Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray has requested prime minister Narendra Modi to work towards lifting the 50% cap on reservations. The request comes after the Supreme Court quashed Maharashtra’s public-sector jobs and education quota for the Maratha community, terming it unconstitutional. The apex court had rightly stated the quota violated the right to equality and the constitutional prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.
Not only this, the five-member bench had observed that such violation of the 50% cap—derived from the landmark Indra Sawhney judgment—would signal an intent to have society based not on the principles of equality but caste rules. While the SC had noted that there were no extraordinary circumstances that merited reservations for Marathas, the fact is that, over the past three decades, several communities have arm-twisted state governments on quotas, pushing considerations of merit further and further into the background. The fact that these communities—be it the Jats in Haryana or the Patidars in Gujarat—have been able to wrest support from mainline political parties across the spectrum for their demand shows how much electoral heft they command. And, in the case of the Jats, the Marathas and the Patidars, among others, electoral heft is also matched by social and economic might.
State governments, for their part, have abused the Ninth Schedule protection to protect the breach of the 50% cap, despite the SC ruling in IR Coeclho that this protection can’t be held as sacrosanct if it violated specific Constitutional tenets. As this newspaper has highlighted before, the SC has been clear that reservations are meant for those who are truly historically backward and a “dominant forward class … in the mainstream of national life” cannot lay claim to special benefits. Thackeray and the prime minister—the BJP has supported the demand for Maratha reservations—will do well to keep in mind that the SC, in its verdict in the matter, made it clear that it will neither revisit its verdict nor refer it to a larger bench. In this context, its statement that “the Constitution (Eighty-first Amendment) Act, 2000 by which sub-clause (4B) was inserted in Article 16 makes it clear that ceiling of 50% has now received constitutional recognition” spells out that the current provisions of the Constitutions will be violated if the cap is breached. This makes it likely that any raising of the cap will need a constitutional amendment, and given the populist underpinnings of quota demands, it will open the floodgates for many communities to ask to be accommodated.
While many have argued that a 50% cap limits true reservation since the general category constitutes a small proportion of the population, the impact of access to education on the upward socioeconomic mobility of households must be taken into consideration. PRICE analysis of household incomes shows that reserved category households, headed by individuals with higher educational attainment, reported higher incomes than general category households headed by less-educated persons. Also, with ‘reservations in perpetuity’—understood as the lack of the creamy-layer filter for certain reserved categories—the demand for reservation of unreserved categories who perceive themselves as backwards will continue to grow, making raising the 50% cap seem like a political imperative. The government must thus push education support for certain communities, instead of making reservation meaningless by raising the cap every now and then.