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With quota politics is Modi playing V P Singh v2.0?

January 09, 2019 20:05 IST

‘Rather than consolidate the Hindu majority votes, as the BJP-RSS combine has been known and wont to try, this time round PM Modi has himself taken the party to the next step, by seeking to create a new divide within the majority community, a la V P Singh in his time.’

‘Unlike the latter, who by default could claim a substantial share of the ‘minority votes’ by default against a weakening Congress stake-holder, the Modi scheme’s inclusion of all economically weaker sections from every community is a political statement, instead.’

‘It sounds strong on paper but is possibly weaker on the ground than even V P Singh’s divide-and-misrule game-plan,’ says N Sathiya Moorthy.

Going against conventional wisdom that a BJP prime minister always seeks to consolidate Hindu votes, incumbent Narendra Modi seems wanting to try divide the same, ahead of the Lok Sabha polls due by May, through his new ‘quota scheme’.

It may also be an admission that the forgotten Sangh Parivar’s revived calls on the Ayodhya front may not materialise, to be able to influence the ‘Hindu vote-bank’ in time for the much-anticipated LS polls.

The Modi government’s surprising decision on economic reservations cutting across religious and caste lines has taken his political adversaries by shock. However, the secrecy shrouding the decision may also hide the inadequate internal debate, if any, on the legal and judicial consequences of the proposal (a la demonetisation?).


The only reservations bordering on outright Opposition to Modi’s reservations scheme has come from ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu, where ‘social justice’ has a longer history and very successful politico-administrative scheme, dating back to the Justice Party parental days a hundred years ago. The Dravidian polity in the state has boldly and unequivocally opposed the Modi scheme, clearly delineating ‘social justice’ as  relating to social status and not economic background of the beneficiary class.

The Dravidian position has also been since upheld by the Supreme Court over the past several decades. Starting with the ‘Balaji case’ (1962), the apex court has held that social status should be an underlying principle for reservations of any kind. At the same time, the courts have successively and successfully brought in an element of ‘merit’ into the scheme, in terms of admissions for higher education, from the ‘Periyakaruppan case’, again relating to ‘Dravidian’ Tamil Nadu.

Whatever remained to be said with greater clarity and assertion, the Supreme Court did so in the famous ‘Mandal case’ (Indra Sawhney vs State of Karnataka, 1992). A nine-judge Bench very clearly laid out that ‘economic reservations’ was outside the scope of the Constitution, unless there was an element of ‘social backwardness’ attaching to it.

More importantly, in ‘Indra Sawhney’, the court reiterated the established principle that ‘reservations’ cannot be the rule but an exception, even if it involved (only) ‘social background’ as the criterion. Using this as the yardstick, the Bench held that the ‘exception’ cannot be more than the ‘rule’ and total reservations for all classes, should not exceed the half-way mark, or 50 per cent.

With the ‘Indra Sawhney’ verdict, the Bench did strike down the higher quotas in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Independent of the political party in power, both states have used legal subterfuge to strike at the very root of the court-cleared scheme. Over the past 20-plus years, Tamil Nadu, for instance, has had two reservations figures, one under the ‘Mandal case’ and another to uphold the so-called state’s rights in the matter under the ‘federal scheme’.

This has had an unexpected positive fallout on the numbers in terms of higher education seats made available in the state, over the period. If today there is a glut of engineering college seats and a substantial number of medical seats in the state, it owes to this ‘twin figures’ for professional college admissions. Leave aside the resultant quality of higher education in Tamil Nadu, which has constantly come under attack, not all of them unjustified, the Supreme Court, too, is yet to give a final ruling in the matter.

All told, there can be no denying the politico-electoral element in the Centre’s decision/proposal, that too in a poll year. Definitely, it has stirred up a fresh debate on the larger ‘reservations cause/issue’, but it remains to be seen if it would be sustainable after the Lok Sabha polls. The chances are that it may be reduced to a legal battle in the Supreme Court, before or after the LS polls, depending on when and how Parliament amends the Constitution to provide for the proposed changes.

In particular, the Centre’s violation of the ‘twin codes’ of Indra Sawhney, about the quota-aggregate and exclusive economic criterion for reservations, raises the question if there was adequate application of mind before the Cabinet cleared the proposal, as if in a jiffy. It would not be ‘politically correct’ for the Opposition in Parliament to be seen as opposing the ‘progressive initiative’ on the social justice front. However, it would remain to be seen if the Opposition-ruled states would want to ‘intervene’ in favour of the 10 per cent quota, if and when a favourable constitutional amendment is challenged in the court.

It is not unlikely that the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, decides to review the ‘Mandal verdict’ in tune with the changing times, a full 25 years hence. The coincidental economic reforms in the post-socialist era too has created new ground conditions, the constitutional mandate, both through the original and later through the First Amendment, having served its limited purpose, through the past decades, possibly in more ways than one.

Yet, there can be no denying the politico-electoral angle attaching to the timing of the Modi initiative. It also raises the question if the BJP leadership of the NDA government at the Centre has given up hopes on an early and/or ‘favourable’ resolution to the ‘Ayodhya case’, which has since been reduced to a ‘property dispute’ of whatever kind.

