EWS Quota Creates Narrative: Politics Pitches Poverty Against Caste

Ajay Gudavarthy

It is crucial to critique the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) reservation scheme for what it intends to do—push out caste-based reservations and replace them with economic criteria. But one should approach this not the way BJP expects one to do it. There has been much-needed critique and large-scale reaction to how EWS questions settled Constitutional provisions for Social Justice, but there are other essential issues one needs to raise about the EWS that have gone missing.

To begin with, it is clear the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has formulated such a policy with electoral dividends in mind. To carve out a constituency of the `poor` or economically weak among the caste Hindus, why does BJP think formulating such a policy will not adversely impact its support among the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Classes?

Most analysis has seen the policy as an upfront attack against the lower-end castes, but the BJP thinks that with the EWS, it can gain support or consolidate its support among economically weak caste Hindus without eroding the support of the bahujans. This nonchalant confidence in the BJP is what most social analysts have failed to capture. It says something about how dominance is structured at the lower end, and the debates we carry on with the social ‘categories’ of social justice we invoke do not trickle down, nor do they help us capture the reality of the majority of dalit-bahujans.

Constitutional principles do not capture the reality of the majority but a tiny minority. Reservations have benefited no more than 6% of Dalits, as Anand Teltumbde notes, which is not to undermine its significance but to highlight its limitation. It also highlights that the voices of the dalit-bahujan middle class created out of mobility created by reservations either don’t exist or don’t matter on the ground.

They remain as disconnected as the rest from the majority of their ilk. Undermining the dalit-bahujan middle classes by shaking up the foundational principles of social justice does not mean the rest of the sections among them will respond accordingly. They can be mobilised independently and in different registers. It also says something grave about the opposition parties.

They are either mostly confused or choose to remain muted. While not supporting EWS will lead to erosion of support among caste Hindus, opposing it is no guarantee to gain the social support of the dalit-bahujans.

Much of the social analysis strictly limited to established and received categories highlights how principles of justice ought to work, but they do not capture how they come to be challenged. Merely offering a critique that exclusively highlights violations of democratic principles does not guarantee anything. It merely reiterates that violations do happen. On its own accord, the social analysis does not translate into a political analysis that captures the popular processes. Social and legal analysis of violations of Constitutional provisions does not ‘naturally’ appeal to any constituency.

Social analysis needs to be translated into political imagery to generate wider resonance. While academics can be pardoned for this failure, what explains political parties’ failure? Does it show operative logic of political mobilisation on the ground has shifted into different registers? Or that the violations and incivility introduced by the BJP are not a radical departure from the past.

And, therefore, create no ripples except among those who are ideologically inclined and motivated? They often see a much bigger design, and legitimately so, but ideology is again like constitutionalism is necessary but insufficient. Much of BJP’s current mobilisation in this endemic gap operates and finds resonance.

Further, EWS, with an income of Rs 8 lakh, includes the majority of caste Hindus who, in any case, would get admission and employment. EWS, in reality, does not benefit any particular section within the caste Hindus but claims to do so vis-à-vis the dalits and the OBCs. It gives a sense of empowerment more in its exclusion than in its inclusion. The fact that SCs, STs and the OBCs are made ineligible under the EWS despite having the bulk (82%) of the nation’s poor is the real USP of the policy. It wishes to pitch the economically weak among caste Hindus against SCs, STs and the OBCs.

In this exclusion is the real empowerment of the vulnerable sections within the dominant groups. Again much of the available analysis has pitched poverty versus caste and why poverty is transitory while caste-based discrimination is debilitatingly permanent. Precisely the kind of critique RSS-BJP expected from the `progressive` sections. This also fails to capture the precariat-like conditions even among the caste Hindus.

The question of representation provides a schematic view of justice but not its operative logic. It still does not address that poverty can be as debilitating as any other structure. In shifting the terms of the debate to a comparison between caste and poverty, the ruling regime gets away with doing pretty much nothing to either. But ironically, it manages to gain the support of both these sections.

A critique of a scheme such as the EWS has to interrogate its performative capabilities. It is not based on evidence precisely because it intends to create a narrative. It is worrying that courts, too, are beginning to fall for popular perceptions as it serves certain ‘privileges’. It also demonstrates that institutions are culpable because populist narratives have a purchase, and mobilising the Hindu identity readily resonates with higher officials, and there may not be an exclusive need to fix or generate a sense of fear or vulnerabilities.

While one could continue to legitimate critique and lament violations of Constitutional principles by itself, it will not thwart policies such as the EWS. It can only happen when an equally powerful counter-narrative and performance can resonate on the ground. Mere piling up of evidence will not work, however sacrilegious it might be. Academics and analysts need to make an extra effort to connect social analysis to political performance and the kinds of narratives that can work. Unless we make sense of the emergent reality, it will remain a discourse only among the already converted.

This article was first published in NewsClick as The Other Side of EWS Quota.

About the Author

Ajay Gudavarthy

Dr Ajay Gudavarthy, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, (JNU), New Delhi.