Modi govt's decision on 'economically backward' quota unlikely to withstand judicial scrutiny, may also be politically counterproductive
The timing of the Narendra Modi government's announcement of the proposed quota formula is certainly a matter of suspicion.
The Centre's decision to introduce ten percent reservation is fraught with several implementation challenges
An income-based reservation policy is highly vulnerable to gross misuse, at the cost of those who are actually marginalised
Courts are unlikely to uphold the new quota formula which the government is planning to propose
An attempt to consolidate the upper-caste vote bank can be counterproductive if it sends wrong signals to those who presently avail of quotas
The Centre's decision to introduce ten percent reservation for economically backward sections of society is fraught with several implementation challenges, which may lead to its misuse and abuse. Moreover, the overall quota would go beyond the constitutionally laid limit of fifty percent, making it vulnerable to judicial review. Yet, the Narendra Modi-led government has contemplated it, essentially to cater to its upper-caste, middle-class electoral constituency at a time when polls are round the corner.
In its present form, the reservation policy fails to address forms of inequality that transcend caste. Income-based quotas seek to derive legitimacy from this fact.
Modi had led the BJP to a spectacular win in 2014, capitalising on the middle-class’ disenchantment with the corruption and economic paralysis brought about by the UPA-2 dispensation. Modi's promises of curbing black money, controlling price rise, etc. had cheered this constituency. However, the promises on black money soon turned into a jumla as 99 percent of demonetised notes came back to the formal banking system, the rupee weakened, joblessness grew and fuel prices rose. This led to a sharp decline in Modi’s popularity in the BJP’s traditional support base. The electoral reverses in three Hindi heartland states, which breathed new life into the Congress, as also the series of by-election defeats, have forced the Modi regime to invent a magic pill that could refurbish its image among these sections. Thus, the new quota formula suddenly emerged on the policy horizon.
Still, one cannot find fault with such electoral maneuvering, as Modi is a politician, and would certainly be desperate to win the election.
However, implementing the policy will be a challenge. Media reports indicate that the income limit for availing the quota would be around Rs eight lakh per year. A family with a monthly income of Rs 65,000 to Rs 70,000 cannot be construed as poor and economically weak by Indian standards. Thus, the new quota formula, rather than being pro-poor, can be seen as pro-middle-class.
Considering that over 90 percent of the Indian economy is informal and unorganised, an income-based reservation policy is highly vulnerable to gross misuse, at the cost of those who are actually marginalised.
Barring salaried people in the government and corporate sector, the rich and upper middle-class sections of society can easily appropriate these quotas, given the corrupt nature of the Indian public administration that has to certify incomes.
Besides, several sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and business ventures, do not yield stable incomes. The incomes of these families tend to be volatile. A person may be classified as “poor” in one year and may avail the benefit of the quota, and may be classified as “not poor” in the following years. While incomes may change from year to year, the educational and employment benefits that a person receives due to such a classification are of a permanent nature.
Meanwhile, the jurisprudence on this subject is clear. Judgments of the Supreme Court over several decades hold that the total extent of quotas cannot exceed 50 percent. This is to ensure that there is a balance between the constitutional provisions of right to equality, affirmative action and efficiency in public administration. Thus, courts are unlikely to uphold the new quota formula.
In the famous Indra Sawhney case, the Supreme Court in a majority judgement put in place the limit of 50 percent.
The timing of the announcement of the proposed quota is certainly a matter of suspicion. The Modi government is four years into its tenure, and the effect of the upcoming Lok Sabha election is palpable. However, such an attempt to consolidate the upper-caste, middle-class vote bank can be politically counterproductive if it sends wrong signals to those who presently avail of reservations.
However, the BJP has certainly benefitted from the announcement, at least for now. The Opposition appears to be confused in its reaction. The Congress had earlier promised such a quota but failed to implement it. Thus, it has lost the ability to oppose the move, and can only question its timing.
The government has also, in a clever manner, diverted attention from the Rafale deal, on which the ruling party is clearly seen on the back foot, and other pressing social and economic issues, on which it was caught on the wrong foot.
However, the challenge for the government will be in dealing with the ongoing quota demands from communities like the Marathas, Jats, Kapus etc.
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