On Monday the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government moved to expand the country’s affirmative action agenda. It has proposed 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections in the general category of the population for government jobs and admission to education institutions, both in the public and private sectors.
At present, the affirmative action is restricted to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs)—cumulatively adding up to 50%. The additional reservation will mean upping the reservation quota to 60%. Interestingly, the quota prescribed for education extends even to private sector institutions. To implement this it proposes to amend the Constitution of India to specifically include economic deprivation as a criterion for affirmative action. This is because under Article 15 and Article 16 of the Constitution, affirmative action is allowed to correct for social and educational backwardness. The proposed action raises several issues.
For one, the timing of the proposal, with just under two months left for the next general election cycle, has led to the charge of political opportunism being levelled against the BJP, especially since it is well received by the upper castes, a traditional BJP vote bank which, of late, has felt alienated. To be sure, though, this has been a long-standing demand—most recently expressed by Mayawati, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party—and may well be justified as political action that is long overdue.
Regardless, the episode implicitly raises a more fundamental question on how electoral behaviour continues to be defined in this country around religious and caste denominations—exactly why you have political parties defined around such electoral currencies. In turn, this has enabled politicians to pursue a flawed list of priorities for the country—eschewing basic focus areas such as health and education—without being challenged.
This is a fatal failure for India as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen pointed out in an interview published in Mint on Monday. According to him, the situation is so dire today that most of the poor neither have a school nor a hospital to turn to for receiving basic education and diagnostic healthcare.
And as he points out, this is a systemic failure over the last seven decades: “The main thing is India has never tried to develop on a solid footing either primary healthcare or primary education. In the absence of that, you cannot make anything else stand." The second cause for thought is that the proposed change is walking a very fine line on social justice.
As Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad pointed out in Mint on Tuesday, that the original idea of reservation for SCs and STs was premised on correcting deprivation forced upon them by centuries of prejudice. A similar justification is missing in the argument justifying enhancing the ceiling on quota to accommodate the economically disadvantaged. Prasad is right in claiming that the latest move will open the door on dilution of the original idea of affirmative action.