The decision of the BJP-led government to amend the Constitution to provide 10 per cent quota in jobs and higher education for the poor among communities not eligible for reservation opens a new front that is likely to play out in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
For the ruling BJP, the move seems to have been crafted with an eye on Lok Sabha elections in a few months from now, with an aim to leave behind the party’s defeat in the Hindi heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
Families with annual income below Rs 8 lakh, across all religions, and those with farm land below 5 acre, house less than 1,000 square feet, or less than 100 yard plot in notified municipal area, plot below 200 yard in non-notified municipal area.
Apart from claims of affirmative action for economically weaker sections, the move appears to be an attempt by the BJP to open fresh opportunities given the re-energised Opposition. In particular, it signals a bid to wrest control of the pre-poll narrative and throw the Opposition off balance.
“Everyone was talking about the narrative. Let us see what happens now,” a senior government functionary said, suggesting that the ruling party hopes to rise above the Opposition-dictated narrative ahead of the polls.
The political backdrop of the move may, however, suggest that it could be an attempt by the ruling BJP to appease its core support base among upper castes in the wake of the backlash the party faced over the Modi government’s stance in favour of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act last year.
Cabinet approves introduction of The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty Fourth Amendment) Bill; 10% quota in addition to existing cap of 50% reservation for SCs, STs, OBCs.
“Our stance in favour of the SC/ST Act generated a backlash among our traditional upper caste support base,” was what, several BJP leaders said, contributed to the party’s defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.
RJD vice-president and former Union Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh said: “This is an attempt to placate the BJP’s upper castes to save his (Modi’s) chair after the party’s defeat in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Where are the government jobs to share this?”.
A similar move in the past to ward off a political challenge did change the course of Indian politics, if not necessarily, the fortunes of the protagonist of the move. In 1990, then Prime Minister V P Singh’s decision to accept the Mandal Commission recommendations to neutralise the political challenge from his rivals ended up benefitting the OBCs, but it did not save him.
Political leaders championing social justice, however, appeared divided over the play of this card — class war among the un-reserved category — ahead of the 2019 elections.
Given how the BJP had subtly used Modi’s backward class credentials to woo a large section of non-dominant backward class communities, the move has the potential to upset his image among backward communities. “The entire social justice politics has an undertone that reservation is an exclusive political right of the backward castes. Extending it to upper castes takes away that political bragging right, and creates confusion since it can be widened further to erode their exclusivity in future,” said an upper caste leader, well versed in the caste politics of the Hindi heartland.
In fact, BJP governments in Haryana (Jats), Gujarat (Patidar) and Maharashtra (Marathas) have faced a backlash from dominant castes who have been demanding reservation for their communities since 2014. Breaching the 50 per cent reservation ceiling has the potential to open a Pandora’s box because it could harden the stance of dominant communities seeking backward quota benefits.
Whether this move — of extending quota benefits to a larger amorphous category — endears them will be tested in the coming days in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections.
The Bill needs special majority of two-third of members present in each House, not less than half the strength in both. It has to be ratified by at least half of the state legislatures. Legal challenge, if any, to its Constitutional validity.
While some political parties have made similar demands in the past for quota benefits to poor among un-reserved communities, the previous attempt to provide it through executive means have fallen because of legal challenges. The latest move, through a Constitution amendment, could still run a challenge in court — whether the introduction of an economic criteria for affirmative action was what the founding fathers had in mind when they drafted the Constitution.