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For 10 years now, Narendra Modi's political contests have featured him as a caste-neutral player. But as the Lok Sabha elections approach, the chorus in his party about his OBC identity is getting louder.
This should be a regressive move for Modi, who thrives on his projection as a "progressive and inclusive" leader. On his own, Modi has never openly invoked his Ghanchi caste, which is a community of oil-pressers from north Gujarat.
But the BJP sees this as a good pitch for the difficult Hindi heartland where OBCs are organised as a vote bank and where projecting Modi as a leader appealing to the urban and upper middle class might not work. The party also knows that the Hindutva card is dated and will not appeal to its NDA allies or voters.
Back home, Modi has been trying hard to get rid of his Hindu-poster boy image although some of his speeches still have overtones of saffron ideology. But there has been no stopping of the photo-ops with Muslims and other minorities since he launched the Sadbhavana mission after getting a clean chit in a 2002 riot case from the judiciary. The move, however, has not broken much ground with Muslims outside Gujarat.
Within Gujarat, projecting Modi as an OBC can be counterproductive, say analysts, since this community is hardly united in the state.
Modi is therefore carefully picking events to reach out to sections across the country. He Recently spoke at the Dharma Meemamsa Parishad at Kerala's Sivagiri Mutt, founded by Sree Narayan Guru, a social reformer from the OBC Ezhava caste.
In Gujarat, organising the backward communities and Muslims under the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim (KHAM) banner was credited for the victories of the Congress party's longest ruling CM, Madhavsinh Solanki. Although the move pushed the Patels away from the Congress, it helped the party remain in power in Gujarat.