The 124th constitutional amendment bill to provide 10 percent reservation in jobs and education for the economically weaker sections, including upper castes, was passed by the two houses of parliament in record times on January 9.
Majority of the political parties have extended their support to the government move as it was passed by the Lok Sabha by a majority of 323 votes with only three votes against it. Even in the Rajya Sabha, the bill was passed with a 165- 7 count with majority of the parties expressing their respective support while raising accusing fingers at the Modi government on its timing and intention.
On January 7, when the two houses of parliament sat for the day’s business, there was a buzz in the central hall of Parliament. Social media had broken the news that the BJP led NDA government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was going to introduce a constitutional amendment bill the next day in the Lok Sabha to provide 10 percent reservation in jobs and educational institutions for the economically weaker sections of the society.
Immediate reaction of majority of those present around noontime in the central hall including that of some of the MPs of the ruling party was that the move was good but its timing was wrong. The BJP is not going to benefit much in the coming general elections. Only its core voters among the upper caste may have a rethink and may not abstain from voting in the coming general elections.
“It is Modi’s Mandal moment”, a veteran BJP MP from the biggest state of Uttar Pradesh, who has held top posts both in the government as well as in the party, commented. He meant that it is going to result in wiping out of the Prime Minister politically as it had happened with former Prime Minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh who had accepted the Mandal Commission recommendation that provided 27 percent reservation for the Other Backward Castes in 1991.
Former union minister Yashwant Sinha, who recently quit the BJP, called the move a “jumla” and tweeted: “…the proposal is bristling with legal complications and there is no time for getting it passed through both houses of parliament. Government stands completely exposed.”
The move has come to be popularly perceived as a “desperate” attempt to woo non-Dalit and non-OBC voters for the coming Lok Sabha elections. The Modi government, after the defeat of the BJP in the recently held assembly elections in five states particularly in the Hindi-speaking states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, decided to offer a sop of 10 percent quota for upper castes that had voted against the party.
An attempt to provide for 10 per cent reservation to poor or economically backward among other sections during the Narasimha Rao government’s tenure to offset political backlash against the implementation of Mandal Commission recommendations was nullified by the Supreme Court in the early 90s.
Though law experts and legal luminaries of the ruling party like Union Ministers Arun Jaitley, Ravi Shankar Prasad have assured that the 124th constitutional amendment bill will pass the legal test but other non-partisan experts are of the view that it may face several legal hurdles and the apex court may not approve it.
A nine-judge bench in ‘Indra Sawhney’ case had pronounced that reservation is a remedy for the historical discrimination and it continuing ill effects. The court had also observed that reservation is not targeted at economic uplift or poverty alleviation. Further, it is doubtful whether the government has verifiable and quantifiable data to show that people from lower income groups are under-represented in its services.
The move comes in the backdrop of upper caste backlash against the Modi government’s move against the Supreme Court’s attempt at ring-fencing apprehensions of misuse of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act. The Supreme Court move had sparked nation-wide protests from Dalit groups across the country after which Modi government brought legislation and nullified the SC measures through Parliament in the last monsoon session.
The government, however, wants to make a distinction between economic and social reservation. The Supreme Court’s limit is for social reservation, say sources. It may be legally complicated but the move serves the purpose of telegraphing the government’s commitment to the general population that does not have reservations.
People at large are suspicious about the Modi government’s intent behind the move. Eligibility criteria laid down in the bill to qualify for the promised reservation are meant not for the economically weak. Laid down criteria define that those having an annual household income of less than Rs eight lakh or those having agricultural land of less than 5 acres or having a house smaller than 1000 square feet or have a residential plot smaller than 100 yards in a municipality or a residential plot of less 200 yards in a non-notified municipality are going to be eligible but these either belong to lower middle classes or mid-middle classes. Majority of jobs would go to them as these sections as they have a definite advantage since they have had the benefit of going to better school education and higher studies.
These sections pay income tax. Economically weak are those who do not pay income tax or are earning not more than two lakhs or in the range of it. In sort, eligibility criteria for ‘economic weakness’ has been devised in such a way that it appears to cover almost all Indians barring the top upper crust of may be three percent.
Decision to bring reservation for economically weak in the general category sounds like an eyewash just before the elections as there are no jobs. Latest data released by a Mumbai-based think tank-CMIE- shows that employment in December reached at a two-year high level of 7.4 percent and nearly 11 million people have lost jobs in the last one year-ninety percent in the rural areas and about 10 percent in urban areas.
The BJP, therefore, is not going to have much political advantage. Upper castes, for whose votes the bill has been brought, are not going to be pleased by empty promises while Dalits and OBC are going to perceive the government move against them. The RJD alone has anticipated and therefore opposed it. It is going to consolidate
The government is going to be perceived by non-upper caste sections are working against them. In short, the BJP is neither going to get votes of the upper castes nor that of the Dalits and OBCs. In short, the government move is neither a sound policy nor a smart political move.
Dr. Satish Misra is a Veteran Journalist & Research Associate with Observer Research Foundation.