If you thought political parties, confused as they are about their potential voters, would rework their electoral templates and seek out new constituencies, forget it. As elections to the crucial Uttar Pradesh assembly get closer, all parties are rushing back to the old and overused success formula: wooing the minorities.
The Congress on Thursday announced that the central government would accommodate Muslims in the 27 percent quota fixed for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). A few days ago, Mayawati, in a letter to the prime minister, had accused the Centre of holding back funds earmarked for Muslims and OBCs. Samajwadi Party (SP) leader Mulayam Singh has called upon Muslims to come on the streets to demand reservation.
The sudden focus on the community does not surprise. Muslims account for 18 percent of the state's population and Muslim voters could make or mar the fate of candidates in several constituencies, particularly those in western UP. However, this stable chunk of voters is undecided on its choice yet — they voted for the SP earlier and shifted partly to the Congress in 2009. This is what has led to the scramble.
For the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which resorted to brilliant social engineering in 2007 by bringing the extremes in the social spectrum — Dalits and Brahmins — together to achieve a majority in the assembly, the situation is bleak. The rainbow alliance is in tatters at the moment and Chief Minister Mayawati is up against a strong anti-incumbency mood. With her Dalit vote bank more or less intact, she needs support from one more social grouping to sail through. Muslims are required, assuming the Brahmin vote will splinter this time.
The SP, which enjoyed strong support from the community, alienated the Muslims when it took former BJP leader Kalyan Singh into its fold in 2009. If the aim was to get the votes of the Lodh community to which Kalyan belonged, it failed miserably. The exit of the most prominent Muslim face in the party, Azam Khan, was a big loss too. Chastened after the disastrous electoral slide, the party is back to building bridges with the community. Kalyan is out, Azam is back but SP does not command the same loyalty anymore.
The Congress gameplan in the quota announcement is clear. It has no strong social support base to fall back on in a state where caste plays such an important role in electoral politics. Through the efforts of party general secretary Rahul Gandhi it wants to create a voter base that cuts across castes. His repeated trips to Dalit households and having food at the homes of lower caste people follow that design. But this strategy is too limited — small pockets of support cannot ensure too many seats. The Muslim community comes into picture here. It backed the party well in the 2009 general elections. The Congress wants to build on that.
"Of the 27 percent OBC quota in jobs, government is examining to fix a quota for backward Muslims," Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid told reporters. The fine print is yet to be worked out but the indication is there would be a six percent quota within the OBC quota, on the lines of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. The Ranganath Misra Commission had recommended 10 percent reservation for Muslims. For now, it appears a vague promise with no timeframe specified.
Such an arrangement already exists in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. But coming at this juncture, the actual Congress motive could be to pit the OBCs against the Muslims and destabilise the vote bank of the SP. The move could turn both the groups which currently support the SP into rival camps, since the Muslim quota will eat into the OBC share. It’s advantage Congress if OBC and Muslims votes get polarised and splinter.
It also threatens to blunt Mayawati’s bid to woo Muslims. The BJP could gain if there’s a polarisation of opinion against the reservation move. But the Congress does not perceive it as a big threat to its prospects in UP at this point.