The Lok Sabha gave its nod to the Women’s Reservation Bill on 20 September. The next day, the Rajya Sabha followed suit. The Bill has no provision for quota within quota for women from the OBC and the minority communities. The opposition made this an issue. The ruling coalition, on the other hand, is trying to take credit for getting the Bill cleared. Prof Sanjay Kumar, director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, talked to Nawal Kishore Kumar on this and other related issues. Excerpts:
The Women’s Reservation Bill has received Parliament’s consent. Do you think it will impact the upcoming elections, especially with regard to the performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)?
See, there are two aspects. The first question is: Will this have any adverse impact on BJP’s support base? Will it hurt the BJP? There is no reason to believe that it will hurt the BJP in any way. Whether it is 2024 or 2029, it will not harm the BJP. The next question is – how much will the BJP gain? The BJP is claiming credit for the passage of the Bill. Now, what we need to consider is whether it will expand BJP’s support base, whether it will result in more people voting for the party. I don’t think the BJP will gain much from it in the 2024 elections. That is because everyone knows that though the Bill has been passed, it will not come into force for the next seven or eight years. If the women’s quota is implemented before the 2029 general elections, the BJP may gain in some measure. But the gains, if any, in the 2024 polls would be marginal. The impression that has been created that the BJP cares for the womenfolk and is concerned about them may somewhat benefit the party, but it won’t be substantive. The party is unlikely to gain just because the Bill has been passed.
The Janata Dal United (JDU) has claimed that the passage of the bill was a panic reaction of the ruling party to the opposition parties forging an alliance. Do you agree?
No, I don’t think it was so. Yes, the opposition unity has caused consternation, concern in the BJP. You can say that they [BJP leaders] are a bit worried. When the INDIA coalition was formed, all sorts of things were said about its name, it was mocked. But I don’t think the Women’s Reservation Bill is a reaction to the INDIA alliance coming into being. It is part of a long-term political strategy. To begin with, it enhances the Prime Minister’s status, for he had a Bill that was hanging fire for three decades, passed. And that too, a legislation which is being talked about and which did not face any opposition in Parliament. You know very well that no one can oppose such a measure. No party can oppose it. So, it was backed by all the parties in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. It was a measure which no party could have afforded to oppose. But the credit for getting it cleared goes to Prime Minister Modi. It is not that Modi or the BJP moved this bill because they were scared of opposition unity. It is a well-thought-out political move. It has added a few inches to the stature of the Prime Minister. It has helped create an impression that the BJP is a party that cares for women. The PM can claim credit for this historic moment in which the Bill was passed. That is why, I think, the Bill was moved before the elections. There is a feeling, there is an anticipation, that it will benefit the ruling party electorally. But I don’t think that the JDU is right when it claims that the Bill was moved because the BJP was rattled by opposition unity or it wanted to counter the opposition’s move.
During the debate on the Bill, the opposition raised issues related to caste census and on the representation of the OBCs in legislatures. The ruling party, however, skirted these issues. Can we say that this inaugurates a new era in OBC politics?
Of course. It is true that the OBCs are being discussed. You can call it Mandal 2.0 or 3.0 because OBCs are being discussed by both the groups. As for the ruling BJP, the issue of OBCs is cropping up again and again. And the opposition is preparing to contest the elections on this issue. They are trying to make it a poll plank. Initially, there was this talk of counting the OBCs but the government backtracked on it. When the Women’s Reservation Bill was introduced, the opposition parties had little choice. They could not have opposed it, for that would have sent out the message that they were anti-women. This fear was stalking all the parties. So, they did not oppose it. But they did demand quota within quota. This gave two weapons to the opposition. If they supported the Bill, it would give the impression that they were with the BJP, with the government. Now that would have eroded their own popular base. That was the fear. So, they needed something that would help them convey to the public that while they are not opposing the bill, they are not with the government. So, what ploy did they use to convey this impression? They used the ploy which I referred to earlier – quota within quota. This helped them in two ways. One, they did not appear to be backing the BJP. They did support the Bill, but not the Bill which the BJP had moved. They appeared to be opposing the Prime Minister. Secondly, they got a potent weapon to prove that they want the OBCs to get a share in governance, that they want a policy to be framed to secure social justice to the OBCs. So, they raised this issue vociferously. Now, speaking of the ruling party, faced with the charge of being anti-OBC, the BJP had to flaunt the figures – how many BJP MPs are OBCs, how many Cabinet ministers are OBCs, how many other ministers are OBCs. It seems certain that in 2024, the politics will revolve around the OBCs. In the 2024 elections and maybe even in the 2029 elections, but in the 2024 elections for sure. Among other issues, the issue of social justice for OBCs will figure prominently.
