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What the OBC bill is, and why opposition parties are rallying behind Modi govt to pass it

The OBC bill seeks to restore the power of states and UTs to identify and notify their own lists of OBCs. The bill is set to come up for passage in Lok Sabha Tuesday.

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New Delhi: The monsoon session of Parliament, all but washed out due to continuous disruption by opposition parties, is seeing a rare unity in the ranks over the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill, which seeks to restore the power of states and union territories to identify and notify their own lists of Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

The bill was introduced in Lok Sabha Monday, and will come up for passage Tuesday.

Around 14 opposition parties, including the Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC), Samajwadi Party, Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), have decided to temporarily stop their protest over a host of issues such as the Pagasus snooping controversy and cooperate with the government in getting the bill passed.

On Monday, the opposition parties held a joint press conference where Congress Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge announced the decision to support the bill.

The parties maintained that they have been demanding the restoration of states’ rights to make their own list of Socially and Economically Backward Classes (SEBCs) since the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act was introduced in 2018 and led to confusion about states power.

Participating in the debate on the bill Tuesday, Leader of Congress in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said his party had flagged the discrepancy in the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act back in 2018 when the legislation was passed but the Modi government did not bother.

“Had the government heard us back then, the present situation would not have arisen,” Chowdhury said.

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What is the bill all about?

In the statement of objects and reasons for passing the bill, the government has mentioned that the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act has inserted three new Articles — 342A, 366(26C) and 338B — in the Constitution.

While Article 338B has constituted the National Commission for Backward Classes, Article 342A has dealt with the central list of the socially and educationally backward classes (OBCs) and Article 366 (26C) has defined the socially and educationally backward classes.

“The legislative intent at the time of passing of the Constitution (One Hundred and Second Amendment) Act, 2018 was that it deals with the central list of the socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs). It recognises the fact that even prior to the declaration of the Central List of SEBCs in 1993, many States/Union territories are having their own State List/Union territory List of OBCs,” the statement in the bill notes.

However, the 2018 Act had raised questions on whether the amendments “mandated for a single central list of SEBCs specifying the SEBCs for each state, thereby taking away the powers of the state to prepare and maintain a separate state List of SEBCs”.

The Supreme Court on 5 May also had a similar view. It had ruled that after the amendment, states do not have the power to identify SEBCs. The Centre had filed a review petition challenging the apex court ruling, which was dismissed by the latter.

That’s why the Centre came out with the new bill to amend Article 342A.

“In order to adequately clarify that the state government and union territories are empowered to prepare and maintain their own state list/ union territory list of SEBCs and with a view to maintain the federal structure of this country, there is a need to amend article 342A and make consequential amendments in articles 338B and 366 of the Constitution,” said the statement of objects and reasons of the bill.

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Why are opposition parties supporting the bill?

At Monday’s press conference, Kharge said opposition parties have decided to support the bill as it favours the poor and backward classes, which comprises more than half the population of the country. Other opposition parties also hold similar views.

Speaking to ThePrint, Shiv Sena MP Sanjay Raut said his party will support the bill as it is an issue of social justice.

“In many states the issue of reservation has been raised and in Maharashtra it has been a sensitive issue (Maratha reservation). They have got the bill of constitutional amendment, which should be passed with two-third majority and the House should be in order… If a bill has come, which will benefit the people then we will definitely try to cooperate,” Raut said.

The TMC, which was in two minds earlier, has also come around to supporting the bill.

What analysts say

According to political analysts, the opposition’s decision to cooperate with the government in getting the bill passed could have been necessitated because of political compulsion, considering elections to half-a-dozen states, including Uttar Pradesh, are due next year.

“No party would like to be seen as anti-OBC. The opposition parties are aware of the sensitivity of the issue, ahead of the assembly elections in many states next year,” political analyst Suhas Palshikar told ThePrint.

Palshikar said it’s a tactical move by the opposition parties to support the bill seeking states power to be restored to notify the OBC list.

“The oppositions stand is that in a federal system, states should have the power to identify and maintain their own list of SEBCs. It gives them (the opposition) the opportunity to bring state parties together,” he said.

According to political commentator Sudha Pai, OBCs have become a powerful group now and the Modi government has been able to win their support in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and up to some extent in Bihar.

“The opposition parties are aware of the political sensitivities. OBCs are a dominant group now and have realised their importance. No party worth its salt would want to be on their wrong side,” Pai added.

‘Supporting because it is just’

However, RJD Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Jha told ThePrint that the opposition’s support for the bill should not be seen from a political prism.

“RJD is supporting the bill because we believe it is just. Issues like this go beyond elections. We do not have an election in the state anytime soon. This was a long-pending demand of many states,” the MP said.

Jha said the discussion on the bill will allow parties like the RJD to press for the need for conducting the caste census also. “Unless you know the real OBC numbers, the government’s policy framework targeting this group will miss last mile delivery of welfare schemes,” he said.

The RJD MP said he will also push for removal of the 50 per cent ceiling on the OBC quota. Participating in the debate Tuesday, other opposition parties including DMK also pushed for removal of the 50 per cent cap on the quota.

(Edited by Amit Upadhyaya)

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