The upper castes do play an important role in the politics of the northern Indian states, but this impact is limited to some extent.
From the recent announcement of the proposed policy of reserving 10 per cent of jobs for the economically weaker sections among the upper castes, the BJP is hoping to consolidate its upper caste support base, which seemed threatened in recent years. The BJP’s defeat in three state Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan seemed to have worried the BJP leadership, and it sensed a growing disappointment among the upper castes towards it. The BJP is hoping that the announcement of this policy may be a masterstroke just before the Lok Sabha elections of 2019. True, the BJP might stand to gain, and may win back at least a large section of upper caste voters who had begun to desert the BJP, but the electoral gains for the BJP overall may be limited — for two reasons. First, the upper castes are not numerically very large; and second, they have been core supporters of the BJP and have been voting for it in large numbers before this policy was proposed. The proposed policy can at best win back some disenchanted upper caste voters, but it can’t possibly add too many additional votes for the party in 2019.
The upper castes do play an important role in the politics of the northern Indian states, but this impact is limited to some extent. While there are no official estimates of upper castes in different states, estimates from the various rounds of surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies indicates that upper castes constitute roughly between 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the total population in different states, with some exceptions. Among the Hindi heartland states, the upper castes constitute 18 per cent of the total population of Bihar, 22 per cent of the population of Madhya Pradesh, 25 per cent of the Uttar Pradesh population, 50 per cent of the total population of Delhi, 20 per cent in Jharkhand, 23 per cent in Rajasthan, 40 per cent in Haryana and 12 per cent of Chhattisgarh’s total population. There are some other non-Hindi speaking states where the upper castes are in sizeable numbers — 35 per cent in Assam, 30 per cent in Gujarat, 19 per cent in Karnataka, 30 per cent in Kerala, 30 per cent in Maharashtra, 20 per cent in Odisha, 10 per cent in Tamil Nadu, 48 per cent in West Bengal and 48 per cent in Punjab.
While it is true that the BJP possibly cannot lose votes from this policy, the gains from this policy will be very limited. The reasons are simple. In the states where the BJP had performed well in 2014, namely Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and a few others, the upper castes had voted for the BJP in very large numbers. In fact, they formed the backbone of the support base for the BJP. The CSDS surveys indicate that a majority of upper caste voters have voted for the BJP in various elections in these Hindi heartland states. The proposed policy can only help the BJP in winning back the upper caste voters who seemed to have just begun moving away from the BJP. The recent defeat of the BJP in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, besides other factors, is also due to the shifting of upper caste voters away from the party. This proposed policy and the criteria of determining economic backwardness helps little as the suggested criteria of determining backwardness would mean bringing a very large proportion of upper caste voters into its fold, who are already core supporters of the BJP. The policy suggests the criteria of economic backwardness will be of those having an annual income of less than `8 lakhs, or those having less than five hectares of agricultural land, or those having a flat of less than 1,000 sq. ft. or owing land of less than 100 yards in a notified municipality or less than 200 yards in a non-notified locality. Given these suggested benchmarks, in most likelihood nearly 85-90 per cent of upper castes might come under the ambit of reservations.
In states where the BJP is not a political force today, such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, this policy could hardly motivate the upper castes to vote for it. The politics of most of these states are dominated by the regional parties, and it is difficult to imagine that the BJP could take centrestage in the politics of these states in 2019 just because upper castes would get mobilised in its favour due to the expected gains from this reservation policy. So the BJP will have limited gains or no gains in these states compared to 2014.
There are a few other states, like West Bengal or Odisha, where the BJP was relatively a weak political force in 2014, but there are signals of the party emerging stronger in recent years. But it is important to note that the BJP’s emergence in these two states has nothing to do with the shifting of upper caste votes towards it. It is largely due to the people’s disenchantment with the ruling party of the state, the Trinamul Congress in West Bengal and the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha, and the absence of any other viable alternative in these states. The BJP managed to emerge as a political force in some states playing the religious card, Assam being an example. The BJP might well emerge stronger in these states in 2019 compared to 2014, but that may not be due to the shift of upper caste votes in the BJP’s favour in these states. Thus, the BJP government’s move for 10 per cent reservation for the economically poor upper castes in education and in jobs is unlikely to deliver any significant electoral benefits forthe party in these states.
The proposed reservation policy has the ability to create a lot of noise, to bring this to the centrestage of Indian politics before the 2019 election as no political party could possibly oppose it openly, but even then, the gains for the BJP may not be to the extent that the party is hoping for.