Narendra Modi wants the most backwards among the OBCs to benefit from reservation. The commission to look into the issue will submit the report by June 20.
There is one question that has been gnawing at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political adversaries and supporters alike: “What will be his next big gambit before 2019 Lok Sabha elections?”
There are speculations galore in political circles even as desperate opposition leaders of disparate ideologies scramble to stitch together yet another experiment with mahagathbandhan to counter Modi’s hitherto intact personal popularity. The mahagathbandhan, by itself, was originally an anti-Congress political tactic advocated by Ram Manohar Lohia.
None in those circles had anticipated surgical strikes across the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Nor had anyone foreseen the demonetisation move or the push for a ban on triple talaq. There are, therefore, wild conjectures about a possible game-changer move by Modi ahead of 2019 to shake up the voters’ fatigue. The possibilities range from the delivery on the saffron party’s old promise of the Ram temple in Ayodhya to a limited military engagement with a neighbour. The closer we get to the elections, the wilder these theories grow.
Recently, a curious visitor couldn’t help asking the Prime Minister: “What’s the next big announcement we should wait for?”
Some BJP functionaries present there smiled at the intrepid visitor. “Notebandi kaa aapko kab pataa chalaa? Agar aapko pehle pataa chal jaaye, toh phir Modi kya (When did you get to know about demonetisation? What’s the point of Modi being at the helm if you get to know of such things beforehand),” a BJP leader quoted the Prime Minister as saying in response. That was over a couple of months ago.
Triggering a re-alignment
Modi may actually have started working on the potential game-changer for 2019 two years ahead of elections. In August 2017, his government decided to set up a commission to work out sub-categorisation within the other backward classes (OBCs) for “more equitable distribution of reservation benefits”. This was about 20 months after a mahagathbandhan of anti-BJP parties defeated the saffron party in Bihar assembly election. A similar mahagathbandhan model was followed by the Congress and the JD(S) in Karnataka, and is now likely to be replicated at the national level as well.
After getting two extensions, the commission headed by retired Justice G. Rohini has to submit the report by June 20. For a change, the Prime Minister is open about his plans. “The government wants the most backwards among OBCs to benefit more from reservation within the given limit,” he declared at Baghpat last week.
The BJP’s spectacular success in Uttar Pradesh in the Lok Sabha and subsequently in the assembly election had much to do with the party’s ability to win over non-Yadav OBCs. Yadavs constitute nine per cent of UP’s population while all OBCs together make up 45 per cent.
But recent Lok Sabha bypolls in UP indicated that the coalition of upper castes and non-dominant OBCs that the BJP successfully engineered may be unravelling. And that’s where Modi’s OBC sub-categorisation gambit is expected to come into play. It is aimed at cleaving the OBC reservation category into two groups: the numerically stronger but economically weaker groups as one sub-category; and the upwardly mobile, socio-economically and politically influential groups as the other. The Centre’s move is expected to trigger such re-alignments among the OBCs in different states.
By reaching under the so-called creamy layer in the OBC, Modi government can diversify the reservation benefits, but also make significant political inroads in the community.
Risky politics or masterstroke
Modi’s gambit may have unintended consequences, too. For instance, in Rajasthan, which scheduled to go to polls later this year, it might even backfire. The Jats who got reservation in the OBC category are perceived to have cornered the lion’s share of the benefits, triggering agitations by Gujjars, another dominant OBC, for their inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes category. Meenas, who are the main beneficiaries of reservation under the ST category, have had prolonged and often violent showdowns with Gujjars on this issue. A majority of Jats and sections of Gujjars and Meenas are loyal to the BJP. Modi’s gambit could put chief minister Vasundhara Raje on a sticky wicket.
And a similar predicament will be visible in other states as well. Many influential communities such as Kapus in Andhra Pradesh, Marathas in Maharashtra, Patidars in Gujarat, and Jats in Haryana have been demanding reservation benefits. These communities are not necessarily captive BJP constituencies. Pitting non-dominant, numerically stronger caste groups against them may look like a plausible electoral strategy. The party has already given clear indication of its strategy in the choice of its chief ministers in several states – a non-Maratha in Maharashtra, a non-Jat in Haryana, a non-tribal in Jharkhand, and a non-Patel in Gujarat.
As Modi prepares to stir the OBC cauldron, he must surely have taken into account the imponderables and unforeseen consequences. It can prove to be a masterstroke or can be risky politics in the penultimate year before the election. But if risks deterred him, “phir Modi kya”.