NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court judgment dubbing any breach of the 50% limit on reservations as sign of a “society which is not founded on equality but based on caste rule”, cements the upper ceiling as inviolable, and may thwart renewed pressure from political and social quarters to extend the quota frontiers.
The SC’s intervention on the nettlesome issue provides a huge relief to the Modi government since the polarising demand, with strong proponents and detractors, would be difficult for a political party to ward off. It could also give state governments a handy reason to plead inability to cater to fresh qouta demands. The SC’s intervention during the implementation of the Mandal Commission laid the foundation for the 50% ceiling.
While the halfway quota cap was designed as a balance between affirmative action and general merit, there has been a pushback against it from OBC politicians because the backward communities believe that the slice of cake they have got is too small. That quota should be “in proportion to population” has been the argument proffered.
In contrast, ruling parties have been wary of political consequences of deciding either way and have chosen to strike a balance. The Modi regime brought in the controversial 10% quota for upper castes (EWS) to neutralise the anger among the forward communities over its 2018 move to undo the court-mandated dilution of SC/ST atrocities Act. The SC is still to hear and decide on the constitutionality of the quota on economic criteria that is EWS reservation.
What made the fresh push against 50% ceiling extra sensitive was the support it enjoyed from across the states as it pertained to new quotas being instituted to accommodate demands from influential social groups – like Marathas in Maharashtra, Gurjars in Rajasthan and Jats in Haryana.
The ruling may have opened a can of worms by taking away from the states their powers to identify the OBCs for local quotas. The roots of this ruling lie in the 102nd Constitutional amendment, which the Centre brought in 2018 to grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Classes.
The bill, flagship agenda of PM Modi, was stuck in Parliament for a long time because the opposition warned that its wording and provisions would make the NCBC the ultimate arbiter in identifying OBCs for state lists and take away the powers of states. Even the bill vetted by the parliamentary committee headed by BJP’s Bhupendra Yadav encountered same objections in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.
The NCBC, a body nominated by the ruling party at the Centre, would thus have unprecedented powers to decide which caste can be in a state’s OBC list – a big change from the existing regime when its mandate was limited to the Central list. Whether the BJP government will appeal against this part of the SC ruling or will move to amend the 102nd Constitutional Amendment is being keenly watched.