The BJP’s trump card: Reservations for the economically weaker sections of upper castes
For months, there has been fervent speculation about what the Narendra Modi-led government would do to win back the political narrative in the run-up to the 2019 election. This assumed urgency for the party with the recent setbacks in the state polls in the Hindi heartland. On Monday, Modi pulled out his trump card: 10% reservations for the economically weaker sections. This will primarily benefit upper-castes, and those from dominant agrarian communities who have been demanding reservations, for instance, Patidars, Jats and Marathas.
It is first important to understand the context of the decision. One big takeaway for the BJP from the electoral results, substantiated with the consistent feedback it has got from internal party channels and the media, is that its core voters — particularly upper castes — are unhappy. They are upset with the government for restoring the stringent provisions of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act) despite the Supreme Court reading it down. They believe that with its pro-poor welfarist pitch, the government has, for most part, forgotten its original voters from traditionally dominant communities and shifted its target group. Lurking beneath this upper caste resentment across north India is also the anger against reservations, which they believe has deprived the young people of their communities of both educational and employment opportunities. This perception, right or wrong, is widely held. The BJP had been in a fix. Its expansion into Dalit, backward and poor voters was central to its electoral success. It also could not do anything to dilute reservations — for Dalits and OBCs would never forgive a party which takes away this benefit. And so the government has, true to the tendency of Indian politics to evolve new forms of identity mobilisation, decided to grant 10% additional reservations to the poorer sections among upper castes without undermining the existing framework of reservations. Whether this is a real solution to underlying structural issues of Indian political economy of educational opportunities and jobs is open to question. Public employment is limited. The private sector does not have reservations. The goal has to be expand the pie.
But this is a political move which will give the BJP a major talking point in the Hindi heartland in particular. The government could face a test. The Supreme Court has laid the bar for reservations at 50% — the current proposal will exceed the limit and thus could be legally challenged. The government could overcome this through the legislative route, and force other parties to make a choice. The more important political test for the BJP is how, after this decision, it continues to maintain its multi-caste alliance. Can the party, as in 2014, keep both its upper caste vote and retain the newer voters from subaltern communities?