Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally in Amreli, near Ahmedabad. More than 157 million of the country's 900 million voters are eligible to cast ballots on the second of seven days of voting in the world's biggest election. Photo: AFP

From Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the heads of national and regional opposition parties, caste seems to be at the center of heated political exchanges between Indian leaders as the country enters the fourth phase of the general elections today.

While Finance Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Arun Jaitley on Sunday tried to defend Modi by claiming that he has never resorted to caste-based politics, the prime minister underlined his Other Backward Classes (OBC) identity at a political rally. Caste is known as a major plank on which elections in India are often fought and won.

Caste is also one of the main factors in the Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends the most MPs to the Parliament. Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, who commands a significant part of the Scheduled Caste votes in the state, had used it earlier to attack PM Modi.

Hitting back at Mayawati for her “fake OBC” comment on Modi, the prime minister on Saturday said that he was not only an OBC but was born in “the most backward caste.” He was speaking at an election rally in the Kannauj constituency in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh; polling was held on Monday in Kannauj.

Both Mayawati and her ally Akhilesh Yadav, chief of the Samajwadi Party, have claimed that Modi was not born OBC, but was so only on paper. While addressing a joint rally in Jalaun on Friday, Mayawati told OBC and Dalit (the lowest caste in Hindu caste system) voters that when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat he used his authority to include his “forward caste” in the OBC category.

On Sunday, Modi said that he did not support caste-based politics and the country only came to know of his caste when his opponents started discussing it.

But Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra said that her party never raised questions about Modi’s caste. “I still do not know what the prime minister’s caste is,” she said.

Another opposition party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, also joined in this trend of taking potshots. Tejashwi Yadav, RJD leader in Bihar, tweeted: “I had told on 20th April [2019] that @narendramodi ji, after portraying himself as a fake OBC, will show himself as a most backward caste person and he did it yesterday [at the Kannauj rally in Uttar Pradesh]. ”

Despite Vadra’s claims thatCongress does not take part in caste-based attacks, senior Congress leader P Chidambaram tweeted the same day: “Mr Narendra Modi is the first person who became PM later who campaigned wearing his caste on his sleeve (2014): ‘I am an OBC.’ Now, he says he has no caste!”

Even as Modi and Jaitley tried to maintain a position against using caste in their campaigns, BJP President Amit Shah targeted the SP and the BSP, saying that the governments of those parties distributed the benefits of state-run schemes on the basis of caste and religion.

“This Behenji (Mayawati) and Akhilesh, when their government was in power, they did not work for anyone except their family and people belonging to their castes. Now, does anyone ask for your caste when gas cylinders are distributed? We gave reservation to upper castes. We have removed casteism from India,” Shah said at an election rally in Uttar Pradesh.

On the other hand, Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) East Delhi candidate Atishi Marlena received barbs over her religion from opposition parties, notably the former Congress MLA from Okhla, Asif Khan. Marlena had already faced controversial comments of opposition parties for dropping her nickname on social media and promotional materials when her rumors of her being Christian or a foreigner had started to spread.

But Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia gave her support and warned both the BJP and the Congress that her “full name is Atishi Singh” and “she is a Rajputani.” Rajputani is a reference to a female member of the warrior community of Rajputs in North India. This came after Asif Khan was allegedly seen in a video from an election campaign claiming that Marlena was a Jew.

“I am sad that the BJP and Congress together are spreading lies about the religion of our East Delhi candidate,” Sisodia said in a tweet.

Caste and religion are expected to play an important role in deciding the outcome of the seven-phase general elections and thus, political parties are likely to continue using these factors in their campaigns.

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