India's latest reservation move shows government in panic

It is a desperate election-aimed move by Modi, who clearly knows he is not going to win a majority in the next Lok Sabha.

By Aditya Sinha

Published: Tue 8 Jan 2019, 7:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 8 Jan 2019, 9:11 PM

Belonging to an upper caste from north India I can predict that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's move to reserve 10 per cent of government jobs and higher educational admissions for economically weaker upper castes will bring him and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) no benefit in the parliamentary election just months away. One, it was tried before and did not succeed, once by Karpoori Thakur of Bihar, and then by former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao: the Supreme Court struck down the latter's initiative in 1992 and took the opportunity to fix a ceiling for reservations at 50 per cent.
Two, the most momentous reservations announcement came in 1990 by VP Singh, but it was one of his last actions as PM; he did not win another election. Three, there are no jobs. The private sector isn't growing and government jobs have shrunk. Even students admitted via reservations at Delhi University openly wonder about the relevance of reservations as there are no jobs. Four, fresh reservations make a mockery of Modi's 2014 promise of good governance and achhe din (good times).
It is a desperate election-aimed move by Modi, who clearly knows he is not going to win a majority in the next Lok Sabha. He is rattled, not just by the loss of assemblies by the BJP in three Hindi-speaking states last month, but by the fact that his most efficient cabinet minister, Nitin Gadkari - who is also a favourite of the ruling BJP's parental organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whom Gadkari has 'helped' over the decades - has been publicly speaking his mind, an extraordinary thing in this council of ministers that is kept in tight control and a code of omerta.
Lately, Gadkari has praised both India's first PM, Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as India's iron lady, Indira Gandhi, both historical figures who Modi has much derided and abused. It is clearly a signal to Modi by the RSS that his days are numbered. If he loses the next election, his political career will be over, despite his own belief that he could quickly return, the way Indira Gandhi did in 1980 after the coalition that replaced her collapsed in just two and a half years.
Everybody has read the writing on the walls. The Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have not only arrived at an understanding to contest the parliamentary election in alliance - they together will dominate India's largest state, UP, which gave Modi a quarter of his parliamentary majority in 2014 - but they have come together to denounce Modi's vendetta politics. As soon as word of the alliance came through, Modi unleashed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on SP chief Akhilesh Yadav for an obscure illegal mining case; the BSP's Mayawati publicly showed solidarity with Akhilesh, and he himself said out loud that these tactics could be replicated in the future. That is another reason for Modi to worry: the moment he is out of power, he will undoubtedly face a CBI probe into the Rafale jet fighter deal.
The BJP is now threatened by its allies, whom Modi neglected during the past five years. The Asom Gana Parishad walked out of the alliance in Assam, though it was for the specific local reason of the BJP trying to push through a Citizens' Bill that would allow Hindus from neighbouring countries to become Indian citizens. The Assamese are clear they don't want any foreigner - no matter what his religion -  in their state, and this was written into the 1985 Assam Accord. In UP, witnessing the SP-BSP tie-up BJP ally Apna Dal and other smaller parties have threatened to walk out because of their neglect. The Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal have already repeatedly let the world know that they are not thrilled with Modi.
In the face of this unraveling, coupled with a resurgent Congress president Rahul Gandhi, Modi looks panicky. It is true that as an individual, he still commands more respect than other political leaders - the common refrain from his staunch supporters is that the rest of the political spectrum is led by rabble - but that card may lose efficacy given that the opposition has subtly effected a generational shift. Though Modi still goes around to rallies, decrying how all the 'thieves' have ganged up against the chowkidar (gatekeeper), the fact is that the old 'thieves' are no longer visible, claimed either by death, old age, or jail. It is a new, fresh-faced lot that one sees in Opposition, an important factor given the numerically strong first-time voters in the coming Lok Sabha poll.
Hence Modi's desperation. His announcement of reservations for upper castes - we don't know its fate given it will no doubt come up for judicial scrutiny - is said to be the first of several major announcements aimed at elections. An income for farmers that should have come in 2014 itself, and forward movement on a Ram temple in Ayodhya are other announcements that are rumoured to be in the offing. Frankly, though, in my opinion, voters have already made up their minds.
Aditya Sinha is a columnist and author. His latest book, India Unmade: How the Modi Government Broke the Economy, co-written with Yashwant Sinha, is out now

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