When it comes to quota politics, there appears to be no limits to expanding the cause. The idea is: Stretch the rope till it holds, and when it breaks, blame everyone else but the stretcher. Reservations began as a form of ‘positive discrimination’, when the Constitution of India provided for quota in Government bodies and educational institutions for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Framers of the Constitution agreed that the quota system should be reviewed after, say, ten years. In other words, the provision was not supposed to be permanent. That it has become an enduring feature, is a fact. But none even today is opposed really to reservations for SC/ST candidates because the general belief is that even today, they deserve it, given their socio-economic conditions.
Then came the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendations by the VP Singh Government, adding to the existing quota percentage. Now, Other Backward Classes, which comprised nearly all except the upper castes, also got reservations. Their 27 per cent, combined with the 22.5 per cent that the SC/ST had, brought the reservation pie to nearly half of the total seats that were available in Government jobs and educational institutions. The Pandora’s Box had been truly opened, and the decades that followed witnessed strident demands from various castes who had been left out of the benefits, to be included in the quota bracket. So, the Gujjars, the Jats, even the Marathas, have begun seeking reservations, often using violent means to be heard.
But even this was not enough. Having got reservations, and having gained from it for decades, with succeeding generations uplifting themselves from such ‘positive discrimination’, the lure to hang on to the benefit grew. The Supreme Court had to step in and order that the ‘creamy lawyer’ from the reserved categories cannot continue to avail the benefits, because they had suitably benefited from the quota system and did not need it any further. Various attempts have been made to circumvent this caveat, but so far, and thankfully, those have failed, thanks to a resolute court.
Having secured a deal in entry, quota activists turned their attention to reservations in promotions. They demanded that OBC and SC/ST members must be given the benefit of reservation in promotions too, in Government institutions. They wanted a review of the verdict in the M Nagraj case of 2006, by a larger Bench of the Supreme Court. But that attempt was foiled when the apex court recently said there was no need for such a referral. it was a unanimous verdict of a five-Judge Bench. The Nagraj Bench had said that States were bound to provide quantifiable data on the backwardness of SC/ST, on their under-representation in Government services, and on the overall efficiency factor before taking a decision on extending reservations in promotion.
In the spate of various verdicts the apex court delivered last month, which made blazing headlines, the reservation case did not garner as much eyeballs as it should have. Nonetheless, there is no ignoring the elephant in the room. The Government is in a fix, the opposition parties are sharpening their knives ahead of elections, and various activists are plotting their next move. The court verdict effectively means that for now, there will be no quota in promotions. The SC/ST and the OBC together form a huge, dominant chunk chunk of the electorate and no political party can dare to antagonize them. Simultaneously, they have to also contend with rising demands from other sections that seek reservations and also from those that oppose reservations. These sections may be relatively fewer in number, but they do have the power dos wing votes in constituencies.
The Government is left with few legal appeals. There is, of course, the possibility of legislative intervention — a law that overrides the Supreme Court’s order. That would need an amendment to the Constitution Will it pass the legal test? Because it is certain that, if the Government caves in, there will those who will drag it to the court.