POST TIME: 13 January, 2019 00:00 00 AM
The first sixer
Things have played out according to the script and it was the BJP that stood to gain more than any other party
Kumkum Chadha

The first sixer

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Indian law minister

Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad let the cat out of the bag when, while referring to the quota bill, he said that “this is the first sixer. There will be more sixers” while adding: “Who will lose (general election), the public will decide. We will have huge majority under the leadership of Modi."  Even while Prasad took the analogy of cricket while speaking on the quota bill, by referring to the general elections he gave credence to the Opposition’s charge that the BJP government had brought in the Bill keeping an eye on the elections.

 With Prasad hinting that there will be “more sixers” he left little room for doubt that the BJP’s quota move is election driven and one that it will milk; also, to use the cricket analogy further, this is the first googly by the Modi led government and there are more in the offing.

 The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth Amendment) Bill, brought by the government and passed by both Houses of Parliament before it adjourned sine die earlier this week, is a  quota bill for 10 percent reservation within the general category for the economically backward upper castes.

Simply put, the proposed quota is aimed at reserving 10 percent of government jobs through direct recruitment and seats in higher education institutions for economically backward upper sections of upper castes. The documentation however is likely to refer to this section as those who are 'not covered by existing schemes of reservations' or as members of the 'general category' or 'open category' or 'non-reserved', rather than as 'upper castes'.

The 'economically backward' tag would mean annual income below Rs 8 lakh, own less than five hectares of agricultural land, own homes smaller than 1,000 sqft, own residential plots below 100 square yards in notified municipalities or 200 square yards in non-notified municipality areas.  

The Bill has fixed an annual income of less than Rs 8 lakh and not owning more than five acres of agricultural land as criteria for defining economically weaker section in the general category for availing of the reservation in educational institutions as well as government jobs.

The 10 per cent reservation will be over and above the reservation for SC/STs and OBCs.

It does not provide for quota for those owning a flat of 1000 square feet or more, land of 100 sq yards in notified municipality area and 200 yards in non-notified area.

However, the states will be free to fix criteria for defining the economically weaker sections in the general category who can avail of reservation.

A state, for instance, can fix annual income of Rs 5 lakh as the criteria for availing of the reservation in jobs and educational institutions.

The existing reservation for SC and ST categories will continue.

 At the outset, there were doubts whether the Bill will pass the judicial scrutiny given that the Supreme Court has affixed the reservation limit at 50 percent. The bill raises this limit to 60 percent.

Speaking during the debate in Lok Sabha about the Modi government's 10per cent reservation bill, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley sought to clarify that the Supreme Court's 50per cent cap on reservations only applied to castes. He said that a lot of Opposition leaders had tweeted that the 10per cent reservation for economically backward classes wouldn't affect the 50per cent cap. He said: 'Many leaders have pointed out that if 10per cent reservation is introduced, it will impact the cap of 50per cent by SC. I can however say clearly that the cap is in relation to caste-based reservations, whether in educational institutes or public employment.

Contrary to what Jaitley said, the Bill was

was challenged in the Supreme Court, a day after  both Houses of Parliament put a stamp of approval to the controversial legislation.

The petition challenging the quota bill was filed by an NGO on grounds that the amendment violates several basic features of the Constitution.

The amendment, which introduced Articles 15(6) and 16(6) into the Constitution, violates the equality code of the Constitution and was in “breach of the basic structure of the Constitution”, he added.

The petition also raised questions on the use of the expression “economically weaker sections” as this remains undefined under the amendment. This is left to be notified by the states, which is “arbitrary and unworkable”, said the petitioners.

The petition relied on the 1992 Supreme Court judgement in the Indira Sawhney vs Union of India case, where a Constitution bench had specifically stated that economic criteria cannot be the sole basis for reservations under the Constitution.

“The impugned amendment fails to consider that Articles 14 (equality before law) and 16 (equality of opportunity in public employment) form the basic feature of equality, and that they have been violated with the doing away of the restraints that were imposed on the reservation policy, i.e. the 50per cent ceiling limit and the exclusion of economic status as a sole criterion,” the plea added.

 In Parliament the Bill did not face the expected hurdles and despite misgivings by the Opposition parties the quota bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha by 165 votes, more than two-thirds the majority of the House where the BJP does not, unlike the Lok Sabha, have sufficient numbers.

 That apart, the political significance and its timing is crucial: ahead of the ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections due by May; the  trigger being the BJP’s downslide substantiated by its poor showing in the recently concluded assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan which it lost in a direct contest with Congress. That the upper castes deserted it was clear and therefore it was imperative that the party does something and that too fast enough to arrest the decline.

Also one cannot ignore the way the Bill was pushed: two days before the Parliament session was to end. This gave little time to the Opposition to get its act together and except for crying foul on the floor of the House it was left with little option but to join hands with the Government to give its approval. In any case it would be politically suicidal for any party to go against the quota for fear of alienating a crucial chunk of the electorate. Knowing this the Modi government pushed the legislation because it was aware that no party could afford to oppose it. Even if the Opposition had attempted to scuttle the Bill or the Supreme Court gives a verdict against it, it would be a win-win situation for the BJP because it has shown its intent and taken the concrete step to benefit the upper castes through this Bill. Now whether it happens or not or becomes a reality is something that the BJP does not need to spend sleepless nights over because by initiating the move it has got the first mover’s advantage in the electoral game.

 Things played out according to the script and it was the BJP that stood to gain more than any other party. It was easily a masterstroke by the Modi government because not only did it consolidate the upper caste vote that is miffed with Modi it also brought back into its fold its key constituency of traders and banias which have been crying foul thanks to GST and demonetization. The quota bill with one single stroke has contained the damage of the last five years of Modi’s rule and offered   a sop to the upper castes. And if Prasad is to be believed and there is no reason why he should not be, there is more coming, this to quote him being the “first sixer”.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of  The Independent. She can be reached at: [email protected]