Even as Sonia Gandhi is positioning herself as the champion of Dalits by pushing for the reservations in promotions bill, her nephew Varun Gandhi is fighting tooth-and-nail against the idea.
In a letter to BJP President Nitin Gadkari, Varun Gandhi, who is the MP from Pilibhit in Uttar Pradesh, took a strong position against the constitutional amendment bill which will ensure that quotas in promotions for SC/STs will not again be struck down by the courts.
At the centre of this battle, where aunt and nephew have taken contrary positions, is the complicated caste politics of the Hindi heartland. This battle will continue all the way to the next assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
Varun Gandhi’s letter has brought the BJP’s internal faultlines to the fore. There is a great deal of disquiet among party MPs in Uttar Pradesh for the “qualified” support that the BJP gave to the bill in the Rajya Sabha, where it has been passed.
In his letter to Gadkari – a day after parliament adjourned sine die - Varun Gandhi said he was writing to him with great expectations and urged him to “work towards a consensus within the party with a view to opposing this bill and addressing the issues that make a large section of our people feel let down. The BJP has stood for justice and good governance. Let us continue on that path”.
The letter said: “We have inherited a system in which one person in government can negatively affect the lives of many. Therefore, it is imperative that we not compromise on merit and seniority in government promotions. The implications of this bill will be to drive a wedge between sections of society. It will create discontent, which is already apparent in the striking of lakhs of government employees of Uttar Pradesh.”
“Employment opportunities for the youth will be adversely affected and governance will suffer. Youth aspire to a better India in which they have space to grow and fulfill their destinies. Their aspirations lie crushed in the face of this bill. I turn to you for justice for the people of my home state of Uttar Pradesh”, Varun Gandhi said in his letter.
The quota bill has become a big political issue in Uttar Pradesh. The actual merits or demerits of the constitutional amendment bill notwithstanding, there is a perception, particularly among the upper castes, that this is a ploy to subvert merit to the disadvantage of the upper castes, OBCs and minorities.
Eyeing for a consolidation of its support base in this broad anti-quota constituency, the Samajwadi Party has been strongly opposing the bill even to the extent of snatching papers in the Lok Sabha from Minister of State of Personnel V Narayanasamy. This got him into a minor tiff with Sonia Gandhi, and there was a verbal and physical clash between Congress and BSP members.
Sure of his core Dalit constituency, Mayawati has been pressing the UPA government hard to have it passed in the winter session. After the Samajwadi Party successfully stalled a discussion on the bill despite Sonia Gandhi’s personal keenness for its passage, Mayawati blasted the Congress and UPA, calling it a drama on their behalf. Clearly, she does not want Sonia and Congress to share the credit for passing the bill.
But protests from the upper caste and OBC groups are rising. Stirred by protests at the state BJP office in Lucknow, over 30 party MLAs met Gadkari to voice their concern and opposition to the bill. The central theme of their argument was that the party’s support base would crash as whatever upper caste support was left would shift to other parties. Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 MPs, is critical to the BJP’s revival at the next parliamentary elections. Varun Gandhi is seen by many state legislators as someone who could be the party’s counter to Rahul Gandhi and Akhilesh Yadav. His letter to the party president becomes important in this context.
A good number of other party leaders, including former party presidents Murli Manohar Joshi and Rajnath Singh, are open and vocal critics of the Bill.
Gorakhpur MP Yogi Adityanath also did not mince his words while opposing the quota bill. “We had brought reservation in promotion for SCs & STs in 2002 and we lost the very next elections in 2004. The Supreme Court has given a clear verdict on the issue, rejecting such quotas. Moreover, the state governments are competent to have a quota provision, if that is consistent with law. Then where is the need for the Centre to have a constitutional amendment bill passed by Parliament? One should have been wiser after that (2002) experience. We also have to take into account that the BJP has a substantive upper caste support base. Our endorsement of the bill will affect us very adversely. Some of us will oppose it at all levels with all our might. ”
Differences over the issue had cropped at the core group meeting that had taken place earlier. In the meeting, Rajnath Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi spoke openly against it. Sources said Sushma Swaraj, LK Advani and Nitin Gadkari appeared to be convinced of their logic and it was decided to find some way out of it without being seen as opposing it. But then, the party has already supported the bill in the Rajya Sabha after the government agreed to incorporate two amendments moved by Arun Jaitley.
On why the BJP supported the bill in the Rajya Sabha, a senior leader said it was not just about SCs, but STs as well. “We get substantial tribal support in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Odisha and other places. Some of these states are going to the polls next year. A negative propaganda on the subject would not be good for us. Moreover this is also in sync with the Hindutava (RSS’s) philosophy of `Samrasta’ (cohesion) among Hindu Samaj.”
But most Lok Sabha MPs are not buying this logic. They are happy that the Samajwadi Party’s vociferous opposition saved the party from taking a clear position in the Lok Sabha. But the issue is sure to come up in the next session, and the unrest in UP may also change the political equations in Delhi.