To corner their rivals, especially the Sangh Parivar, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have raised the heat on the economic reservation issue, urging the Narendra Modi government to legislate for job quotas for poor among the forward castes. Introducing the quota would require amending the Constitution.

The communist government in Kerala has already decided to reserve 10% jobs for the poor among forward caste Hindus. The decision, announced on November 15, will be rolled out with appointments to Devaswom Boards, autonomous bodies that administer the state’s temples. The state does not require legislation to implement the new quota in the five Devaswom Boards – Travancore, Guruvayoor, Kochi, Malabar and Koodal Manikyam – as it can do so without altering the quota structure. Given that only Hindus are eligible for Devaswom Board jobs, the state can simply replace the quota for Muslims in government jobs with the quota for the forward caste poor. Since no such option of swapping quotas is available in case of other government jobs, introducing the new quota would breach the reservation ceiling of 50%.

Although the communist parties have long supported reservation on the basis of economic status, they previously never moved to implement it in any of the states they ruled – Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. Now they appear keen on it because the Bharatiya Janata Party is uneasy. CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan suggested as much by daring the BJP to amend the Constitution. “Quota for poor among forward castes could be ensured in government services with a Constitutional amendment,” he said. “Can the BJP government do that?”

In late 2015, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagawat’s call for reviewing the reservation policy was believed to have hurt the BJP’s prospects in the Bihar Assembly election even though the party did not support that call fearing backlash from backward communities.

That Devaswom Boards mostly employ forward caste people in any case only strengthens the argument that the communists’ demand is primarily meant to corner the Sangh Parivar. The Malayalam daily Kerala Kaumudi reported this week that forward caste Hindus hold 96% of the jobs in Travancore Devaswom Board – of the 6,120 posts, the upper caste Nairs and Namboothiris hold 5,870, the backward Ezhavas only 207. The Dalit representation is abysmally low at 20 posts, or 0.32%.

Similarly, Right to Information requests have found that 79% teachers in four government-aided colleges managed by the Travancore Devaswom Board are held by forward caste Hindus. Of the 186 teachers, 135 are Nairs and six are Namboodiris.

Old demand

The Left Front government’s decision to reserve jobs for the forward caste poor has angered Kerala’s Dalit, Adivasi and backward caste communities, and they are planning to stage protests in the coming days.

The communist parties, though, stand by the decision. Pointing out that the “CPI(M) has been demanding a quota for poor among forward communities since 1990, Balakrishnan said the move was aimed at uniting poor people across communities. “The party wants to keep the status quo in the quotas for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” he explained. “Poor among backward classes should be given top priority in reservation and the poor among forward castes should be given quota not more than 10%.”

Former CPI(M) chief Prakash Karat had explained in 1990 that while they supported blanket reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, economic criterion should be considered in providing reservation to Other Backward Classes as decades of socio-economic development and growth of capitalism had led to a “class differentiation” within the caste structure.

CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran said his party has supported reservation for poor among the forward castes since 1930. “CPI is the only political party in India that has consistently raised this demand,” he claimed. “We never watered down our stand,” he said.

Both leaders pointed out that the Left Democratic Front’s manifesto for the 2016 Assembly election promised reservation for the poor among forward castes.

Many concerns

The critics are not convinced. Sunny M Kapicadu, a Dalit activist who leads Bhoo Adhikara Samrakshana Samithi, a movement for land rights for the marginalised communities, accused the communist parties of trying to blunt Dalit-backward class unity. “Are they so naive to ignore the growing influence of Dalit-Bahujan movements that resist the growth of right-wing in Gujarat and many Indian universities?” he asked.

Kapicadu said reservation is meant to ensure socially and educationally marginalised communities are represented in power. “The Constitution ensures the right of representation,” he explained. “Communist parties’ obsession with economic reservation will endanger the very existence of Dalits and Adivasis.”

The academic Sunil Elayidom argued that economic reservation is an “inherently wrong concept” that does not conform to the principles of representation. “Reservation aims to provide social justice,” he wrote on Facebook. “It should not be connected with economic backwardness. Economic backwardness exists in forward and backward castes, and it should not be rectified with reservation.”

Ashokan Charuvil, former member of the Kerala Public Service Commission, called economic reservation “a retrograde move” that would eventually yield reservation for forward castes. “It is wrong to equate social and economic backwardness,” he argued. “Reservation is meant to provide equitable representation and not improve one’s economic standing.”

Kapicadu asked the communist parties whether they had thought about the repercussions of pressuring the Modi government to implement the proposed quota. “The BJP may bring a Constitutional amendment,” he said. “Then we will see the emergence of an awkward political formation in which the communists will join hands with the Sangh Parivar and the Congress to pass a retrograde law. Pinarayi Vijayan is leading that move.”