With hardly anything tangible to show for the performance of his government over the last three and a half years, Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is banking on dubious plans for increasing reservations to shore up his image before the Assembly elections, which are about 16 months away.
He has two cards up his sleeve:
1) To increase the quota for the scheduled castes (SC), scheduled tribes (ST), other backward classes (OBC) and minorities in educational institutions and government jobs to 70% from 50% now.
2) To impose 100% reservation in blue-collared jobs for 'locals' in the private sector.
Siddaramaiah would be aware that given the Constitutional position, both proposals are near-impossible to achieve. But, it seems, he would like to put the ball in the BJP's court and emerge a bruised champion of the down-trodden and Kannadigas.
Showing serious intent, Siddaramaiah's government has issued a draft amendment to the Karnataka Industrial Employment (Standing Order) Rules 1961:
"Every establishment which has obtained concessions of land, water, electricity or tax rebate or deferment of tax as per state's industrial policy, shall provide horizontal reservation of 100 per cent in employment to local people in case of workmen classified in sub-clause...."
The government has exempted the Information Technology and Biotechnology sectors from these provisions "for the time being", which may extend up to five years.
Problems in this plan
According to Article 16 of India's Constitution, there shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens relating to employment. Reservations can be provided only for SCs, STs and OBCs. Reserving jobs for 'locals' would therefore be unconstitutional, feels legal experts.
Others point out that Karnataka's economic development, especially in the manufacturing and service sectors have been fuelled by skilled workers from outside the state and that the construction, health and hospitality industries function almost entirely with the help of migrant labour and they would simply collapse if they were asked to hire only locals.
Most are of the opinion that since the unemployment rate in Karnataka at 1.7% is less than half of the national average - it does not warrant such a drastic step.
Besides, investor confidence in Karnataka, which is already at a low due to infrastructure bottlenecks and red-tapism in giving clearances, may go further down as a locals-only policy may hit efficiency and competitiveness of industries.
What about merit?
Infosys founder NR Narayanamurthy, one of the pioneers of the IT revolution in the country, had frowned upon such a proposal as he has consistently maintained that merit and suitability alone should be the criteria for employment.
He had argued that instead of pushing an unscientific policy, the government would do well to improve education and other skill sets of the local people to enhance their job prospects.
According to Labour Minister Santosh Lad, the proposal has been sent to the law department and the government may come up with legislation during the coming budget session of the Assembly.
Another plan of the Siddaramaiah government is to increase the overall reservation in the state sector, following the example of Tamil Nadu which is the only state in the country with 69% reservation.
Matter of percentages
In the landmark Indra Sawhney vs Union of India case pertaining to Mandal commission, a 5-member Bench of the Supreme Court had held in 1992 that overall reservation should not exceed 50%.
Subsequent attempts by many state governments to cross this barrier with reservation for more backward communities and Muslims, have been thwarted by high courts across the country.
Tamil Nadu under Jayalalithaa was able to protect its higher reservation by passing a new legislation in 1993 following the Mandal verdict and pressuring the Narasimha Rao government at the Centre to put it under the 9th Schedule of the Constitution.
It has survived for a little over two decades, though the matter is before the Supreme Court. The court had suggested during the hearing that Tamil Nadu should conduct a fresh caste survey to justify 69%, though not promising that it could lead to a favourable verdict.
Drawing up lists
Taking a hint from the SC's observation, the Siddaramaiah government took up a new caste census two years ago, thinly disguised as a socio-economic survey of various communities.
Though the report is still under wraps, some 'leaks' in the media created a furore some time ago. These leaks seemed to suggest that the dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities were much smaller than earlier believed, while the populations of SCs, STs and OBCs had gone up substantially.
Siddaramaiah plans to place the report before the coming session of Assembly and also come up with a draft legislation increasing reservation from 50% to 70%.
He recently challenged the BJP and the JD(S) to support such a legislation if they cared for the welfare of minorities and the backward classes.
The CM is aware that his appeasement policy faces major hurdles from the Central government and the courts. As the legislation requires Presidential approval, the BJP-led government at the Centre could stall its progress by raising a number of queries.
It is unlikely to oblige the Siddaramaiah government by putting the legislation in the 9th Schedule as had been done in the case of Tamil Nadu.
But, Siddaramaiah's strategy appears to be to put the BJP on the dock and emerge as a messiah of the minorities and the backward classes.
Whether the electorate fall for the gimmick and allow him to come back to power in April 2018 remains to be seen.
Edited by Jhinuk Sen