The Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill that seeks to provide 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education for the general category poor, brought in a sudden, surprise move – without any consultation or, seemingly, any forethought – by Narendra Modi government at the end of Parliament’s winter session, may face little opposition from other parties, for reasons of political expediency.
That, however, does not mean it is not problematic. The move may be projected as ‘smart’, but that does not mean it is ‘wise’.
The Bill introduced in Lok Sabha yesterday (Tuesday, Jan 8) was passed the same day with 323 members voting in favour and only three against.
The Bill was tabled in Rajya Sabha today and – despite the Congress-led Opposition being in a position to reject it and pressing for referring the legislation to a Select Committee – is likely to be passed ultimately. After all, no political party would like to be seen as being against a step purportedly for social justice.
The opposition, including the Congress, have dubbed the proposed law as a political gimmick that may not stand judicial scrutiny but came around to support it during voting, underlining the huge political import of the measure aimed at placating upper castes.
The bill seeks to amend Article 15 and 16 of the Constitution to enable reservation for the “economically weaker” sections in the general category, which had so far been kept out of the quota ambit. The government says the amendment to the Constitution will ensure that the courts do not strike it down.
Replying to an over four and half hour debate, Social Justice Minister Thaavarchand Gehlot sought to allay doubts raised by several opposition members about the legislation’s fate if challenged in the Supreme Court, saying he can say with confidence that the apex court will accept it.
“Your doubts are unfounded. Put them to rest,” he told opposition members, many of whom dubbed the bill as “jumla” and “gimmick”, questioned its legal standing and accused the government of bringing it in haste with an eye on the Lok Sabha polls.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who is fielded by Modi government to tackle tricky and legal questions, came up with the curious argument that the bar of 50 per cent put by the apex court on total reservation is for caste-based quota, while the bill seeks it provide it for the economically weaker sections in the general category.
After the Bill was passed by Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi described it as a “landmark moment in nation’s history which sets into motion the process to achieve an effective measure that ensures justice for all sections of society”.
To put it in perspective, the proposal to give 10 per cent reservation to the economically backward classes, like several other schemes of the Modi government, is neither novel nor innovative. The Congress government under PV Narasimha Rao did provide for similar reservation, but a nine-judge bench in Indra Sawhney (1992) struck it down. There have been similar efforts in states as well — Kerala under the left government (2008) in admissions to a few courses, the Congress government in Rajasthan (2008) and the BJP regime in Gujarat (2016). Even Mayawati has been in favour of such a reservation and welcomed the government’s move.
For Modi government, the legislation seeks to signal to the forward castes that their interests are being looked at amid demands by various restive groups like Jats, Marathas, Gujjars and Patels for quota benefits.
The Modi government faced upper caste backlash when, following protests by Dalits, it brought legislation in last monsoon session to nullify Supreme Court order to check apprehensions of misuse of SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.
The upper caste communities, in turn, voiced their protest over Government’s alacrity in addressing the concerns of Dalit communities of the issue. Senior BJP leaders felt that the BJP faced hostile Upper Castes in the recently concluded assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh.