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RSS in 2015, SC in 2020 — quota row hits Bihar polls again but here’s why BJP isn’t worried

In 2015, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for a review of reservation had cost the BJP dearly in the assembly polls.

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New Delhi: With the Supreme Court saying that reservation is not a fundamental right, the campaign for the 2020 Bihar assembly elections has taken on a similar note as it did during the 2015 polls. 

During the campaign for the 2015 assembly election in the state, Mohan Bhagwat, the chief of the BJP’s ideological parent RSS, called for a review of reservation. The statement is believed to have heavily dented the BJP’s tally in Bihar, where caste calculations are said to hold the key to election wins and losses.

In light of the Supreme Court’s observation, the political opposition in Bihar — from the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) of Lalu Prasad to former BJP ally Rashtriya Lok Samta Party (RLSP) of Upendra Kushwaha and Sharad Yadav, another former NDA constituent — has brought the reservation issue at the front and centre of the campaign.

The RJD has demanded that reservation be placed in the ninth schedule of the Constitution, to make it immune to judicial review, while Sharad Yadav has demanded an immediate ordinance from the Modi government against the order. Upendra Kushwaha, meanwhile, has questioned the ability and merit of the judges who made the observation. 

Apprehensive about the possible repercussions, BJP president J.P. Nadda issued an immediate clarification that his party’s government is committed to reservation. 

However, political analysts said the Supreme Court’s statement is unlikely to have a bearing on the elections since it has not been made by a political leader.

Also Read: EC readies for Bihar elections, could double up polling booths and expand remote voting

‘No Constitution would be left’

The Supreme Court remarked Thursday that reservation of jobs and seats in educational institutions was not a fundamental right. It then refused to admit a batch of petitions seeking the implementation of 50 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) for state-surrendered seats in the all-India quota for undergraduate and postgraduate medical courses in Tamil Nadu.

“We appreciate the concern of all the political parties for the welfare of backward classes. But reservation is not a fundamental right,” a three-judge bench led by Justice L.N. Rao told the lawyers appearing for various parties including the AIADMK, DMK, Tamil Nadu Congress, CPI and CPI(M).

RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, who is in jail for the fodder scam, immediately seized on the observation and said in a media statement Friday, “No Constitution would be left if fundamental rights under the Constitution cease to exist… Tomorrow, a BJP leader would say that the voting rights of SCs, STs and backward classes is not a fundamental right.”

Kushwaha questioned the judges’ merit. “Without merit and with political patronage, the judges sitting in court have no right to decide against the right of 90 per cent of Dalits, adivasis and backwards.” 

Sharad Yadav, a former leader of the ruling Janata Dal (United) who now leads an outfit called the Loktantrik Janata Dal, told ThePrint that the “government should immediately convene a session of Parliament and issue an all-party resolution to condemn the Supreme Court decision”. 

“SCs, STs, OBCs and tribals are still backward and this remark will cause further damage to their cause. The government should come with an ordinance to negate this or it will face grave consequences,” he added.

Amid the opposition onslaught, the NDA, which is in office in Bihar under the leadership of JD(U) leader Nitish Kumar, has entered damage-control mode.

Union minister Ram Vilas Paswan, whose Lok Janshakti Party is an ally of the BJP-led NDA, has demanded that “reservation of seats should be placed in the ninth schedule of the Constitution to avoid judicial scrutiny”.

“There is always a controversy on reservation. Reservation is the product of the Poona pact between Gandhi and Babasaheb Ambedkar… To raise question on reservation is to raise questions on the Poona pact. All parties should agree on placing the reservation law in the ninth schedule.” 

In a media statement Friday, BJP president Nadda lashed out at “people trying to create confusion over reservation”. “PM Modi and the BJP are committed to reservation, social justice and equality,” he said.

Also Read: BJP begins identifying ‘key voters’ who can influence people in the run-up to Bihar polls

Repeat of Bhagwat moment 

The concerns in the ruling camp can be traced back to the 2015 assembly election campaign. During the election campaign that year, RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat created a flutter when, in an interview to Sangh mouthpiece Organiser, he said there is a need to review reservation. A committee, he added, should decide which section requires reservation and for how long.

Despite a subsequent clarification from the BJP, with the then party president Amit Shah also addressing a press conference in Patna, the polarisation against the BJP aided a Lalu resurgence in Bihar politics. 

The RJD supremo, then part of a short-lived alliance with the JD(U), sought to milk the issue by stating that the RSS had historically been in favour of reservation on economic basis. 

The Lalu-Nitish alliance, with the Congress as the third partner, swept the election by bagging 178 of Bihar’s 243 seats. The BJP, meanwhile, was reduced to a tally of 53 from 91 in 2010.

A senior BJP leader told ThePrint that caste is an “essential ingredient in Bihar politics”. 

“We have seen the fallout of the 2015 election campaign… We are extra careful this time, that is the reason the BJP president issued an immediate clarification… In 2015, the party was late in its response. Lalu cashed in on the issue until PM Modi clarified,” the leader said.

However, the leader added that the issue is unlikely to make a dent in the NDA’s prospects “in the absence of Lalu”.

Experts offered a similar assessment. Sanjay Kumar of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) said the Supreme Court’s observation will not make a difference in the elections.

“The crucial difference is that this remark has not been given by any political leader or government affiliate. This is by the Supreme Court… Secondly, you can’t go to the electorate against the Supreme Court. The government will say it has no intention to roll back reservation… Bhagwat’s statement led to a boil because it was given by the RSS, parent organisation of the ruling party.”

Another political expert said “there is a big factor in this assembly election – the absence of Lalu from the scene”.

“Lalu has great connect with voters, which Tejashwi (Lalu’s heir apparent) doesn’t enjoy. This issue can swing elections only if influential caste leaders drive this issue. Here, Lalu is in jail, and other leaders don’t have as deep a caste connect. 

“But it remains to be seen how others party play this reservation issue in the coming days,” the expert added.

“Opposition parties will find more political disruptive value in the corona anger than this issue,” the expert said.

Also Read: Why Jyotiba Phule would have cheered White Americans out on street over George Floyd murder


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