Politically, the so-called upper-caste quota is a masterstroke. The upper castes, and particularly the vocal trading classes who had traditionally supported the BJP, were angry with PM Narendra Modi for most of what he had done these four years: demonetisation and GST. In one stroke, by making even taxpayers among them eligible for a quota, the PM has made them feel less angry. There have been some brilliant analyses of how absurd this quota means. A taxpayer being termed poor, and then, being offered a dole meant for the poor, obviously makes the entire effort seem dubious.
But Modi’s attempt is not a poverty alleviation programme, nor is it an effort to lift the poorest of the poor from dire misery, but to convey a political message to the masses that rooted for him. The captive audience is huge, much bigger than the Brahmin-Bania-Thakur core constituency of the Sangh Parivar in the cow belt. From Jats, Khatris and Jat Sikhs, Patels and Marathas, Lingayats, Kammas and Reddys to Nairs, Patnaiks and Kayasths, there is not a single rural or urban influential caste that is not pleased with this new initiative. Most farmers can, for some time, forget the farm distress and savour the idea of some government jobs for their children. Even those among minorities like Christians, who consider themselves upper castes, are potential beneficiaries.
If all along Modi’s policies were aimed at targeting the well-off groups to tackle black money or to enforce stricter tax rules, here is a policy aimed at appeasing them. In that narrow, opportunistic, political sense, the upper-caste quota is an effortless measure to make the beneficiaries feel better. Is this Modi’s closing gambit before the campaigning begins or does he have a few more of such aces up his sleeve is the question.
Modi the politician and Modi the administrator are two different personalities. While the implementation of demonetisation and GST left the economy hanging, the promise of a better life for the upper castes is a sentiment-driver and pure politics. Sure, astute administrators would point out the inherent deficiencies in the Bill: does it alter the basic structure of the Constitution? After the Indra Sawhney judgment will this Bill stand judicial scrutiny? Well, the political answer to all these informed, constitutional conundrums is that anyone who goes to court against this Bill will be doing a great favour to Modi. Probably, he might even want to play the victim card and tell the upper-caste voters that he tried hard but was not allowed to do something good for them.
Then again, the more informed critique of the NDA government's failure in creating jobs would get drowned in the hopeful buzz about the slice of the available government job pie. Such is the great desire for a government job among the poor and not-so-poor that even an election-time jumla could sound like a divine prophecy. Yadav parties like the Samajwadi Party and the RJD of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had initially tried to bring in and sharpen an upper-versus-backward caste contradiction to put Modi in the dock. Well, this could have worked well had Modi been from a beneficiary caste. Since, Modi positioned himself in the last election itself as a backward caste chaiwala, it will not be difficult for him to shrug off the allegation of upper-caste bias. After all, the new quota doesn’t in any way tinker with the existing ones.
A 10 per cent quota for the taxpayer is merely a slice off the existing 50 per cent for those who have no reservation. But the cynical political aspect of this new Bill is that it will not really help the poor among the upper castes. Quotas are all about competition. It is a crutch or a social prosthetic for a disadvantaged person to compete with inherently well-equipped people. We had turned the concept of quota upside down, when in Tamil Nadu, those who claim to be descendents of the mighty Cholas sought and got backward and most backward-caste status. Children of village feudal lords have thus become ‘backward’. The Marathas who have ruled the length and breadth of the nation, not so long ago, have no qualms in seeking quota. Despite a Prime Minister, a Deputy Prime Minister, Chief of Army Staff and much else, Jats have got themselves termed ‘backward’. All for quota; all for the crumbs of sarkari doles.
So, it was not surprising to see a consummate politician turning all these demands to his advantage just three months ahead of the General Election. Of course, it doesn't really matter whether it works. What brings in votes is what works in politics.
The flipside of this promise is that a housemaid’s daughter or a tenant farmer’s son will lose out to a five-acre farmer’s or a clerk’s child. Sure, such anomalies exist within the Dalit and backward-caste quotas, too. The creamy layer of the Dalit quota badly needs to be skimmed because it only perpetuates a class of empowered families who rob the opportunities of the children of cobblers and cleaners.
Instead of continuously slicing the shrinking job pie, the government has to bring in free, compulsory, quality and equal education for all. As long as money can buy better education, there will be inequality and inherently disadvantaged groups. We have fought caste discrimination to a large extent and brought in empowerment through quota and identity politics. The next step is not to create more quota, but to have
common schooling and an education system wherein all students have access to the same syllabus, same quality of education and same opportunities of self-realisation. Until then, ours will remain an unequal society, willing to be carved up by our masters.