May 21: Throwing the quota ball in the court of the Centre, the Congress government in Rajasthan has recommended 14 per cent reservations for the economically weak of the upper castes in the poll-bound state.
The state Cabinet made the unanimous recommendation at an emergency meeting in Jaipur today and forwarded it to Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for “necessary action”.
The new quota can be put in place only through constitutional amendment as stipulated by the Supreme Court if the total reservation exceeds 49 per cent. Rajasthan already has 49 per cent reservations — 16 per cent for Scheduled Castes, 12 for Scheduled Tribes and 21 for Other Backward Classes.
Today’s recommendation, though symbolic, is expected to push the BJP on the back foot as upper caste Rajputs and Brahmins have been demanding quotas in the run-up to the year-end Assembly polls and had disrupted the rallies of both chief minister Ashok Gehlot and his principal opponent and BJP leader Vasundhara Raje.
In the communication to the Prime Minister, the state has suggested reservation for upper castes like Brahmins, Rajputs and other communities that have been left out from the present reservation regime.
But the full text of the Cabinet resolution and the communication have not been made public.
Gehlot said his government had done its job and now “it was up to the Centre to find a way”.
The Samajik Nyaya Manch, which is spearheading the upper-caste reservation movement, said it was demanding inclusion of Rajputs in the OBC list, not economic quotas. However, it welcomed Gehlot’s initiative.
The manch had yesterday suspended its movement till May 25 as both the BJP and the Congress leadership had agreed to talk to its leadership.
But Gehlot’s move has thrown the BJP into a tizzy. The party will have to formulate a response to Gehlot’s proposal as quickly as possible and state BJP leaders have already started wondering if their strategy of making governance the main election issue will work.
A senior Rajasthan leader said in Delhi that local strategists would meet in Jaipur on May 24 to discuss the Cabinet decision.
They would give their response to the central leaders who would fine-tune the BJP’s stand at a second meeting in Jaipur on May 25. This meeting will be attended by deputy Prime Minister .K. Advani and BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu.
The party’s tentative reaction was that if a constitutional amendment was introduced in Parliament, the Congress would have as much of a dilemma as the BJP to support or oppose it.
“The ball is in the Centre’s court but we will wait to see how the Congress as a whole views Gehlot’s move. After all, there are a good number of backward class and Dalit representatives there and they may not want the upper castes to get reservation,” said a BJP leader.
“The Congress has taken the initiative and if it doesn’t facilitate a constitutional amendment at the Centre, it will be playing with the sentiments of the Rajasthanis. Gehlot’s recommendation has no value unless it is backed by the whole Congress party,” he added.
But a more objective reading was that the BJP was in a tighter spot than the Congress. For one, there was a groundswell of demand from its own ranks for upper-caste reservation as the disruption of Vasundhara Raje’s “parivartan” rally in Rajasthan indicated.
Sources admitted that the party would have to take a stand before Vasundhara embarked on the next leg of the yatra which would criss-cross Bikaner, the stronghold of a BJP legislator who is also a prominent member of the manch.
Rajasthan’s demographic composition, in which the upper castes account for a significant 40 per cent unlike in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, adds to the BJP’s headache.
“Rajasthan was until recently untouched by Mandalisation. We could challenge the Congress effectively because we could bag large parts of the upper caste and OBC votes. But Gehlot (from the backward Mallis) has managed to some extent to consolidate the OBC votes. With this base, if he manages to win over the upper castes on the reservation lollipop, we are done for,” a BJP leader said.
The only caste whose votes the BJP banked on was that of the Jats, who it won over, ironically, on the promise of OBC status with reservation. It helped the party win 16 of the 25 seats in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls.