Nitin Gadkari’s reservation gaffe: NDA government must convert it into an opportunity by eliminating creamy layer

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, RSS sarvasanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat set the cat among the pigeons by championing the cause of reservation in educational institutions as well as in government jobs purely on the basis of economic criteria. While being rational, the BJP led by its prime ministerial candidate Narender Modi had to do a lot of damage control and assure the dalits and scheduled castes that caste-based reservation was here to say.

Now, in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it is Union Minister Nitin Gadkari’s turn to embarrass the BJP with the same leitmotif that in fact is rooted in sound logic -- why should a a chitpawan Brahmin boy or girl born in a poor family be left out of the reservation sweepstakes?

 Nitin Gadkari’s reservation gaffe: NDA government must convert it into an opportunity by eliminating creamy layer

A file image of union minister Nitin Gadkari. PTI

But this time around, the BJP should neither disown Gadkari nor abandon the caste-based reservation that can be done only by the politically naïve with devastating consequences. Instead, it should weave economic criteria into the existing caste-based reservation system. That could well be the harbinger for full-fledged economic-criteria based reservation in due course.

The rich and the well-heeled among the scheduled castes and dalits cut into the entitlements of the daridranarayanas thereby going against the very grain and rationale of the reservation regime. In 1992, a nine-judge Bench of the court in the Indra Sawhney case, or the Mandal case as it was popularly known, upheld the caste-based reservation for the OBCs as valid. The court however said the creamy layer of the OBCs (those earning a specified income) should not get the benefits of reservation.

The ruling, however, confined the exclusion of the creamy layer to the OBCs and not the SCs/STs. In January 2018 the Apex Court started hearing a petition filed by the Samta Andolan Samiti, which represents the SCs/STs in Rajasthan, seeking elimination of the creamy layer from the SCs/STs quota as well.

It is pertinent to point out in this connection that successive governments have been dragging their feet on eliminating the creamy layer from the OBC quota. It is time the Modi government went ahead and implemented the Supreme Court directive in earnest. And it should eliminate the creamy layer from both the SC/ST as well as the OBC reservations sweepstakes. The Supreme Court is bound to stand by it because what is cheese for the goose cannot be anything else for the gander -- what it said with reference to OBCs applies with equal force to SCs/STs as well.

The move will pay rich political dividends besides making eminent economic sense. It would be the first step towards economic status based reservation, without rocking the reservations boat too much. Any abrupt switch to economic criteria based reservations would antagonise the dalit vote. BJP knows this only too well. But if it continues with caste-based reservations while at the same time edging out the creamy layer from its bandwagon, there won’t be any resentment among the teeming millions of poor dalits. In fact the message would go that this is a more meaningful reservation policy that brings the fruits of caste-based reservations to the poor among them rather than to the rich among them.

Of course the creamy layer would sulk and fume but they cannot do anything more. Courts will reject their plea setting store by the SC verdict in the Indira Sawney case. It would be a win-win for the BJP.

It would have neutralised the incipient damage done by Gadkari while at the same time addressing the concerns of the deserving dalits. The so-called forward caste would too (quietly) approve of the tweak in the caste-based reservation regime and start biding its time for full-fledged economic-criteria based reservations to kick in at a more favourable time.

The move is bound to disabuse the pro-rich image for Modi contrived by the opposition parties. Creamy layer is of a piece with the larger economic criteria argument. It is not at odds with it. It has the imprimatur of the apex court, no less.

(The author is a senior columnist and tweets @smurlidharan)

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Updated Date: Aug 07, 2018 15:42:53 IST