Bihar: Patna High Court’s Reservation Ruling Tests Nitish Kumar’s Social Justice Agenda Within NDA

The question now looms whether Nitish will challenge the high court’s ruling, given potential opposition from the Modi government.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar

New Delhi: The Patna High Court’s decision to overturn the Bihar Reservation Amendment Act, which had increased quotas for EBCs from 18% to 25%, for OBCs from 12% to 18%, for SCs from 16% to 20% and for STs from 1% to 2%, has reshaped the political landscape in Bihar. Chief Minister Kumar’s recent alignment with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) adds complexity to the situation.

The question now looms whether Nitish will challenge the high court’s ruling, given potential opposition from the Modi government. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh has already posed this query, urging him to consider appealing to the Supreme Court in a statement on ‘X’ (formerly Twitter).

“The recent decision by the Patna High Court to invalidate the Bihar Assembly’s legislation from last year, which increased reservations to 65% for SCs, STs, OBCs and EBCs in government jobs and educational institutions, has sparked a debate over constitutional limits. Will the Bihar Government pursue an immediate appeal to the Supreme Court? Will the NDA government prioritize and support this appeal? Can Parliament address this issue promptly?”

Nitish has long advocated for greater representation of EBC and Dalit communities, who have steadfastly supported him despite his waning popularity in the state. Their support was pivotal in him becoming an equal partner with the BJP even in the 2024 general elections, defying predictions of his political decline.

The High Court’s decision arrives at a critical juncture, testing Nitish’s commitment to his social justice agenda against his loyalty to the NDA. The coalition dynamics within the NDA regarding this issue promise to be closely observed.

The Opposition’s INDIA bloc now finds itself in a prime position to intensify its demand for the new Modi government to conduct a nationwide caste census. Despite contesting an election under uneven conditions, their unwavering commitment to social justice struck a chord with a significant portion of the electorate, resulting in their strongest electoral showing in the past decade.

In the upcoming Parliament session, the Congress is poised to raise issues concerning the caste census and the 50% reservation ceiling, while the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) is expected to amplify the cause of social justice ahead of Bihar’s impending assembly polls early next year.

During the Lok Sabha elections, the diverse parties within the INDIA bloc took a bold step by diversifying their candidate selection beyond their traditional support bases, focusing instead on promising a more equitable affirmative action system. This strategic shift proved largely successful, notably diminishing the BJP’s majority.

The ruling has inadvertently provided the Opposition alliance with an ideal opportunity not only to champion the causes of a caste census and proportional reservations but also to expand its leadership across various states based on these issues.

This development enables the Opposition to maintain the electoral momentum gained during recent elections. Meanwhile, leaders like Nitish Kumar and N. Chandrababu Naidu, who represent backward classes and are aligned with the BJP, may face significant challenges ahead.

Apart from the political ramifications, the Patna High Court’s decision will significantly impact various state-level community movements advocating for reservations. Over the past decade, influential landed caste groups such as Marathas, Jats, Patidars and Gujjars have organized assertive campaigns to secure job reservations.

They view quotas as a potential remedy to offset their diminishing returns from agriculture. These movements have often placed state governments in challenging positions.

Nitish’s move to surpass the 50% reservation limit initially provided a glimmer of hope for these community leaders to advance their demands. However, the court’s recent decision sets a firm legal precedent, likely prompting these movements to intensify their efforts, pushing for a share within the existing OBC quota.

Consequently, heightened demands within the OBC quota could escalate social tensions among communities, fostering greater insecurity and apprehension among the populace. Both Opposition and ruling parties must prepare for a complex scenario that lacks straightforward solutions.

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