Days of 50% OBC quota cap are numbered, says political scientist Ashwani Kumar

OBC Bill a consolidation of the electoral dominance of OBCs, he says.

Updated - August 19, 2021 12:22 am IST

Published - August 18, 2021 05:00 pm IST

Prof Ashwani Kumar. File

Prof Ashwani Kumar. File

The demand for a caste-based census or lifting the cap on 50% reservation heralds the onset of ‘Mandal III’, says political scientistAshwani Kumar on the approach of a new Mandal politics and its implications.

There is a rising clamour for a caste-based census or even a second Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC). How do you look at it?

Given the unprecedented political consensus on the recently passed Constitution 127th Amendment Bill in the otherwise fractious Parliament, it seems that India is fast becoming what Arend Lijphart called ‘consociational’ or power-sharing democracy within the majoritarian polity.

Though upper castes continue to account for 28-29% against 37% of combined strength of OBC MPs and intermediate-caste MPs in the last three parliamentary elections as per the data analysis by the Trivedi Center at Ashoka University, the passage of the OBC Bill symbolises the consolidation of the electoral dominance of OBCs and their consequent rise to the pyramid of political power.

The rising clamour for a caste-based census needs to be seen in the wider context of the progressive realisation of the unfinished agenda of the ‘silent revolution’ since the 1990s. Arguably, if Mandal was about a battle for job reservation in the 1990s and the reservation in college admission in 2008 was dubbed Mandal II, then this demand for caste-based census or lifting the cap on 50% reservation heralds the onset of Mandal III — a much complex and transformatory phase of consociational settlements in Indian democracy.

Note, the demand for caste-based census arises from the continuing deficits of democracy in India. Without the benefit of reliable caste-census data, Mandal Commission estimated the share of the OBCs in India’s population to be 52%. But for some strange reasons of constitutional engineering or political expediency, only 27% reservation was given to the OBCs. This led to perpetuation of a deceptive dichotomy between demography and demos.

Therefore, the twin demands for caste-based census and bigger share of the reservation pie have been at the vanguard of social justice politics for a long time.

Before the 2001 census began, fierce debate took place over the enumeration of all castes in the census. In 2011, a socio-economic caste census (SECC) was done under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) for better targeting of welfare programmes. The details of the caste survey were never released to the public but the SECC is being used in various Central schemes such as the Ayushman Bharat and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana to identify beneficiaries.

The United District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+), initiated in 2012-13, has maintained data on schooling, including caste details of students enrolled in primary schools across the country. Therefore, the question that “if the cattle can be counted in the States” in the memorable words of Badaun BJP MP Sanghmitra Maurya then why not castes be counted will keep haunting politicians and policy makers and points to further radicalisation of Mandal politics as well as possibilities for new forms of long -term consociational settlements in Indian democracy.

For many years the 50% cap on reservations in jobs and educational institutions have been a redline not to be crossed, but demands from non-Mandal communities for reservations is rising. Do you see a concerted move in future for this cap to raised?

First thing first. The 50% cap on reservation is like the doctrine of Basic Structure in Kesavananda Bharati case; a smart judicial innovation to ensure that the power of Parliament is not misused for subverting the constitutional principles of governance. The Constitution does not lay down any specific bar on the quantum of reservation or quota in jobs and educational institutions.

Reconciling the ideals of equality and equity including institutional well-being in the 1992 verdict in the Indra Sawhney case, the Supreme Court has also judiciously observed that the reservation cap is not sacrosanct; it can be increased beyond 50% under exceptional circumstances.

In fact, Tamil Nadu’s historic 69% quota law — under judicial scrutiny for more than three decades — seems to have become the legal lodestar for States like Maharashtra, Haryana, Telangana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh vigorously breaching the cap beyond 50% to include agitating non-Mandal communities like Marathas, Jats, Gujjars in the reservation net. Though courts including the Supreme Court will continue to act like trapeze artist balancing between popular sovereignty and constitutional rule, the days of 50% caps or ‘‘creamy layers’ are numbered.

What will be the political and electoral implications of this?

There will be two scenarios simultaneously playing out; one national and one regional. The first is the challenge of incorporating resurgent Mandal castes into a BJP dominant national polity and the second is the gradual politicisation of non-Mandal OBCs along with “lower backwards” in various regions of India. The intersection of these two trends will profoundly reshape political and electoral landscape of parliamentary and assembly elections in the near future.

As a young, energetic, aspirational rising force, focussed on jobs, education and economic development, the Mandal and non-Mandal OBC and EBC castes together will lead to huge demographic and democratic shifts in Indian politics. We know that upper castes constitute only 10%-15% of the electorate in many States (22% in U.P.). So it will be tough for national political parties to mobilise middle and lower caste Hindus to vote for them.

Here is a lesson for regional parties as well. The share of votes won by regional parties continues to hover around 48-50%. Thus, much will depend on how ruling regional parties build durable caste coalitions with national parties to crowd out rival regional parties, and how they forge more consociational coalitions with lower OBC, upper castes and dalits.

How do you see Mandal parties dealing with an influx of non-Mandal castes within the ambit of reservations?

Other Backward Castes including Mandal and non-Mandal castes are a complex mixture of traditional inheritance, colonial invention and contemporary realignment of politics of social justice. If they are united by the democratic impulses of social justice politics, they are also internally fragmented in their pursuit of power. So, the influx of non-Mandal castes into reservation is bound to exacerbate competitive tensions and frictions over sharing of their common pool resources.

Given the cross-cutting, dispersed and overlapping nature of social diversities in India, establishing permanent electoral or political majorities is near impossible and the fears of the rule of a single, socio-economic or caste elite are absolutely unfounded in Indian democracy.

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