Quota For Upper Castes: What Is Modi’s Gameplan Behind This Move?
A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah.
A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah.(Photo: PTI)

Quota For Upper Castes: What Is Modi’s Gameplan Behind This Move?

The Narendra Modi government's move to provide 10 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions to candidates from economically weaker sections within Upper Castes has been passed by both the Houses of the Parliament, and is, at present, awaiting the President’s approval.

The move could be criticised on several counts – from its constitutional validity to it being a tacit admission of the government's failure to create jobs. However, it also needs to be acknowledged that the move is of immense significance in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, which are due barely three months from now.

The aim of this move appears to be two-fold: to mobilise the BJP's core base of Upper Caste Hindu voters and to win the support of peasant castes who presently are not in the reserved category.

BJP's Dependence On Upper Castes

Upper Castes play a role disproportionate to their numerical strength. Given their dominance over various spheres of opinion-making, Upper Castes often shape the political narrative.

While the BJP has over the years made inroads among Dalits, Adivasis and particularly Other Backward Classes (OBCs), it often gained a decisive edge due to the consolidation of Upper Castes.

This can be seen by from the BJP's performance among different social groups in all the Lok Sabha elections from 1996 onwards.

The graph clearly shows that the BJP's vote share increased whenever Upper Castes consolidated behind it and decreased whenever they moved away. This is the only social group where such a direct pattern can be observed.

OBCs have also contributed to the BJP's rise, especially given their numeric strength. But even this section doesn't share such a direct relationship with BJP's fortunes as Upper Castes. Consider the 2009 election for instance, the BJP gained among OBCs but its vote share plummeted overall. The same thing happened among Scheduled Tribes in the 1999 Lok Sabha election.

Upper castes, therefore, are crucial to the BJP's fortunes. The 2014 Lok Sabha elections are a case in point.

Writing in Panjab University's Research General Social Sciences, Rahul Verma and Sanjay Kumar argue, "In this election (2014), Upper Castes voting for the BJP presents the most prominent instance of en bloc voting".

In Uttar Pradesh for instance, Upper Caste support for the BJP and its ally Apna Dal was in excess of 70 percent, according to Lokniti-CSDS' Naitonal Election Study. It is more than even the consolidation of Jatavs behind the Bahujan Samaj Party and of Muslims and Yadavs behind the Samajwadi Party.

Is BJP An Upper Caste Party?

One of the reasons for such a consolidation is that a large section of Upper Caste Hindus in Uttar Pradesh and rest of the Hindi heartland identify the BJP as their own party. This is not surprising given the Upper Caste dominance of the BJP itself. Consider a few facts:

  • 32 out of 42 or 76 percent of all the BJP chief ministers till date have been Upper Castes.
  • Over 70 percent of Cabinet ministers and ministers of state (independent charge) in the Narendra Modi government are from the general category. The proportion is slightly more even among ministers of state without independent charge.
  • Nine out of 10 BJP presidents have been from Upper Castes. The only exception is Bangaru Laxman.
  • A study done by The Print in August 2018 found that over three-fourth of the BJP's national office bearers are Upper Caste. Over 60 percent of its national executive and 65 percent of its state unit presidents are from the general category. The Print also found that 65 percent of the BJP's district presidents are also from non-reserved communities.

Despite being a natural party for Upper Castes, the BJP has often suffered due to shift of this section to the Congress or regional parties. By providing a quota to economically weaker sections among Upper Castes, the BJP is trying to consolidate its core vote especially as there are predictions that Dalits and Adivasis are drifting away from it.

However, consolidating the core vote is only one part of why the quota has been introduced. Another major aim is the woo agrarian communities which have been demanding reservations.

Wooing Peasant Castes

Lokniti-CSDS divides Upper Castes into two categories – Upper Castes and Peasant Castes. This is an important difference. According to the CSDS' National Election Study for the 2014 elections, the BJP dominated the first category, getting 54.1 percent of the votes but among peasant castes it got 33.3 percent.

To some extent, BJP won the support of peasant castes through its allies such as the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, Shiromani Akali Dal in Punjab, and Shiv Sena and Swabhimana Paksha in Maharashtra.

The most prominent peasant castes include Jats in North India, Kapus and Kammas in Andhra Pradesh, Marathas in Maharashtra and Patidars in Gujarat. Incidentally, these also happen to be communities who have agitated over the past few years demanding reservation.

Given the stagnation in agriculture, some of the youth in these communities see quotas as a way to secure jobs and admission in educational institutions. The BJP is likely to use the 10 percent quota move to try and woo these communities. The party's performance among these caste groups hasn't been particularly impressive in the Assembly elections held since 2014.

Even at its peak, the BJP wasn't the first choice for Jats in Haryana, who chose either the Indian National Lok Dal or the Congress. In Maharashtra, BJP and its pre-poll allies RPI and Swabhimana Paksha got only a chunk of the Maratha votes which were split between three other players: NCP, Shiv Sena and Congress.

The BJP was the overwhelming choice for Patidars in Gujarat for over two decades but it lost some ground in the 2017 Assembly elections due to the Patidar agitation. Therefore there is scope for the party to increase its vote share among these communities in the Lok Sabha polls.

Of course this is easier said than done. Jats particularly would be difficult to impress as the community has been demanding reservation within the OBC quota and not as part of the 10 percent quota for economically weaker sections among all unreserved communities. For Marathas, the BJP government in Maharashtra has already decided to provide 16 percent reservation in government jobs and educational institutions.

What Prompted The Quota Move?

The quota move seems to have been prompted by the BJP's recent defeat in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. A key reason for the party's defeat was the shift of Upper Caste and Peasant Caste votes towards the Congress and smaller parties like Jat leader Hanuman Beniwal’s Rashtriya Loktantrik Party in Rajasthan and the Upper Caste-dominated SAPAKS in Madhya Pradesh.

Let’s take Rajasthan for instance, where 16 percent Rajput voters, six percent Brahmin voters, six percent Jat voters and nine percent voters from other Upper Castes are estimated to have shifted away from the BJP.

The situation in Madhya Pradesh was no different as many Upper Caste voters moved away from the party in the Chambal, Malwa and Bundelkhand regions. Upper Caste anger was mainly the result of the controversy surrounding the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Will There Be A Backlash?

On paper, there is no reason for reserved communities to feel threatened by the BJP’s quota move as the 10 percent has been carved out of the seats meant for the general category. But that’s not how caste politics works. Any move to fiddle around with the reservation system is often perceived as a threat to existing quotas.

Therefore, it is likely that the move might accelerate the shift of Dalit and Adivasi voters away from the BJP. The case of OBC voters is more complex. While many Upper OBCs – communities like Yadavs, Gujjars, Kurmis, Koeris, Kunbis, Vokkaligas, Mudaliars etc might move away from the BJP, the reaction of lower OBCs – communities such a Nishads, Kumhars, Lohars, Nais etc – cannot be easily predicted. This is because at least in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, BJP has succeeded in creating a wedge between lower OBCs and Upper OBCs by flagging the latter’s domination.

Lower OBCs were an important factor behind the BJP’s success in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. According to Lokniti-CSDS, the party got 42 percent votes of this section, a jump from 22 percent in 2009.

This is an important move by the BJP but by itself, its impact could be limited to consolidating Upper Castes and gaining among agrarian communities like Patidars and Marathas. However, the real game changers would be extending reservation to the private sector and introducing sub-quotas for Extremely Backward Castes within the OBC quota and for Mahadalits within the SC quota.

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