With crucial Assembly elections coming up in Gujarat and Karnataka, a Bill granting constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes is high on the agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the monsoon session of Parliament, which commences on July 17.
The constitution amendment Bill introducing a National Commission for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes in the Constitution was passed by the Lok Sabha in April but had to be referred to a select committee after the numerically-stronger Opposition parties in the Rajya Sabha insisted that it be scrutinised by a parliamentary panel.
After several rounds of discussions, the select committee is set to table the report in Parliament in the monsoon session. The Bill is expected to get smooth passage as all political parties are in agreement on the contents of the legislation. The Bill will give the proposed commission powers to redress the grievances of members of the backward classes on the same lines as those enjoyed by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.
The constitution of a far more empowered National Commission for Backward Classes will undoubtedly be a huge victory for the Narendra Modi government and will be showcased as such in the run-up to the Assembly elections. Gujarat goes to polls later this year. The Karnataka elections are scheduled for 2018 but media reports said the state’s Congress chief minister, Siddaramaiah, is in favour of advancing it to December.
BJP’s outreach campaign
However, the BJP is not waiting for the passage of the Bill to consolidate its support among the backward classes. The party has already launched a nationwide campaign to propagate the fact that it is the Modi government that has ensured that the backward classes get their due rights. Union ministers and BJP leaders have been traveling to various states to get this message across to the widest possible audience.
At the same time, the party is also using every opportunity to flay the Congress for holding up the Bill in the Rajya Sabha and to paint the main Opposition party as “anti-backward classes”. A senior BJP functionary said, “The Congress is going to pay a heavy political price for blocking the Bill.”
So, irrespective of the passage of the Bill in the monsoon session, BJP strategists have ensured that the party gains either way.
The BJP’s outreach to the backward classes has picked up pace since it first succeeded in getting their support in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Modi’s projection as a backward class leader had gone a long way then in winning them over. More recently, the BJP’s experiment in Uttar Pradesh of accommodating non-Yadav members of the backward classes in its party structures and giving them a large chunk of tickets in the February-March Assembly polls paid it rich political dividends. The party swept the elections, winning 312 of the 403 seats.
The BJP now intends to extend this strategy across the country, given that the backward classes constitute over 50% of the population. The party’s immediate focus is on Gujarat and Karnataka, but it also hopes to make big gains in the southern states where the backward classes play a crucial role in electoral politics. Following up on its Uttar Pradesh strategy, the BJP has identified local-level Other Backward Classes leaders in various states while party president Amit Shah has held a series of meetings with them in states as diverse as Gujarat, Telangana, Kerala and even Goa. “We got a very good response in all these states,” remarked a BJP leader. The BJP is hoping that its focus on the backward classes will help it expand its footprint in the south, where it is primarily viewed as a Brahminical party confined to the “Hindi cow belt”. Besides breaching the regional divide, the BJP also believes its backward classes card will cut across religious lines and that Pasmanda (backward) Muslims will also gravitate towards the saffron party.
Gujarat prestige battle
While the BJP goes full speed ahead with its expansion plans, its first priority is to win a landslide victory in Gujarat, where it has been in power for three terms. The upcoming election is a battle of prestige for Modi, who steered the party to three successive wins as chief minister. It is, therefore, critical that the BJP gets a thumping majority in his home state now that he is the prime minister. The party is making a special effort to win over the backward classes in Gujarat (who constitute nearly 60% of the state’s population) as the powerful Patel community, which had so far extended unstinted support to Modi, is now on the warpath, pressing for reservation in educational institutions and government jobs. Similarly, there is anger brewing among the Dalits following attacks on them by cow protection vigilante groups.
Focusing single-mindedly on backward classes, the BJP has initiated several measures over the past three years to win them over. For instance, it set up an Other Backward Classes Morcha or wing in the party in the run-up to elections in Bihar in 2015. And at its national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar in April this year, it passed a resolution that dwelt on Modi’s initiative to set up a more powerful commission for the backward classes. The party has also given leaders from this section prominent positions in its various state units.