A cap that is refusing to fit all heads

The Patna High Court’s scrapping of Bihar’s higher reservation cap has lobbed the ball back to Nitish Kumar. No one will be immune from the fallout at next year’s assembly poll
A cap that is refusing to fit all heads
Mandar Pardikar

On June 20, the Patna High Court set aside the amendment in Bihar’s reservation policy that had been passed by the previous JDU-RJD government. The amendment, based on a caste survey, sought to enhance the total caste-based reservation in jobs to 65 percent. The high court went by the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision to cap such reservation at 50 percent and struck down the Bihar amendment. Now, the JDU-BJP led state government has challenged the decision in the Supreme Court. It is interesting to note that amid all this to and fro, Nitish Kumar has remained chief minister.

The Patna High Court’s decision confused many observers not well-versed with legal nuances. Especially because Tamil Nadu has a provision for 69 percent reservation under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution. Once any act is brought under this Schedule, which was introduced by the first constitutional amendment in 1951, it has some immunity under Article 31B from being legally challenged.

The TN quota was arrived at with changing caste and class calculations made by chief ministers M Karunanidhi and M G Ramachandran through the 1970s and 80s. We must also acknowledge the contribution of another former CM, K Kamaraj, who took the case to the then PM Jawaharlal Nehru to enable the state to take affirmative action by amending Articles 15 and 16 of the Constitution. Later, many similar provisions were enacted by other states and challenged in court. A plea on the TN reservation is still pending before the Supreme Court.

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The Patna High Court verdict has come before the state’s assembly election due in 2025. The previous JDU-RJD government was aiming at this election when it initiated the caste survey and enhanced reservation to 65 percent in 2023. After the court verdict, Nitish Kumar’s NDA government has challenged the decision in the Supreme Court. If the appeal is not sustained, the substantial exercise of the caste survey will be of little political use for Nitish.

But the survey will surely affect the state election. It has raised expectations among castes leaders, as now they clearly know their numerical strengths. This will affect political expectations of their representation. Every party will have to face this changed calculus and strike a fine balance, otherwise their fortunes will change.

A litmus test is coming up for the JDU-BJP honeymoon in the next few months. Nitish will face challenges in consolidating his party and its social base to keep the cadre and leaders on his side and the allies in good humour. The BJP will have to consolidate its allies too. Now, it’s for the NDA government to secure a spot for the enhanced quota law in the Ninth Schedule, as Tamil Nadu did. If the BJP demurs, as it has indicated in the past, it would transmit a message against the double-engine sarkar to Bihar’s voters.

The NDA regime has not yet succeeded in the matter of granting Bihar a special status. This will provide an opportunity to the INDIA bloc in general and the Tejashwi Yadav-led RJD in particular to counter the NDA government. 

The BJP has already announced that the next assembly election will be fought under Nitish’s leadership, so that he does not again move away from the NDA. Nitish, too, knows that some in the RJD would rather have him move to national politics. However, politics is a game of possibilities—and one of the hardest things to know is Nitish’s next political move. It’s said the right hand of Nitish Kumar does not know what his left hand will do before the next polls. 

A cap that is refusing to fit all heads
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Nitish has also started reconfiguring his party with the state poll in view. At JDU’s national executive committee meeting on June 29, he made Sanjay Jha the party’s working president, eyeing the votes of Brahmins in Mithilanchal. The party also made Rajiv Ranjan ‘Lalan’ Singh, a Bhumihar, a cabinet minister, and Ramnath Thakur, son of Karpoori Thakur from an economically backward class, a minister too. Nitish, known for canny social engineering, has upper-caste and EBC votes in his crosshairs. Jha is also said to be close to the BJP.

Nitish had to pay a heavy price at the last assembly election when Chirag Paswan fielded candidates in every seat. It was an open secret that many of the candidates were BJP proxies. As a result, the JDU was reduced from 73 to 41 in the 243-seat assembly. At next year’s hustings, Chirag may not be as aggressive as the last time, but the BJP would not want to give Nitish room to grow stronger.

Bihar implemented the Mungerilal Commission Report in 1976, much before the central government’s Mandal Commision. The BJP, which has generally been against reservation, withdrew support for the V P Singh government at the Centre in the 1990s as Singh did not agree to support the Kamandal Rath led by Lal Krishna Advani, which tried to frame the national narrative on the Mandal Commission. Advani’s rath was stopped in Bihar by the then CM Lalu Prasad Yadav. It’s also on record that the RSS has reiterated its call to review the reservation policy. However, BJP leaders have repeatedly supported its continuation in the face of vote-bank realities. We must remember that NDA member Chirag’s father, the late Ram Vilas Paswan, advocated reservation in the private sector, too.

It’s clear that those in favour of privatisation are generally against reservation in jobs, as it would stand in the way of the government’s target of selling more state assets to raise revenues. Reservation becomes meaningless with fewer jobs in the public sector. Still, affirmative action to protect marginalised communities will remain a sensitive issue. No party in government can afford to take a direct position against it. Hence the use of disinvestment, privatisation, contract appointments, and Agniveer are seen as indirect methods of achieving the same goal. Nitish is no exception from those facing these opposing compulsions.

D M Diwakar

Honorary Director and Professor, Development Research Institute, Jalsain, and former Director, A N Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna

(Views are personal)


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