Reservation policy is the weapon of last resort in Indian politics. Quite akin to a nuclear strike, it leads to an uncontrolled chain reaction; the last time this weapon was wielded by an Indian prime minister, it changed the face of Indian politics.
VP Singh sought to position himself as a messiah of backward classes via the Mandal Commission’s implementation, but his efforts were upended by emergent caste satraps like Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and HD Devegowda.
Reservation Policy Is Treacherous Terrain
A decade before VP Singh, Karpoori Thakur, the then CM of Bihar, had similarly introduced reservation in government job, but lost power soon. History tells us that the reservation policy is a treacherous terrain that the best in business find difficult to navigate. So what hope lies for the BJP in this ‘masterstroke’? In terms of political positioning, the BJP will have to address key internal concerns.
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First, the government must admit that its communication has been on a sticky wicket since the past few months. The success of the government in selling this move to the proponents and the opponents, will depend on its ability to effectively communicate the same. For example, the continuous proclamation in government advertisements on amount of taxes collected have hit a raw nerve with some sections.
Second, the political dividends of a 10 percent reservation at the fag end of a government’s tenure seems to be a cynical move, even to the intended beneficiaries. Especially when it comes on the heels of electoral losses in the Hindi heartland.
This is not to suggest the irrelevance of the topic itself. However, the net benefit that the BJP intends to draw towards itself is suspect, given the number of ifs and buts involved, just 2-3 months prior to general elections.
Arguments Underlining Reservation Policy
Which brings us to two salient debates that underline this policy move. The first question is regarding the specificity of this move.
Although packaged as a relief for economically disadvantaged non-SC, non-ST and non-OBC citizens from among the General Category Hindus, the actual criteria are very ambiguous.
Since a majority of non-SC, non-ST, and non-OBC poor hail from the Muslim community, a very low-income bar may have benefited the same. By setting an income bar of 8 lakh rupees, the government has negated the specificity of this policy for the disadvantaged upper-caste Hindus. Instead, most of the middle-class and upper-caste Hindus will most likely avail this reservation, thus excluding the economically backward upper-caste Hindus from benefits.
This leads us to the second debate. For the past 15 years, we at CVoter have been tracking the amount stated by the average middle-class family that should be tax exempt in their view. A decade and a half ago this amount used to be 1.5 lakh rupees; today the same amount stands at 4.5 lakh rupees. In other words, an average middle-class family of 4 can comfortably get by on this amount. Should it not be taxed by the government?
Signs of Panic Within Ruling Govt
However, the government has been loath to raise the tax exemption limit. The current proposal to classify those with less than 8 lakh rupees income as economically backward, will lead to clamour for rationalisation of income tax slabs. Some overzealous supporters of the party may even demand a similar slab in SC-ST and OBC reservations thus further complicating matters, but that debate is for some other day. In fact, a move to raise income tax exemption to 8 lakh rupees may have yielded far more clear-cut political dividend to the BJP.
Juxtaposed against the fact that the government does not have the required numbers in Rajya Sabha, and the fact that the upper-caste voters have been a traditional vote bank of the BJP, a desperate move to placate them is indicative of some political panic.
Also, an optically adverse judgment in the CBI director’s case, close on the heels of this pronouncement, is eyebrow-raising to say the least.
That leaves us with 3 scenarios; in the best-case the BJP will reap dividends among upper-caste voters, and its other vote-banks will remain the same. In neutral case scenario the party will obtain no benefits from this move but won’t suffer any significantlosses from current position either. In the worst-case scenario, the party won’t consolidate the upper-castes but may antagonise the others in a domino effect.
Bid For Upper-Caste Quota Allows No Margin of Error
Superficially, this may appear as a subjective analysis, but one trend seems to be clear – the BJP, even in the best-case scenario, is merely fighting to retain its supporters. In none of the scenarios does the BJP expand its support base or electoral depth.
Should this bill get passed in two Houses, it may allow the party some maneuvering space. In case of an obstruction in either of the Houses, the government may end up highlighting its lame duck status.
In conclusion, this is a policy move fraught with many a treacherous slope that do not afford any margin of error.
This terrain is better navigated with a lot of political slack that is usually available in the initial part of the government’s term. Now it is a curious combination of reckless courage and political adventurism alike.
(The author is the founder-director, CVoter International. He tweets @YRDeshmukh. This is an opinion piece. Views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)