Upper Caste Reservation: Has BJP given up on Dalits and OBCs?

Job reservations like the proverbial cat are finally out of the bag. And indications are that the step is going to be flaunted as a virtual magic wand through the months to come to sway the electorate once again in the name of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas. The reason for this is simple. The BJP and more so Prime Minister Narendra Modi appear to have given up the hope to have unreserved support from Dalits and members of the backward castes anymore or like the last general elections held over four-years-and-seven-months ago from now.

Thus, the Union Government has decided to set aside and reserve 10 percent Government jobs and also as many seats in higher-level educational institutions for the poor and economically weaker segments belonging to the upper castes whose members are currently under the general or unreserved category. This will also include religious minorities like Muslims and Christians as per Union Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Vijay Sampla though this may well kick off another legal tangle as Constitution bars reservations based on religious faith. In the past the BJP had fiercely opposed reservation for minorities when some States toyed with this idea.

Anyway, let’s first consider what is behind the sudden and belated move and also its various pros and cons, including the difficulties in implementing it in the near future.

Obviously, the Government’s decision is with an eye upon the next general elections. The move may also call for a constitutional amendment bill since the upper limit for caste-based reservations fixed at 50 percent by the Supreme Court since 1992 has already been nearly exhausted and cannot be further breached. The scheduled castes, or Dalits, have been given 15 percent; Adivasis, or scheduled tribes, 7.5 percent; and OBCs, or other backward castes, 27 percent as of now. The total of this reaches 49.5 percent against the ceiling of 50 percent of total jobs and opportunities that can be reserved as per the law laid down by the top court though with a few exceptions in case of certain States that approached the court with sound reasoning and reasonable demographic figures and data to cross the limit.

So in case of Centre and also other States an amendment to the Constitution will be called for to implement the Government’s latest move to give reservations in jobs to the poor, needy and deserving members from the higher castes and general category, including minorities. And this would not only require Parliament’s nod but also that of quite a few State legislatures which is inconceivable to come by anytime soon, or before the next summer’s countrywide Parliamentary polls.

Yet, the very fact that the Cabinet Committee decided on Monday, January 07, to extend reservations in jobs and admissions to institutes of higher learning to poor among upper castes speaks of Centre’s intentions to move from caste-based to economic status-based reservations to possibly fortify its support base among people of mainly higher castes and generally middle class both in urban and rural areas whose income does not exceed Rs 8 lakh a year and who do not own more than five acres of land in their name.

Significantly, the Government move has been made in less than a month of BJP’s defeat in three large States of Hindi heartland. And so it points to the erosion of its support base in the provinces like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. The upper caste voters among others in these States are feared to have shifted their loyalty from the party. The possible reason for this is said to be the Government’s reversal of the Supreme Court order that had diluted and softened the provisions for arrest in cases of caste atrocities often faced by Dalits and tribesmen at the hands of privileged, well to do, landed and, thus, dominant sections of the society.

First Dalits had opposed the top court’s move through protests and when the Government stepped in to overturn it, the upper caste outfits called for a countrywide shutdown targeting the Government. Somehow, the Union Minister of State for Finance Shiv Pratap Shukla claimed on Monday soon after the Cabinet’s decision regarding job quota that upper castes voters had voted in favour of the BJP in November-December polls held in five States.

So far so good but the question that now stares in the face is why and how the Government has woken up to the need for moving from social to economic criteria for job reservations as also vis-à-vis educational opportunities and how the Government step is going to pan out in the political arena.

A look at the way Modi’s Government functioned ever since coming to power in May 2014 may give a better idea as to what led to its latest move. And as it has started from a slogan like Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas, or with all and for the betterment of all, what was not expected of it is selective targeting of socially and economically weaker segments who often faced the wrath of Hindutva votaries though such muscle flexing zealots were called as “fringe elements”.

These elements whether forming the fringe or the core of the new ruling dispensation nevertheless shared its ideological persuasions. And when they targeted poor Muslim cattle herders and Dalit cow handlers, they also inevitably ended up hurting Modi’s promise for development without discrimination.

Incidents like lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq at Dadri near Delhi and public flogging of Dalit cow skinners at Una in Gujarat robbed Modi of some of his promises if not magic. From development the issue faced by the lesser or underprivileged social groups turned out to be survival and protection against possible loss of self-respect or dignity. The last of the two forced a Dalit research scholar Rohit Vemula to commit suicide in a top central university in the South.

Dalit confidence in Modi was further eroded by incidents like Bhima Koregaon near Pune in Maharashtra and arrest of a Dalit activist like Chandrashekhar Azad in Saharanpur by UP Police under NSA or National Security Act. Social fault-lines thus created also threatened peace that the silent majority expected under Modi’s rule given its tall promises made through the run up to last general elections. Instead of social calm and poise what people came to face was worsening social tensions due to recurrence of mob lynching and campaigns like Ghar Vapsi to target inter-caste couples.

Backward castes too took the hit as the collapse of cattle transportation and trade crippled dairying controlled by them. The sale and purchase of not only cows but also bovid and buffalos were virtually abandoned, leaving a surplus of unproductive herds that ended up storming farms, trampling and devouring the crops. The backward leaders too faced the heat turned against them either by courts as in case of Laloo Yadav or by investigating agencies as alleged by Akhilesh Yadav at a time when he decided to join hands with a Dalits’ voice like Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh.

Taken together Dalits, tribesmen, backward castes and minorities found them to be at the receiving end and, thus, all these social groups and their leaders have been trying to close ranks to take on Modi, the BJP and the NDA, or National Democratic Alliance, led by the Prime Minister.

This has obviously compelled the powers-that-be to try out a new social experiment possibly with the blessings of their mentors from RSS, or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The Sangh’s top echelons have been betting for this since Bihar elections held in 2015. So 10 percent of jobs and admissions are now being offered to some of the people from general category depending upon their economic status.

Indeed, the palpably shrewd move also appears to be the last and most loved resort of the Government. But its results cannot be expected to fructify before another Lok Sabha, or the Lower House of Parliament, is constituted by this year’s midsummer, or it may well take quite beyond that. Besides this, its fate will also depend upon the hue and complexion that the House takes after the polls.

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