On February 7, the Supreme Court delivered its verdict in a case from Uttarakhand in which it held that members of backward groups could not claim reservations in government jobs as a matter of right. The verdict has created a political storm. Though the case pertains to reservations in promotions in government jobs, the judgement implies that the principle that the state is not obligated to provide quotas applies to initial appointments as well.
Almost every political party has urged the Union government to intervene to remedy the effects of the Supreme Court judgement.
The positions that the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party took in Parliament were curious. They blamed each other for the mess, even though both parties are equally culpable of diluting the quota regime over the decades.
While Congress members in Parliament demanded a discussion on the effects of the Supreme Court verdict, they failed to acknowledge that it was a government run by their party in Uttarakhand that in 2012 decided not to give reservations in government jobs to members of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. This despite the state government’s own data showing that these marginalised groups were inadequately represented in government jobs.
The BJP was prompt to point this out in Parliament. However, the BJP chose not to speak about its own role in perpetuating the 2012 Congress government’s decision against quotas. When the matter came up before the Supreme Court last year, all that it would have taken to put the case to rest was a policy decision to implement the quotas in Uttarakhand. However, the BJP government that was in power in the state chose not to do so. This led to the Supreme Court to declare that the decision to provide quotas was completely up to the discretion of the state and the judiciary could not order the government to do so.
This is not a one-off case. In the 1980s, the Congress showed great reluctance in implementing the Mandal Commission report that recommended quotas for members of the Other Backward Classes. In the 1990s, it failed to stop the Supreme Court from establishing arbitrary restrictions on quotas, including the 50% ceiling.
The BJP, on its part, has struck at fundamental principles of reservations. Last year, the Narendra Modi government decided to institute quotas for economically weaker sections among the upper castes. Until this point, the constitutional scheme of reservations was confined to social and educational backwardness and did not include economic backwardness.
Like Congress governments of the past, the BJP too has done very little to remedy the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court on implementing reservations. If the parties aim to halt judicial interference in affirmative action policies, they should first stop their doublespeak and commit themselves fully to these policies.