Ajay Mishra, a lawyer, is soaking up the winter sun with his friends outside his chamber in Unnao, a town in Uttar Pradesh, about 65 km from capital Lucknow. The 54-year-old says he only has one big regret in his life. Back in the 1980s, he wanted to become an IAS officer. A philosophy student at Allahabad University, he had secured 384 marks in the first attempt. “But I did not qualify. My friend, who applied in the SC category, did, even though he secured 17 marks less. Today, he is a DM,” he says, identifying a place in Bundelkhand where his friend is posted. “After all the failed attempts, I studied law and became a lawyer,” he recalls, a tinge of regret in his voice. “Uska na ho, yeh kabhi nahi chaha, lekin humara bhi selection hona chahiye tha (I never wished he should not have been selected. But I too should have qualified).”
Like Mishra, an estimated 22% of the population in the Unnao Lok Sabha constituency are Brahmin, which is among the castes the BJP government at the Centre had in mind when it introduced a bill for 10% reservation in education and jobs for the economically weaker segments in the general category.
Mishra says he was elated when he read about quota. “I called up my son who is studying to be an engineer at SRM University, Chennai, to share the news. At least my children will get the benefit.” The quota is meant to address the disquiet among the weaker sections of the ritually superior castes such as Brahmins, Thakurs, Banias and Bhumihars among Hindus.
Situated between Lucknow and Kanpur, Unnao is a small industrial town known for tanneries, chemical industries and embroidery work. The Unnao Lok Sabha seat is held by Sakshi Maharaj, a Lodh leader who has won on the strength of what is locally referred to as “aadha Lodhi-aadha Modi” votes. The six assembly constituencies that fall in the Lok Sabha seat — Unnao Sadar, Bangarmau, Safipur, Mohan, Bhagwantnagar and Purwa — are all currently held by the BJP. (Bangarmau MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar is in jail on charges of raping a minor girl.)
While Unnao has a sizeable population of upper castes, the intended beneficiaries of the quota have mixed feelings about it. “The income limit, which is Rs 8 lakh now, should have been much lower. There is a chance that the really needy and poor families might not get the benefit,” says Neeraj Singh, a small-time businessman from Mohan.
Kashi Prasad Vajpayee, living on a pension of Rs 5,000, has been in Unnao all his life. “Nothing seems to have changed in Unnao under the Congress, SP or the BJP. But BJP is no longer viewed as a party of the upper castes,” he says. “The SC/ST Act is heavily loaded against us. Quota is welcome but I wish it had come right after the 2014 elections. It is a good move at the wrong time and with selfish intent.”
The need to address the disaffection among upper castes acquired renewed urgency in the BJP after the party’s defeat in the recent assembly elections in the Hindi heartland. The SP-BSP alliance in UP has only made the need to shore up upper caste votes more pronounced.
Businessman Vikas Mishra concurs: “The BJP is trying to pacify the annoyed upper caste voters. But where is the time for us to actually benefit from the quota? Besides, the income level criterion must be brought down.”
Locals largely feel the bill is aimed at keeping conventional upper caste vote bank intact ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Toshima Mishra, 24, who is working as a nursing officer in a local hospital, says the quota move “will lessen the feeling of resentment towards those who were getting reservation”. Neha Singh, 22, who is studying to be a teacher, begs to differ. “Till when will we divide and distribute benefits based on one’s caste? Reservation on the basis of economic status irrespective of caste or religion is the way forward.”
Says Unnao Sadar MLA Pankaj Gupta of the BJP: “The move is not for the benefit of a particular caste or religion. Any general category family with small landholding or low income will benefit.” Families, who have annual income below Rs 8 lakh and landholding less than 5 acres, will be eligible for the new reservation.
“Any big announcement just before the election has never benefited the electorate. Let them first deliver on the Ram Mandir promise they made years ago,” says Dinesh Shukla, a Congress leader from Unnao. Pointing towards a larger plan of the BJP, Shukla says economic quota is not reservation but a move towards ending reservation. “Remember what Mohan Bhagwat had hinted at earlier — that it is time to review the reservation policy. The BJP is simply following the Sangh.”
The timing of the announcement is not lost on anyone. “It is a balancing act, to pacify upper castes. The BJP can’t afford to alienate them in a state like Uttar Pradesh. There was palpable unrest after the Modi government passed an amendment to negate the alleged dilution of SC/ST Act last year,” says political commentator JP Shukla.
Better late than never, says lawyer Mishra. “Had Modi announced the quota before the recent assembly elections people would have still said it was meant for electoral gains in those states. The good thing is we have got it.”
The Agra-Lucknow Expressway that passes through Unnao includes a 3.3-km strip at Bangarmau, one of the six assembly seats of Unnao. It is designed for emergency takeoffs and landings of fighter planes. Civic amenities, though, are yet to reach here.
“Reservation matters for those who are seeking jobs. For us, better roads, drainage system, power supply, parks and schools for our children and law and order would any day matter more than the promise of quota in jobs that do not exist,” says Anand Mishra, a small-time farmer from Unnao.
Source: Economic Times