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Here's What the Patna HC's Decision on Reservation Means for Bihar and Indian Politics

The decision has come at a time when Nitish Kumar’s own social justice agenda will be tested against his loyalty towards the NDA. The NDA’s coalition dynamics on the issue will surely be an interesting watch.
In the foreground are Narendra Modi, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar. In the middleground are Rahul Gandhi and Tejashwi Yadav. In the background is the Patna high court. Photos: Official X accounts and file.

New Delhi: Opposition forces faced a setback on June 20, 2024 when the Patna high court set aside the Bihar government’s decision to increase reservation for Other Backward Classes(OBC), Extremely Backward Classes (EBC), Scheduled Castes (SC), and Scheduled Tribes (ST) from 50% to 65% in educational institutions and government jobs. 

In November, 2023, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, then a part of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) opposition bloc, had caused a political storm when he led his government in passing crucial amendments in the state assembly to breach the Supreme Court mandated 50% ceiling on reservations. The amendments followed a caste survey in Bihar which showed that 65% of Bihar’s population belonged to these four marginalised groups but had abysmal representation in government jobs and educational institutions.  

The Bihar Reservation Amendment Bill raised the quotas for EBCs from the existing 18% to 25%, for OBCs from 12% to 18%, for SCs from 16% to 20%, and for STs from 1% to 2%. The existing 3% for OBC women was scrapped in the process. The move, and the larger demand to conduct a caste census in India, led to huge resentment among ‘upper’ caste groups across the country. 

Caste census demand

The caste survey itself was conducted as part of an energetic campaign by the opposition alliance to demand a pan-India caste census, the larger motivation being the understanding that reservations should be proportionate to the population of different communities. Jinki jitni sankhya bhaari, utni unki hissedari (quota according to numbers)” became the clarion call of the opposition forces, which advocated the line of thought with an understanding that proportionate reservations will not only result on proportionate social representation in institutions but also help the governments to direct their welfare programmes scientifically. 

Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi dismissed such a demand as caste-based “divisive” politics, the BJP’s Bihar unit extended its full support to Nitish Kumar’s caste survey, leading to unanimous support for the Bihar government’s amendments. To be sure, the demand for a nationwide caste census spawned from the Modi government’s decision to implement 10% quota to Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), which effectively meant an extension of affirmative action for the so-called ‘upper’ castes, as most who were already beneficiaries of reservations were kept out of the ambit of EWS quota. 

Also read: Bihar Caste Survey Highlights Marginalised Micro-Communities; BJP Faces Electoral Dilemma

However, what the EWS quota meant was the Union government breached the Supreme Court’s restriction, as most states had almost exhausted the 50% limit. Moreover, the EWS quota gave disproportionate representation to ‘upper’ caste groups in many states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and also wherever their share of population is not more than 5%. The apex court eventually also upheld the Modi government’s decision as it did not find the EWS quota to be violative of the restriction of 50% on the limit of caste-based reservation in the Indira Sawhney case. 

This triggered the opposition forces to demand a more proportionate system of reservation, even if it meant going above 50%. The Congress, which quickly came out in support of the idea of a caste census first mooted by parties like the Rashtriya Janata Dal and Samajwadi Party, was the first political party to promise that the 50% restriction will be legislatively set aside, if it is elected to power. 

To push the idea forward, the Nitish Kumar-Tejashwi Yadav government quickly conducted a state-level caste survey that threw up stark results. Almost 34% of Bihar’s population earned less than Rs 6000 a month. As expected, the marginalised communities lagged behind the ‘upper’ caste groups by a great distance in almost all socio-economic development indices, including education levels, access to healthcare and unemployment, and even nourishment.  

A changed Bihar 

The Patna high court’s decision to set aside the amendment bill has now thrown up many possibilities, as the political scenario in Bihar has changed. For one, Nitish Kumar has switched over to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. It will be interesting to see whether Nitish picks up the gauntlet and appeals against the high court judgment, as the Modi government may not be in its favour. The Congress general secretary and chief spokesperson, Jairam Ramesh, has already put the ball in his court, asking in a post on X whether his government will now move the Supreme Court against the decision.

“The Patna High Court has just struck down an act passed by the Bihar Assembly last year that provided 65% reservation for SC, ST, OBC and OBC categories in government jobs and educational institutions. The High Court said that this was violating the 50% limit set by the Supreme Court. Will the Bihar Government now immediately appeal to the Supreme Court? Will the NDA Government at the Centre put all its effort behind this appeal with seriousness? Will the Parliament get a chance to discuss this issue as soon as possible?” 

As far as Nitish’s own political stance goes, he has always been a strong advocate of greater representation of EBC and Dalit communities. Both groups have stood by him through thick and thin, despite his growing unpopularity in the state. It is their backing that Nitish emerged as an equal partner of the BJP even in the 2024 general elections, when almost every political observer had already begun writing his political obituary. 

The Patna high court’s decision has come at a time when Nitish’s own social justice agenda will be tested against his loyalty towards the NDA. The NDA’s coalition dynamics on the issue will surely be an interesting watch.

Opposition’s stance

The INDIA bloc has, however, received the perfect window to up the ante in demanding the new Modi government to conduct a pan-India caste census. Although it fought an election without a level-playing field, it was their unequivocal advocacy of social justice that resonated with a large chunk of the electorate, leading to its best electoral performance in the last decade.  

The Congress will surely take up the issue of caste-census and 50% ceiling on reservations in the upcoming Parliament session, while the Rashtriya Janata Dal should be more than willing to fan the social justice political sentiment in Bihar, where assembly polls are due early next year. 

Also read: Akhilesh Yadav’s ‘PDA’ Trumps Modi-Adityanath’s Hindutva in Uttar Pradesh

The diverse parties in the INDIA bloc were perceived as genuinely promising a more proportionate system of affirmative action, when they set aside their electoral formula of nominating mostly candidates belonging to communities that have formed their traditional support base, and chose to diversify their candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. Their experiment was successful to a great extent, pushing the BJP below the majority mark. 

The Patna high court’s judgment has also inadvertently given the opposition alliance an opportune moment not only to take up the issues of caste census and proportionate reservation, but also to diversify its leadership across states around these demands.

In that way, the opposition forces could carry forward the momentum that they gained during the elections. At the same time, the BJP and its allies like Nitish Kumar and N. Chandrababu Naidu, who are backward classes leaders, may have a daunting challenge coming up. 

Grassroots impact

Beyond these political dynamics, however, the high court’s decision will come as a blow for different state-level community movements demanding reservations. In the last decade, dominant landed caste groups like Marathas, Jats, Patidars, and Gujjars have organised aggressive movements to demand reservations. They believe that a quota in jobs may help them overcome, even if partially, their declining gains in farming. Their demands have mostly put the state governments in a difficult situation. 

When Nitish Kumar breached the 50% ceiling, many of these community leaders saw some scope to realise their demands. But with the court setting a strong legal precedent in the matter, these movements will possibly become more belligerent than ever, with leaders insisting on a share within the existing OBC quota. 

This, in turn, may fuel social tension between communities, leading to greater insecurities and anxieties among people. The opposition and the ruling parties will have to brace themselves for a scenario that may not have easy and readymade solutions. 

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