Assailed by one ally after another, Narendra Modi responded with a sudden poll-eve constitutional amendment dangling employment and educational quotas before poorer segments of higher caste Indians. Since opposing a gesture towards these segments made no political sense, very few voices in parliament questioned the amendment, which was quickly passed.
However, many MPs echoed West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s charge that the measure was insincere, might not stand up to judicial scrutiny, and may prove impossible to implement.
Several Supreme Court judgments have laid down that when added up quotas must not breach a ceiling.
Mamata has called the ploy ‘cheating’ the public.
With its blatant connection to imminent parliamentary elections, the measure may not persuade the Indian public, even though the demand for extending reservation benefits to the poor of all castes is old and seen by many as reasonable.
However, it is not easy to predict the electoral impact of this new quota law and of the Modi government’s apparent plans to send significant sums of public money to hundreds of millions of people below the poverty line.
Will such moves prove to be game-changers, reversing the pro-opposition momentum produced by the BJP’s defeats at the Congress’s hands in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, and by the BSP-SP deal in UP?
The suddenness of the new measures, and the lack of deliberation in altering the Constitution’s text, which hitherto permitted quotas for ‘socially and educationally backward communities’ and did not speak of persons economically poor, may cause unease and even backlash in significant sections of the population. The new amendment allows quotas for the poor irrespective of caste.
Much hangs on what voters will think of the Modi government’s honesty. According to a recent story in the New Indian Express of Chennai, many workers of Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the AIADMK, which is viewed as a likely BJP ally, oppose an alliance with the BJP, citing that party’s unpopularity on the ground and demonetization’s unforgotten woes.
Meanwhile sharp protests continue to erupt in Assam and the Northeast against a new bill pushed through by Modi and Amit Shah that would give Indian citizenship to Hindus who may have recently moved there from Bangladesh. The protests are being led by parties like the AGP that have been BJP allies and by other groups anxious to preserve the region’s ethnic balance.
In India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the seat-sharing deal announced by two former chief ministers (and former rivals), the BSP’s Mayawati and the SP’s Akhilesh Yadav, may sharply reduce the BJP’s numbers in the next Lok Sabha. Aiding BSP-SP prospects in UP are failures of the state’s BJP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath.
When so-called game-changers are put to one side, it is hard to see the BJP and its restive allies coming anywhere close to their 2014 figure. In the Hindi heartland, their numbers are likely to drop considerably. So too in the South, where the BJP cut a sorry figure in Telangana in recent elections, and where the BJP’s 2014 ally in Andhra, the TDP (currently ruling the state) has become Modi’s fierce foe.
With Mamata seemingly in continuing command in West Bengal, and the Northeast protesting the new citizenship law, prospects for a BJP make-up in these regions for expected losses elsewhere do not look bright at all. In Maharashtra (where ally Shiv Sena continues to bark at the BJP) and Modi’s Gujarat, pro-BJP numbers have little scope to rise and every chance to fall.
If the Congress got a large boost the other day in the Hindi heartland, other strong parties like UP’s BSP and SP, West Bengal’s TMC, Andhra’s TDP, Bihar’s JD, and Tamil Nadu’s DMK are more opposed today to the BJP than to the Congress.
Three influential regional parties, Telangana’s ruling TRS, Orissa’s ruling BJD, and Andhra’s reinvigorated YSR Congress, seem equidistant between the BJP and the Congress, but they may perceive greater leverage for themselves in an opposition grouping than in an alliance tightly led by Modi and Amit Shah.
All in all, unless the scene is transformed by ‘game-changers’ announced or on the anvil, opposition parties seem better placed today than the BJP and its shrinking number of allies.
Between today and counting day 2019 lies an ocean of uncertainty.