What would have happened if, instead of convening a special session of Parliament, the government had introduced the Bill in the usual manner after informing all the parties of its intent?
This wouldn’t have made any difference. If the information had been provided in advance, still nothing would have changed. I don’t think any party could have marshalled a single argument to oppose the Bill. If they had been informed, say, 10 days ago, that the Women’s Reservation Bill was in the offing, no party could have come up with an argument to oppose it, or opposed it and that too, opposed it in a way that would have been credible in the eyes of the people. No party could have done it. I don’t think that informing parties about the Bill in advance would have made any difference. Even in the case of advance information, the Bill would have received the same kind of support that it did when it was introduced out of the blue in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
What I mean is that the opposition was taken by surprise. If they had some time, they could have taken some initiative at the national level, they could have put forth their demands more strongly and the government would have been forced to consider their objections.
You see, Parliament is a national forum. Even if the parties had been informed, say, a month in advance about the Bill, could they have held discussions on it in different corners of the country? This was not expected. I don’t think it would have made much of a difference. You may discuss something ad nauseum but in Parliament, it is the numbers that matter and the government has the numbers – both in the Lok Sabha and in the Rajya Sabha. Even if the opposition had been informed four to six months ago, no matter how much they discussed it, it was unlikely that it would have yielded a different result. The government had decided that it would ensure that the Bill was passed. We saw the kind of support it received in both the Houses. So, what would the discussions have yielded? A six-month-long discussion would have yielded the result that the two-hour discussion did. I don’t think it would have made any substantive difference.
The Modi government has come up with the ‘One Nation, One Election’ slogan. It has even formed a committee to consider the idea. Is this possible in today’s times? And even if it is implemented, can it be done without undermining the federal structure of the country?
Let us begin with whether it is possible. There are some technical issues due to which it seems that it is very difficult, almost impossible, without amending the Constitution. But then the Constitution can be amended. The first problem is how to ensure that all states go to the polls simultaneously. For that, you will need to dismiss many state governments. Under which law will it be done? And suppose you make such a provision and you hold all state elections simultaneously. But what will you do if any state government falls before completing its term? There are all sorts of technical issues. Taking these scenarios into account, I think it will be very difficult to do this. It is next to impossible because you will need to make all sorts of amendments to the Constitution. These amendments can be done but these amendments will demolish the very constitutional base of the electoral process. An amendment can be made fixing the tenure of the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabha – that the tenure of the two Houses will be five years come what may. What I am saying is that it is difficult to anticipate the kind of amendments that would be needed. But what is certain is that such amendments would encroach on the rights of the states. If the rights of the states are curtailed, it will undermine the federal structure, it will undermine the autonomy of the states. I wouldn’t go to the extent of saying the federal structure would collapse, but for holding simultaneous elections, you would have to curtail the jurisdiction of the states, their powers and their rights. And that would hurt the federal system prevailing in the country.
How would ‘one nation, one election’ affect the regional parties? Would they become extinct?
