In the dying moments of the Winter Session of Parliament, the Narendra Modi government has moved to reserve 10 per cent seats in higher education and government employment for the poorer sections of all Indians who are in the “unreserved” category. This is clearly an undisguised election move to woo the “savarna” communities, or high-caste Hindus, as well as the dominant peasant communities in various regions, like the Patels of Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra, and the Kapus of Andhra Pradesh, who have missed the reservation bus, besides poorer sections of Muslims and Christians.
Principally, of course, the idea seems to appease upper caste Hindu voters — the BJP’s mainstay — who punished the party in the recent Assembly elections. The move is unlikely to be opposed by any section of society, especially the SC/ST and OBC groups, whose own reservation status is not threatened, or by any political party. This means the BJP has nothing to lose, except attract the charge of cynical opportunism.
In 1991, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government had brought an identical 10 per cent reservation move for the poor among upper castes in the wake of the backlash among the “savarna” groups against the Mandal Commission reservation for OBCs brought in by the V.P. Singh government. But this was struck down by the Supreme Court.
This was for two reasons. The conceptual aspect is that reservations were meant for people who, for cultural reasons, had been “socially and educationally” deprived over the centuries. Poverty among the upper castes, on the other hand, is not a consequence of any discrimination, and the means to address it should be different — such as scholarships or special training. Two, the Supreme Court had ruled that reservations must not exceed 50 per cent of the total pool, and adding a further 10 per cent will do just that.
The practical difficulties in passing the latest quota move, besides the looming legal challenge, is that it will have to clear a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament, and be endorsed by half the states, since it can only be brought as a constitutional amendment. There may not be enough time for that before the general election.
But the BJP is trying to manage perceptions and score symbolically on election eve. The criterion is that only families with incomes of above `8 lakh per year will be excluded. Thus, 96 per cent of India will now be eligible for reservations. But the big question remains: “Where are the jobs,” as Union minister Nitin Gadkari tellingly asked recently. The government realises the country is underwhelmed with its performance, and appears to be taking desperate measures to show electoral results....