Narendra Modi

PM Narendra Modi in a group photograph with Union Minister Smriti Irani and women MPs after the passage of the Nari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam (women's reservation bill) by the Rajya Sabha in the special session of the Parliament, in New Delhi, Thursday, September 21. Photo: PTI

BJP Naari Shakti vs INDIA Caste Census: 2024 polls narratives take shape

A dominant view within the INDIA coalition is that its constituents must pipe down on the Bill’s criticism and go all out with their demand for a caste census.

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The special session of parliament saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a never seen before avatar. On the multiple occasions that he spoke during the four-day session, a rarity by itself, Modi chose conciliation over confrontation, humbly seeking the opposition’s cooperation in passing the Naari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam (128th Amendment Bill for providing women’s reservation) instead of fusillading his rivals with the usual Molotov cocktail of fury and derision. The opposition cooperated even if it chose to not reciprocate unconditionally the niceties that the prime minister had uncharacteristically extended.

That was then. With the Bill now passed by both Houses of parliament and awaiting ratification by 50 per cent of state assemblies before it can be assented to by President Droupadi Murmu, Modi has ended his unilateral armistice while the Opposition too is sharpening its attack at the government over the obvious follies in-built in the legislation whose earlier versions had all met a premature legislative death.

The gloves are off and a clash of electoral narratives over the Bill has begun to take shape. Through the course of the debate on the Bill in either House of parliament, Modi had chosen to let his BJP colleagues including Union ministers Amit Shah, Arjun Ram Meghwal and Nirmala Sitharaman and BJP president JP Nadda launch the government’s offensive against the opposition.

With elections to five state assemblies due in a month and countdown for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls already begun, Modi is back to playing his party’s campaigner-in-chief and expectedly, it is the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill by parliament that has become his most potent weapon against the opposition’s shaky INDIA coalition.

BJP aggression

If there was any doubt within the BJP’s rank and file on how to leverage the passing of the historic legislation to the party’s electoral advantage against the opposition’s tirade over the indeterminate timeline of implementation of the promised 33 per cent quota for women in parliament and state legislatures, Modi has laid it out in simple terms.

Less than 48 hours after the special parliament session ended, Modi was in his Lok Sabha constituency of Varanasi addressing a women-only public meeting, craftily titled Naari Shakti Vandan. Seeking blessings of the women in attendance, Modi hailed the “historic and visionary” legislation that would “open many new paths for women empowerment as their representation increases in State Assemblies and Parliament” and claimed that the opposition parties which had “stalled this law for over three decades are now trembling”.

Stepping up the attack, on Monday (September 25), at rallies in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the prime minister claimed that parties of the “Ghamandia alliance” – Modi’s preferred moniker for the INDIA coalition – had “reluctantly supported” the legislation because they feared “naari shakti” (women power).

Attributing the entire credit for the parliamentary nod to the Bill to himself, Modi declared: “Modi hai, toh mumkin hai (everything’s possible because of Modi)”, while chastising the Congress and its allies for deliberately stalling the women’s reservation “despite running majority governments for years”.

While Modi was addressing these rallies in Bhopal and Jaipur, the Congress had dispatched 20 of its women leaders to as many cities across the country to address press conferences highlighting the Bill as yet another chunaavi jumla (electoral rhetoric) by the BJP. The Congress, as also the broader INDIA coalition’s counter-narrative on the legislation has two key facets.

Opposition view

First, the opposition claims, though correctly, that the Bill will not be implemented anytime soon as for the reservation to kick in, a fresh census will need to be conducted following which a Delimitation Commission will need to identify the new reserved constituencies for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies. Second, the INDIA constituents argue that the Bill excludes a sub-quota for backward class women and would, thus, be an “incomplete and unjust affirmative action plan”.

“BJP president JP Nadda told the Rajya Sabha that this reservation will not be implemented before the 2029 Lok Sabha polls, though by our estimation, the wait may extend till 2031 or even beyond because the Census, whenever it begins, will take two-three years to conclude following which the Delimitation Commission will take another five years to finalise its recommendations,” Congress MP Ranjeet Ranjan told The Federal.

“In its current form, this Bill is nothing but another election jumla and this is why Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and our former presidents Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have demanded that the Bill must be implemented immediately and amendments for introducing an OBC sub-quota should be introduced subsequently after conducting a caste census,” he said.

While the criticism that Ranjan hurled at the BJP over the Bill is factually correct, opposition leaders concede privately that their narrative against the legislation’s “form and flaws” will “hardly be enough to counter the BJP’s propaganda”. Political commentators too agree that the BJP is on a firmer footing with the Bill than the opposition and claim that the latter would be better off focussing on its demand for a caste census.

Political perspective

“What Modi is saying may be based on half-truths but he has delivered what his rivals failed to in decades. The BJP has a positive message which is simple to understand. There are three clear and easy to understand aspects of Modi’s message – the Bill has been passed, women reservation will become a reality sooner than later and irrespective of who comes to power and that the Congress and other opposition parties repeatedly promised women reservation but never delivered,” says Harsh Sinha, political observer and professor at the Gorakhpur University.

