Bhubaneswar: After the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) announced to field 27 per cent of candidates from among the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in the upcoming elections including the three-tier panchayat polls, a storm is brewing in state politics over it. Though it is termed as a ‘Masterstroke’ by Naveen and the opposition scouring for a reasonable defence, the reactions indicated that all political parties loved a “quota”. Call it vote bank politics or whatever, all of them are bending over backwards to secure the quota for a specific category of population and this time it is OBCs.
It is often alleged that the country’s oldest political party, the Congress indulged in vote bank politics by appeasing minorities, scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs). Since Independence, the Congress led by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru implemented a reservation system for the SCs and STs in order to create a casteless society which discriminates against the people born in lower castes. This was done with an objective of ensuring social justice to all the sections of the people in the country. In the process, Congress became dear to the weaker section and the party ruled the country for many decades.
Even though many disliked the quota making argument that merit would get sacrificed, everyone promoted the quota system in order to keep specific communities happy and to capture their votes.
When the non-Congress parties captured the reign of power, they too tried to create their own vote bank and quota for the OBCs came into existence after the 1990s. When Narendra Modi came to power, he made provision for the reservation for the poor in the general category after realizing that the socio-economic condition of some higher caste people was worse than that of the SCs, STs and OBCs.
Though the BJD government could not make provision of 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in Odisha, a seasoned politician like Naveen Patnaik found the party route to give an impression to the community that he is really worried for their welfare and not BJP which had been trying to frame policy to reserve seats as per the caste share in the population. Before the BJP implemented its plan, Naveen gave a masterstroke and announced that his party would field 27 per cent of the seats for OBC candidates in the rural polls.
In Odisha, 38.75 per cent of seats are reserved for the SCs and STs. If 27 per cent of the OBC quota is included reservation will reach 65.75 per cent, which is beyond the 50 per cent ceiling fixed by the Supreme Court as well as the central legislations. Therefore, the State Government pegs reservation for OBCs at 11.25 per cent in order not to cross the 50 per cent cap. Prior to 1995 elections, the then State Government’s appeal to reserve a 27 per cent quota for the OBCs was rejected by the court as well as the State Administrative Tribunal.
However, the State Government had passed a bill in the Assembly making provision of 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs in 2008. This attempt also failed as a job aspirant challenged the decision in the High Court. During the period when the matter was under consideration of the Court, the State Government functioned with 11.25 per cent quota for the OBCs. Last week, a BJD delegation met Union Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi and pleaded for a Central Legislation to ensure quota for the OBCs as per their proportion in the population. The party also demanded that the ensuing 2021 census be conducted on caste basis, which had been earlier rejected by the Centre.
The state government is of the view that unless there is a formal enumeration of the OBC population, it may be further challenged in the court of law. Therefore, a census report was most essential for implementation of the quota for the OBCs.
In Odisha, several leaders including Minister Ranendra Pratap Swain, former Union Minister Srikant Jena, Bhakta Charan Das and others have been fighting for the quota for the OBCs for a long time. Now that BJP is in power at the Centre, the saffron party tries to take credit and become champion of the communities.
In 1954, the Ministry of Education had suggested that 20 per cent of places should be reserved for the SCs and STs in educational institutions with a provision to relax minimum qualifying marks for admission by 5 percent wherever required. In 1982, it was specified that 15 percent and 7.5 percent of vacancies in public sector and government-aided educational institutes should be reserved for the SC and ST candidates, respectively.
However, a major change came when the Mandal Commission or the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Commission was established to assess the situation of the socially and educationally backward classes. The Commission did not have exact population figures for the OBCs and hence used data from the 1931 census, which estimated their population at 52 per cent. The Commission recommended that a reserved quota of 27 per cent for OBCs should apply in respect of services and public sector bodies operated by the Union Government.
The Constitution of India provides for making any special provision for the advancement of any socially, and educationally backward classes of citizens of or for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.
However, the Supreme Court in 1992 said that reservations could not exceed 50 per cent; anything above which it judged would violate equal access as guaranteed by the Constitution. However, the recent amendment of the constitution exceeds 50 per cent and also there are state laws that exceed this 50 per cent limit and these are under litigation in the Supreme Court. In Tamil Nadu, the caste-based reservation stands at 69 per cent and applies to about 87 per cent of the population.
Anyway, the question remains as to how long quota systems shall prevail in India? It has already been 71 years and the political parties are indulging in a race to champion the diverse communities. Can we not make a quota system on the basis of economic status instead of castes? There should be no hesitation to handhold the poor people cutting across castes. The reservation for communities would rather segregate the communities instead of uniting them. This is high time the leaders thought beyond vote banks for the greater interest of the nation.