On August 9, the government brought in a new legislation to restore the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In the process, it overturned a March 20 Supreme Court order that had barred the arrest of public servants under the Act without a preliminary inquiry – a move it said was aimed at curbing misuse of the law. The court order had led to massive protests and a Bharat bandh by Dalits on April 2 in which 11 people had died. When the community threatened a repeat of the protests on August 9, and received the support of several allies of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Centre sprang into action.

The Centre’s decision was also taken with an eye on elections in five states in November-December and the Lok Sabha polls next year. With the amendment, the Modi government hoped to dispel the perception that it was insensitive towards the country’s most marginalised sections. But the move seems to have backfired in Madhya Pradesh, which goes to polls on November 28 and where anti-reservation protests are giving the BJP government a major headache.

In the last month, upper castes – who constitute nearly 15% of the state’s electorate and have traditionally voted for the BJP – have raised a banner of revolt against the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government. As upper caste groups called a nationwide bandh on September 6 to protest against the amendment to the Atrocities Act, thousands of protestors came out on the streets of Madhya Pradesh vowing to end the BJP’s 15-year-long rule in the state. Since then, black flags have greeted BJP MLAs, MPs and Union ministers at public meetings, forcing many of them to cancel their events in the state. Even the chief minister has not been spared. During his Jan Ashirvad Yatra on September 3, his vehicle was pelted with stones. A few days later, a member of the Karni Sena – a Rajput organisation that rose to prominence with its violent protests against the Bollywood film Padmaavat last year – hurled a shoe at Chouhan.

The protestors have also targeted Congress leaders Jyotiraditya Scindia and Kamal Nath for not raising their voice against the amendment bill in Parliament. In many upper-caste villages, residents have put up posters warning politicians not to come seeking their votes.

A shattered window on Shivraj Singh Chouhan's vehicle, which was pelted with stones during his Jan Ashirvad Yatra in September. (Credit: HT)

Sapaks: A new political threat?

The BJP government initially blamed the protests on its political opponents. But the launch on Tuesday of the anti-reservation Sapaks Samaj Party – which claims to have the support not only of upper castes but also of the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minorities – has rattled the BJP. The new party will contest all 230 seats in the Assembly. It also claims to have the support of more than 70 social organisations, including the Karni Sena, Akhil Bhartiya Brahmin and Kashatriya Mahasabhas.

The force behind this political outfit is the Samanya Pichhara Alpsankhyak Kalyan Samaj or Sapaks, an organisation of state government officials. One of its major grievances against the state government is its decision to approach the Supreme Court over reservation in promotions. “The Jabalpur High Court had [in April 2016] quashed the [2002] ruling by the state government to provide reservation in promotions but the state government decided to move Supreme Court over it,” said Hiralal Trivedi, president of the Sapaks Samaj Party. “Thereafter, Parliament overturned the apex court’s ruling on the Atrocities Act. It is then we realised that no politician or political party will raise this issue and decided to launch our own party.”

Trivedi added, “We have always maintained that once a family gets reservation, it should not get its benefits again. Also, we have been demanding that government schemes should not be on the basis of caste. Instead, it should be based on their economic condition.”

But would such a mobilisation translate into votes? And if so, which political party would likely be the worst affected?

BJP, Congress worried

Experts are divided on the impact of the Sapaks Samaj Party and upper-caste resentment on the Assembly elections. However, they are unanimous in their opinion that a split in upper caste and Other Backward Classes votes will hurt the BJP and benefit the Congress.

According to APS Chouhan, who heads the political science department at Jivaji University in Gwalior, Sapaks’ anti-reservation politics has impressed upper-caste and Other Backward Classes youth in urban areas. “Sapaks remains influential in urban centres that have a higher concentration of higher education institutions,” he said. “This segment of upper caste and OBC youth, who are jobless, feel the lower castes have been given an undue advantage. This feeling is fuelling resentment towards reservations among them.”

APS Chouhan said this could adversely affect the Congress too, though not as much as the BJP. He pointed out that the difference in vote share between the two parties in the 2013 polls was around 8% and any decline in this percentage could be a game changer. “It is for this reason that BJP would be unleashing party president Amit Shah in areas where this discontent is at peak,” he added.

Echoing Chouhan, Yatindra Singh Sisodia, director of the Madhya Pradesh Institute of Social Science Research, Ujjain, said, “For the first time, Sapaks is trying to be the political voice of this crucial vote bank. Moreover, they have support from other castes like the OBCs, who form nearly 50% of the electorate. Interestingly, these castes constitute the core vote bank of the BJP and if any party manages to take a chunk of their vote share, it would be the difference between who wins or loses MP.”

Sisodia, who has authored several books on the state’s electoral politics, said that though Sapaks cannot be treated as a political force yet, it still has the potential to derail Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s plans for a fourth consecutive term in office.

However, Girija Shanker, a senior political analyst with ties to the state government, said upper-caste angst alone will not do it for Sapaks. He said the new party will need to mobilise the Other Backward Classes in its favour if it is to think about toppling Chouhan’s applecart. Upper caste voters are not going to abandon the BJP over some newly formed party with a single-point agenda, he added.

“It takes political parties 20 years to establish base and seek the desired results,” Shanker explained. “In a state like MP that has a history of a bipolar contest, other parties contesting polls unknowingly contribute to BJP’s success. It’s [the anti-reservation protests] just a momentary outburst which will die down as we get closer to the polling dates. Moreover, in 2013, we witnessed that whenever there are more than two parties in the fray, BJP emerged as the winner.” (In the 2013 polls, the BJP was up against the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party).

Caught between communities

As for the Congress, it has chosen to remain silent on the anti-reservation protests as a comment either way could antagonise the upper castes or the Dalits. “[The] BJP has been ruling the state for last 15 years and it is the collective angst of people against their governance that is leading to such protests,” said senior party leader Mahendra Joshi. “As far as upper castes are concerned, they are the core voters of the BJP who command influence over other castes and their resentment against BJP should benefit the other party in a bipolar contest.”

The chief minister, for his part, sought to placate upper-caste voters by declaring on September 20 that no one will be arrested under the Atrocities Act without a police investigation. But this is a risky political gamble, considering that this is a legally untenable decision that, in all likelihood, will antagonise the Dalits. It now remains to be seen whether Chouhan can still turn things around for the BJP and secure the support of the party’s traditional vote bank.