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
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.
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