The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala and the Bharatiya Janata Party, to a lesser extent, are likely to face the wrath of the state’s dominant Hindu Ezhava community for backing the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019. The legislation provides 10% reservations in government jobs and educational institutions to the economically poor among those not covered by other reservations, which is being called an “upper caste quota”.

The Ezhavas are classified as other backward classes and comprise 28% of Kerala’s population (upper caste Nairs comprise 16%). They are traditional supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) even though a party floated by an influential Ezhava organisation joined hands with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance during the 2016 Assembly elections in Kerala in which the BJP won its first ever Assembly seat.

The Congress, which also supported the Bill, is in trouble in Kerala too with its United Democratic Front ally – the Indian Union Muslim League, which has a strong electoral presence in parts of the state – expressing its disappointment over the party’s backing of the Bill in Parliament. The League has three MPs, all of whom voted against the Bill.

‘Against the Constitution’

The Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, hastily-introduced in Parliament by the BJP on January 8, received overwhelming support in both Houses. The Lok Sabha approved the bill that same day with 323 votes in favour and just three against it. The Rajya Sabha passed the bill the following day with 165 “yes” votes and seven “no” votes. The Bill will be now sent for Presidential assent.

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the biggest non-political organisation of the Ezhava community, has said that the Bill is anti-constitutional. Its leader Vellappally Natesan said on Thursday that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) committed a historical blunder by supporting it. “The CPI(M) shouldn’t have supported the Bill brought by the BJP with an aim to pocket upper caste votes just a few months before the Lok Sabha election,” he said. “I am disappointed.”

Natesan accused the communist party of depriving the Ezhava community of its fair share in jobs and instead looking out for the interests of upper-caste Hindus. He hinted at forming a broad coalition to legally fight the bill with like-minded backward organisations. “I cannot predict how the broad coalition would affect the chances of the CPI(M),” he said.

The Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, the political arm of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, had allied with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the 2016 Assembly elections but did not win a single seat.

On Thursday, party president Thushar Vellappally, Natesan’s son, categorically stated that economically backward upper-caste communities need financial support and not reservation benefits. “We cannot support the idea of economic reservation,” he said. “Our cadres will oppose it.” He refused to comment whether the issue will affect his party’s ties with the BJP. “We will raise our concerns in appropriate coalition forum,” he said.

Another NDA partner, the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabah, an organisation that represents the Dalit Pulaya community, also said that the Bill was anti-democratic. “It will worsen the conditions of the communities enjoying the benefits of reservation,” said its president Neelakandan.

Bad timing

The Bill has come at an inopportune time for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front that rules the state. It has been accused of being pro-upper caste on at least two occassions in the past year.

A few months ago, backward Hindu communities complained that the Kerala government was wooing the state’s upper-caste Hindu communities after it announced 10% reservation for them in Devaswom board jobs. These are trusts comprising government and community representatives that manage Hindu temples and their assets in Kerala.

Natesan brought this up on Thursday. “The decision to provide 10% reservation for upper caste Hindus in Devaswom board jobs is a case in point,” he said. “Upper-caste Hindus occupy most of the Devaswom board jobs; why do they need reservation? We will approach court if the government moves ahead with it.”

The state government has also been accused of attempting to help upper caste groups by scuttling reservations in the proposed Kerala Administrative Service, a civil service cadre for the state.

The government, in December, had notified that caste-based reservation would be binding only on direct recruitment and not on internal transfer postings in this service. But the State Minority Commission had directed it in April to ensure caste-based reservations in all recruitment for the state civil service.

Congress must placate ally

The Indian Union Muslim League, with 18 MLAs, is the fourth largest political party in the Assembly. It is the second largest party after the Congress in the Opposition United Democratic Front alliance and is opposed to the Bill. “Economic reservation goes against the basic principles of the Constitution,” said ET Muhammed Basheer, its MP from Ponnani in Kerala. “We will continue to oppose it.”

The League said that the Congress’ decision to support the Bill has disappointed a chunk of its workers in the state. “We will not comment on Congress’ decision to vote for the bill,” said Basheer. “I hope Congress leaders will explain the reason soon.”

The League leadership may find it difficult to convince its cadres to continue its association with the Congress in coming months. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the party suffered a vertical split over its decision to continue to ally with the Congress, which was ruling at the Centre at that time.

In December, the League leadership struggled to quell a revolt against PK Kunhalikkutty, the party MP from Malappuram, after he failed to vote against the Triple Talaq Bill in the Lok Sabha.

Differences in CPI(M)

The Bill has also brought to the fore the differences of opinion among senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders. While Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the party state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan welcomed the Bill, veteran leader and former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan denounced it, saying that reservation was not an economic project.

Vijayan and Balakrishnan said the party is a votary of reservations for economically weaker sections among upper castes as long as that does not affect the reservation benefits for Dalits, Adviasis and backward classes.

Achuthanandan, however,said reservation should be viewed as a scheme to provide democratic rights to members of oppressed castes who could not afford education and jobs because of the social situation caused by untouchability. “Economic backwardness is not a constant component like caste backwardness,” he said.