When the Supreme Court excluded the “creamy layer”, or the well-off sections, among the backward castes from the benefits of reservations in its 1991 judgement, it had taken a logical step to ensure that the advantages of the quota system in the matter of social advancement were not enjoyed in perpetuity by the identified communities.
What the judicial pronouncement entailed was that once those who had suffered for centuries from the inequities of the caste system had been able to overcome much of their social disabilities via the officially sponsored affirmative action, they would lose their right for preferential treatment. The criterion for those who would be excluded from the benefits of the quota system was an annual income of Rs 100,000.
However, while deciding on the concept of the “creamy layer”, the judiciary does not seem to have taken into account the possibility of the intervention of the political class to circumvent the legal objective.
Over the years, the politicians across the board have succeeded in dodging the income limit by periodically increasing the quantum of the annual earnings of the backward castes from Rs 100,000 in 1993 to Rs 250,000 in 2004 to Rs 450,000 in 2008 to Rs 600,000 in 2013.
Clearly, to the political class, the creamy layer is an elastic concept which can keep on expanding with the express purpose of retaining within its fold even the affluent among the backward castes in order to make them eligible for reservations in employment and education.
Considering that the reservations were meant to be in force for only the first 10 years after Independence, there is little doubt that the present practice is a travesty of the original intent. As much is evident from the contention of the now-defunct National Commission for Backward Castes that the annual income should be Rs 15 lakh.
It not surprising, therefore, that the Narendra Modi government has decided to increase the annual income from the present Rs 600,000 to Rs 800,000. There will be no prizes for guessing that the amount will keep on increasing year after year and that being a part of the creamy layer will be an ever-receding goal for the backward castes.
By this token, no matter how high is the income of a backward caste person, he will always be poor in the government’s eyes — though not to his neighbours — and in need of clutches for securing jobs and education.
The reason for this oddity is the political need to secure votes even if the grant of such largesse means ignoring the concept of merit. However, it also boosts the caste system which is often deemed to be the bane of the Hindu social order.
The belief among the idealists at the dawn of Independence that the caste system will gradually wither away with the nation’s progress has proved to be a chimera.
As if to confirm this regressive trend, the Modi government is now contemplating identifying various sub-castes among the backwards for extending the benefits of reservations on the ground that the quotas have mostly been grabbed by the more dominant castes, such as the Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
This slicing of the cake is an extension of the electoral policy which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) successfully pursued in Uttar Pradesh by courting the non-Yadav backward castes and the non-Jatav Dalits to wean them away from the Yadav-dominated Samajwadi Party and the Jatav-dominated Bahujan Samaj Party.
Ironically, it was to counter the caste card played by the Janata Dal leader and Prime Minister V.P. Singh in 1990 that BJP leader L.K. Advani embarked on his Somnath-to-Ayodhya rath yatra to keep the party’s Hindu flock together.
Today, however, the BJP is playing the caste card with a vengeance to boost its political position. Its motivation is possibly all the stronger because of the knowledge that it will not get the Muslim vote. So, it has to try all the more to rope in the backward castes and add them to its tally of upper caste votes which the party believes are already in its bag.
In the process of wooing the backward castes, not only the age-old “varna vyavastha” or the caste system but also the concept of reservations is strengthened.
To make matters worse, since the number of government jobs is dwindling in a time of the free market, voices are bound to be raised for extending the quota system to the private sector, thereby ringing its death-knell where efficiency is concerned.
As these retrogressive steps are advocated and implemented, the “sabka vikas” or the agenda of development for all is bound to be hit.
Moreover, the calls that are sometimes given for dispensing with quotas, as by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, are likely to be ignored. For those who see Hindu society through the lens of caste, all will be well in the foreseeable future.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])