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The electoral math behind the upper caste quota

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Union government’s move to introduce a 10% quota for the economically weaker sections may not be able to withstand judicial scrutiny but may help the party electorally in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. Given that the move is aimed at benefitting the forward castes, this could help the party retain the support of its core support base ahead of a keenly contested election.

Data from the Lokniti research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) suggest that upper caste voters have been the core support base of the BJP over the past two decades, with more than one in two upper caste voters casting their vote in favour of the party in the 2014 elections .

The data also shows that a plurality of upper caste voters have preferred the BJP to the Congress consistently since 1996, suggesting considerable group-based voting for the ruling party.

Support for the BJP among the other social group that is likely to benefit from this decision, the peasant castes, has been relatively lower. In states such as Gujarat and Karnataka, the dominant peasant castes, Patels and Lingayats, respectively, are considered to be core supporters of the party. However, in other states such as Maharashtra (Marathas) and Haryana (Jats) they have remained averse to voting for it. Yet, in 2014, the BJP won more votes among the peasant castes compared to the Congress, doubling its vote share compared to 2009 (chart 2).

The new quota helps the party tackle disenchantment among both these social groups.

While peasant castes have been on a warpath since 2014, demanding reservations in government jobs (bit.ly/2DN3eU5) and better remuneration for farm produce, upper castes have been restive since the Union government overturned the Supreme Court’s judgement on the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

As a previous column had pointed out, the apex court judgement had created a conundrum for the party, which had managed to assemble a rainbow Hindu coalition in 2014, comprising of significant numbers of Dalit and Adivasi voters.

Inaction on the Supreme Court judgement would have upset these new voters while any action to placate them risked the support of the party’s core vote bank . In the Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey conducted in mid-2018, half of the upper caste respondents said that the SC/ST Act is often misused to settle personal disputes. The BJP’s decision to side with the newer entrants to its camp on this issue perhaps led to some loss in upper caste support and contributed to its defeat in the recently-held Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh.

With a resurgent Congress and state-level alliances threatening its social coalition, retaining support among the upper and peasant castes becomes more important for the BJP.

The party is likely to use the centre’s decision as a signal to its upper caste base that it is willing to take bold decisions in their favour. This could help it ensure that they turn out and vote for it rather than sit out in these elections because of their disappointment with a party they have supported over decades.

The support of the upper castes is critical not only because it forms a key component of BJP’s voter base (25% of BJP’s votes came from these castes in 2014) but also because many of the BJP’s vote mobilizers belong to these castes .

In the National Election Study (NES) 2014, respondents were asked if they had done door-to-door campaigning or distributed leaflets for any political party.

More than a fourth of the respondents who reported voting for the BJP and participating in these activities were upper castes. This is much higher than the overall proportion of upper caste respondents in the survey (14%). The quota would assist the BJP in galvanizing its upper-caste foot soldiers and motivating them to actively participate in campaigning activities.

The near unanimous support to the 124th Constitution Amendment bill in Parliament also reflects its potential popularity among a section of the electorate.

As there is no change in existing quotas, this decision is unlikely to lead to any counter-consolidation of backward castes or Dalits against the BJP. The only section that may be dissatisfied with the decision is the affluent general category households who have been kept outside its purview.

The calculated move is likely to be electorally rewarding for the BJP but may not be enough to guarantee Prime Minister Narendra Modi re-election as its appeal would be limited to the forward castes.

In the larger scheme of things, it can only be one of the many policies that may determine Modi’s fate in a few months.

Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS, and Pranav Gupta is a Ph.D. student at the University of California at Berkeley, US.

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