All’s fair in war and Bihar polls: Quota narrative gets a communal twist, courtesy Modi

On Monday, when he spoke for almost half an hour at Buxar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proved that in the end the Bihar election always boils down to just one question: What can divide voters more — caste or religion? “I will not allow any change in the existing system of reservation. I was the chief minister of Gujarat for several years, and there wasn’t any change in the quota criteria. Even during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, there was no change in the reservation policy,” Modi thundered at the rally.So far so good.



The next two rounds of polling in Bihar are in constituencies dominated by Dalits and backward caste voters. Since the Nitish Kumar-led Mahagathbandhan has turned the election into a fight between upper caste (agda) and backward caste (picchda) voters by claiming that the BJP wants to review the existing reservation system, Modi is justified in countering the campaign.

Modi then went on to claim that the Mahagathbandhan is scheming to introduce religion-based quotas. “They will take away five percent of your share for reservation on religious basis,” Modi said, adding that it was his duty to expose the conspiracy.

Quota on religious lines is an old debate triggered by the previous UPA government. In 2011, just before the UP elections, the Centre had carved out 4.5 percent quota within the 27 percent reservation available to OBCs. The sub-quota was for backward communities belonging to religious minorities who form part of the OBC list. The proposal was later struck down by the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The Centre had filed a review petition against the order in the Supreme Court, but the proposal died a slow death after the Modi government called it unnecessary.

By raising it again, Modi has attempted a masterstroke: He has not only countered a canard with another canard, but has given a communal twist to the quota narrative. By arguing that Nitish Kumar will give away to minorities something that rightfully belongs to the picchdas, Modi has gone back to the core BJP strategy of obliterating the vertical caste divide with a horizontal communal line.

The Mahagathbandhan’s success depends on its ability to keep the Muslim-Yadav-Kurmi-Picchda vote bank intact. So, its leaders are trying to unite them by claiming that the upper caste voters — the core supporters of the BJP — are their common enemy.

The BJP’s future, in an election dominated by the debate triggered by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call for a review of the reservation policy, depends on its ability to divide the Mahagathbandhan supporters by claiming that their real rivals are people from other religions.

You’ve got to pity the Bihar voters. In the end, they are the ones who will have to decide which brand of divide-and-rule politics is the lesser evil for them.

There are, of course, the known perils of playing with the quota fire and speaking in different voices for electoral gains on this contentious issue.

In 2003, Rajasthan BJP leader Vasundhara Raje had indicated to Gurjars that her party would support their demand for a separate sub-quota. When the BJP came to power, the Gurjars, who were part of the OBCs till then, launched two violent agitations for reservation that led to death of more than 100 persons and days of arson and rioting. A few months ago, Raje included Gurjars into a separate category of specially backward castes and recommended 5 percent quota for them. If this law is implemented, the total quota in Rajasthan (currently 49 percent) would exceed 50 percent.

Incidentally, at his Buxar rally, while talking about the quota for religious minorities, Modi claimed that this 5 percent reservation can only be at the cost of the existing beneficiaries. Modi argued since the Supreme Court has already ordered that reservation should not exceed 50 per cent, it can be extended to others only after curtailing the existing quota meant for Dalits, Mahadalits, Backward Castes and Extremely Backward Castes.

Wonder what Gurjars would be thinking after hearing Modi declare quotas exceeding 50 percent illegal!



All’s fair in war and Bihar polls: Quota narrative gets a communal twist, courtesy Modi