For the past few months the Gujarat government was stuck between the Constitution and Hardik Patel. It has finally found a solution by getting on the right side of Patel and on the wrong side of the Constitution.
On Friday, the Gujarat government announced a ten percent quota for economically backward classes in the state. The new category of proposed beneficiaries is aimed at pacifying the Patidars, whose leader Patel had launched a violent agitation for reservation in 2015.
According to the state government, the new category would include members of all general categories (the ones not included in SC/ST and OBC) with family income less than Rs 6 lakh. Chief minister Anandiben Patel has promised to issue an ordinance on 1 May for the new quota.
Prima facie the BJP formula for appeasing the Patidars is a replica of the solution it had proffered for Gurjars of Rajasthan. In 2008, the Vasundhara Raje government had extended 5 percent reservation to a special category of backwards that included Gurjars and another 14 percent quota to economically backward classes.
Pushed into a corner by Patel and his supporters, chief minister Anandiben Patel had no other option but to find a please-all solution before the assembly elections in 2017. Patidars are almost 15 percent of Gujarat's population and their support could be decisive in the polls, especially because they are among the BJP's core vote bank.
The BJP's problem was that it could not have placated the Patidars without annoying other communities in the state. While the OBCs were opposing any change in the existing quota pattern, various other caste currently out of the reserved category had started their own movements for being included in the list of beneficiaries.
Over the past few months, a movement seen as a counter to the Patidar stir had started gathering momentum under Alpesh Thakor, an OBC leader. In January, Thakor had organised a huge convention in Ahmedabad, ostensibly against bootlegging and liquor addiction in the dry state. But he also founded a forum comprising OBC, SC and ST groups seeking to protect the existing reservation system.
Many believe that Thakor, 39, has been propped up by the Gujarat CM as a counter to Hardik Patel who is currently in jail on sedition charges slapped on him by the state after the violent agitation by Patidars last year. Others believe Thakor is backed by the Congress, which is eyeing a comeback in the state by stoking the quota fire. Thakor's father Khodabhai is a Congress leader.
By floating the idea of ten percent reservation for the economically backward, the BJP is trying to appease both the Patidars and the OBCs.
Will the solution work?
Gujarat currently has 49 percent reservation, the same as in Rajasthan before the Gurjar stir. So, the recent decision, if implemented, is bound to be challenged in the court since it would breach the 50 percent ceiling imposed by the Supreme Court in its 1992 Indra Sawhney vs Union of India judgment.
To avoid being challenged legally, the Gujarat government would try to get the new law — once it is passed by the state — in the Ninth Schedule by the Centre. The Constitution provides protection from judicial scrutiny to any legislation placed in this schedule.
But, similar attempts by various governments to breach the 50 percent ceiling have failed in the past. The Gujarat government's decision is likely to meet the same fate.
The 14 percent reservation for EBCs and 5 percent for Special Backward Classes, including Gurjars, passed by the Rajasthan government in 2008 was stayed by the high court. Earlier attempts by Karnataka and Orissa assemblies to provide quota in excess of 50 percent were also foiled by various courts and tribunals.
The SC is also reviewing the decision of the Tamil Nadu government to provide 69 percent reservation in the state.
The BJP, however, may not be too concerned about the fate of its recent decision. Just like in Haryana — where Jats were recently promised reservation after a violent stir — and Rajasthan, it has bought some time from quota activists by taking a political decision.
By the time the courts review the decision and announce their verdict, the 2017 elections would have been held in the state. And the outcome of the election, not its new promise, is the only thing that matters for the BJP.