The Narendra Modi government Monday cleared 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections among upper castes.
New Delhi: The Union Cabinet Monday cleared 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education for economically weaker sections of the upper castes, a gambit intended to consolidate its traditionally loyal vote bank, a large chunk of which was reported to have voted against it in the recent assembly elections.
Though it is likely to be struck down by the courts as it breaches the 50 per cent cap on reservations, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expects to earn the goodwill of the upper castes, which are estimated to constitute about one-fifth of the population.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s move is, however, fraught with risks, politically.
Back to basics?
First, it would undermine the BJP’s attempt for an image makeover — from a Brahmin-Bania party into an all-inclusive outfit. Under Narendra Modi’s leadership, the party was able to shed its image as an upper-caste party in the 2014 general elections, where a large section of the backward castes and even a section of Dalits voted for it.
There have been numerous instances of atrocities against Dalits and weaker sections among the OBCs in the past five years, which gave the BJP’s political adversaries an opportunity to paint it as a party with an upper-caste mindset.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s utterances against the existing reservation system didn’t help the BJP’s cause either.
Monday’s decision would give more ammunition to the BJP’s rivals.
Change in narrative
Second, the Cabinet decision is likely to dominate the political discourse in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
The Modi wave in 2014 was largely built on his ‘vikas purush (development man)’ image. With the 2019 campaign now expected to be run around caste fault lines, the Modi government’s achievements would become a side issue.
Third, the Cabinet decision could stoke a fresh round of agitations for reservation by different caste groups such as the Patidars in Gujarat, the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh and the Jats in Haryana.
The Patidars of Gujarat have also been agitating for reservation in the OBC category; it’s not clear as of now whether they could be considered for reservation in the general category as an economically backward class. The Gurjars in Rajasthan have been demanding their shift from OBC to ST category.
The NDA government had earlier sought to consolidate its base among OBCs by constituting a commission for the sub-categorisation of the OBCs. The move was, however, quietly put on the backburner by giving the commission several extensions as the ruling party expected a backlash from other sections of society.
The panel now wants a countrywide survey of OBCs to ascertain their numbers before sub-categorising them. After Monday, political parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which claim to safeguard the interests of certain OBC groups, are likely to turn on the heat on the Centre on this issue.
Losing new supporters
Fourth, the BJP’s attempt to revive the Ayodhya Ram temple issue as a strategy to consolidate Hindu votes is likely to suffer a dent.
The upper castes were always at the forefront of this movement but the BJP has been trying to bring OBCs and other groups along. The issue of reservation is likely to put off and alienate a large section of the non-upper castes, especially OBCs, which might have joined the movement.
In the 1990s, the Congress was the biggest sufferer in the mandal-versus-kamandal debate as the party lost its core votebanks among upper castes and backwards.
Fifth, it would pour cold water on the BJP’s hopes for a Narendra Modi-versus-Rahul Gandhi presidential contest in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Given Modi’s mass appeal, the BJP wants it to be a battle of personalities, but the reservation for upper castes has the potential to trigger a massive, contentious debate on the issue of reservation itself. And personalities may not be at the centrestage of such a debate.