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EWC Reservation Bill: One-upmanship or Statesmanship?

The Govt has brought a bill in a parliament for providing 10% reservations for economically weaker sections across the religions, in Govt jobs and educational institutions. It required a constitutional amendment and the parliament approved it in two days. Subsequently, it got the assent of the President also and it has become a Bill on a record fourth day of its introduction. This should be a cause to rejoice, as it is not common to find ruling and opposition parties to be on the same page in a matter of far reaching consequences for them as well as the Indian society. However, the current developments created a very peculiar situation where everyone wants it to succeed, but afraid that Supreme Court might quash it; everyone wants more time to debate on this, but can’t ask for it. To understand this unique situation, we have to understand its context, content and the procedure. 

If Govt bringing it up on the last day of parliament and just before elections is a surprise, the manner in which it is passed by the Parliament is even more shocking. We can’t imagine passing of a constitution amendment by the Parliament without proper discussion in just two days of its introduction in any country, not just in India. This ill-advised urgency in passing the bill becomes all the more important, in the light of the fact that the provisions of the Bill are against the stand taken by Supreme Court so far, for a long time and all the parties needed time to debate on the provisions, consult all the stakeholders, collect data to devise a fool proof plan to convince the Supreme Court and also see that the Bill is implemented to the benefit of the intended population segment. 

Has sufficient thought went into drafting of the Bill? If the limit is fixed at Rs 8 lakh p.a and/ or 5 acres of land, according to one estimate, 95% of the people are covered under these provisions. The concept of Reservation is to provide a level playing field for the population, which is historically at a disadvantage in competing with the privileged minority on an equal turf. This concept of level playing field is completely negated in the present Bill, thus seriously undermining the very purpose it is stated to serve. Similarly, most of the constitutional experts opine that in its present form, it is very difficult for the Bill to pass the SC test which consistently prescribed 50% cap on reservations and the broad guideline that exceptions(reservations) should not exceed the rule (merit-based selection) in the last 50 years. 

The only argument the Govt and its supporters make is that, the present bill unlike the previous bills, is a constitutional amendment and Courts will not overrule these amendments passed by the Parliament. They hope that the amendment will enable them to take the total reservations to 60% without any problem. However, in the famous Keshvananda Bharathi Case, it is explicitly laid down that any amendment shall be subject to maintenance of the Basic Structure of the constitution. Previous attempts at taking beyond 50% were turned down by Supreme Court on the premise that it tries to tamper with one basic principle of the constitution, i.e., Equality. Any fresh attempt, whether it is a constitution amendment or otherwise, also has to pass the same test. Just because it is an amendment, it does not give you any overriding powers to alter the basic structure of the constitution. There appears to be no exercise on the part of the Govt to address this issue. 

What happens if it is struck down by the court? It should not matter much to the ruling party because the election would have already won by that time along with other election year promises for the middle class like GST exemptions, IT exemptions etc., Opposition parties too, being equally guilty to the farcical process of approving the bill, can not complain much. Those who will really pay will be those who need that little opportunity where lack of money will not spoil their future. 

Where the ruling party and the Government has succeeded is, in pushing the opposition to a corner where they have no other choice than accepting to the Bill, lest they shall be branded as anti-social in an election year. It is a political victory for the party with a potential to win the votes, but not the victory for the real economically backward classes it should be. This amounts to one-upmanship, but not statesmanship on the part of the Prime Minister and his Government. 

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