Poll-bound Narendra Modi returns to core voter base, seeks 10% quota for upper castes — but will it fly?

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  • The Indian government is pushing for a proposal that will reserve every one in ten seats for poor people in the ‘backward’ upper castes for government jobs and higher education.
  • Rivals slam the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — the current ruling party of the central government — calling the move a ‘political gimmick’.
  • The controversial push is likely to face both political and legal challenges.
India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi stirs the hornet’s nest again. The Indian government is seeking to reserve one in every ten seats in government jobs and in educational institutions for poor people from the upper castes, according to news reports, just months before seeking reelection.

The bill, if passed, will benefit ‘unreserved categories’ — including Christians and Muslims — who earn less than ₹800,000 ($11,500) a year and own less than five acres of land, according to sources that spoke to IANS.

A constitution amendment bill is likely to be introduced in the Lok Sabha — lower house of India's bicameral Parliament — tomorrow (January 8, 2019). Sources also said the proposed move will not disturb the existing 50% reservation for Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC).

While the contentious proposal is unlikely to pass the hurdles in Parliament — the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are short of majority in the upper house of the Parliament, the Rajya Sabha — the move will further polarise the country's fractured electorate.

Moreover, a similar proposal was struck down by none other than India’s top court in 1992. The Supreme Court’s ruling said that the country’s constitution does not allow for reservations based on economic status. Even as a fresh bill, the Modi government will have a tough time ring fencing the proposal from legal challenges.

The Indian constitution doesn’t allow for reservations beyond 50% — which will happen if the proposal is followed word-for-word. In other words, any seat set aside for a person from upper caste will be at the cost of someone less privileged in the Indian social structure.

Even former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha, who is bitter critic of Modi despite being part of the BJP, said the proposal was 'nothing more than a jumla (gimmick)'.

Indians from the upper castes, who have for long seen reservations as a loss of entitlement, are likely to cheer the proposal. On the other hand, a large section of other voters who belong to lower rungs of the Indian society are likely to annoyed just as much if not more. The move then begs the question why would a poll-bound politician take such a huge risk?

Perception is everything in politics

Modi government’s popularity is at its weakest since the regime took over in 2014.

The ongoing agrarian crisis has alienated the rural voters, particularly those lower caste groups who, in most parts, prefer regional leaders over national outfits like the Congress or the BJP.

The upper castes, on the other hand, who have supported Modi and the BJP more than any other social group have had their grouses with the government’s policies.

A whole host of reasons including demonetisation and the advent of the goods and services tax put a huge strain on the Indian economy, particularly the informal sector that makes up about 40% of the country’s GDP. Many traders have been jolted out of the Modi fandom as the new tax regime rolled out.

The economic slump that followed the two policy shocks has resulted in slow pace of job creation — India’s monthly unemployment rate reached its highest level in more than two years in December at 7.38%, according to latest data by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.

The disenchantment has been visible even in the upper caste voters who have supported the BJP more than any other social group. The results of the recently concluded elections in states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh reflected just that sentiment. The BJP lost all three states that are considered to be its stronghold regions.

In its political wisdom, the BJP may have chosen to sharpen the focus on its core voter base and recover some of the lost votes in its fight to survive in New Delhi for another five years.

Any proposal on affirmative action has been a political hot potato right from its early days in India’s caste-ridden society. Playing with it will need a show of dexterity from Modi lest his hopes for another term be singed.

(With inputs from IANS)

See also:
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Modi administration is so confident about its re-election chances that it’s reportedly releasing a full budget for the next financial year

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