Modi's quota play: When cynical politics meets cynical policy

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 08, 2019 14:10 hrs

The government is gearing up for the Lok Sabha elections which take place in three months’ time with a push to win over voters. The latest move is to amend the constitution to provide a 10% reservation in jobs and higher education for economically weaker sections. As the government put it in part, this move was to address the demands “of the economically weaker sections of the people who are not covered by any of the existing schemes of reservation.” Among the sections being targeted with this is the poor among the upper castes.

Politically, the BJP is on the backfoot after the assembly election defeats in the ‘Hindi heartland’. This is seen as a move to cater to its core base among upper castes. The government faced pushback after Modi came out in favour of the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act last year. The move however is in line with what the RSS wants. It carries out social programmes aimed at upper castes and is a better messenger for the government in conveying to them the discord among upper castes with the BJP.

While many have stated that this move is vote bank politics, there are political and legal issues that need to taken into consideration. It requires two-thirds support in both houses of Parliament as well that of one half of the state legislatures. It also has to pass the test of the Supreme Court decision in the Indra Sawhney case, where a Constitution bench ruled that reservations couldn’t go beyond 50%.

Those who will qualify are members of a family whom together earn less than Rs. 8 lakh per annum and how have less than five acres of agricultural land. The move has been criticised by the opposition and experts alike. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, former President, Centre Policy Research, New Delhi, in an op-ed for the Indian Express writes on how the move is cynical politics and policy –

Quota for upper caste poor is cynical politics, and cynical policy. Since we cannot create enough jobs, the token signal that the poor from the upper castes can be symbolically represented in the state is all that we can now offer. This is in a context where public sector jobs are scarce.

This isn’t the first time such a move has been done. In 1991, the PV Narasimha Rao government issued a memorandum to provide reservation for other economically backward sections of the people who weren’t covered at the time by any existing reservation schemes. The apex court declared it to be ‘unenforceable’. In its judgment, the bench allowed the state to provide reservations on the basis of economic backwardness. Tamil Nadu has 69% reservation. It got the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution amended in 1994. Other states too have quotas above 50%.

Mehta points out a basic but significant point – the economy isn’t producing enough attractive jobs. Public sector jobs are scarce. The recommendations of the Mandal Commission faced a lot of pushback but was implemented in 1992. Mehta points out the state of reservation policy after Mandal –

India needs effective forms of reservation or affirmative action, especially for Dalits. Our reservation policy, post Mandal, has more generally become a prime example of majoritarian politics, where the exigencies of politics and power rather than the ethical and moral claims drive entitlements.

The Congress jumped on an important but unsaid point in the government’s decision on reservations; the promise of new jobs hasn’t exactly borne fruit to the extent that the government said it would. Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said in part, “…the Narendra Modi government has suddenly woken up to the woes of the economically poor, facing imminent defeat in the 2019 elections, and with 100 days to go for polls.” The Congress did say that it supported reservations for economically weaker sections if it doesn’t hurt the mandate for reservations for Dalits.

Kerala Chief Minister P Vijayan supports the government’s latest efforts on reservation but did concede that the move came in light of the upcoming elections. He said in part, “The CPI(M) has earlier itself wanted reservation for the economically weaker people among higher castes.” The Hindustan Times editorial questions if the move will bear fruit –

Whether this is a real solution to underlying structural issues of Indian political economy of educational opportunities and jobs is open to question. Public employment is limited. Private sector does not have reservations. The goal has to be to expand the pie.

This was echoed by Harsh Mander, a former IAS officer. Writing for The Print, he states that opportunities need to be expanded –

Reservations recognise the social humiliation and exclusions that people of disadvantaged castes have endured for millennia, and not mere poverty. Poverty does not call for reservation, but rather creation of more equal and abundant opportunities.

Coming into power in 2014, the government promised to work for the poor by creating new jobs and improve the lives of farmers by increasing their income. With regards to the later, the past couple of months have been downhill for the government. It rode the wave of poor and other backward class voters to form the government. The coalition of voters that gave it electoral success last time is key to the BJP’s success. This latest move on reservation is a clear attempt to win or win back that coalition.

More columns by Varun Sukumar