste census to re-allocate the country’s resources will strike a chord.

“If, after 10 years of Modi’s rule, they look at their lives and see that all they have got is a cooking gas cylinder and some free grain, they are going to wonder if it’s enough,” says Jha.

The BJP has been successful in subsuming caste differences under its ideology of Hindu nationalism. Neerja Chowdhury, a political analyst, says Gandhi is hoping to crack the caste consolidation that the BJP has achieved by creating a new caste consciousness to show people they have been hoodwinked.

“But where Gandhi is failing is articulating this message in an idiom that will click or in a catchy slogan that’s part of a narrative that could project him as an alternative to Modi. That isn’t happening,” she said.