BJP caste calculus: An election stunt

In what is evidently a brazen populist move by a beleaguered government that has just lost power in three crucial states, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre has, in unseemly haste at the fag end of the last session of the Lok Sabha before the general elections, decided to bring in a measure approving a 10 per cent reservation for ‘economically backward’ upper castes in government jobs and educational institutes.

The populism in the move is so starkly manifest since the polls are round the corner that it needs no messiah to see through the act. Yet, politics has gone to such base levels that anything is possible to get the people to stamp their approval on the ballot paper. The Congress too had gone to ridiculous limits to woo the voters before the recent Assembly polls in five states and in Telangana the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi had gone to great lengths to win over the numerically-strong Muslim community. Now, the BJP has shown that it too has a big hand in populism regardless of the consequences on administration, governance and the economy.

In a hush hush step that took the Opposition by surprise, the Union Cabinet approved the new form of reservation and paved the way for the “chunavi jumla” (election stunt) in what is being touted as a “pro-poor” move. Conscious that the NDA lacks a majority in the Rajya Sabha without which the proposed Bill cannot pass muster, the motivation was to dangle the carrot that this is what the government would do if voted to power. The NDA government is expected to move the Bill to amend Article 15 and 16 of the Constitution pertaining to this matter in Parliament on Tuesday. While it is not on the cards that both Houses will pass the measure in this session, failure to push it through would be seen as a betrayal of the disadvantaged classes.

The reservations for the economically backward in the general category will be over and above the existing 50 per cent reservation. Significantly, the Supreme Court had previously capped the limit for caste-based reservation at 50 per cent so while the government would insist that this is outside the scope of caste-based reservation, the detractors would project it as a violation of that laid-down principle. While there would be no quota for those with five acre and above agriculture land, the other criteria for exclusion would be those with residential house above 1000 sq ft and those with annual income of more than Rs 8 lakhs per annum.

As a sop to the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities their quotas have been left untouched and not included in the 50 per cent existing reservations. The quotas will be given irrespective of religion. Those slated to benefit will be members of Rajput, Bhumihar, Baniya, Jaat, and Gujjars communities who account for the bulk of forward castes. The BJP is banking on these groups to develop a vested interest in voting for it in the impending elections. While the Congress has termed the move as yet another “chunavi jumla” the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has announced conditional support to the bill, if the government moves it in Parliament on Tuesday. However, it said that it would seek certain amendments in the bill.

The Shiv Sena has also announced in principle that it would support the bill. It remains to be seen how the parties that are keeping their cards close to the chest but looking to bargain with the BJP in the event of a hung Parliament would pitch in with the BJP. These could include the NCP, the AIADMK, the TRS and maybe even the Biju Janata Dal which could bolster the NDA’s numbers to past the half-way mark. Yet, for now, all eyes would be on Tuesday’s session of Parliament where the stand of various parties on the issue would be crystallised.

While it is all too clear that the NDA move is a ‘jumla’ with an eye on the Lok Sabha polls, it would be interesting to see if the BJP draws any mileage from it. On a more practical plane, it is yet another category of reservations which will whittle down the shrinking number of those who qualify for appointment in government jobs and be educated in public institutes on the basis of pure merit.

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