EWS quota: Modi’s move to curb the ills of iden­tity pol­i­tics

In­dia has recog­nised that eco­nomic back­ward­ness is a suf­fi­cient cri­te­rion for state-man­dated af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion

Hindustan Times (Chandigarh) - - Comment -

The 42nd amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion of In­dia, passed on Novem­ber 11, 1976, dur­ing the Emer­gency, con­tro­ver­sially in­serted the words so­cial­ist and sec­u­lar into the Pre­am­ble of the Con­sti­tu­tion. The in­clu­sion of these two words shouldn’t be dis­missed as just aca­demic cu­rios­ity: It car­ries enor­mous le­gal-con­sti­tu­tional weight and de­fines In­dian ju­rispru­dence to this day. It was a crown­ing achieve­ment for the Con­gress to insert the two prin­ci­pal watch­words of their phi­los­o­phy into the Pre­am­ble.

Dur­ing the Con­stituent As­sem­bly de­bates, KT Shah had ad­vo­cated the in­clu­sion of the words so­cial­ist and sec­u­lar. BR Ambed­kar op­posed this, say­ing “...What should be the pol­icy of the State, how the So­ci­ety should be or­gan­ised in its so­cial and eco­nomic side are matters which must be de­cided by the people them­selves ac­cord­ing to time and cir­cum­stances. It can­not be laid down in the Con­sti­tu­tion it­self, be­cause that is de­stroy­ing democ­racy al­to­gether.”

Given In­dia’s first Prime Min­is­ter Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s ide­o­log­i­cal pro­cliv­i­ties, the coun­try’s tilt to­wards so­cial­ism af­ter In­de­pen­dence was se­cured. In an ironic twist, his pref­er­ence for group-based rights, rather than equal and uni­ver­sal in­di­vid­ual rights, turned sec­u­lar­ism into a eu­phemism for dif­fer­en­tial treat­ment of cit­i­zens based on re­li­gion.

The short­ages due to so­cial­ist eco­nomics cre­ated the ba­sis for slot­ting in­di­vid­u­als into groups, with the po­lit­i­cal party wield­ing power ac­com­mo­dat­ing the iden­tity groups that helped their pas­sage to New Delhi.

The re­sults of this mu­tual back-scratch­ing have not been happy for In­dia. It is in this con­text that the 103rd amend­ment to the Con­sti­tu­tion pro­vid­ing quo­tas for eco­nom­i­cally weaker sec­tions (EWS) by the Naren­dra Modi govern­ment should be seen.

In­dia has re­it­er­ated the prin­ci­ple that eco­nomic back­ward­ness in and of it­self is a suf­fi­cient cri­te­rion for govern­ment man­dated af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion; it is not so­cial iden­tity alone that de­ter­mines wel­fare. The prin­ci­ple is not en­tirely new be­cause OBC stands for Other Back­ward Classes, not castes. This is why a large part of the Mus­lim com­mu­nity is also in­cluded un­der the OBC quota, and also why there is al­ready a creamy layer ex­clu­sion cri­te­ria within the OBC quota. It is only for the sched­uled castes and sched­uled tribes that the cri­te­ria was based pri­mar­ily on iden­tity.

Yet it does make sense to have in­come cut­offs across all quo­tas for there is no con­vinc­ing answer to a sim­ple question: Why should a rich Dalit or tribal be pre­ferred over a poor Dalit or tribal In­dian for the same seats or po­si­tions?

To­day, we see the rise of Dalit cap­i­tal­ism, and in­deed of many his­tor­i­cally non­busi­ness castes. If the ju­di­cial sys­tem did not in­or­di­nately de­lay jus­tice and In­dia had bet­ter en­force­ment of con­tracts, caste­based so­cial cap­i­tal would mat­ter even less.

With the govern­ment pre­par­ing to im­pose the sched­uled castes, sched­uled tribes, OBC and EWS quo­tas in all pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties, all higher ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions will be on the same plane. With­out fur­ther lib­er­al­i­sa­tion and sup­ply side re­forms in higher ed­u­ca­tion, per­va­sive quo­tas will un­der­mine ex­cel­lence and merit over the long run.

The rise of ed­u­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy is al­ready ex­pand­ing sup­ply, and the govern­ment has done well to recog­nise the role of on­line learn­ing by invit­ing top ranked in­sti­tu­tions to com­mence on­line de­gree pro­grammes.

A shift from iden­tity-based wel­fare to need-based wel­fare strikes at the roots of the Nehru­vian so­cioe­co­nomic par­a­digm. The defin­ing fea­ture of Modi’s move is that there has been an un­am­bigu­ous as­ser­tion that a very poor Brahmin, or Mus­lim, de­serves af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion while a rich OBC does not.

The po­lit­i­cal po­si­tion­ing of In­dia’s par­ties on this is­sue de­lin­eates the fun­da­men­tal fault­lines of In­dian pol­i­tics. The pro­gres­sive Nehru­vian project re­lies on keep­ing Hin­dus di­vided through caste, class, re­gion or lan­guage, while con­sol­i­dat­ing re­li­gious mi­nor­ity votes even at the cost of pan­der­ing to its ul­tra-con­ser­va­tive el­e­ments and sac­ri­fic­ing the lib­eral-minded sub-mi­nor­ity within the re­li­gious mi­nor­ity. It is notable and rev­e­la­tory that just three mem­bers of Par­lia­ment op­posed the amend­ment in the Lok Sabha, and all three were from Mus­lim-ori­ented par­ties: two from the In­dian Union Mus­lim League and one from the All In­dia Ma­jlis-e-it­te­hadul Mus­limeen.

Cou­ple the 103rd amend­ment with Prime Min­is­ter Modi’s ef­fort to push di­rect ben­e­fit trans­fers, pri­vate pub­lic part­ner­ship-based wel­fare schemes as well as a com­mit­ment to re­form re­gres­sive Mus­lim prac­tices and laws, and we see the con­tours of a new In­dian state that pri­ori­tises in­di­vid­ual iden­tity while de­liv­er­ing wel­fare through mar­ket-driven mech­a­nisms.

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