Electoral politics vs affirmative action: Quota test for BJP ahead of 2024 polls
BJP has since 2014 shed any inhibitions of playing on the caste pitch, displaying visible alacrity challenging Mandal parties in the heartland states.
Published: 13th December 2022 09:39 PM | Last Updated: 14th December 2022 01:59 PM | A+A A-
Courts have a duty to perform. Any matter brought before them is to be duly disposed of on the basis of arguments- for and against.
So did the apex court last month in adjudicating on a bunch of petitions challenging the legality of 10 per cent reservation to the Economically and Weaker Sections or EWS in communities in government jobs and education.
The most critical aspect of the majority judgment delivered by the 5-member bench lay in the interpretation of the 50 per cent quota threshold set by the Supreme Court in the 1992 Indira Sawney case which upheld the implementation of the Mandal Commission Report by the VP Singh government through an executive order.
Legal eagles, however, have differed on what the fine print of the EWS order entails for the 50 –per cent quota cap.
While some posit the apex court has kept the EWS quota beyond the pale of SC, ST, and SEBC reservations reinforcing the inviolability of the 50 per cent benchmark. Others argue this judgment offers a larger scope and flexibility to the legislature wherein this limit can be breached under extraordinary circumstances.
The latter opinion has since been cited to knit a legal framework for caste enumeration to expand the scope of quota allocation from representative to more equitable proportional. The demand to enumerate caste-wise data as part of the decennial census has been gaining traction among regional satraps - both within and outside the Congress.
In the last ten years, BJP has emerged as the dominant political force across the country - except for a few pockets down south.
The expansion of its social base has been both at the cost of friends and foes. Social justice parties like the BSP and the SP in UP, the RJD, and the JD(U) in Bihar, the JMM in Jharkhand, and the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra have been the biggest losers in the churn.
The BJP has since 2014 shed inhibitions of playing on the caste pitch, displaying visible alacrity challenging Mandal parties in the heartland states. The projection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an OBC face has been an integral part of this strategy. While reaching out to social groups outside its catchment area, the BJP, has also had to take countervailing measures to keep its traditional upper caste base in good humour like the Patels in Gujarat who have been demanding a share in the quota pie.
The EWS quota bill ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls was aimed to assuage the demands of these communities in particular. And to BJP’s credit, the party was able to counterbalance competing interests of disparate caste groups with much elan.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, as an NDA ally, was the first to experience the shrinking space for regional parties. In Bihar, for instance, the BJP can now grow only at the expense of the JD(U) by appropriating support of the non-Yadav backward communities. Precisely the voters which have kept the JD(U) afloat. Now in alliance with the RJD, the Nitish Kumar-led government in Bihar has already commissioned a caste enumeration and this may pave the way for a quota rejig in the state ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
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In neighbouring UP, Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav, though not in alliance with the BJP, had been made to work hard to elicit the support of minor, non-Yadav backward communities. He too made caste census his calling card during the poll campaign earlier this year.
In many states including Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra, the courts in the past have struck down a breach in the 50% quota cut-off citing the Indira Sawhney benchmark and the state’s inability to display empirical data to expand reservation ambit to additional caste groups.
After the EWS quota order, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren was the first off the block, seizing the opportunity to reach out to the non-upper caste electorate in his state to 77 per cent.
In adjoining Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel was to follow suit. He would be facing the electorate in December 2023. The OBCs are the largest voting block in the state, and by bringing in the bill to increase reservations, Baghel has sought to create a larger electoral mobilization on quota faultlines.
Interestingly, the onus of protecting these state legislations from judicial scrutiny are being put on the central government. In Chhattisgarh, the state legislatures passed a concomitant resolution seeking the 9th schedule protection for these statutes.
The ball is being sent back to BJP’s courts. Not just in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, the saffron party will soon be tested on the quota pitch in Karnataka as well, where there have been renewed demands for increasing the reservation for Vokkaligas in government jobs and educational institutions.
Sumit Pande is an independent journalist.