If everyone gets reservation, then no one gets reservation

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In 1989, when V P Singh changed the course of Indian politics with his sudden decision to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, a leading magazine headlined its coverage by calling it the “war of the crumbs”. The anti-reservation riots that followed were solidly rooted in a job market that was shrinking in relation to the growing ranks of the educated unemployed. Three decades later, whether you see the Modi government’s move for 10% additional quota for the economically weak as a political masterstroke or yet another pre-election jumla, the irony is that the “crumbs” have become even smaller.

Between 1990-91 and 2011-12, India’s public sector jobs actually decreased by 7% (from 19.06 million to 17.61 million) though our population increased by 30% to 1.2 billion. The absolute size of the elite IAS, for example, dropped by 10% in this period, as Devesh Kapoor, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Milan Vaishnav have shown. Even within the shrinking sarkari pie, the last socio-economic census counted only 4% SC and ST households with a member in a government job and less than 12% of central government jobs were held by Other Backward Classes (OBCs) by 2015.

When jobs are becoming scarcer, the sheer symbolic value of a quota and the psychological assurance of some sort of a birth claim increases. Yet another reservation quota will do little to solve India’s structural problem of rising unemployment, but it is political dynamite because at least it seems to offer upper caste youth a token gesture.

This explains why we have seen the amusing spectacle of almost all opposition parties vehemently criticising the government in Parliament and then voting in favour of the constitutional amendment anyway. The Rajya Sabha voting tally of 165 votes in favour versus 7 against is a case in point. Everybody knows the bill raises more questions than answers but few want to be seen voting against any votebank with elections coming up.

The idea of wooing forward caste votes through a new income-based quota is not new. The Narasimha Rao government introduced precisely this in 1991 but it was struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.

So, what does this new quota mean in real terms? First, the income eligibility criteria — Rs 8 lakh or less in a year for a household — is absurd. An analysis by TOI shows that this income limit makes as many 95% Indians eligible for the new quota! If almost everyone is eligible for reservation, then the idea of reservation itself becomes pointless.

In a country where income is taxed from Rs 2.5 lakh a year and Rs 8 lakh per annum puts you in the second income tax slab of 20%, to count such households as economically backward is an eyewash. It means that those who are truly deprived will again be disadvantaged even within this quota, competing with those far above them on the income ladder.

Social justice and empowerment minister Thaawarchand Gehlot’s subsequent clarification that the criterion is not final and can be “a little bit less or more” shows that little forethought seems to have gone into the making of such a sweeping legislation. It is cynical politics which BJP hopes will deliver a sixer in the pre-election slog overs — as Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad put it — but poor policy.

Second, how does the addition of this new 10% income-based quota affect the middle class and those who already had caste-based quotas? Anybody — SC, ST, OBC and general candidate — who doesn’t make it to the economically backward criteria will now have 10% less jobs to target. For example, OBCs who could earlier target 77.5% seats (27% reserved and 50.5% general) will now see their competitive pool coming down to 67.5% (27% reserved and 40.5% general). Students from upper middle class families now have access to only 40.5% unreserved seats, compared to 50.5% earlier.

Third, the deeper question is that when you breach the SC limit of capping reservations at 50%, where will it end? Already OBC-based parties are demanding that OBC share of reservation should be hiked to 54%, as SP’s Ramgopal Yadav has argued in Parliament, and RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav has argued outside. This opens the route to a new mobilisation of OBC votes on representation, commensurate to population share.

The Supreme Court will ultimately decide on whether shifting the logic of reservations from social injustice to economic deprivation and breaching the 50% limit violates the “basic structure” of the Constitution. Without limits, everyone wants a share of the pie but when everyone gets a quota, quotas themselves become meaningless.

V P Singh couldn’t control the tiger Mandal unleashed. Can Narendra Modi?

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