Modi bargain: Quota-for-Votes

Panic Button: Faced with a tough election, Modi has rushed to offer a new promise for 2019

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the second day of the two-day BJP National Convention, at Ramlila Ground in New Delhi on Saturday. PTI photo

The just-passed Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019, enables a 10% reservation for the poorer sections among general category candidates in education and jobs. This 10% is over and above the 50% quota already earmarked for SC/ST and OBCs. The Supreme Court had in a landmark judgement in 1992 made clear that reservation above a total of 50% violates the basic structure of the Constitution. The amendment was introduced presumably with the hope that it would get around that restriction. The Bill was passed in quick time by both houses of parliament and has received the President’s assent, too, and has thus become law. But an NGO has moved court against it, and more challenges are in the offing.  

Debates and discussions around the amendment, in parliament and in the public domain, have generated a great deal of heat. While opposition parties have criticized various aspects of it, none has rejected its core objective. They have asked searching questions about its timing and about the intent of the ruling party. The BJP recently lost assembly elections in the Hindi heartland, where sections of the upper castes seem to have voted against the party. This, just a couple of months ahead of Lok Sabha elections. The opposition says the quota law has been hurriedly drafted as a concession to this unhappy vote bank.

The most significant story is what the BJP government appears to do with the core idea of reservation as a means of social justice. There is a reason to believe that it wishes to nullify the efficacy of the measure, by doing away with the core political ethic that has historically characterized it.

It may be useful to consider the more obvious concerns first. The amendment proposes reservations for the ‘poor’ among general category candidates in public employment and higher education, including in unaided private educational institutions, except minority institutions. So far, the reservation policy did not cover unaided private educational institutions. It remains to be seen how the promoters of these institutions respond to this imposition.

The ‘Economically Weaker Sections’ (EWS) among the general category have been defined far too generously. Any individual below an annual family income of Rs 8 lakh or less than five acres of an agricultural holding, or a house smaller than 1,000 sq ft area in a municipal area is eligible. Two particular features about these criteria are noteworthy. The income criteria appear to be the same as those for the ‘creamy layers’ of the OBCs. Since September 2017, the maximum permissible annual family income for OBC candidates allowed to claim reservation stands at Rs 8 lakh. The wider implications of this equation will unfold with time. But the politics behind it appears to be influenced by an assumption that backwardness for poor OBCs and that for poor upper castes is the same thing.

The second problem with the criteria is that it appears to include an overwhelmingly large percentage of the population. According to some estimates, over 90% of Indian households are now eligible for reservation. Instead of making it easier for the poorer among the upper castes to access higher education and employment, the quota is probably going to intensify competition among them. Far too many candidates will now compete for far too few available positions, since almost everyone eligible for the entire general category will be eligible for this reserved category, too. As a matter of fact, the targeted beneficiaries are probably the least likely to benefit from it.

Of central import here is the position of the judiciary. It has held a settled position, since the famous Indra Sawhney case in 1992, that reservation cannot exceed a maximum of 50% without violating the basic structure of the Constitution. The central question here is the definition of backwardness. Until now, backwardness was clearly defined in the Constitution as a consequence of social discrimination. In the case of OBCs, provisions were made for social and educational backwardness. At no point did economic criteria play a role in defining backwardness to be redressed through the reservation. It is not as though economic backwardness or poverty is not a legitimate concern for the State. The concern here is whether economic backwardness is meant to be addressed by the policy of reservation as envisaged in the Constitution.

That brings in the question of history. The policy of reservation predates the Constitution. It was conceived as a sacred political contract between Gandhi and Ambedkar in 1932. Ambedkar did not press for special electorate for Dalits following explicit assurance that the Gandhian nation would enact special measures in order for Dalits to be ensured full citizenship rights, that is, right to public life. Later, Ambedkar himself emphasized in the Constituent Assembly that reservation as an instrument to empower a ‘minority’ to full representative citizenship was never to exceed 50%. Reservation was never meant to be a policy instrument to lift the poor among the population to the status of professional middle classes. It was designed to make sure that those not adequately represented in positions of leadership be constitutionally assured of effective representation in the social and political life of the nation. There are problems with the system of reservation as it exists now, and they are certainly open to review. But that is a separate debate altogether.

It is this sacred political contract that the ruling BJP arguably seeks to break down. It seeks to hollow out the liberating promise of reservation and replace it with the popular common sense that it is a mere policy instrument to offer ‘quotas’ for education and jobs to anyone who can force the issue. This strategy is consistent with the larger political interests of the BJP. It is an expansion of the recent trend to concede quotas to politically influential middle peasant castes such as Marathas, Patidars, Gujjars and Jats. All of these had been dominant agrarian and politically influential castes until recently, but have suffered reverses following a decline in their agricultural income. While their decline is a consequence of long-term structural factors in the economy, the policy of reservation at the same time has visibly lifted a tiny section of the Dalits to respectability. This, in addition to the better quality of life available to their own urban and educated brethren, has hit the rural dominant castes with a sense of downward mobility.

The reservation announcement helps the BJP to both seduce these ‘unreserved’ castes and steal the thunder from their emerging leaders who had in the past challenged the party. Even more importantly, by seeking to overrule the constitutionally enshrined and historically sacred promise of honourable representation to the marginalized, the party proposes to reduce the policy of reservation to just another way to offer elusive promises to politically restive constituencies. Since the state has steadily withdrawn from higher education and employment generation over the last 20 years, it is going to deliver very few sustainable positions anyway.

Whatever happens to the poor among the general category then? They must be helped at once, but with ‘economic’ incentives such as scholarships, tuition fee waivers or easy loans. Incidentally, the Gujarat government announced the formation of a government agency for the ‘unreserved’ classes in August 2018. Called Gujarat Unreserved Educational and Economic Development Corporation, and with a budget of about Rs 500 crore, it has offered various schemes for financial assistance to the poorer among the ‘unreserved’ classes. The GUEEDC may well be one ‘Gujarat model’ to follow at the pan-India level.     

 (The writer is Associate Professor, Karnavati University, Ahmedabad) 

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Modi bargain: Quota-for-Votes

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