The reaction of the political class in the country to the Supreme Court ruling that the elites among the Scheduled Castes and Tribes should not benefit from the reservations in government jobs can be easily predicted. They will mouth the rhetoric of ‘social justice’ and insist that the Constitution be changed to bypass the apex court’s ruling. That all parties will support the move means little, because when it comes to vote banks, politicians are wont to display herd mentality. Parliament majorities, of course, do not always do the right thing as we know from the experience of the now impugned 39th and 42nd amendments that sought to alter the entire structure of the Constitution in favour of the Union government. This was at the expense of the judiciary, states and even the people.
By and large, our courts have accepted that ‘social justice’ laws are beyond challenge on the fundamental rights issue. Indeed, the position taken by the constitutional bench of the apex court on Thursday is eminently sensible. Besides its call to keep out the ‘creamy layer’, it has upheld reservations in promotions; called for vacancies in reserved category positions to be filled on time; said that these should not be “carried forward” indefinitely blocking jobs; declared that reservations should not exceed 50 per cent; and made it clear that claims to backwardness must be backed with solid data.
Since the Nineties, competitive populism has led to a situation where demands for reservations are threatening to overwhelm the basic concept of equality of opportunity and non-discrimination contained in Article 16(1) and (2) of the Constitution. We have always maintained that no fair-minded Indian grudges the need to give a leg-up to the socially and economically disadvantaged. But the basic question is: do large-scale reservations such as those being contemplated now work, or do they merely cement vote banks?
The country’s future rests on two pillars — economic growth and social equity. Both are vitally linked to the rights of an individual, rather than some abstract idea. That is why policies that seek to engineer social equality exclusively through quotas are faulty. While reservations guarantee a seat in a college or a job in the government, they do not lessen social discrimination. The only way to do this is to enhance the quality of education and training provided to the SC and ST to ensure that they are professionally equal or better than their non-quota peers. Lamentably, however, all this will not cut much ice with our political class. As a result, instead of narrowing down, as envisaged by the founding fathers of the Constitution, the caste divide will only widen.