Sinha adds: “The opposition has a negative message that is based on technicalities about the Census, Delimitation Commission, sub-quota, etc. which ordinary women voters may not be concerned about since the message that Women Reservation Bill has been cleared by Parliament is a very emotive one. For women, it could be for the 2024 elections what Modi’s Ujjwala Yojana and other pro-women schemes were in the 2019 elections.

“The opposition, particularly the Congress, also has no credible explanation for why the Bill wasn’t passed earlier if it had such bipartisan support. Merely saying that the Bill is bad or that the government did not consult them or that it was brought to Parliament under secrecy only helps strengthen Modi’s claim about the opposition giving supporting the Bill only for fear of electoral backlash”.

A dominant view that appears to be emerging within the broader INDIA coalition is that its constituents must pipe down on the Bill’s criticism and, instead, go all out with their already stated demand for a caste census, supplementing it with promises of introducing an OBC sub-quota for women’s reservation if they come to power.

Caste count

“The BJP is using the Bill to consolidate its hold on the women electorate that comprises roughly 50 percent of the population and there is no denying that a large chunk of this bloc has already been voting overwhelmingly for the BJP. Additionally, the BJP has also been wooing the OBC voter, which it has assimilated into the overarching Hindutva vote bank. What we need is to explain to the OBCs is that Hindutva politics is keeping them away from real empowerment.

“The demand for a caste census is easy to explain and, unlike our criticism of the women’s bill, it also has a positive message of empowerment... by simultaneously insisting on OBC sub-quota in the 33 percent reserved seats for women, we can also try to prevent an en masse shift of OBC women to the BJP,” a senior INDIA coalition leader told The Federal.

Rahul Gandhi’s recent expression of “100 percent regret” at non-inclusion of an OBC quota in the UPA government’s version of the Women’s Reservation Bill, which was passed by the Rajya Sabha in March 2010 but couldn’t clear the Lok Sabha due to opposition from caste-based social justice parties such as the RJD and the SP, is part of this counter-narrative that the INDIA coalition wants to offer.

Rahul has also conceded that though the UPA government got a socio-economic caste census (SECC) conducted in 2011, “internal discussions” (he did not specify whether in the government or in his party) prevented the publication of the collected data. Rahul has said the UPA government “should have published” the findings of the SECC and “guaranteed” the backward classes that the Congress will have a fresh Caste Census conducted when in power.

Additionally, Kharge has also been promising a caste census and survey in poll-bound MP, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana.

This push from the Congress is an obvious departure from its past stand on the issue of multi-dimensional affirmative action for OBCs. It was the Congress’s stout refusal to an OBC sub-quota that had derailed the legislative journey of the UPA’s 2010 version of the Women’s Reservation Bill.

Long before that, be it the Jawaharlal Nehru government in the late 1950s or the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi governments of the 1980s, each had dragged their feet on taking any credible action on reports of various commissions that were set up to determine different ways of OBC empowerment.

Earlier failures

Predictably, the Nehru government’s failure to act on recommendations of the First Backward Classes Commission (Kaka Kalelkar Commission), 1955, and the decade-long delay from 1980 to 1990 (encompassing the tenure of majority governments of Indira and Rajiv) in the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission – 27 percent OBC reservation in government jobs was finally accepted by the non-Congress VP Singh government – was highlighted by BJP leaders during the special session.

From Amit Shah to JP Nadda, nearly all senior BJP leaders who spoke during the debate on the Naari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam cited the non-implementation of these commission reports by Congress government to lambast Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s push for an OBC sub-quota in the Women’s Reservation Bill.

By expressing regret over some of these acts of omission and commission by the UPA government, Rahul may have validated the BJP’s “anti-OBC” jibe at his family and party but the Congress hopes that it would also showcase a new-found sincerity towards welfare of backward classes.

Lucknow-based political commentator and activist, Professor Ravikant, told The Federal: “Women and OBCs both constitute a voting bloc of 50 per cent of our population and both of these are very amorphous groups; to win support of a majority within either, political parties need a strong narrative that appeals uniformly... women reservation and caste census will both have a strong attraction.”

Ultimately, both the BJP/NDA and Congress/INDIA will have to find “ways of bolstering their respective narratives with ancillary outreach ideas”, says Ravikant, adding that the BJP has already been doing this over the years by bringing segments of OBCs and women, including OBC women, “into their Hindutva narrative while also simultaneously pushing their laabharthi (beneficiaries of Centre’s welfare schemes) propaganda to which Modi has now added this Vishwakarma scheme specifically for OBCs”.

The INDIA parties have to build a similar umbrella narrative, wherein “the pivot can be caste census and ancillaries can be issues like unemployment, price rise, farmer welfare,” he said.

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