On January 12, President Ram Nath Kovind gave his assent to the Bill guaranteeing 10% quota for economically weaker sections (EWS) of society in government jobs and educational institutes of higher learning, thus making it the law of the land.
Though technically the Bill introduced by the Modi government uses class – instead of caste – to measure backwardness, it’s being seen by most people as a quota for the upper castes. Since the existing quotas for OBCs, SCs and STs have not been diluted, the BJP believes the move will give it an electoral boost in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Some in the BJP are of the opinion that a slice of the upper caste vote moved away from it in the state assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The 10% quota, which was backed by nearly all political parties in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, is being seen as an attempt to placate the upper castes, who are the core base of the BJP.
Interestingly then, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav is demanding more reservations for backward communities in Bihar, based on their population, and he could make opposition to the 10% quota a central plank of his party’s 2019 Lok Sabha campaign.
Bihar’s caste cauldron
Bihar’s population according to the 2011 Census exceeded 10 crore, and it sends 40 MPs to the Lok Sabha, making it electorally the most crucial state in the Hindi-speaking belt after Uttar Pradesh.
While Other Backward Classes (OBCs) constitute about half of the state’s population, Dalits and Muslims comprise approximately 16% and 17% of the population, respectively.
Upper castes are anywhere in the 15 to 20% range.
Among the OBCs, the Yadavs are the most dominant group, and have been traditionally the core base of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s RJD. Lalu, who dominated Bihar’s politics in the 1990s, had managed to combine the Yadav and Muslim vote with votes from other backward communities to form a winning combination.
But the RJD started declining in the late 1990s, partly because of the corruption cases against Lalu and misgovernance of the state. In 2005, a new caste coalition comprising the Extremely Backward Castes (a sub-category of the OBCs); some Dalit sub-castes; and the upper castes took the BJP-Janata Dal(United) combine to power in the state assembly.
The JD(U) crashed to just two seats in the Lok Sabha after its leader Nitish Kumar split with the BJP before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But a surprise tie-up with the RJD-Congress for the 2015 assembly polls consolidated the OBC-Muslim-Dalit vote, leading to a major setback for the BJP in the post-2014 phase.
However, there was another twist in the tale after Nitish decided to part ways with the RJD and again join hands with the BJP.
So, in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, is the situation similar to the 2005-2013 phase when the BJP and JD(U) were together? Perhaps, but there are a few differences. For one, Lalu’s son and the young face of the RJD Tejashwi Yadav has gained in popularity, and the Congress is in a better position than it was in 2014.
But caste will again hold the key.
Besides the Congress and RJD, the Bihar mahagathbandhan includes Upendra Kushwaha’s Rashtriya’s Lok Samata Party (RLSP), Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM), Sharad Yadav’s JDU(S) and the Left parties.
Manjhi will attract votes of Mushars, a Dalit sub-caste, while Kushwaha is expected to bring in many Koiri votes.
Given this caste calculus, the RJD is trying to portray the 10% quota as the first step in diluting reservation for the backward castes. But the party’s messaging will have to be delicate, especially because the Congress is supporting the new quota nationally. The RJD is worried that given the return of the Nitish-BJP combine, it can’t afford to lose the tiny slice of upper castes that might vote for the mahagathbandhan.
If the Lok Sabha election in Bihar turns out to be close, Tejashwi Yadav’s ability – or failure — to fire up the backward castes and Dalits on the 10% quota issue may well be the deciding factor.