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Politics behind quota in promotions bill

December 19, 2012 20:23 IST

The controversial quota in promotions bill's partially passed status suits all political parties at the moment, says Neerja Chowdhury

The controversial quota in promotions bill, which was passed in the Rajya Sabha, was snatched from the hand of Union Minister V Narayansamy, when he was tabling it in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. Samajwadi Party members determinedly continued to disrupt the proceedings and the House was repeatedly adjourned.

As things stand, the bill may well go the way of the Women's Reservation Bill -- passed in the Rajya Sabha but unable to be taken up in the Lok Sabha because of stiff resistance.

When Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath walked into the Central Hall of Parliament last week to urge Samajwadi Party's Rajya Sabha leader Ram Gopal Yadav to come to his room to talk things over on the quota in promotions, it seemed something was cooking.

The upshot of whatever transpired between them -- and Kamal Nath had already met with SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav -- was that the Samajwadi Party voted against the bill in the Rajya Sabha but it allowed the house to function so that the bill could be passed with a thumping majority. Since the proposed legislation was a Constitution amendment bill, which entailed division, voting on it was not possible without a modicum of order in the house. But the script was obviously going to be different in the Lok Sabha.

With the passage of the bill in the upper house, the proactive Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath had managed to placate an irate Mayawati, who had threatened "tough" action if the bill was not taken up for passage in the house. And the maverick that the Bahujan Samaj Party chief is, she was capable of taking any step, including the withdrawal of support to the UPA, say her aides.

On the other hand, Nath also managed to rein in the SP leaders. They disrupted the upper house up to a point and then allowed the bill to be passed. But it was a no go in the Lok Sabha, where the disruptions have not allowed the bill to be taken up.

If the truth be told, to have the bill "partially passed", suits all parties at the moment.

As far as the contents of the bill are concerned, with the amendments the government agreed to, there would only be a marginal change in the prevailing situation for the SCs/ST officers, as far as improving their prospects go in promotions.

Simply put, the principle of efficiency has been restored. The bill goes back to status quo ante, allowing for efficiency with some relaxation for Dalits and tribals. The need for a confidential report for promotions would also hold. Mayawati had during her rule undone the pre-requisite of efficiency for promotions, and this was struck down by the courts.

The Constitution (ninety eighth amendment) Bill 2012 has also provided for a "cap" on those being promoted and they cannot exceed the reservation provided to SCs or STs in government services. So if the SCs are 15 per cent, roughly one in every seven officers will be promoted and this is probably the average even today.

There is yet another amendment that is significant. The 98th Constitution Amendment Bill also stipulates that the SCs and STs "shall be deemed to be backward". At the moment, all the SC/STs are considered backward. Somebody may get up tomorrow and go to court, arguing that if they are "deemed" to be backward, they can also move out of their backwardness, when their lot improves. Could this become the basis for laying down the principle of creamy layer in the future?

Mayawati accepted these amendments -- insisted by some BJP leaders -- possibly because she feared that the bill would be struck down by the courts again, as has happened in the past.

What is significant is not the bill's content. More important is its political intent. 

By successfully pressurising the government to bring the bill and have it passed in the upper house, Mayawati has already sent a message to her constituency that she is fighting their cause. Clearly, she now plans to throw her net beyond Uttar Pradesh and can be expected to flog the issue in the coming assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and even Karnataka, where the BSP has had pockets of influence but failed to build on them, given her preoccupation with UP. Mayawati also has her eyes set on 2014 as much as any other party.

In fact, failure to get the bill passed in the Lok Sabha immediately may also work to her advantage. It is only when opposition builds up to an issue that it finds traction. It was the strident upper caste opposition to the 1990 'Mandal' decision, to give 27 per cent reservation to the OBCs, and the consequent backlash it elicited from the OBCs, and SCs/ STs, that made it such a hot issue and one that brought down the VP Singh government,  and a paradigm shift in north Indian politics.

As far as Mulayam Singh is concerned, by demonstrating his opposition to the bill -- barring the Shiv Sena, the Samajwadi Party was the only one, opposing quota in promotions -- he has reached out to the upper castes which are so virulently opposed to reservation in jobs and promotions, for it constricts the opportunities for them and their children. Mulayam Singh may hope that this move might stem the disenchantment that is setting in with the UP government on account of the worsening law and order.

As for the Congress, its central concern was to ensure that Parliament was not stalled and the government could move ahead with its economic reforms agenda, like the passage of the banking bill, which the BJP supported. 

The party most confused and divided on the issue, however, is the BJP. In the upper house, it supported the bill, though, it seemed that the BJP, worried about losing the support of its core constituency of the upper castes, was shooting off the shoulders of the SP, not wanting to oppose the bill frontally and come across as being anti-Dalit.

But in the Lok Sabha, BJP leaders were shouting against the biIl, along with the SP leaders. Senior BJP leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha had made known their opposition to the bill. Many Lok Sabha BJP MPs remarked that it was all very well for their party leaders in the Rajya Sabha to support the bill, but it is they who would have to face the people in the elections!

Neerja Chowdhury