The demand for reservations based on economic status has been long standing, and the BJP has attempted to fulfil it through this move.
There are four reasons why this move is a masterstroke, and will help the BJP in the upcoming elections:
1. It caught the opposition unawares, making it difficult for them to oppose it
The opposition and the media did not have a clue about this mega move. There was some speculation that the BJP could announce some sops for farmers, but the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo managed to surprise everyone with this move. Though the Congress is calling it a jumla, it will be very difficult for them to oppose it in Parliament. It’s a catch-22 situation for the opposition.
If they vote against the amendment, they could face the wrath of upper caste groups. Congress received 2.5 per cent of its total 19.5 per cent vote share in the 2014 elections from the upper caste. If they vote for the amendment, the ultimate credit will be taken by the BJP.
2. It soothes the nerves of the upper caste anchor voting segment of the BJP
The upper castes account for approximately 20 per cent-25 per cent of the country’s population. In the Hindi heartland states, where the BJP won maximum seats in 2014, their proportion is even higher.
In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 47 per cent of the upper caste voted for the BJP as per CSDS. The BJP received 8.9 per cent of its total 31.3 per cent vote share in the 2014 elections from the upper caste.
According to a Dainik Bhaskar report, the upper castes account for 31 per cent of the Hindu population and enjoy influence in 125 Lok Sabha seats. Over the past few years, a section of the upper caste was unhappy with the excessive appeasement of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) community by the party.
The amendment to the SC-ST Act nullifying the Supreme Court order served as the last nail in the coffin. There were upper caste protests in the three Hindi heartland states, especially Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. In fact, one of the upper caste groups deserted the party in both the states, leading to the loss in the recent state elections.
In MP, specifically, a section of the upper castes was angry about the following issues:
- SC-ST amendment
- Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s controversial ‘mai ka lal’ statement. (Shivraj Singh Chauhan during the campaigning phase had said that no one can end reservations for the backward communities in the country)
- Both key positions of CM and state BJP president post occupied by OBC members
The dissent even led to the formation of the Samanya Pichhda evam Alpsankhyak Samaj (SAPAKS), which was an anti-reservation front. Posters were put up in many villages warning BJP leaders from entering and seeking votes by declaring that ‘yahan forward caste rehte hain’ (forward castes stay here).
Though the party bagged only 0.4 per cent vote share, it scored more votes than the margin of victory in two seats leading to the BJP’s defeat. These seats played a crucial role in a hung assembly, where the difference between Congress and the BJP in the end was as narrow as only five seats.
In the Gwalior Chambal region, which has huge population of upper castes (roughly 30 per cent), BJP suffered a massive hit. Realising their folly and making amends, the party appointed prominent Brahmin face Gopal Bhargav as leader of opposition in the assembly. This coincided with the declaration of the reservation, making the message adequately clear.
3. It will be difficult for courts to interfere in a constitutional amendment
Many commentators as well as the opposition have been claiming that this move will not stand judicial scrutiny and will be challenged as the Supreme Court has in many judgements capped the quota at 50 per cent. What they fail to realise is that BJP is talking about a constitutional amendment.
If the amendment passes through both houses of Parliament, then though it can be challenged, it will not be easy for courts to strike it down unless they feel it is against the spirit of the Constitution.
Further, these issues are fought in the people’s court. Even if it is struck down, the BJP can go to the voters and say it had good intentions but courts are not allowing, and it will try through other means.
4. It does not touch the quota of existing beneficiaries, so there remains nothing to be opposed
The quota proposed is over and above the 50 per cent for SC-ST and OBCs provided in the Constitution. Since this doesn’t disturb their existing benefits in admissions and jobs, they are not likely to oppose the move by the BJP government.
In Bihar, Mohan Bhagwat’s economics-based reservation statement was tweaked by the opposition to portray that the BJP wants to remove reservations, and the party had to pay a heavy price in elections. It has to guard itself against such rumour-mongering this time as well.
Politics Is The Art Of Managing Contradictions
The SC-ST Amendment Act proved to be a double whammy for the BJP. It failed to elicit support from the Dalit community in the three state elections but it also alienated the core supporter of BJP, the forward caste. Congress and other opposition parties have succeeded in painting the BJP as anti-Dalit.
This strategy of bringing in reservations for the upper caste communities will help the BJP consolidate its anchor vote segments of upper caste and OBCs, which account for 60 per cent of the population.
The elections could well turn out to be upper caste (UC) + non-Yadav-OBCs + ST as one voting block versus Yadavs + Dalits + Muslims as the other. The BJP did manage to get the highest support of Dalits in 2014 (24 per cent) but this is likely to move back to Bahujan Samaj Party and Congress in 2019.
To sum up, the BJP has taken a bold step of moving towards eliminating caste-based reservations. It helps politically as well after suffering setbacks in three states as it assuages its core vote bank.
This article was first published on swarajyamag.com on 8th Jan. 2019.