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Narendra Modi govt banks on 10% reservation with eye on 2019, but does it risk alienating Dalit votebank?

The Narendra Modi government’s move to approve 10 percent reservation in jobs and education for ‘economically weaker’ sections among the general category is an attempt by the BJP to shore up their core support base ahead of the 2019 polls. While the BJP has traditionally enjoyed support from upper castes such as Brahmins, Banias, Rajputs, Jats, Patels and Marathas, that was not enough to fend off challenges from the Congress in the three Hindi heartland states that bankrolled Modi’s success in 2014.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AP

According to this report in The Times of India, the saffron party is both attempting to assuage its upper caste constituency which is not happy with the changes made to the SC/ST Act and trying to cut the legs off from the Congress, which has been pursuing a policy of loan waivers wherever it has come to power. The same report pointed out how, in order to secure a second term for Modi, the BJP needs to keep these ‘influential categories’ within arm’s reach. A senior minister — who did not wish to be named told the newspaper: “What we are doing is empowering the poor belonging to the so-called upper castes. A historic wrong is being corrected at nobody’s expense.”

Political analyst Amitabh Tiwari told BloombergQuint the decision is aimed at a favourable verdict in the “people’s court”. It will be difficult for any political party to argue against quotas among the upper castes who make up 25 percent of the population. “It’s a win-win for the BJP.” However, Dalit ideologue Chandrabhan Prasad sounded a note of caution, telling the outlet the objective of reservations is not economic upliftment. “The purpose of reservation is to bring social equality and not to alleviate poverty,” he said. “The move will only frustrate the upper caste youth in the long run because of lack of government jobs.”

This Hindustan Times piece pointed out the BJP’s quandary: “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.” The piece further stated that the BJP’s task — other than facing down legal challenges — it to retain its multi-caste alliance. It wondered if the party can, as in 2014, simultaneously keep its upper caste vote and retain newer voters.

As this Firspost piece pointed out, the BJP did not do well in the urban areas of Madhya Pradesh among middle class voters it may consider as its “core”, which indicates a clear dissatisfaction among the trader communities and salaried class. While the piece suggested the BJP’s reversals in the Hindi heartland would generate tougher introspection within the party and prompt it to reflect, analyse, learn lessons, take difficult decisions and implement them, few could have conceived of this last-minute gambit which put their rivals off-balance: while the Opposition parties questioned the timing of the Cabinet decision, they extended support for the move.

Meanwhile, BSP chief Mayawati dubbed the Modi government’s move an “election stunt and political gimmick” ahead of Lok Sabha polls, but added that she welcomed the “immature” move. “It would have been better had the BJP taken the decision much earlier… The government is now on its way out,” she claimed. “BSP’s demand to provide reservation to the economically backward sections in general category is approved by the Cabinet in an immature way and without preparation. Our party, however, welcomes the decision though it appears to be an election stunt and political gimmick of BJP ahead of Lok Sabha polls,” Mayawati said in a statement.

With inputs from agencies

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