The Narendra Modi government’s decision to legislate a 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections (EWS) in the general category through a Constitution amendment Bill continues to spark controversy. NGOs have filed public interest petitions in the Supreme Court against the new law. However, since it is a Constitutional amendment, the apex court is unlikely to undo it.
Complicating the Opposition’s position, the Congress’ 2014 election manifesto had pledged to legislate precisely such a law. It can hardly oppose the government’s move except to question its timing three months before the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
There are clear precedents to breach the Supreme Court’s 50 per cent ceiling on reservations. Tamil Nadu, with a total of 69 per cent reservations, has used the apex court’s caveat that allows breaching the 50 per cent limit in exceptional cases. So have Maharashtra (68 per cent), Haryana (67 per cent) and Telangana (62 per cent).
The Opposition, with generous help from sections of the media, has downplayed the fact that the 10 per cent quota will help poor Muslims, Christians and other minorities. The Opposition has cast the law as an upper caste sop that will in fact drive an electoral wedge between the BJP and the large Dalit demographic. For its part, the BJP has cynically played up the law’s upper caste angle to recapture lost ground with Brahmins and other upper castes. With the Ayodhya title suit in the apex court and the 10 per cent quota now a law, the Centre’s strategy for 2019 is clear: use religion as one pole of the electoral campaign and development as the other.
The government has a good story to tell on some of the path-breaking developmental schemes it has introduced: health insurance, rural electrification, sanitation, infrastructure, digitised subsidy payments and replacing polluting cooking fuel with free LPG cylinders. But the government has failed on other fronts. Farmers remain in acute distress. Economic growth has stuttered. Unemployment is up. The bureaucracy continues to be hidebound. Privatisation of PSUs is progressing at a snail’s pace. Institutions have been treated in cavalier fashion. The CIC is understaffed and the Lokpal is not yet in place.
As the shrewdest politician India has produced in decades, the PM is aware of the weak hand he holds less than three months before the first phase of the Lok Sabha election kicks in. Hence the dual strategy of religion and reform. The problem is there hasn’t been enough reform. While financial inclusion schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana have provided bank accounts to most Indian households, structural reforms in labour, tax and administration have not followed.
How will the 10 per cent quota for economically weaker sections across religions and castes play out both electorally and socially? I have long argued in print and elsewhere that reservations based on caste should be phased out. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar himself was keen to maintain caste-based reservations for only 10 years as the Constitution mandated. Cynical politics, social backwardness and entrenched casteist interests have instead extended caste-based reservations to nearly 70 years.
Former Prime Minister V P Singh’s mandalisation of caste in 1990 has ensured that caste, like religion, remains at the centre of electoral politics. The 10 per cent quota though is the first caste- and religion-neutral reservation based on economic criteria. In the long-term, economic criteria alone, not caste or religion, should determine affirmative action.
What will be the electoral impact on minorities of their inclusion for the first time in the 10 per cent quota? With the Constitutional amendment still to pass the test of judicial scrutiny—though it almost certainly will—the impact on minorities in the 2019 Lok Sabha election is likely to be minimal. Whatever the BJP may say publicly, the law is aimed squarely at upper caste Hindus who have long felt marginalised by reservations for SC/STs, OBCs and other caste groups.
The law may help the BJP arrest the drift of the Brahmin vote. Brahmins comprise just five per cent of the electorate across India but in Uttar Pradesh, where the 2019 general election could be decided, the figure is more than double at 11 per cent. The downside for the BJP is a continuing backlash from Dalits, already upset at perceived neglect by what they have historically regarded as a Brahmin-dominated party. But Dalits may be mollified after the amendment by Parliament of the apex court’s dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
The alliance between Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh as well as Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra’s entry into electoral politics present a clear and present danger of backward caste consolidation against the BJP. That consolidation could spread beyond UP to Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—all critical states which, along with UP, account for 174 Lok Sabha seats. Modi’s OBC status, a big factor in his 2014 Lok Sabha sweep, may not be enough to thwart what may be an irresistible caste and religion confluence that is building against the BJP across northern and western India.
It is in this context that both the Ram Mandir and the Constitutional amendment reserving 10 per cent jobs in the government and seats in educational institutes for economically weaker sections could help the BJP, if only marginally, and tackle anti-incumbency in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.Former US President Bill Clinton famously quipped: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In India, it’s religion.