By the time the Bihar assembly passed the bill on 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS) in the general category on February 18, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Tejashwi Yadav had already completed the first leg of his statewide Berozgaari hatao, aarakshan badhao (Remove unemployment, increase reservation) yatra.
Tejashwi attacked the EWS quota and the Narendra Modi government for breaching the Supreme Court-mandated 50 per cent ceiling on quotas (it is now 59.5 per cent in Bihar). Now that they’ve done it, they must increase quotas to 90 per cent and earmark the additional reservation for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Jiski jitni hissedari, uski utni bhagidari, he says, demanding reservation in proportion to the population of castes or caste groups.
Facing the prospect of a Lok Sabha election without chief campaigner Lalu Prasad Yadav (he’s still in jail), the RJD sees the EWS quota as an opportunity to consolidate its core OBC-SC/ ST-Muslim vote base. The plan is to sharpen the backward-forward divide in a state known for its caste fault lines.
The BJP-Janata Dal (United) camp, meanwhile, is hoping the new quota will help revive its coalition of extremes’, where upper castes, extremely backward castes (EBCs) and the Dalits voted in favour of the NDA in Bihar from 2005 till 2013, when Nitish Kumar severed ties with the BJP.
That was a period of complete goodwill for us. So much so, even some sections of Muslims voted for the National Democratic Alliance as they approved of Nitish’s governance model. But times have changed… now we need the upper caste votes more than ever, says a senior BJP leader. The party is also fervently hoping that Nitish’s core constituency of non-Yadav OBCs, EBCs and Mahadalits will stand with the NDA despite the EWS quota.
Beyond jobs, reservations has always been a touchy subject in Bihar. The Lalu-led RJD really milked the issue in the 2015 assembly poll by creating the impression that the Centre was trying to end reservation. It fetched rich rewards, making the RJD the largest party in the assembly with 80 seats.
A section of upper-caste RJD leaders, backed by alliance partner Congress, want the party to tone down its anti-EWS campaign, but the party leadership is having none of it. Our focus is on consolidating our support base of 14 per cent Yadavs and 17 per cent Muslims and to reach out to the EBCs (29 per cent) and SCs (16 per cent). There is no point looking to the upper castes (12 per cent), who have always been reticent about the party, says an RJD leader.
This cuts into the Congress plan to revive its old core base of upper caste and Muslim voters, along with a section of EBCs and SCs. The party even has an upper-caste state president, Madan Mohan Jha. In the 2015 poll, as part of the RJD-JD(U) alliance, the party had fielded 16 upper caste candidates, 12 of whom had won, much to the BJP’s chagrin.
The RJD is hopeful of repeating its 2015 performance, but that won’t be easy. Now it can happen only if we appeal to caste identities. The combined BJP-JD(U)-LJP (Lok Janshakti Party) vote share is over 50 per cent, if we go by the 2014 figures, concedes an RJD leader.
If the Congress is concerned, so is the BJP.
The party’s Bihar unit has been trying to highlight the Centre’s pro-backward agenda, while also keeping OBC leaders such as Sushil Modi and Nityanand Rai in the forefront. The EWS quota may mean different things to different parties in Bihar, but it will no doubt be a major talking point this general election.