New Delhi: With an eye on a key electoral base, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) on Wednesday approved Stand Up India, a programme aimed at promoting entrepreneurship among 250,000 scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and women.

Interestingly, the NDA is doing so by tapping the aspirational quotient among these otherwise socially and economically marginalized communities. Aspiration was among the key sentiments that had inspired a groundswell of support for the BJP in the 16th general election.

The politically crucial decision comes at a time when seven states—including Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Punjab, which have sizeable Dalit populations—are preparing for assembly elections over the next 18 months.

The BJP has high stakes in both Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, where it is the incumbent as a coalition partner of the Akali Dal, and it is looking to make inroads in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

“The government has to work for the benefit of all sections of people. By providing employment opportunities to SCs, STs and women, not only will they benefit from the scheme but they will also become potential voters of NDA," said a senior central minister.

A total of 266 seats are reserved for SCs and 38 for STs in the seven states going to the polls.

Under the decision taken by the Union cabinet on Wednesday, every bank branch—both state-run and private—will fund at least one person each in the two categories of SC/ST and women, and provide “handholding support" to them.

The scheme is part of the Start up India Stand up India initiative announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day address last year.

Initially, the government is aiming to fund 250,000 beneficiaries under the scheme wherein loans of between 10 lakh and 1 crore—repayable over a period of up to seven years—will be made available to these borrowers.

The government also decided to set up a credit guarantee fund to support such loans.

A 10,000 crore refinance window through the Small Industries Development Bank of India, or Sidbi, was also approved by the cabinet to make these loans available at a lower interest rate.

The NDA government is looking to tap this key support base through an aspirational route by promising better education and employment options.

Last week, Modi inaugurated a conference of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) which was held to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar.

Modi then said that earlier it was difficult for SC/ST entrepreneurs to get bank loans but that his government was committed to their welfare.

Politically, the decision is crucial, specially in Uttar Pradesh which is a key Hindi heartland state for the BJP which is fresh from a loss in Bihar.

As many as 85 out of 403 assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh are reserved for Dalits but the BJP's challenge to the incumbent Samajwadi Party (SP) faces a threat from the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which is the traditional choice for Dalits in the state.

Political analysts feel the NDA must watch out for the SP government in Uttar Pradesh and Congress governments in Assam, Kerala and Uttarakhand if it wants to benefit from this decision politically.

“There is no doubt that this decision has the potential to bring a new dimension to the politics of most of the states going to polls. But some of these states have governments of parties that are in the opposition in the centre, which may affect the implementation of the scheme. The main reason for the failure of government schemes is because of improper implementation and the NDA government must watch out for it," said Sudhir Kumar, an Azamgarh-based political analyst who is also associated with Lokniti programme of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).

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