In a move set to shape the narrative for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the Narendra Modi government, in a cabinet decision on January 7, announced a 10 per cent reservation for the economically weaker sections (EWS) for jobs and admissions in educational institutions.
This quota would be in addition to the existing 50 per cent quota for SCs, STs and OBCs.
Still smarting under the recent defeat in the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the BJP has finally woken up to the discontent in its upper caste vote bank.
While earlier, the BJP hardly paid much heed to the quota demands of communities like the Patedars in Gujarat — going to the extent of putting Hardik Patel, who was leading the agitation, behind bars — the near-defeat in the 2018 state polls, at the hands of its bête noire, the Congress, took the party by surprise.
The party has realised just banking on Narendra Modi's charisma won't work this time. Neither will raking up Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi parivar-vaad and corruption cases under previous regimes — which have, ironically, hardly seen any action under the present regime.
Sonia-Rahul baiters like the BJP's Subramanian Swamy may have succeeded in pushing the Young India case against the Gandhis in court, but the party has been unable to bring any old corruption case to fruition.
On the other hand, the BJP finds itself in the thick of allegations of crony capitalism in the Rafale deal.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi has successfully been able to push the BJP onto the back foot, and is increasingly setting the narrative.
All that the ruling government is doing lately is to firefight Gandhi's day-to-day allegations, with everyone from the Finance Minister to the Raksha Mantri trying to counter these insinuations.
The party's traditional political/religious/matter-of-faith trump card, the building of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, is also not finding many takers.
With the SC not playing ball, and hardly any possibility of the final verdict in the title suit coming before the 2019 polls, the BJP is not willing to go the ordinance route yet.
Right wing supporters of the BJP think the party has not done enough for the core cause. The issue is also not gaining as much traction on the ground as it did in the 90s heydays.
The Modi government's stance over the SC/ST Atrocities act also caused a backlash among its high-caste vote bank.
The emergence of SAPAK (Samanya Aur Pichhda Adhikari Karmchari Sangthan), an umbrella organisation of employees belonging to general category, OBCs and minorities in Madhya Pradesh right before the 2018 Assembly Polls, is also being cited as one of the reasons for the party's defeat in a state which it held on to for 15 years.
With hardly any ground to cede before the 2019 polls, the Modi government has finally played the reservation card.
Although the demand has been around for some time, with leaders like Ramdas Athawale asking for 25 per cent reservation for the economically backward, the BJP's decision to go the legislative route right before the Lok Sabha polls shows the party's desperation.
One of the major components of the vote bank that pushed the Narendra Modi government past the finish line in 2014 were the SCs, STs and OBCs. PM Modi himself belonging to the OBC community also helped the party shed its upper caste image. The handsome haul of 71 seats in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 was also seen as a result of the support that Modi enjoys within these caste groups, which make a substantial proportion of the state's populace.
With this move, the BJP risks antagonising these voters, who might feel this may be the first step towards doing away with caste-based reservation.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's 2015 pitch for a review of the reservation policy had already raised fears within these groups — although the BJP tried hard to downplay the comments, regional parties like the SP, BSP and RJD were quick to attack the government on it.
The coming together of regional parties under the mahagathbandhan has already created a formidable SC/ST/OBC vote bank against the BJP. These groups may see a further dwindling of prospects, especially in the face of possible job scarcity.
The very fact that the Modi government has still pushed for this Bill shows its desperation.
The BJP is willing to risk antagonising the backward castes in a bid to hold onto its traditional high-caste vote bank.
It is also an admission of the Modi government's failure to deliver on its promise of 'achhe din'.
Not being able to create sufficient new jobs has already started alienating young voters, a substantial proportion of which voted for Modi in 2014.
While it may be a bold move to appease its upper caste vote bank and change the narrative months before the Lok Sabha polls, such moves have failed before.
Prime Minister VP Singh's decision to accept the Mandal commission report to ward off the challenge from his opponents failed to save his government.
The government will also have to be ready for a legal challenge to the Bill. Similarly, in an attempt to insulate his government from the Mandal backlash, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1991 issued a memorandum reserving 10 per cent vacancies in civil posts and services in government jobs for the economically backward sections who were not covered by any other schemes.
The move was expectedly struck down by the SC while deciding the Mandal Commission judgment.
The reality is not lost on the BJP, which would hope its upper caste vote bank gets swayed seeing the party's intent — even if it is unable to push the Bill through Parliament or loses the case in the courts.
The BJP knows it is facing an uphill task in 2019 and desperately needs a new carrot to dangle in front of its supporters.
With or without reservations, where are the jobs? Who cares — after all, it is a war of narratives.