The Narendra Modi government's decision to give 10 per cent reservation to the economically backward sections in jobs and admissions to educational institutions may have pushed political opponents onto the back foot — but it is a step in the right direction.
The decision finally brings almost all sections of the Indian populace on the same plane as far as affirmative action opportunities are concerned.
The reservation issue has been a major source of social and political friction between upper caste groups and SC/ST and OBC communities.
The former believed the backwards were being given an undue and prolonged advantage, and frequently expressed their ire through further social barbs, discrimination and harsh behaviour towards "quota candidates". From officials within government offices all the way to IITs, where Dalit students often expressed their exclusion owing to perceptions of them entering through caste, not merit, the "quota candidate" became a hard, often cruel slur.
Vote bank politics also fed this bitter narrative some more, with the emergence of post-Mandal regional satraps willing to further drive a wedge between the caste groups.
The latest Bill, if it passes legislative and legal muster, would substantially bridge this divide.
While the Mandal Commission provided for 50 per cent reservation to the SC/ST and OBCs — groups that make for nearly 69% of the population — the remaining 31% may not be left out now, provided they meet the qualifying criteria set by the government.
Which, in effect, means that almost everyone could be fairly enough called a "quota candidate". The merit argument thereby bites the dust. For decades, "merit versus quota" haunted candidates across the board. Today, it is obvious that "quota" has definetely won the battle and the "merit" weapon has been effectively blunted.
As per the latest proposal, anyone whose annual income is below Rs 8 lakh, if they own agricultural land less than five hectares, if they own homes smaller than 1,000 sq. ft, if they own residential plots below 109 yards in a notified municipality and if they own a residential plot below 209 yards in a non-notified municipality, would make the cut for the 10 per cent reservation.
The criteria is vast enough, indeed, for the quota to never become much of a reality. This means that while everyone can be called a "quota candidate", in fact, very few — possibly, the most depressed sections — will actually receive due quotas.
The rest can revel in the knowledge that one way or the other, they qualify.
We are all 'quota candidates' and no one can be self-righteous about 'merit' after today.
Even in terms of pure rhetoric and how we view each other, vis-a-vis our own selves, this will be a positive social step.