Quota politics: A balancing act for political parties

Last Updated: Mon, Nov 27, 2017 13:00 hrs
Hardik Patel during the Patel Patidar community's Kranti Rally in Ahmedabad on August 25, 2015

(Hardik Patel during the Patel Patidar community's Kranti Rally in Ahmedabad on August 25, 2015)

The key to a Congress victory in Gujarat lies in Hardik Patel and the issue of quotas. The face of the Patidar quota movement struck a deal on Wednesday accepting a quota under "special category" for Patidars and other non-reserved castes. The leader of the Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) said that the Congress had assured “quota under Article 31 (C) of the Constitution which guarantees that it will be kept outside the purview of the judiciary", while assuring that the existing reservation system, which gives 49% reservation to SCs, STs and OBCs, will remain as is.

In Gujarat, the BJP government under then Chief Minister Anandiben Patel had given 10% quota for EBCs under pressure from Patidars. This was later stuck down by the Gujarat High court in August last year. Constitutional expert Girish Patel stated that extending quotas to Patidars is a difficult task for any party –

“There is no provision to extend quota on economic ground because the objective of reservation is not removal of poverty. The only way left is to consider Patidars as backward, but this too is difficult looking at their high standing in Gujarat's society”.

Girish Patel states that even though political parties can promise quotas and make provisions for them, it will likely be struck down by the courts. In a September editorial in The Hindu last year, it stated that the Gujarat government at the time had a misguided surrender to the Patidars who were demanding reservations in jobs and education –

“The Patidars constitute a crucial vote base for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the quota signals the political failure of the various carrot-and-stick measures attempted by the State government to get on top of their long agitation”.

“Notably, the demand for reservations by the largely prosperous Patidars has little to do with their present socio-economic status. Their agitation, like the one waged by Jats, has been directed more at the reducing socio-economic “gap” between them and the OBCs”.

“It is the change in the balance of socio-economic power that has lent popular support to agitations by the middle castes all over the country; new politicians on the block, such as Hardik Patel, who has resisted all attempts at being co-opted by the BJP, have emerged from this social churning”.

This could help in uplifting the socially underprivileged and the historically backward and also to reduce caste inequities. However, the government was criticized for giving in to the agitation. Cut to now, where the Congress has come to an agreement with the Patidars when there is not much room for disagreement with their leaders, especially given the power of their voice leading up to an important election.

In Bihar, quota politics came alive when then Chief Minister Nitish Kumar introduced reservation in outsourced contractual jobs provided by the state government. Bihar is a state where caste plays a vital role in the political calculations of the ruling and opposing parties. The RJD’s main aim was to portray Nitish Kumar as ‘anti - reservation’ given the decision made by him to team up with the BJP in Bihar ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

He brought the different Extremely Backward Castes (EBC) within the OBC. He has, to a certain extent proved that quota politics is beneficial for different EBC’s by reserving seats for them in the panchayat elections.

Earlier this year in Haryana, Jat leaders led several demonstrations and protests demanding reservations; the Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had previously said the government accepted the demand of the Jats to give jobs to the next of kin of those who had lost their lives in the agitation last year.

In a May op-ed for the Indian Express, Christophe Jaffrelot, a senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris and A Kalaiyarasan, a faculty member at the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, New Delhi write on the quota for Marathas in Maharashtra –

“First, the Marathas have not only asked for quotas, but also for the revision (abolition?) of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. Second, they have mobilized in a very peculiar manner. Their agitation started exactly one year ago, in April 2016, after a Maratha girl was allegedly raped by a Dalit”.

The case regarding Marathas is similar to those of the Jats and the Patels; a certain section is doing well economically while a large fraction is still lagging behind. In Maharashtra politics, the Marathas have dominated; he states MLA’s are about 40% Marathi.

In an op-ed for the Indian Express, Ashwini Deshpande from the Delhi School of Economics and Rajesh Ramachandran from the Goethe University, Frankfurt state that demand for quotas by powerful groups does injustice to those who are truly disadvantaged –

“The latter quarter of 2016 witnessed massive silent marches by the Maratha community, reiterating the demand to be designated as one of the Other Backward Classes (OBC), along with additional demands, such as scrapping of the Prevention of Atrocities (against Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribes) Act”.

The two authors through a study of comparing Patels, Marathas and Jats to other major groups — Brahmins, Other Forward Castes (FCs), existing OBCs and SC-STs, found that the three are closer to the socio-economically dominant caste groups (Brahmins and Other FCs) in their respective states.

“The support for their demands has come from the highest legislative body in their respective states — the state governments of Haryana and Maharashtra — as Jats and Marathas were granted access to reserved positions, a decision that was later withdrawn by the courts”.

“Extending quotas to relatively richer and powerful groups would amount to diluting the already small and shrinking entitlement for communities that are truly disadvantaged and discriminated against”.

In Telangana earlier this year, the state government approved the increase in quota. Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao stated that the TRS promised to increase the quota to 12 per cent for Muslims and STs in its 2014 election manifesto and it was the responsibility of the TRS government to implement it.

The underlying point that state governments need to keep in mind is the 1992 Supreme Court verdict in the Mandal Commission case which ruled that the total reservation for SC/ST and other backward classes or special categories should not exceed 50 %. The apex court interpreted the Constitution and said that 50 per cent cap is necessary to protect the principle of Right to Equality.

More columns by Varun Sukumar