10 pc quota Bill a poll stunt?

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“Happiness is an attitude of mind, born of the simple determination to be happy under all outward circumstances.”

– Donald Walters

As expected Narendra Modi-led NDA government’s decision to amend the Constitution to provide 10 per cent reservation in college admissions and government jobs for so called economically weaker sections of people who are not covered by any of the existing schemes of reservation, has generated a lot of heat and dust. All those who are not covered in existing quotas and have a family income below Rs 8 lakh a year or agricultural land below 5 acres will be eligible.  Those who have a house above 1,000 square feet or a 100-yard plot or above in a notified municipal area or a 200-yard plot or above in a non-notified municipal area are not eligible. The 124th Constitution Amendment Bill, 2019, which the Lok Sabha debated on Tuesday, will have to be passed by both Houses of Parliament by a special majority of two-thirds of the members present and voting, which should not be less than one-half of the total strength of the House. If it is not passed by both the Houses within the term of this Lok Sabha, it will lapse. The Bill will also have to be ratified by at least half the state assemblies.

This move for reservations on economic grounds is more about politics than social justice. Experiencing erosion in upper caste votes in the recent Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the Modi government has come up with this political manoeuvre win back upper caste votes and those from dominant agrarian communities who have been demanding reservations, for instance, Patidars, Jats and Marathas. It also needs to be acknowledged that the move is of immense significance in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, which are due barely three months from now. Therefore, the aim of this move appears to be two-fold: to mobilise the BJP’s core base of Upper Caste Hindu voters and to win the support of peasant castes who presently are not in the reserved category. Upper castes may react positively to the move, but they are believed to be largely with the BJP anyway. The move may have some appeal to upper castes in States where the BJP is weak, but one does not know the extent of the political benefit. The moot question is the impact on the existing reserved categories in States where the BJP is strong and takes a chunk of OBCs. The Opposition has seen red with the timing of the proposed bill and has called it an election gimmick. The Opposition’s charge is not unjustified. If the government was keen to address the economically weaker section through reservation, it could have brought the legislation earlier.

The proposal may run into rough weather if challenged in the Supreme Court as the apex court had in the Indra Sawhney case capped quotas at 50% of the available seats. If the amendment is challenged, a question that will arise is whether financial incapacity warrants special treatment. The government’s legal challenge could be steeper to surmount given the 1993 Supreme Court verdict that restrict quota benefits to 50 per cent of the population. Only time will tell whether this ‘appeasement politics’ would have any bearing on the outcome of LS polls.

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