Modi government’s gambit puts opposition parties in a bind, but upper caste quota bill clears Rajya Sabha test with a 165-7 margin.
New Delhi: The Rajya Sabha Wednesday passed the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, clearing the deck for the enactment of a law that provides for 10 per cent reservation in jobs and educational institutions for economically weaker sections (EWS) in the general category.
But the two-day debate in Parliament drew the contours of the political battle over this issue in the coming weeks ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. The voting margins on the bill in the two Houses — 323-3 in the Lok Sabha and 165-7 in the Rajya Sabha — were hardly a reflection of political unanimity.
How the NDA government’s reservation gambit caught the opposition party in a bind was evident from the remarks of Congress MP Kapil Sibal in the Rajya Sabha Wednesday: “I am sad today… If we oppose it, it will harm us; if we support it, it will help us. Is this why we are amending the Constitution? Is this why the Constituent Assembly gave us powers?”
What he was referring to was the fact that the opposition parties could ill afford to be seen opposing reservation for the poor in the general category for fear of antagonising them ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. But they were vociferous in expressing reservations against the bill — its timing and the very rationale.
The treasury benches enjoyed the opposition’s dilemma. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad pointed out that the latter supported the bill but always qualified it with “lekin (but)”, referring to how they found fault with it on several points. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had asked them in the Lok Sabha Tuesday to support it “whole-heartedly” and not grudgingly.
The opposition parties might have been stumped by the Narendra Modi-led government’s reservation gambit but their pronouncements over the last two days indicated the broad outline of their counter-strategy in the run-up to the elections.
The 15-hour debate in the two Houses was marked by the ruling coalition’s attempt to question the opposition’s commitment to the poor and the latter’s endeavour to project the move as a “political gimmick” and “election stunt” as there are hardly any jobs to offer by way of reservation.
Sibal said that only 1.7 lakh jobs were added by the Modi government, which translated to 45,000 per year. So, he said, the NDA government’s move meant just 4,500 jobs per year for the economically weaker sections.
“This country is not creating any jobs. So this reservation is impacting whom… What this country is crying for is jobs, which will only come with economic growth. Your investment rate is going down, savings rate is going down. FDI is moving out of the country,” said Sibal, an eminent lawyer.
“You are putting ED, income tax, CBI after the private sector. So nobody is ready to invest anymore. In the public sector, jobs are getting reduced. So who are you fooling?” he added.
The Congress leader also sought to project the upper caste reservation bill as discriminatory against poor OBCs and Dalits. If a Dalit, who is not benefited by SC reservation, earns Rs 15,000, he will not get reservation under the EWS category but those who earn Rs 66,000 a month (calculated on the basis of the income criteria of Rs 8 lakh per annum for upper caste reservation) will get reservation, said Sibal, triggering protests by several ministers.
“Jobs are limited. Not everybody among OBCs and Dalits gets a job but still belongs to the economically weaker section. But he is excluded (from the EWS reservation). How are you excluding them?” he asked.
Congress MP Kumari Selja termed the bill as “a nefarious agenda of the RSS to finish off reservation”.
Demand for increased quota
Samajwadi Party’s Ram Gopal Yadav said now that the government has breached 50 per cent reservation cap, OBCs should be given 54 per cent reservation and Scheduled Castes 25 per cent as per their population. Endorsing the SP leader, Bahujan Samaj Party’s Satish Chandra Mishra said the government should rather think about filling vacancies meant for SCs/STs and OBCs.
The stands of these leaders clearly indicated that the opposition parties would seek to project the 10 per cent reservation for EWS in the general category as an attempt to undermine the existing reserved categories and also use it to mobilise them by demanding increased quota for them as per their population. It was with this objective that the SP and the RJD demanded in the Lok Sabha that the socio-economic and caste census data should be made public.
Speakers from the ruling side, however, rejected the contention of the opposition parties, asserting that the reservation for the EWS would have no bearing on the existing SC/ST/OBC reservation.
They said the bill brought by “mahapurush” Narendra Modi would usher in the “real era of sabka saath, sabka vikas”. The treasury benches fielded Dalit ministers — Ram Vilas Paswan and Ramdas Athawale — to underscore this point. They sought to project opposition to the bill as anti-poor, emphasising that the economically poor sections among all non-reserved castes and groups would benefit from it.
They also pointed out that opposition parties such as the Congress had all committed themselves to reservation for the EWS in their manifestos in the past but it was the Modi government that implemented it.
Questions over legality
The two-day debate also witnessed differences of views on the legality of the proposed legislation. The opposition parties contended that it wouldn’t stand legal scrutiny as it breached the 50 per cent cap on reservation as set by the Supreme Court in the 1992 Indra Sawhney case. The apex court had also rejected the economic backwardness as a criterion for reservation, they said.
Jaitley and Paswan, however, argued that 50 per cent cap was only for caste-based reservation and not for economically weaker sections.
Besides, the Supreme Court struck down 10 per cent reservation on the basis of economic backwardness as unconstitutional because Article 15 and 16 provided for reservation only on the basis on socio and economic backwardness. That SC ruling won’t be applicable after the Constitution is amended to provide reservation for economically weaker sections, said the ministers.