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Opportunity and the OBC Bill

It is remarkable in these politically partisan and polarised times, and smack in the middle of a raging controversy over Pegasus, that representatives of the legislature could come together unanimously to support a piece of legislation.

Opportunity and the OBC Bill
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The debate, for the most part, was uncontentious, and all MPs in both the Houses were keen on demonstrating their support for the Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-Seventh Amendment) Bill. A cynical way of looking at this unusual consensus is that nothing unites the political class as much as electoral opportunity. The principle thrust of the amendment Bill, after all, is to pave the way for States and Union Territories to make their own Other Backward Class (OBC) list.

Essentially, the Bill was required to side-step the Supreme Court verdict, which held that only the Centre had the authority to prepare an OBC list, a power that flowed from the Constitution (102nd Amendment Act). The latter was passed by the Narendra Modi government to confer constitutional status on the National Commission for Backward Castes. While the Centre argued that its intent was never to strip the States and the UTs of their right to draw up OBC lists, the Opposition had a point in saying that by introducing another Amendment Bill, the Centre was only trying to clean up a mess of its own making.

But exactly what social purpose will the Bill serve? It is possible that this will give a fillip to demands for a caste census to determine the percentage of OBCs in States and UTs. It is likely that demands by one community or another to be placed in the OBC category will grow louder. What such legislations do not ensure, and this in many ways is the nub, is a greater share of reservation for the backward classes. This remains capped at less than 50 per cent by the so-called Mandal judgment of the Supreme Court in 1992 (Indira Sawhney v. Others).

In the interim, the significance of the decision lies more in the airy realm of political signalling. With a number of States going to the polls next year – most critically, Uttar Pradesh – the BJP probably believes that this move will increase its traction with the OBCs. “This is our decision and we will see to it that the community gets justice,” thundered Amit Shah at a rally. There is no doubt that the OBC community is a major constituent and is critical to determining electoral outcomes in a number of States. The BJP has made considerable headway in winning its support in recent years, as clearly revealed by the election results from the northern States.

Whether such Bills make a tangible difference in the electoral arena is unclear. But at the very least, it does not hurt and provides a talking point. In the Lok Sabha, Akhilesh Yadav accused the BJP of misleading the OBCs, by providing them token representation. The SP leader is not incorrect in suggesting that the real power is elsewhere in the BJP, which is something of an anomaly as an upper caste party with a lower caste electoral base. Such arguments will play out strongly as Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls in February 2022, quite easily the most significant electoral contest until the 2024 general election.

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