The reservation plank

Print edition : September 01, 2001

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Rajnath Singh's announcement of a separate quota for the most backward castes in jobs reserved for the OBCs, made with an eye on the Assembly elections next year, invites sharp reactions from his own party.

THE reservation issue is like a honeycomb. One cannot hope to walk away with the honey without getting stung. If Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Rajnath Singh finds himself in an unenviable situation today, it is because he wanted the honey without the pain. His announcement, with an eye on the State Assembly elections, of a " quota within quota" for the most backward castes has backfired. He faces the prospect of a revolt by Bharatiya Janata Party members belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), including Ministers and Members of Parliament, if he goes ahead with his new reservation scheme. If he backtracks, his credibility will be at stake. The OBC members in his Ministry have threatened to go all out against his proposed move. An exodus of these sections, who already resent the rise of the upper castes in the party hierarchy, is likely.

Chief Minister Rajnath Singh.-SUBIR ROY

A senior Minister told Frontline that he and his OBC colleagues would not allow the Chief Minister to provide separate reservation for the most backward castes within the 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs. "Come what may, we will not allow anybody to take away from our share. If separate reservation is required for the most backward castes, let there be an increase in the (percentage of) reservation," said the Minister, who belongs to a backward caste whose members are comparatively well-off. Irrigation and Higher Education Minister Om Prakash Singh, Cooperatives Minister Ram Kumar Verma Patel, Tourism Minister Ashok Yadav and party vice-president and Lok Sabha member Vinay Katiyar are among those ranged against Rajnath Singh on the issue. Reliable sources in the BJP said that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, concerned about the extent of opposition within the party and outside to Rajnath Singh's move, had a meeting with some OBC leaders of the party recently and requested them not to speak out against the Chief Minister's decision since "it damaged the party's credibility on the whole". The Prime Minister, the sources said, also told them that the issue was a tricky one and that he was personally not happy about it because it would do more harm than good to the party. However, Vajpayee said, since the Chief Minister had already made the announcement, it was a matter of prestige for the party and their criticism should not give the impression that it was badly divided over the issue. An OBC Minister quoted the Vajpayee as saying: "But I promise, we will find a clever way out of this imbroglio." Asked what the Prime Minister might have meant when he talked about a "clever way out", the OBC members said it could even be a writ petition in the High Court.

Members of the BJP who belong to OBCs feel that the party was not justified in talking about a "quota within quota" now because it had rejected a similar concept when the issue of reservation for OBC women was raised in Parliament in connection with the Women's Reservation Bill. Besides, they said, there was no justification in the claim that the more prosperous among the OBCs had usurped the share of the most backward castes. "There has been no study so far to find out the impact of the reservation policy. The Social Justice Committee appointed by the State government has started functioning after the announcement. So how did the Chief Minister arrive at this conclusion?" asked an OBC leader. The OBC leaders say that Rajnath Singh's assumption was based on hearsay. "When the reservation policy has not even been implemented fully, when lakhs of posts reserved for the OBCs lie vacant, how can one say who has benefited more?" they asked.

Ashok Yadav said that Rajnath Singh had acted in haste. "This is a sensitive issue and the Chief Minister should have consulted all of us besides the leaders of other political parties before making the announcement," he said. According to him, a meeting of backward caste leaders was held in Lucknow on July 18 to discuss the issue but no OBC leader of stature was invited. It is a fact that besides Ashok Yadav, well-known OBC leaders such as Om Prakash Singh, Ram Kumar Verma Patel and Vinay Katiyar were kept out of the meeting. According to Ashok Yadav, even if the new policy were to be implemented, it would not yield any immediate electoral gain. Besides, it would end up dividing the OBCs and Dalits. "Can anyone even imagine the extent of hostility it would generate in the villages against the most backward castes? It would become difficult for anyone to control the situation," he warned. The only way to deal with the issue, said Ashok Yadav, was to increase the percentage of reservation on the whole. "Provide reservation to the most backwards by all means, but not at my cost," he said. Asked whether he did not fear any disciplinary action for criticising a policy decision of his government, he said: "For me it is a matter of justice for the people I represent and I am prepared for any consequences." Ashok Yadav has the support of Civil Aviation Minister and Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav, who opposed Rajnath Singh's move at a recent party convention. If Rajnath Singh goes ahead with the implementation of his scheme, it will affect not only the BJP in U.P. but also the National Democratic Alliance led by it at the Centre. With Sharad Yadav trying to establish himself as a backward class leader like Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader Mulayam Singh Yadav or Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav in Bihar, a major realignment of forces cannot be ruled out.

However, independent political observers think that Rajnath Singh's gamble might well yield political mileage for the BJP. This assessment is based on electoral arithmetic. The BJP has traditionally been securing a major share of upper-caste votes in U.P. In the 1996 Assembly elections, 76.8 per cent of the upper-caste voters supported the BJP. They constituted 20 per cent of the electorate. A combination of the upper castes and the most backward castes among the OBCs, who constitute 26 per cent of the population, is a sure winner. This alliance will be strengthened further if the BJP succeeds in winning over the most backward sections among Dalits (forming 6 per cent of the population), who have not necessarily been voting for the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). These gains, according to party strategists, could offset any damage caused by the exodus of OBCs such as Kurmis and Lodhs from the party. Kurmis are the only segment among the better-off OBCs who vote evenly for the BJP and the S.P. In the 1996 Assembly elections, the BJP won 44.9 per cent of the Kurmi vote and the S.P. 41.5 per cent. The BSP secured 10 per cent.

Kurmis constitute 4 per cent of the population and the loss of their support, say BJP leaders, could be compensated by the gain of support from other castes.

Similar is the case of the Lodhs, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP (78.2 per cent) in 1996. This section is expected to support former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh's party, the Rashtriya Kranti Party, in the next elections. The Yadavs, who will be adversely affected by Rajnath Singh's scheme, constitute 9 per cent of the population. Among them, 73.8 per cent voted for the S.P. and 6.7 per cent for the BJP in 1996. The loss of their support may not be of much consequence to the BJP.

Among Dalits, the Jatavs and the Pasis, who constitute 13 per cent and 4 per cent respectively, are comparatively well off. They have traditionally voted for the BSP and their alienation may not affect the BJP's prospects. A substantial 73 per cent of Dalit votes went in favour of the BSP in 1996.

In the BJP's scheme of things, the perceived losses are less compared to possible gains. Besides, in a scenario when the party is left with no substantive election issue, Rajnath Singh's decision could prove to be an effective weapon in the electoral battle. The announcement that 35,000 vacancies in government jobs and 20,000 teacher posts will be filled and 15,000 new recruitments will be done on the basis of the new reservation formula makes it clear that he is all set to wield the weapon, ignoring for the moment the resentment within the party and the criticism from outside.

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