Congress lost much of the upper caste votes in its quest to garner minority votes. The BJP is going down the same road. It is possible that the upper castes would drift away from the party to some emerging outfits that would exclusively represent their interest, sooner rather than later.
It is a crowded space for those seeking the votes of the intermediate and the lower castes. Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) primarily represent the interests of the Dalits; Mulayam Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP), Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) (JD(U)) and the like primarily represent the interest of the intermediate castes.
The Congress and the BJP are supposed to represent a rainbow coalition of all caste groups – upper, lower and middle – as they are supposed to be national parties; but the Congress has ceded ground to the BJP in the upper caste segment, when the latter pitched Mandir against the Mandal to thwart the hegemony of the intermediate castes.
Since then, a lot of water has flown down the Ganges. A large section of the upper castes have veered away from the Congress to the BJP. The Congress, bereft of its upper caste base and the Dalit base (it ceded ground to the BSP and LJP over the years), has turned to the intermediate castes, its traditional bête noire, to shore up its electoral fortunes.
The BJP, having consolidated its upper caste vote base, is assiduously wooing the middle castes and the Dalits to establish itself as the largest party in the country, as the Congress had been for several decades.
Narendra Modi is the middle caste icon and Baba Saheb Ambedkar is the Dalit icon in the BJP’s current pantheon (Incidentally, they have replaced Ram Lala who inspired the politics of L K Advani’s BJP).
In this political scenario, Reservation (affirmative action) in jobs and educational institutions granted to the lower and middle castes is a hotly debated subject. The Constitution provided for 15 percent reservation to the Scheduled Castes (whom Gandhi called Harijans) and 7.5 percent reservation to Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) and there is hardly any dispute about it.
But the 27 percent reservation granted to what is called Other Backward Classes (which is essentially a coalition of the intermediate castes) by V P Singh government in 1990 is riddled with controversies.
The first flush of opposition to it came from the upper castes who felt that their piece of the government jobs pie would shrink. But that opposition has died down. The new challenge has emerged from the more powerful intermediate caste groups who had been kept out of the OBC reservation category for obvious reasons – that, by any stretch of logic, they could not be labeled as the traditionally exploited sections of the society.
Take the case of Patidars in Gujarat, Jats in Haryana and Gujjars in Rajasthan. They are the traditional landed castes, they have successfully found their footing in small and medium business enterprises, and politically their voices are the most powerful in their respective states.
But they are holding the state to ransom and aggressively demanding reservation in government jobs because the salaries in the government sector have skyrocketed in the last decade and experience tells them that getting into government jobs is a life-long insurance against uncertainty (you will continue to get full salary, irrespective of your performance. If a government is not happy with your work, it would transfer you to a post where you earn your salary without doing any work!).
The BJP governments in these three states know that they would court political calamity in the next election if they do not appease the dominant caste groups. So they have taken the politically safe route to grant special reservation to these caste groups (the governments could not have included these caste groups in the OBC category, which was their demand, as the Supreme Court has set out an elaborate procedure for inclusion of new caste groups in the OBC category and going by its specific provisions, the dominant caste groups would be ineligible for inclusion in the OBC list).
However, the BJP government’s appeasement policy has not won over the warring castes. They know that these special reservations are a political ploy to cool tempers and deflect the issue without any meaningful outcome – after all, that would take the percentage of reservation beyond 50 percent (as 49.5 percent reservation already exists on the statute books for the SCs\STs\OBCs) which is the maximum stipulated by the Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney Vs Union of India case in 1993.)
The Supreme Court has struck down similar reservations extended to dominant castes by the Congress governments in the past; it is most likely to do the same again.
Will the BJP government at the Centre oblige by placing these legislations in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution (that takes them out of the purview of the judicial review) as was done by the Narasimha Rao government in 1994, when a legislation for allowing 69 percent reservation in Tamil Nadu was placed in that Section?
Incidentally, Tamil Nadu is the only Indian state where more than 50 percent reservation policy is operational, though theoretically, it is under challenge as a writ petition against the constitutional validity of the Tamil Nadu provision is pending in the Supreme Court.
But then the BJP is bound to face a dilemma – in order to placate the dominant castes, if it seeks to place the relevant legislations in the Ninth Schedule, there is bound to be a backlash from the upper castes for whom the little job opportunity that they are left with will further shrink.
It would be now left to the BJP to decide whose support it values the most – that of the upper castes or the dominant castes when there is a clash between the two. This decision will have a bearing on the new political configuration at the state level.