Independent of social media hype, for and against the Modi leadership and the BJP-NDA governmental initiatives on other fronts, there can be no denying that the new quota scheme is a belated and at times urgent attempt to woo sections of the urban voters who had voted for Modi’s leadership in 2014. Whether it also implies that the BJP strategists are no more as sure and confident of the continuing support of this segment of voters in 2019 is the question.

In the past, BJP strategists had talked about a ‘saffron India’ or ‘Congress mukht Bharat’, by showing up the nation’s map and pointing out how, across the nation, more states were being ruled by their party and not their rival any more. One single round of elections for the state assemblies of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, among others, and the entire scene has changed overnight.

Call it the BJP-RSS strategists’ continuing obsession with symbols and symbolism that they seem unable to appreciate the party’s substantial to higher vote-share in some of these state assembly polls late last year. They seem to be stuck with the fact as to which party has got to rule a particular state rather than what was the vote-share and how it could translate into seats in the Lok Sabha polls.

If that were the case, BJP strategists should not -- and could not -- ignore or exclude their own vote and seat-share performances in a few other states, where again assembly polls were held in the previous year(s). Barring Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP swept the assembly polls squarely and very convincingly, in every other, the party made it to the government only through some fast, post-poll manipulation, with adequate help and assistance coming from party-appointed governors, a la rival Congress tradition.

The BJP strategists too seem to have not forgotten the assembly polls in Gujarat, the native state of Prime Minister Modi and party boss Amit Shah. The ‘Patidar agitation’ involving the upper caste Patel community ahead of the assembly polls, and youth leader Hardik Patel’s decision to join hands with the Congress meant that the well-entrenched BJP nearly lost the state.

It required Amit Shah’s Machiavellian skills and overtime campaign by PM Modi to retain the state for the party, a prestigious issue thus for the duo. Whether they could afford to spend as much time in and on their native state, or any other state, for instance, when it is a nation-wide election is the question that should have haunted BJP strategists since.

Clearly, the duo cannot have media/social media pre-poll reviews this year that the BJP cannot win as many seats as against the clean-sweep in Gujarat in 2014. Even as assembly election results were rolling out for Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, etc, political analysts in television panel discussions were already giving parliamentary seat projections for the ruling BJP especially. It was also not all that encouraging, as 2014 results had become the bench-mark performance, for them to compare.

At the height of the ‘Mandir-Mandal row’ of 1989-90, there were projections that BJP leader L K Advani was seeking to divide the nation’s electorate on religious lines by playing the ‘minority appeasement’ card against the Congress and other ‘secular rivals’. In their eyes and campaign, Ayodhya became the symbol of ‘minority appeasement’ of their electoral rivals and a projection of ‘Hindu power’.

By the same token and extension, it was argued that then Prime Minister V P Singh’s ‘Mandal card’ flowed from the BJP’s ‘Mandir agenda’. That is to say, if Advani was seeking to consolidate ‘Hindu votes’ by playing the ‘religious-divide’, Singh or anyone else in his place had little or no choice but to try and divide that majority vote-share in the middle even while hoping to win over the ‘minority votes’ from the past.

The ‘Mandal card’ thus became an electoral ‘antidote’ to the BJP’s ‘Mandir plank’, though in chronological terms the reverse may have been the truth. Today, faced with the LS polls, where BJP strategists seem to be as comfortable and confident as in 2014, the party seems wanting to consolidate or recapture the imagination of their traditional constituency, through a new campaign offering.

‘Economic reservations’ is an imaginative initiative, but then the question remains if the larger ‘quota issue’ itself would have as much electoral traction in ‘GexNext’ voters as it might have had close to three decades ago. Independent of the expectations in some Sangh Parivar circles, doubts may also remain if the ‘Ayodhya card’ has any new traction in any or all of the new generation voters, who are the core and deciding factor in contemporary elections in the country.

At the end of the day, rather than hoping to consolidate the Hindu majority votes, as the BJP-RSS combine has been known and wont to try, this time round PM Modi has himself taken the party to the next step, by seeking to create a new divide within the majority community, a la V P Singh in his time.

Unlike the latter, who by default could claim a substantial share of the ‘minority votes’ by default against a weakening Congress stake-holder, the Modi scheme’s inclusion of all economically weaker sections from every community is a political statement, instead.

It sounds strong on paper but is possibly weaker on the ground than even V P Singh’s divide-and-misrule game-plan.

When he faxed his condemnation of the ‘Ayodhya demolition’ (1992) to party president L K Advani within hours and releasing it to the traditional media of the day, Atal Bihari Vajpayee emerged as the ‘moderate’ and ‘most acceptable’ face of the BJP. It may not have paid dividends for the party and the leader immediately, but the momentum could sustain itself and also build up on itself until the BJP as a party and Vajpayee as a leader could come to power in 1998.

Today, by coming up with the very imaginative ‘economic reservations’ scheme ahead of the all-important LS polls, and including in the list all religions and communities, beyond the traditional support-base of his party, PM Modi seems similarly wanting to emerge as the new and moderate face of the BJP even while retaining the traditional ‘Hindu vote’ to the hilt  -- a twin task that he could not share with an Advani, in the absence of one!

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and political analyst, is director, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai chapter. 

N Sathiya Moorthy