The decision of the BJP-led government to amend the Constitution to provide for 10% quota for poor among communities not eligible for reservations in jobs and higher education opens a new front that is likely to play out in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
The decision of the BJP-led government to amend the Constitution to provide for 10% quota for poor among communities not eligible for reservations in jobs and higher education opens a new front that is likely to play out in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. For the ruling BJP, the move seems to have been crafted with an eye on Lok Sabha elections in a few months from now with an aim to leave behind the party’s defeat in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
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Apart from claims of affirmative action towards economically weaker sections, the move appears an attempt by the BJP to open fresh opportunities in the wake of a re-energised Opposition. In particular, the move appears to wrest control of the pre-poll narrative and throw the Opposition off balance.
“Everyone was talking about the narrative. Let us see what happens now,” a senior government functionary said, suggesting that the ruling party hopes to rise above the Opposition-dictated narrative ahead of the polls. The political backdrop of the move may, however, suggest that it could be an attempt by the ruling BJP to appease its core support base among upper castes in the wake of the backlash the party faced over the Modi government’s stance in favour of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act last year.
“Our stance in favour of the SC/ST Act generated a backlash among our traditional upper caste support base,” was what several BJP leaders said contributed to the party’s defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. RJD vice-president and former Union Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh said: “This is an attempt to placate the BJP’s upper castes to save his (Modi’s) chair after the party’s defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Where are the government jobs to share this?”.
A similar move in the past to ward off a political challenge did change the course of Indian politics, if not necessarily, the protagonist of the move. In fact, the sudden decision to accept the Mandal Commission recommendations by the then Prime Minister, VP Singh, in August 1990 to neutralise the political challenge from his rivals ended up benefitting the OBCs, but it did not save him.
Political leaders championing social justice, however, appeared divided over the play of this card — class war among the un-reserved category — ahead of the 2019 elections. Given how BJP had subtly used Modi’s backward class credentials to woo a large section of non-dominant backward class communities, the move has the potential to upset his image among backward communities. “The entire social justice politics has an undertone that reservation is an exclusive political right of the backward castes. Extending it to upper castes takes away that political bragging right, and creates confusion since it can be widened further to erode their exclusivity in future,” said an upper caste leader, well versed in the caste politics of the Hindi heartland.
In fact, BJP governments in Haryana (Jats), Gujarat (Patidar) and Maharashtra (Marathas) have faced a backlash from dominant castes who have been demanding reservation for their communities since 2014. Whether this move, of extending quota benefits to a larger amorphous group of communities, endears them will be tested in the coming days in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
While some political parties have made similar demands in the past for quota benefits to poor among un-reserved communities, the previous attempt to provide it through executive means have fallen through the legal challenges. The latest move, through a Constitution amendment, still runs a challenge in court — whether the introduction of economic criteria for affirmative action falls under the vision of the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution.