10% quota: ?No? but maybe, yes? is lose-lose politics for the opposition

By Raghav Behl

“No, no way, not now… but hey, hold on, yes, maybe….”

These words may work splendidly on a cold night when you ask “to be let in for a cup of coffee” at your date’s doorstep; but in politics, these same words are dangerously ambivalent.

So, I was surprised when, in the Rajya Sabha debate on the ‘10 percent forward quota bill’, one political stud after another began with a stinging rebuke, then wrung his/her hands and ended with an abject “no … but yes”. Just look at this roll call of honour among India’s opposition heavyweights:

Now, having poured such vitriol on the Modi government’s “cynical, opportunistic politics”, you would have expected these opposition titans to push the “no, nay, never” button in the vote, right? Wrong. All of them (except for DMK, RJD, and IUML) quietly fell in line and greenlit the bill, even in the Rajya Sabha, where the government stood no chance of getting a two-thirds majority. If these leaders wanted, they could have easily supported DMK’s motion to refer the Bill to a Joint Select Committee.

But the nation watched, stunned! In two days flat, the alchemy of India’s equal-opportunity democracy was altered.

Parliamentary ‘Consensus’ At Odds Against Fractured National Sentiment

However, the sentiment on the ground was/is fractured. In that sense parliament short-changed India. Its members should have manifested the will of the people, which is nowhere near as unanimous:

  • Several SC/ST/OBC beneficiaries fear that this is a ‘test encroachment’ that could eventually replace caste-based reservations with affirmative action based solely on economic criteria. The fact that this happened under an RSS-dominated government adds grist to this apprehension. After all, the RSS has never hidden its “desire” to rid India of caste distinctions, while the current reservation regime sharpens sub-identities. So for them, this could be the first step in a long-term game plan. The fact that the founding fathers—read, Bhimrao Ambedkar, perhaps the most dubiously cited icon—wanted caste-based reservations to be “temporary” could eventually become a handy justification to end the old system.
  • Even those entitled to the new quotas are restive. Many feel that by stipulating such a high watermark—a daily household income of Rs 2,100, which covers almost 95 percent of India’s population for a paltry 10 percent reservation—these benefits will be cornered by the well-off in the general categories, once again denying the real poor their due. They are ready to agitate for a much lower cut-off, perhaps at Rs 2.50 lakh per annum of household income. They are afraid that instead of demolishing economic privilege, this bill could entrench it.
  • The salaried classes, once again, feel they are the ‘first to be whipped’. While they cannot fudge salary statements, those with unaccounted money shall enjoy the ‘privilege’ of producing false certificates showing lower incomes.
  • Finally, there is extreme resentment brewing in the ‘top 5 percent’ who are not covered by any reservation. Even if you forget about the super-rich who are not bothered by this exclusion, there are nearly 5 crore middle and upper-middle-class Indians who are chafing at the leash. What’s the point of living in a country which outlaws merit, they ask in simmering anger. They are contemplating a distraught ‘brain exodus’.

Clearly, with the two-day Constitutional shock wearing off, several people—including current beneficiaries, non-RSS citizens, the real poor among the general categories, salaried classes, and the richer/excluded tiers—want to articulate their protest. This is the vacuum that India’s opposition parties could have jumped into, if only they had said a firm “no” instead of an amorphous “no … but yes”. Now, having pressed that dreaded “aye” knob in parliament, opposition parties will find it difficult to win the trust of the naysayers.

The Payoff From A Categorical YES Or NO

An amorphous “no … but yes” has left every opposition politician stranded in no-man’s land. All the bragging rights on this have been turned over to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In turn, he is bound to paint the opposition’s ‘flaky yes’ as, at best, how he ‘outwitted’ them, and at worst, their ‘weak hoodwink’.

On this one, I am afraid it’s tails I win and heads you lose.

Frankly, I am a tad surprised why the opposition parties have left themselves scrambling. They could have said a full-throated, unqualified YES, thereby cutting Modi’s political payoff in half. Else, they should have cracked a loud NO, saying “we fully support the bill, but want to examine its pitfalls/infirmities in a select committee for two weeks. Once that is done, and the bill has become fair and just for all, we shall insist on a special session to pass this historic bill”.

This would have halted the Modi steamroll and given the opposition time to harness the gathering disenchantment into a potent protest movement. They would have occupied the critical opposition space, exactly as they have done with the Triple Talaq Bill. Or with the Citizenship Bill. In both these instances, they’ve stood firm, taken the blows, but slowly welded the narrative away from the government, at least with those fearing exploitation and disenfranchisement.

I wonder why they missed that trick here, especially when the lessons of recent electoral history are clear.

People back decisive politicians; they endorse risk-takers.

Today, the country is again yearning for change. What it doesn’t need from its politicians is shades of that evocative Bollywood song “main peeta nahin hoon peelayi gayi hai” (I don’t drink, but have been forced to drink), that is:“We did not want to support the government, but heck, we were forced to.”

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’

The article was published in Bloomberg Quint

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