Quota politics has taken the centre stage ahead of fresh parliamentary elections due in April-May of this year. The Lok Sabha, the lower House, and the Rajya Sabha, the upper House of parliament, passed Prime Minister Narendra Modi government-sponsored constitution amendment law envisaging a 10 percent quota in government jobs and admission in higher educational institutions for economically weaker sections who are not covered by any existing reservation for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) who already enjoy nearly 50 percent quota facility.
Among the intended beneficiaries of the 10 percent quota for economically weaker section is a sizable chunk among the upper castes who have traditionally formed a core support base of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Those who are eligible for the benefit are people with household income of less than Rs 8 lakh per year, have less than five acres of agricultural land, have a house smaller than 1,000 sq feet, a residential plot less than 100 yards in a municipality and a housing plot of less than 200 yards in a non-notified municipal area.
Political imperatives behind the government's 10 percent quota move are not hard to miss. The government's assessment is that economically weaker sections not covered by existing reservations make up a sizable portion of the Indian electorate and they need to be wooed in the run-up to the elections. The remarkable swiftness with which the Modi government moved to prepare the quota law reflects these imperatives. The federal cabinet cleared the law and both Houses of parliament also cleared it—all this happened in a span of just three days from January 7 with little difficulty in the way.
If the government wanted to take the credit, the opposition also did not want to lag behind and promptly backed the law even while questioning the timing and the motive behind it. When it comes to competitive populism, ideological divides blur, more so when election season is around the corner. Look at the overwhelming parliamentary support the law got in parliament—323 votes in favour as against just three in the Lok Sabha and 165 in favour and only seven against in the Rajya Sabha. Even Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party and Akhilesh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, which fiercely champion the causes of Dalits and other lower castes, supported the law because they did not want to be seen as stalling it as the issue at stake makes for a huge vote base.
The quota move by the Modi government is being viewed as an effort to appease upper castes who are reportedly upset over the government's passing a constitution amendment law (SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act) overturning a Supreme Court order that struck down a legal provision of automatic arrest of any person indulging in atrocities against Dalits and other lower caste members. The BJP's anxiety was not to alienate the majority lower caste votes. But it angered the upper castes whose resentment many believe was reflected in the outcomes of the recent elections in India's three key heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where the BJP was voted out. The apex court order had triggered widespread unrest among lower castes and Dalits particularly in north and central Indian states and violent street protests had been witnessed.
Caste and quota politics is nothing new in India as caste fault lines remain as gaping as ever, prompting parties to be mindful of getting caste equations right when it comes to the choice of their office-bearers, candidates in elections and social welfare schemes. The politics of reservation took centre stage in 1989 when the then government of Prime Minister VP Singh implemented the Mandal Commission report providing for quota in government jobs to OBC. That was a well-calculated step by Singh under the garb of social justice to counter the rising political and electoral graphs of the BJP in what came to be known as the “Mandal versus Kamandal” (used in Hindu worship rituals) battle. It did not help the VP Singh dispensation survive and it fell in 1990 paving the way for fresh national elections. When the Congress party returned to power under the leadership of PV Narasimha Rao, who was called the “Chankaya” of Indian politics for his crafty moves, his government had introduced in 1992 10 percent reservation for the poor among the upper castes.
Both the Mandal Commission recommendation of quota for OBC and Narasimha Rao government's 10 percent quota were challenged in the Supreme Court. The top court upheld the Mandal panel's recommendation while ruling the reservation for economically poor among forward castes as untenable with the Constitution. In fact, caste-based quota beyond the 50 percent ceiling has been struck down by courts more than once. In that light, it remains to be seen if the Modi dispensation's 10 percent quota move will withstand legal scrutiny. Expert opinions on this are divided.
The Modi government has revived the old debate: Does the Indian constitution endorse quota on the basis of social or economic exclusion? It also raises once again the crucial and sensitive question: What should be the marker for reservation—social subjugation or economic backwardness, irrespective of caste? If the 10 percent quota for economically backward sections is challenged in the court, the government is likely to contend that the step does not alter the basic structure of the constitution and all it does is usher in the economic yardstick for providing quota.
Many parties have in the past often spoken in favour of quota for economically backward sections but hesitated to take the plunge for fearing of losing crucial support of the lower castes. What the Modi government, by its latest move, has done is broaden the justification for providing quota by including the criteria of economic backwardness.
There seems to be an element of desperation in the government's move as it finds that the coming general elections are shaping up to be much tougher than speculated six months ago. The BJP's aura of invincibility in electoral battles has been seriously questioned by the Congress' victory in its recent triumph in the heartland states. The BJP is clearly hoping to turn the poll campaign narrative with the latest quota law. But in the ultimate analysis, one must not forget that quota politics tends to perpetuate a mindset of government patronage and is a clear acknowledgement of the reality that economic progress has remained skewed.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.