When the political class unites
The constitutional amendment on OBC reservation was needed. But it also shows the limits of political imagination
The Opposition’s decision to interrupt its disruption of Parliament to support the Centre’s constitution amendment bill to restore the powers of states and union territories to determine backward groups illustrates what ties, and divides, Indian politics. The rare all-party consensus on the bill is a reflection of how reservations have come to be the holy cow of Indian politics — no party can be remotely seen against it. It is also a reflection of the power of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) — each party woos this heterogenous category and is apprehensive of doing anything that may come across as insensitive to their aspirations. And it is a reflection of the limits of the imagination of the political class in candidly acknowledging the need for a revision in the architecture of affirmative action in India.
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The immediate trigger for the bill was a Supreme Court verdict which scrapped Maratha reservations because it exceeded the 50% reservation cap. But this isn’t the issue the bill seeks to address. In the same verdict, the court underlined that the power to determine classification of backward groups rested with the Centre. But states have had their own lists of OBCs, who are then eligible for state-level education and employment benefits. The court ruling revoked this right, and a plea by the Centre went unheeded. The amendment will restore the power of states to draw and maintain their own list. And in that respect, the bill is necessary. The Centre cannot be the sole authority in determining backwardness, especially when there are widespread local variations. A caste group in one state may, due to historical reasons of backwardness, classify as OBC but not in another.
But even as the bill is necessary, the political consensus on it — in the backdrop of acrimony on almost everything else — is telling. For the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has successfully cultivated a huge loyal OBC base, signalling to the community that it is sensitive to its aspirations is necessary, especially in the run up to polls in Uttar Pradesh. For the Opposition, ensuring that states retain the right to determine this list is essential to both preserving its base but also ensuring that the BJP does not walk away with coming across as championing OBC rights. But beyond the political calculus, what India needs is a careful, data-based, just affirmative action policy, for the current architecture has become a tool of power-sharing rather than actually addressing historic injustice.