In the run-up to the 2015 Assembly elections in Bihar, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Chief Mohan Bhagwat had stirred a political storm in the poll-bound state when he publicly called for a review of reservation policies.

Bhagwat’s statement provided sufficient ammunition to Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and Janata Dal(United) leader Nitish Kumar to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party for what they described as its “upper caste mindset.” The RSS chief’s untimely remarks and the subsequent unrelenting campaign launched by Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar on this subject was one of the chief reasons for the BJP’s rout in Bihar.

Last month, the RSS publicity chief Manmohan Vaidya stoked a fresh controversy when he echoed Bhagwat’s statement while speaking at a literary event in Jaipur. Seeking a fresh look on the subject, Vaidya maintained that reservations for scheduled castes and tribes were introduced to remedy the historical injustice to them. “But even Ambedkar did not advocate for its indefinite continuance. There should be a time limit on to it,” he said. An indefinite reservations policy, Vaidya argued, will promote social strife and sectarianism.

Red-faced BJP leaders quickly went into damage control mode as they feared that, like in Bihar, Vaidya’s remarks would be used by their political rivals to brand them as anti-Dalit which would hurt their poll prospects in Uttar Pradesh as had happened in the case of Bihar. Predictably, the BJP’s opponents – the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress and the Samajwadi Party – lost no time in declaring that this anti-reservation statement was highly condemnable and that this was a clear indication that the BJP intended to do away with reservations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

Key difference

However, there is a key difference between Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. While Bhagwat’s remarks on election-eve in Bihar ensured that the discussion on reservations dominated the political discourse, it is not the case in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh as its political parties and voters have not warmed to the subject to the same degree as seen in the neighbouring state.

Pointing to the fundamental differences between the two states, Zoya Hasan, professor emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that reservations became a key issue in the Bihar elections following Bhagwat’s remarks because caste is so central to politics in this state. “Major political players like Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar are products of the Mandal agitation and reservations are the centrepiece of this movement. The political culture in Uttar Pradesh is different. While Bihar is all about caste, Uttar Pradesh it is both caste and communal[ism],” Hasan remarked.

It is perhaps for this reason that political parties in Uttar Pradesh have not made any forceful reference to the subject of quotas in their election rallies after their initial protests. The BSP chief Mayawati has made repeated references to Vaidya’s remarks on her campaign trail and cautioned Dalits that they would be deprived of their Constitutional rights if the BJP is voted to power. But at the same time, the BSP chief has also spoken out in favour of providing quotas for the economically backward among the upper castes.

Mayawati’s statements and the relative silence of the other political parties are a reflection of their political compulsions. While the BSP supremo’s attack against Vaidya’s anti- reservation statement is aimed at consolidating the Dalit vote which had shifted to the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, her comment on reservations for upper castes is a clear indicator that she does not wish to alienate the upper castes.

Caste equations

Mayawati is well aware that she cannot come to power with the support of her core Dalit vote alone. She needs to expand her social base to push up her tally for which she necessarily requires the backing of another caste bloc. It was for this reason that Mayawati had reached out to the Brahmins in the 2007 assembly polls. The strategy worked as the BSP chief rode to power with a clear majority. This time, Mayawati is wooing the minorities to forge a Dalit-Muslim social alliance which could prove to be a winner if it works on the ground. At the same time, she does not wish to cast away the Brahmins either.

It is the same story with the Congress. Though party vice-president Rahul Gandhi has unveiled a special Dalit agenda in Uttar Pradesh to win back the support of the scheduled castes, the party is also pitching for the upper-caste vote in a bid to revive the party ‘s old support base of Dalits, upper castes and minorities. In its effort to wean away the upper castes from the BJP, the Congress had even declared former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit as its chief ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. It’s a different matter that Dikshit withdrew from the contest after the Congress sealed an electoral pact with the Samajwadi Party.

Unlike the Congress, the Samajwadi Party could afford to up the ante on reservations following Vaidya’s comments, especially since the Brahmins have never been well disposed to the Yadavs. But it has been constrained from dwelling too long on it after its tie-up with the Congress. While the chief reason for this partnership is to consolidate the minorities, the Samajwadi Party is also depending on the Congress to ensure that a section of the upper castes switch sides to the new secular alliance in Uttar Pradesh.

While the complicated caste matrix in Uttar Pradesh has forced political parties to do a balancing act on reservations, it is also a fact that this is but one among the issues which are dominating this poll season. “There are so many dominating issues in Uttar Pradesh,” Hasan pointed out. “The BJP is playing the communal card by raising issues like triple talaq and the Ram mandir. Others are focusing on the ill-effects of demonetisation,” Hasan added. But above all, the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance has emerged as the chief talking point in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh elections.