The Indian Parliament holds constant surprises for me. It works not at all or at infinite speed. In 10 days of the new year, it has discussed triple talaq, citizenship [Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016] and the quota for the economically weak among the general category. Any one of those Bills would take several days in Westminster. We have Second Reading followed by Committee stage followed by Report and then a Third Reading. One Chamber cannot begin discussion till another has done its various stages. Of course, we can accommodate such luxury of time because we seldom have shutdown of debates.
That said, the new surprise strategy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah for the election is now becoming clearer. There has obviously been a lot of thinking in the BJP on this within the short time since the results of state elections last month. Many people had said that if the BJP finds itself on the back foot, it will unleash the Mandir agenda. The Prime Minister knocked that idea firmly on the head. The Supreme Court has indicated that it does not intend to be hurried. It can wait till it gets the right bench. The government will have to keep the gathering at the Kumbh Mela from losing its cool and launching a Mandir movement illegally. Kalyan Singh failed those many years ago in keeping the Parivar mob from destroying the Babri Masjid. Yogi Adityanath will have to be tougher. An illegal attempt to rush the building of the temple by the Parivar will do untold damage to the BJP. The hardcore may be pleased but urban metropolitan voters will not hesitate to show their displeasure. They do not like illegal acts, especially if they are preventable by the powers that be.
There has been dissatisfaction among the upper caste voters since the government rushed the amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act following the Supreme Court judgment. The new quota Bill (124th Constitution Amendment Bill) is no doubt for regaining that lost ground. Narendra Modi has shown that he is a master of the political game. The Bill has now passed both Houses, which is a major achievement, not just as an election gambit but in a way plugging a gap which had serious implications. However, it exposes flaws in the present structure.
The irony of this final plank in the reservation architecture is that it points to the right way in which the structure should have been built. Instead of Mandal Commission’s recommendation of using jati status as the criterion for affirmative action, it should have been economic deprivation. By choosing jati status, Mandal solidified the caste structure and made low ritual status an heirloom to be prized and flaunted rather than abolished. The problem of the creamy layer shows that even in the case of SC/STs, there are anomalies in using ritual status rather than income as a criterion.
It is too late for any political party to propose a new set of criteria to provide reservations. We are stuck with the conservative structure we have built. The latest quota completes it. Perhaps in a distant future, after decades of sustained high growth rate of income and employment, Indians may not hanker after reservations for government jobs. Any revolution to create a society free of caste inequalities will have to wait.