The hot potato no party can drop

Vibha Sharma in New Delhi

PANIC reaction to the recent electoral reverses in the Vidhan Sabha polls or a well-brewed concept to benefit the needy? Whatever you call the BJP’s 10 per cent reservation for upper-caste poor, only time and General Election results will tell what voters think. 

For now, the deft political stroke that promises reservation in education and jobs has left the BJPs political opponents shaken. It has upset the carefully assembled caste cards and brought the BJP back into the game.

Well, they say all is fair in love and war and there couldn’t be a bigger war than the Lok Sabha polls for the “masterminds of new BJP” — Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Riding a tiger, losing these elections is an option they do not have.

Welcoming it for now, the Opposition is busy weighing its options and spinning individual electoral narratives to deal with this bolt from the blue. The fact, however, remains that barring the Dravidian major DMK, no political party, including those like the BSP, the SP and the RJD that draw their strength from caste-based vote banks, has objected to the proposal. Albeit reluctantly, they all have gingerly held the political hot potato served by the government.

Interestingly, on the day the legislation was introduced in the Lok Sabha, the government had refused to show its cards. When asked “whether the government was exploring the scope of providing reservation to poor candidates among forward communities for education and employment,” Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Krishan Pal Gujjar said: “At present, no such proposal is under consideration, no such proposal has been received by the government.”

Utmost secrecy was maintained as the BJP shared the proposal only with a select few, including PM Modi, Shah and legal eagles Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad. The aim was to ensure that the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill did not fail the Supreme Court test. And to make it legal proof, they included in it people from all religions, including Islam and Christianity, even though the aim was to assuage the fears of the sulking core voters and mitigate the angst of the upper caste Hindus over an amendment to the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act last year. The move also catered to the RSS’s idea of reservation based on economic criteria.

However, many are wondering whether it was also an admission that the Sangh Parivar’s revived pitch on Ram Temple may not materialise anytime soon. It is said that late Prime Minister VP Singh’s ‘Mandal card’ had flowed out of the BJP’s ‘mandir agenda’ during the 1980s and life seems to have come full circle. However, the question remains: Do political decisions on the eve of elections actually benefit its promoters?

Well, the past track record has not been encouraging. VP Singh was not able to accrue any significant benefit from the largesse served to the OBCs. The benefit was, in fact, drawn by others. Likewise, the Congress suffered setbacks in both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh despite being the executer of demand for bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh on the eve of the 2014 General Election.

The ruling BJP may have made its move caste-proof, but questions are being raised about its intentions, given the huge range of “economically poor” it has created through this reservation. The cut-off of annual income of Rs 8 lakh, agriculture land below five acres and residential home below 1,000 sq ft would make 80 to 90 per cent of India’s population eligible for the quota. But where are the jobs and what about the merit after 50 per cent seats for general citizens are reduced to 40 per cent now? The BJP’s quota breaches the 50 per cent cap set by the Supreme Court in 1992 and that could open the Pandora’s Box. It paves the way for the state governments to follow suit, like the 69 per cent reservation provided in Tamil Nadu.

The fact is that after losing key states in the Hindi heartland to a resurgent Congress, there is fear that the party may lose grip over the NDA too. Oldest allies the Akali Dal and the temperamental Shiv Sena may have limited options, but other friends of the saffron party have surely begun to wander. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Rashtriya Lok Samata Party (RLSP) are out, and small parties like Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party and Apna Dal are openly challenging Modi and Shah. 

In Assam, the Asom Gana Parishad has opted out of the BJP-led alliance. At least three more allies in Tripura, Nagaland and Mizoram from the BJP’s 11-party North-East Democratic Alliance (NEDA) are also threatening to quit the coalition over the Citizenship Bill.

The BJP’s problems don’t seem to end with the Congress gaining Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The threat of Mayawati-Akhilesh Yadav alliance sweeping Uttar Pradesh is taking shape. In West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee continues to pose a challenge and in the South, friend-turned-foe N Chandra Babu Naidu and still-a-friend K Chandrashekhar Rao have plans in which saffron party has no role to play. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK is a diminishing force while DMK’s MK Stalin says he wants no truck with the BJP.

Meanwhile, sensing a kill, the Congress is trying to sell the upper-caste quota as its own idea. After all, an affirmative action for the economically weaker segments of all sections was a part of its 2004 manifesto. The then Congress government had made the first attempt in 1991, before it was dismissed by the SC. All eyes are now on the top court. Sources say it is only a matter of time before caste-based parties begin a whisper campaign saying the SC/ST and OBC quota could be at stake if the BJP returns to power.

For now, everyone is playing safe. To be perceived as anti-Hindu is a risk no one can afford to take.