THE 10% ANTIDOTE

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Trust the political class to shock & surprise you by their untimely policy gimmicks. The recent legislation guaranteeing 10% quota to “Gen-Cat” is one such non-starter of a program.

Anil Anand

Come poll season and strange things start happening. Sudden realisation dawns on the political parties to embark on a decision taking spree which they, particularly the ruling party, would not have bothered to look at all in their five-year or so long tenure. So this 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections among the upper castes may well be another “rabbit out of the Modi hat”. However the urgency with which the entire process was followed, from clearance of Bill by the cabinet to passage by Lok Sabha on the last day of Winter Session and extension of Rajya Sabha sitting by a day to do the same during the last regular Session of the 16th Lok Sabha, is self-explanatory. Even the Opposition parties excluding Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal which opposed the Bill, vied with each other to be seen as supporting the proposed legislation lest they muddled their poll prospects. After all reservation issue in its every form is central to electoral polity in the country and an easy way to play with people’s sentiments even if does not deliver the desired results for the purported beneficiaries.

So, it was the political expediency at its fastest if not the best. What spurred the BJP-led NDA dispensation at the Centre into emergent action into this hasty decision? Why were Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah not reminded of the issue of providing reservation to economically weaker among the upper castes earlier in their rein? It seems they were overconfident till the drubbing that the duo-led BJP received in the recently held assembly elections to five states including the significant Hindi heartland states of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan earlier ruled by the saffron party.

No one still knows the reasons behind the government pushing the panic button to kick-start the process for formulation and passage of the Bill two days before conclusion of the Winter Session of Parliament. It seems a last minute prodding by various Sangh Parivar quarters in the backdrop of the fact that the upper castes, the traditional vote bank of the BJP, plotted the party’s defeat in the Hindi heartland states alleging that the party was tilting towards backward classes while ignoring their demands for similar reservation led to the government taking a last minute call.

It had become urgent for BJP to win back the political narrative which was weakening on two counts; first and more importantly their traditional vote bank slipping away and secondly uncomfortable allies leaving or threatening to leave the NDA one by one. So, Modi pulled out his trump card with prime motive to address the restive upper castes and dominant agrarian communities such as Patidars, Jats, Marathas etc who have been demanding reservation. They are upset with the government for restoring the stringent provisions of the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities Act) despite the Supreme Court rejecting it.

They believed that with its pro-poor welfare pitch, the government and the BJP have forgotten its original voters. The 10 per cent reservation for economically weaker among the upper castes is just the beginning of yet another debate on the reservation issue as the Constitution provides only for reservation purely on caste basis to the socially backward strata of the society.

Such a debate would certainly wait for another day but not the poll season when all political parties including the arch rivals BJP and the Congress are already out to build an electoral narrative. Their immediate purpose is to reap the electoral dividend in coming Lok Sabha elections than anything else.

It has definitely given BJP a strong issue to strengthen its perception-based election battle particularly in the Hindi heartland. Since, there are still three months to go for Lok Sabha elections, it will be seen if the new legislation stands the judicial scrutiny or not. Whether it does or not a narrative would certainly be woven around the reservation on economic basis which is close to the heart of both RSS and BJP. The BJP particularly had, of late been, tilting towards the SCs/STs and OBC politics but without any tangible benefit. So is this reversal of reservation strategy with an aim to mollify the RSS and the traditional vote-bank?

The government and BJP strategists have still not been able to provide a satisfactory response to the charge as to why was the all important Constitutional amendment Bill brought in such a hurry. Will merely building narrative for poll purposes bring the party any benefit at the hustings by assuaging the feelings of the “angry” upper castes? The BJP would be hard pressed to find an answer to this question in a short span of time before election process begins, and which would not be easier to come.

Any Constitutional amendment Bill passed by the Parliament requires ratification by 50 per cent of the states. There is a debate though, whether or not this Bill would require such ratification. While the Congress felt it requires ratification by 50 per cent states, the government thought otherwise.

Clarifying on this aspect Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who is also an eminent lawyer and an expert in constitutional matters explained during the debate in the two House of Parliament that to amend part 3 of Article 368 of the Constitution (which describes the “Power of Parliament to amend the Constitution and procedure therefore), and which concerns the Fundamental Rights does not require going to the state assemblies for ratification. Even the amendment that added Article 15(5) to the Constitution was approved only by the two Houses of Parliament, he explained.

Notwithstanding Jaitley’s explanation, the jury is still out and open on this issue. In all likelihood it will soon reach the portals of Supreme Court for addressing such concerns, if any.

Even then the BJP would have achieved its goal to build a political narrative afresh, aimed at winning back its core vote-bank as it had been badly looking for a way out. The multi-million dollar question is whether it would bring them success and ensures Modi’s continuation as PM for a second successive term or would it be an anti-climax of sorts.