Caste equation in Congress lexicon

Rahul Gandhi seeks to achieve social justice, calls for surveys on wealth distribution for rights proportional to population.
Caste census
Caste censusExpress Illustration

NEW DELHI : Jitni Abadi, Utna Haq” (rights proportional to population)... Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s renewed call to expand caste quotas and for surveys on wealth redistribution has again brought the ‘social justice politics’ back into the electoral landscape.

Though the grand old party had aggressively pushed the twin plank of welfarism and caste census during the latest state polls in the Hindi heartland, it failed to strike a chord with the electorate.

However, recalibrating its strategies for the Lok Sabha elections, the Congress manifesto hinges prominently on the themes of ‘social justice and equity’. In the manifesto, the party has promised to conduct a Socio-Economic and Caste Census to enumerate castes and sub-castes and their socio-economic conditions. If the Opposition alliance comes to power, the party also pledged to pass a constitutional amendment to remove the Supreme Court-mandated 50% cap on reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs.

“We will first conduct a nationwide caste census to determine how many people belong to the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minorities. After that, we will conduct a financial and institutional survey in a historic step to ascertain the distribution of wealth,” said Rahul Gandhi recently.

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Though the Mandal Commission has pegged the OBC count at 52%, the Opposition parties point out that the numerical strength of the backward community must have grown manifold and are left behind in affirmative action. The recent caste survey results of the Bihar government is a case in point, says an opposition leader.

The caste survey puts the combined OBC strength in Bihar at 63%, 11% more than the figures estimated by the last caste census conducted in 1931.

“We are a fast growing economy and we are also providing 83 crore people with free food. To understand the deprivation levels, we have to do things more appropriately. In the next census, the government can add additional questions on socio-economic status of people,” says former Congress MP and AICC research wing head Rajiv Gowda.

Echoing the view, former Karnataka CM Verappa Moily told this paper that it is imperative to hold a caste census as it will reveal the real socio-economic situation of all communities across the country. “Reservation quotas will have to be expanded based on the new numbers,” said Moily. The Congress government in Karnataka conducted Socio economic Caste Census in 2015, though the survey results are yet to be released. “Expansion of quotas is possible if a constitutional amendment is done. Tamil Nadu has breached the quota of 50%,” added Moily. The removal of the Supreme Court ceiling of 50% reservation will throw up complex questions on constitutional issues, say legal experts.

The SC in its historic 1992 Indira Sawhney verdict ruled that the upper limit for reservation in the country must not exceed 50%. However, the SC said the cap can be breached in exceptional circumstances to benefit people in remote areas. Though several states have breached the 50% cap to provide quota to agitating caste groups, it has been struck down by the judiciary on the grounds of exceeding the SC ceiling.

In 2021, SC struck down Maharashtra government’s move to provide Maratha quota in excess of the 50% ceiling as unconstitutional, saying the data presented did not show any extraordinary situation.

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While many state governments are looking to expand quotas beyond 50%, Orissa and Rajasthan High Courts have struck down such moves.

Though the SC upheld the 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), constitutional law expert Prof G Mohan Gopal argues that EWS judgment and increasing caste quotas should not be linked.

Prof Gopal says more steps are needed to expand the scope of reservations to all levels and areas of employment.

“Let’s put the issue in context. As forewarned by Dr. Ambedkar a century ago, power and wealth in India is still concentrated in an oligarchy of four small communities. What Dr Ambedkar proposed to dismantle the oligarchy was to directly link representation and reservation — by constantly increasing and reducing reservation as needed to ensure due and adequate representation of all communities without ceilings or floors. The current system of reservation has failed to secure a representative government. Removal of the judicially imposed 50% ceiling will not in and by itself secure representation. More is needed including a social census, linking reservations directly to representation and expanding the scope of reservations to all levels and areas of employment,” said Gopal, former National Judicial Academy director.

While Congress said it will invoke the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution to increase the quota emulating the Tamil Nadu quota matrix, experts say the SC is yet to give a final verdict on TN quota at 69%. The Ninth Schedule contains a list of Central and state laws that cannot be challenged in courts.

In 1993, the then Tamil Nadu CM passed a bill to maintain the state’s reservation at 69%. The bill later got the President’s nod. However, SC is yet to decide on the cases pending before it challenging the inclusion of the Act under the Ninth Schedule.

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