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Aditi Phadnis: Mayawati's exchange programme

The contentious issue of reservations in promotions is the BSP leader's price for supporting the UPA in the FDI in retail vote

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It is quite unusual for a political party to vote one way in the and another in the Rajya Sabha.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) left the Lok Sabha before voting on foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail last week, thus lowering the overall numbers present and voting. That helped the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to secure the numbers in its favour.

In the upper House, though, its support was open and unequivocal – it voted with the government, despite self-confessed reservations about some aspects of the decision – leaving no one in any doubt that the was helping the and didn’t care who noticed.

Two explanations were offered by the Congress whose managers could be seen looking uneasy and tense in on the day of the debate — till declared she would vote with the government. They broke out in cheers, suggesting they had not been completely sure which way the worm would turn. Mayawati devoted a large part of her speech attacking the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the sneering remarks about the Central Bureau of Investigation made by Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, the previous day. One set of Congressmen self-righteously said Mayawati had been so “marmaahat” (hurt) by Swaraj’s remarks that she decided to bat on the UPA’s side.

But when reporters surrounded top Congress functionary Ahmad Patel and asked him what deal the Congress had struck with Mayawati to secure such full-throated support, he laughed loud and long and said: “No deal”.

For most politicians, nursing hurt feelings is a luxury they cannot afford. So clearly, there was a deal. What was it?

First, if there is a politician who is intensely political and has a direct and organic connection with her support base, it is Mayawati. Admittedly, her job is made easier by the relatively monolithic structure of her base, the Dalits. So while a party like the might have to look over its shoulder constantly to ensure it appears diverse in every decision it takes (for there is the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA coalition to keep intact), for Mayawati it is a single-point agenda: the interests of the Dalits.

Before the vote on retail FDI, the government made two announcements. One that it was transferring the land belonging to the defunct Indu Mills in Mumbai to the state government for a memorial for Babasaheb Ambedkar, the champion of the Dalit cause. Publicly it almost looked as if the BSP had wrested this from the government, because the party raised this issue in the Rajya Sabha a day before the FDI retail vote was due and created such a ruckus that the House had to be adjourned. Within a matter of hours, the government announced that it was transferring the disputed land (on which claims run to almost Rs 4,000 crore) to the state government. Why now, when the demand for a memorial where people visiting Chaityabhoomi, the resting place of Ambedkar in Dadar, could spend a few days had been made more than 11 years ago? You work it out.

Second, the government said it would pilot a change in the law that would ensure a quota for Dalits in promotions in government jobs. Though the credit for the Ambedkar memorial might go in equal parts to the Republican Party of India and the Nationalist Congress Party, reservations in promotions is a cause for which Mayawati has been publicly fighting since she came to the Rajya Sabha after losing the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Why is this so important? And, so polarising? The emergence of the Dalit political identity owes a lot to reservation in government jobs, but now they want more. They do feel, justifiably, that their efforts at upward mobility in these jobs tend to hit a glass ceiling when it comes to responsibilities that entail administrative control. Then the same caste cabal kicks in, first to brand them as outsiders and then conspire to keep them outside.

Efforts to ensure reservation in promotions for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the past have led to several constitutional amendments. In 1995 when the Congress was in power, a Supreme Court ordered that reservations were confined to initial appointments and not subsequent promotions. Another amendment came in 2001, when the NDA government accepted the principle of reservations in promotions “with consequential seniority”. Both were challenged in court.

The latest Supreme Court judgment says every case of reservation in promotion must be supported by “compelling reasons” related to backwardness, poor representation in the upper echelons of the government and overall efficiency of administration. The new Bill, the 117th Constitutional Amendment Bill, says since (and STs) are backward, there should be no need to provide “compelling reasons”.

“The pressure on Mayawati from the younger generation of Dalits to do something that will break this stranglehold and ensure professional advance is huge,” said Ramkumar, a Lucknow-based Dalit activist. “With this latest constitutional amendment, boys can see that once they get into government service, they will get on to the fast track in promotions, which in turn will create more vacancies at the junior levels,” he added.

If cash transfers are considered a game-changer for the Congress, the 117th Constitutional Amendment Bill will have the same effect for the BSP. The UPA is moving ahead on this Bill with remarkable alacrity and political assurances have been given and received.

It is against this background that the BSP’s moves must be seen. If in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the (SP) got 22 seats against Mayawati’s 21, in 2014, Mayawati must ensure that SP leader Mulayam Singh’s dreams of riding to victory on a Third Front bandwagon remain unfulfilled. For this, she needs a new pan-India slogan for the Dalits. This will be: “reservations in promotions” with the sub-heading: “Anyone who helps is welcome in this house”.

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