Being a dear, common friend to two bitter foes is a near-impossible task. To have got both the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party on the same side for the vote on the Opposition’s resolution against Foreign Direct Investment in multi-brand retail was no mean achievement on the part of the Congress, but the situation was too good to last. Expectedly, the SP and the BSP are now pulling in different directions on the proposed constitutional amendment to provide for reservation in promotion in government service for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; the Congress can only watch helplessly as the ground beneath its feet is threatening to give way. Both the supporting parties are equally valuable, and the leading constituent of the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre cannot afford to lose either of them. With the exit of the Trinamool Congress from the UPA, the government’s numbers in the Lok Sabha are shaky. This is no time to take allies or supporting parties for granted. Unlike the FDI issue, where the stakes for the SP and the BSP were not all that high, the reservation issue is their bread and butter. Try as it might, the Congress will find no room for a compromise.

The SP, which has its constituency among the Backward Classes, is standing firm against the bill. However, the BSP, with its support base among the Scheduled Castes, wants the amendment adopted immediately. The SP reckons that if SC and ST officers are allowed quotas in promotion, the OBCs will be among those affected adversely. After having tied his fortunes to the UPA on the FDI resolution, the SP chief Mulayam Singh knows his supporters expect his party to force the Congress to defer the passing of the reservation bill. BSP leader Mayawati likewise realises this is her best chance to demonstrate to her voters that she can make the Congress do her bidding on issues that matter most to them. Indeed, after having gone for a compromise on the FDI vote, both the SP and the BSP do not want to be seen as having copped out on the reservation issue. Ms Mayawati senses the possibility of the Congress shifting to a drift-mode, using the SP as an excuse to do nothing on the reservation bill. Her warning that the BSP will take a “tough stand” if the government fails to push the bill through is thus not an empty threat. The BSP’s interests are too deeply embedded in the reservation issue for the party to go soft on the Congress now. Other than seeking to buy time, the UPA does not have any option at hand. Sooner or later, the Congress will have to choose between the SP and the BSP. The quota-in-promotion issue is not one that can be managed with a delicate balancing act.