Data shows that if Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections are held concurrently, it would not affect the large, strong regional parties. There might be some exceptions. Delhi may be an exception. Some other states may be an exception. But data shows that if Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections are held concurrently, it would not make much difference to the vote share of the parties that are dominant in different states. People vote in national and state elections along the same lines. In 70 per cent of cases, the change in vote share is less than 3 per cent. But the smaller political outfits may suffer. For instance, in Bihar there are scores of small political parties. For example, although I am not saying these parties would be affected, there is the Lok Janshakti Party which already has two factions; there is the Hindustan Awam Morcha; there is Upendra Kushwaha’s party, there is Mukesh Sahni’s party – such small regional outfits may face an existential crisis. That is because in Lok Sabha elections, people tend to vote for the dominant party and the same would happen if the Vidhan Sabha elections are held simultaneously. If Vidhan Sabha elections are held separately, the small regional parties perform well in their respective zones of influence. I was talking about Bihar. I don’t think it would make much difference to the RJD or the JDU whether the elections are held simultaneously or separately. If we look at Uttar Pradesh, there, too, are many small regional parties. They would face the danger of being wiped out. I say this because we have seen many simultaneous Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections. In such cases, the small regional parties lost votes. But in the same states, when two elections were held separately, these parties could garner a respectable share in the votes. We have enough evidence to prove that smaller regional parties would lose their identity in case concurrent polls become the norm.
In an earlier interview with Forward Press, you had said that only such parties that give importance to the OBCs would be able to rule this country. Is the same true even now?
If we compare the 2019 and the 2024 elections, I feel that the OBCs are being talked about more now. I have said this earlier, too. You see, the BJP has been proclaiming from different platforms that its Prime Minister is an OBC, so many ministers are OBCs, four Cabinet ministers are OBCs, the OBCs form a chunk of the party’s MPs and so on. Similarly, the opposition parties are demanding quota within quota. So, everyone is talking about the OBCs and everyone wants to benefit from it. They feel that this is an issue they can place at the centre of their politics, this is an issue that can help mobilize voters. So, I feel that the situation vis-à-vis the OBCs won’t change between now and the 2024 polls. I feel that the issue of social justice will continue revolving around the OBCs. The parties won’t talk about the Dalits and the Adivasis. They will only talk about social justice and social justice has come to mean justice for OBCs. This issue will be at the centre of politics. It is clear that no party can aspire to rise on the political horizon, to become a big party at the national level, without doing OBC politics.
Last question. Rohini Commission has submitted its report to the President. What would be the BJP’s strategy now?
The report of the Rohini Commission hasn’t been made public. But broadly, it is believed that if the report is implemented, the 27 per cent reservations for the OBCs – whether in central government jobs, central government services or in schools and colleges – will be subdivided. The broad conclusion is that only some dominant OBCs castes have benefited from the reservations. Though there is a provision to identify and leave out the creamy layer in OBC reservations, what has happened in some states is that a handful of OBC castes have benefited and the other OBC castes – lower OBCs who are far behind the other OBC castes in social and educational terms – have not benefited. The Rohini Commission, it is surmised, has proposed sub-categorization in OBC reservations. At the central level, the upper and the lower OBCs are not defined, though some states have done it. For instance in Bihar, there are two lists, Annexure I and Annexure II. But there is no such categorization in the central list. So this is the recommendation of the Rohini Commission. If you will look carefully, you will find that the BJP has managed to make inroads into the OBC vote bank in a big way. In the 2009 elections, 24 per cent OBC voters had voted for the BJP. By 2019, this figure rose to 44 per cent. It was 34 per cent in 2014. Now, let us look at which section of the OBC voters has drifted towards the BJP. If we talk about the different states, the lower OBC voters have gone with the BJP. In the case of the upper OBCs, the shift is much less. So, if the OBCs are sub-categorized, it will mainly benefit the BJP. The Rohini Commission report, if implemented, will favour the lower OBCs. And if it is implemented, the entire credit will go to the BJP. And this will mean that the BJP will get a firmer foothold among the lower OBCs. But that will not be the case with the upper OBCs. The upper OBCs, who have been cornering a major share of the reserved posts, will be resentful. But what I feel is that the BJP’s hold on the OBC voters will remain intact, even if there is no increase. There is no reason why the BJP should suffer.
(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)