The first full week of 2019 brought a rush of important news in quick succession. In a sudden move on Monday, the cabinet cleared a proposal to reserve 10% in government jobs and education for the economically weak in the general category, that is, the category which does not enjoy any reservation.
The second was the GDP growth estimates from the Central Statistical Office, which pegged the growth rate for this year at 7.2%. The third important news was the Supreme Court's order rejecting CBI chief Alok Verma's midnight removal and ordering his partial reinstatement. The fourth was the cabinet clearing the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, which led to the Asom Gana Parishad walking out of the BJP alliance in Assam.
The constitution does not provide for reservation for the economically backward sections of the society as they stand today. The constitution talks of only socially and educationally backward classes as eligible for reservation in government jobs. So the government brought a constitutional amendment bill before parliament. Coming so late in the day, there is no doubt that it is a poll gimmick meant to shore up the BJP's electoral prospects in the Lok Sabha elections due by May.
Some experts believe that such a quota would militate against the right to equality, which is a basic feature of the constitution. A nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court had ruled in 1992 that reservation based on economic backwardness is not constitutionally permissible. That infirmity will be taken care of by the amendment of the constitution. Yet, the right to equality question will remain. The other question which will remain to be settled is the Supreme Court's order that the overall quota in government's jobs cannot exceed 50%.
The constitution bill has been cleared by both houses; no major party has the courage to oppose this populist measure. There is also no doubt that this proposal will also quickly receive the approval of 50% of the state legislatures because the BJP and the Congress have the numbers. But the order is bound to be challenged in the courts. We will have to see what view the Supreme Court takes on this question.
Since the move is clearly political, the most important question is, will it help the BJP in the elections?
I have personal experience of two similar situations in the past. Karpoori Thakur, as Chief Minister of Bihar, introduced reservation for the Other Backward Classes in 1978. This did not help the Janata Party leader hold on to the top post. Nor did it win him the next Bihar election.
Similarly, VP Singh, as Prime Minister, introduced reservation for Other Backward Classes in 1990. It did not secure his position. Nor did his Janata Dal win the next Lok Sabha elections. These should be health warnings for those indulging in such poll gimmicks and those in the media calling them a masterstroke.
The Supreme Court decision in the CBI case is no doubt a setback for the government. Yet, it is only half a judgment. The court has no doubt restored Alok Verma as CBI boss but has curtailed his powers severely by stipulating that he will not take policy decisions until a high-level committee responsible for the appointment of the CBI director meets and take a final view on whether he should continue.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill is a partial solution to a larger problem. India has attracted refugees from neighboring countries for long but it has been reluctant to grant them citizenship. Assam is a particularly bad case because it was inundated by the influx from both Bangladesh – earlier East Pakistan – and Myanmar. The onrush was so huge that it threatened the original character of the state's population. The student agitation led by the All Assam Students Union (AASU) resulted in the Assam Accord of 1986. This bill violates the Assam Accord. Apart from this, there is the question of whether religion should be the basis of granting citizenship in a secular democracy and whether it should apply to only one part of the country.
And finally, the estimates of GDP growth released by the Central Statistical Office has pleased the government and the sarkari media, though it is well below the 7.5% growth rate estimated by the government and 7.4% growth estimated by the Reserve Bank of India.
Considering that the Indian economy grew at the rate of 7.6% in the first half of the current fiscal, a 7.2% annual growth would mean a 6.8% growth in the second half and a significant slowing down of the economy. Let us also not forget that since an 8.2% growth rate in FY 15-16, there has been a declining trend. Growth dropped to 7.1% in FY 16-17 and further to 6.7% in FY 17-18.
Former chief statistician Pronab Sen has already described these estimates as rather optimistic, mainly on account of a declining trend in growth on a quarterly basis this year. I am deliberately not going into the veracity of the growth figures. But even if these estimates are taken as genuine, the government will go into the general elections with the economy on a downslide.
The government and the ruling party have been in a state of panic ever since the BJP lost assembly elections in three important Hindi heartland states and that too, to the Congress party. It now wants to win the Lok Sabha elections at all costs, since winning elections is its primary goal, not the well-being of the people of India. It has come out with two poll gimmicks so far – the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and a constitutional amendment bill for 10% reservation for the general category. One could expect many more.
Yashwant Sinha, former BJP leader, was Minister of Finance (1998-2002) and Minister of External Affairs (2002-2004)
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