10 questions for 10% quota

The reservation for economically-weaker sections has elicited both joy and cynicism – now, it must survive the critical test of timely implementation

The game-changer has announced its arrival. For the very first time, a quota in jobs and educational institutions on the basis of economic deprivation in lieu of socio-cultural-educational deprivation has been legislated. The Parliament has passed the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill under the Modi Government, bringing in 10 per cent quota for economically-deprived non-reserved category citizens of the country. Since it talks of economic criteria, addresses the grievances of Brahmins, Baniyas, Patels, Marathas, Gujjars, Thakurs and perhaps even Muslims and Christians for the first time ever, the move is being considered a masterstroke by Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the general elections of 2019, due in a few months. This amendment is noted to have introduced a broad-based reservation policy, created more equality for the less privileged unreserved citizens and, yet, not been upsetting for the lower-castes and tribals as their 49.5 per cent share of total reservations based on caste placement remains untouched.

Looks too good to be true? Indeed. And, understandably, it has foxed the opposition parties who have all rallied to support the bill grudgingly, except MIM. So far, so good.

Now, we have to come to the real questions and take some effort to scratch below the surface of what appears to be a reality too smooth to be real.

First, with just 90 days to go for the 2019 General Elections in India, a major policy issue like the additional 10 per cent reservation, that too based, for the first time, on economic criteria, is being declared without the adequate time to actually execute it on the ground. So, is the timing not wrong and is it not just a political stunt without the required honesty of execution?

Second, since reservations originally had been envisaged to ameliorate social deprivation and dismantle India's centuries-old caste system, a prime source of social injustice, is legislating new reservation on economic criteria alone not a violation of the spirit ensconced in the Indian Constitution?

Third, even if the Constitution Amendment Bill is passed in both the Houses of the Indian Parliament, is there a guarantee that the assemblies of 50 per cent or more states of India will also duly pass it to make it a valid amendment? And, can that be done before the Code of Conduct for the Lok Sabha polls is rolled in? And, even if the states do pass the amendment, will the reservation stand the litmus test of legality and constitutional validity in the Supreme Court, which had in an earlier case already capped all forms of reservations to a maximum of 50 per cent (and the current SC-ST-OBC reservations already measure up to 49.5 per cent)?

Fourth, the BJP had bitterly fought the politics of reservation of VP Singh, known as Mandal politics (based on the reservation recommendations of BP Mandal Commission), in 1990, and brought in its own version of Kamandal politics through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which finally brought down the VP Singh government. Now, more than a quarter-century later, has Mandal scored over Kamandal, and is the BJP eating its own humble pie and resorting to reservation politics after facing unexpected defeat in the five state assembly polls recently? Has the ruling party come to the conclusion that Hindu polarisation through the never solved Ayodhya issue is becoming increasingly untenable as an election-winning tactic?

Fifth, the current government came into thundering power in 2014 riding on the then Gujarat CM Modi's image as a Vikas Purush showcasing the impressive Gujarat model of development. Now, has the Arakshan Purush taken precedence over the Vikas Purush? Is this a hurried burial of the so-called development politics of the BJP in power?

Sixth, the current policy says that those registering below Rs 8 lakh annual income or owning less than five acres of land can avail the benefits of this quota. That is Rs 66,000 income a month. If so, is this the new poverty line of India? And, if we were to accept this almost indigestible fact, then why are people earning above Rs 20,000 being taxed? Why do people have to go for a hartal in the country asking for minimum wages of Rs 18,000 per month?

Seventh, BJP Minister Nitin Gadkari has gone on records saying that no substantial jobs are being created in the economy. If so, then what problems does such an additional reservation solve? Or, for that matter, there remains no value of the existing 49.5 per cent reservation as well. Reservation without the parallel creation of jobs is like dividing a desert – whatever share you secure remains meaningless as there is still no water to grow crops in a barren desert. The Council for Monitoring Indian Economy noted a week ago that India has lost 11 million jobs alone in 2018. Then, what do reservations actually bring in except some glittery, empty promises? And without 'affirmative action through reservations' in private sector jobs, will this policy mean anything worthwhile on the ground?

Eighth, BJP has always been called a Brahmin-Baniya party and, with this reservation for upper-castes, there is a strong possibility of this perception gaining further strength. And, if this reservation above 50 per cent in total is struck down by the Supreme Court, will it be brought within the allowed 50 per cent, thus, making lower-castes lose their share? This position sounds doubtfully tenable.

Ninth, if economic relief has to be meted out to the poorer sections, is reservation the right route or should there be more investment in schemes like loan waivers, income generating projects like MNREGA, free cereals, benefits through cheaper education, scholarships, etc.? Will reservations without job creation bring any real-life game change on ground or will it be another joomla (mere announcement with no action)?

Tenth, and finally, while reservations were originally planned by the architects of the Indian Constitution for just one decade, they have been extended for decade after decade and, yet, social justice has visibly not been achieved in the subcontinent. What is the guarantee that this additional 10 per cent quota based on economic deprivation will also not meet the same dead fate and simply be extended without any substantial impact on the ground? Policymakers must invest in thinking whether reservation can truly be a long-term solution to poverty alleviation and ensuring social justice. However, this is a long-term question and all political parties except the Left are guilty of using reservations to cultivate vote-banks among the very diverse Indian electorate.

The debate is wide open. The advocates of 10 per cent quota are in an ecstasy of a perceived victory. And, the critics in the opposition are crying hoarse, calling it an election gimmick that has little chance to stand the test of time and law.

(The author is a media academic and columnist, and currently the Media Dean of Pearl Academy in Delhi and Mumbai. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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