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Three Hurdles in the Way as BJP Hopes to Ride 10% Quota Wave to Lok Sabha Victory

An EWS quota for upper castes-and-others is innocuous in itself, but might threaten the hard-won, precarious balance achieved in the decades after the Mandal disruption.

Bhavdeep Kang |

Updated:January 14, 2019, 5:52 PM IST
Three Hurdles in the Way as BJP Hopes to Ride 10% Quota Wave to Lok Sabha Victory
(From left) Nitin Gadkari, Murli Manohar Joshi, Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah, Narendra Modi, LK Advani and Rajnath Singh at the party's national convention in New Delhi on Friday. Image for representation. (AP)

It was a quintessentially Narendra Modi move: a disruptor, delivered out of the blue for maximum shock value. Caught flat-footed by the 124th Constitution Amendment Bill enabling a 10% quota for the 'general' category (read upper castes), the Opposition passed it with only token protests.

Now that the easy part is over (the hard part is judicial scrutiny), questions begin to emerge: how much political leverage will it afford the BJP in Lok Sabha elections? Will it mitigate the angst of the upper castes against the BJP for wooing Dalits at their expense? Will the Congress lose traction as a result? Will it defuse the forward caste campaigns for reservation? Will it make identity politics more rather than less contentious?

Riding the quota tiger is fraught with risks. An EWS quota for upper castes-and-others is innocuous in itself, but might threaten the hard-won, precarious balance achieved in the decades after the Mandal disruption.

Politically, the move is aimed at giving the BJP an edge in the forthcoming electoral battle, without hollowing out its OBC and Dalit support base. Legally, the bill is prima facie untenable, because it breaches the 50% cap on reservations and introduces an economic criteria for quota. Morally speaking, the stated pro-poor aims are unimpeachable, even if the motives are suspect.

Particularly satisfying for the BJP must be the prospect of taking the wind out of Patidar leader Hardik Patel's sails. His political movement, which aligned with the Congress to cut the ground from under Modi's feet in Gujarat's Saurashtra region, began with a demand for reservation.

The provenance of the bill can be traced to the recent Assembly elections, in which the BJP received a beating in the reserved seats in all three states. It won 55 against the Congress' 100, according to BJP MP Udit Raj.

This, despite big moves by the BJP to attract Dalits and shed the party's Brahmin-Bania image. A Dalit, Ram Nath Kovind, was elected President of India. The Supreme Court's judgment rationalising draconian provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was neutered through legislation. Dalits were inducted into the party, monuments were erected to Bhimrao Ambedkar, the BHIM app launched, semi-legendary Dalit king Suhel Dev deified (most recently through a postage stamp) and so on. All of this was supported by the RSS' Samajik Samrastha campaign.

Even as Dalit support faded, the BJP suffered a backlash from the upper castes. So miffed were they over the SC/ST Act amendment that BJP leaders in Madhya Pradesh sent panicky SOS messages to Delhi before the polls. Core supporters declared that while they could not vote Congress, they would not vote BJP. Fewer voters pressed NOTA in 2018 than 2013, but it nonetheless cost the BJP 13 seats.

Realising the upper castes could not be taken for granted, the BJP urgently needed a sop that wouldn't undermine its support among the Dalits and OBCs and would receive support across the political spectrum.

Three areas of concern crop up. First, once the Centre breaches the 50% cap on reservations set by the apex court in 1992, the states will inevitably follow suit. Tamil Nadu's 69%, Telangana's 62%, Haryana's 67%, Rajasthan and Maharashtra's 68% and so on, will get legal sanctity.

Caste-based parties have already started demanding higher quotas for OBCs, who get a 27% share against an estimated population of 54%. The OBC quota in recent years has been sliced finer to accommodate special interest groups like EBCs and MBCs. As a result, state governments want to expand the size of the quota pie.

How long before the SC/ST leadership demands reservation commensurate with population? SCs and STs get 15% and 7.5% quotas against population shares of 18.5% and 11%, respectively. The trouble with aligning quotas to population is the manifest problem of tens of thousands of sub-castes, all with an equal right to social justice.

Second, the proposed 10 per cent EWS quota is not universal, because it covers only a minority of the population. In effect, the 'creamy layer' criteria — which the apex court had earlier struck down — has been applied to upper castes. This opens up the possibility of extending the same logic to OBCs and SC/STs, who would strongly resist the dovetailing of historical oppression and economic backwardness.

Third, bringing private unaided higher educational institutions within the purview of the bill is a contentious issue.

Missing from the debate in Parliament: whether quotas in the long run will help us achieve a caste-less standard of merit-based competition.

(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

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