Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed Constitutional Amendment to give 10% reservation to the economically backward “general category” population, being referred to as an upper-caste quota, is the sort of grand gambit expected from a government facing re-election. The move has, in one fell swoop, altered the entire political conversation, which was otherwise focused on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s losses in recent state elections and controversies like the Rafale case.
But it is also fraught with complications, from an unavoidable legal test to questions of whether this will be seen as a last-minute election gimmick. However it is seen, though, it is the sort of move that alters the political conversation and forces all other parties to find a way to react – after months of the BJP falling behind the narrative curve.
Here is what the move does for the BJP:
- Changes the narrative: For the last few months, the BJP has been chasing the story, forced to react to arguments being made by the Opposition, whether it is on farmer unrest, the lack of jobs, Rafale or otherwise. The party’s loss in three North Indian states drove this point clearly home, with the BJP recognising that it had been put on the back foot. This move changes all of that, forcing all other parties to come up with a response and giving the BJP a huge selling point going into the general elections.
- Addresses upper-caste anger: It was evident that upper castes were unhappy with the BJP during the three North Indian state elections towards the end of 2018. This was in part because of the BJP’s support for reinstating the tougher conditions of the Schedule Caste/Scheduled Tribe Prevention of Atrocities Act, which upper castes believe is a draconian law that is misused against their communities. Over the last few years, forward castes like Jats and Marathas around the country have also taken to the streets demanding reservations, with various state governments finding it difficult to respond. This changes all that.
- An all-India move that forces all parties to fall in line: Opposition parties will find it very hard to oppose the move, since forward castes form a part of their bases as well. Although a few have brought up the question of reservation being a way to fight historical injustice rather than economic deprivation, most have preferred instead to proffer support for the move while nevertheless criticising the BJP for attempting it at the last minute and in this manner.
- Appeals to anti-reservation base: In a certain way, the move actually speaks to a significant section of the BJP and its right-wing base that is opposed to the idea of caste-based reservations. Recognising that doing away with reservations altogether is an unviable position, this section has instead demanded that quotas be based on economic criteria rather than caste for decades now. By proposing a reservation that is based only on economic conditions, the BJP is fulfilling exactly that demand.
- Can be sold as a pro-poor move: Technically speaking the letter of the law will simply say this is a quota that is open to all general category individuals, meaning those who do not fall into other reserved categories. On paper, that means it would apply to minorities as well as forward castes, while in reality it is likely that it will be cornered by the latter. In that way the BJP can insist this is a non-discriminatory policy, one that fits into the Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (Progress for all) tagline, even though its actual impact is likely to be lopsided.
- Potentially de-stigmatises reservations: Many Scheduled Caste groups have been in favour of upper-caste quotas for decades now, in the belief that only offering it to backward castes heightens discrimination, as has often been seen in the treatment of those that make it through reserved seats in the education system. If forward castes also enter educational institutions and government professions through reservations, it might go some way towards reducing that misguided ‘merit’ argument.
But not everything about the move will be smooth sailing. For starters, there are questions about how it has been introduced in the first place and whether such a quota is legally tenable. Here are some of those concerns:
- Will it pass judicial muster? Attempts at bringing in reservations that are based only economic criteria have failed in the past, with the Supreme Court making it clear that existing quotas have to be tested against historical under-representation and other criteria for backwardness. The Supreme Court has also laid down a general guideline that reservations will not go over 50% of the total pie, which this 10% quota promises to do. No government has attempted a Constitutional Amendment on the matter, so it is not a certain thing that it would be struck down, but the proposal will undoubtedly be tested in court.
- Was it improperly brought in? The Cabinet’s decision to clear this proposal on January 7, a day before the Winter Session of Parliament was about to end, makes it seem like a blatant election gimmick. A Constitutional Amendment requires both houses to pass the Bill with two-thirds support, and it would then have to be ratified by at least half of India’s state assemblies. But aside from the legal requirements, there is also the question of propriety. If the BJP was serious about the move, would it not have introduced the proposal ahead of the Session, allowing for a public debate on the matter?
- Will it change the idea of reservation? If the move passes, it will fundamentally alter India’s approach to reservations, which until now has remained one of addressing historical injustice against sections of the society that are backward. By putting forward a reservation as a means of addressing economic inequity even for dominant communities, the move attempts to use affirmative action as a way of addressing the state’s inability to distribute wealth and progress better. Although many forward castes have though about reservations for years in this manner, as a way to address economic inequality – without even thinking about the historical injustice it addresses – this would formalise that approach.
- Is it an opening for converting all reservations? Going back to the question of appealing to the BJP’s right-wing base, which has been opposed to caste-based reservations, this move might also open space for more questioning of that very idea. Once economic-criteria reservations are a reality, the base will undoubtedly start pushing for caste-based quotas to evolve into economic ones. Right now that seems like political suicide, but by altering the very idea of reservations, the ‘Overton Window’ shifts.
- Is it an admission of economic failure? Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (Progress for all) was supposed to mean something else, when Modi promised it in 2013. Then the expectation was that his government would bring in an economic boom that could then lift all boats. Instead, economic mismanagement despite low oil prices and inflation – thanks to the twin shocks of demonetisation and the botched rollout of the Goods and Services Tax – have left an economy that is not nearly growing to is potential, and a staggering lack of job opportunities even as millions seek to enter the workforce. Rather than providing more jobs, the BJP is now trying to slice up its limited pie more equitably, a telling move that says as much about its economic performance as it does about its policy approach.