Photo by Martin BERNETTI / AFP
Photo by Martin BERNETTI / AFP

It is evident that the ruling party is on uncertain ground as it prepares for the coming general election later this year. This is the message from the 10 per cent reservation announced for the economically backward upper castes, in addition to the present quota for SCs, STs and OBCs. The proposed reservation, approved on Monday by the Union Cabinet, is an unmistakable violation of the principles enshrined in the constitution. The provision of reservations for the mentioned groups in jobs and education is in order to rectify, to modify, centuries of injustice meted out to them through a hierarchical social structure that has enforced discrimination based on social inequality of highest order and of inhuman practices in their extremity.

The principle of reservation recognises that these social groups were exploited, humiliated and oppressed generation after generation for several centuries due to discriminatory social practices prescribed by the caste system and based on the social hierarchy of ‘varnashram’. The ascribed social status denotes inequality of an extreme nature which stymied the prospering and flowering of natural human traits for a majority of the population.

Dr B R Ambedkar, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and other leading progressive figures were aware that the instrument of reservation was nothing but a small corrective measure which could not put right age-old social injustice, unless the social structure was shaken and revolutionised entirely. They were also conscious of the fact that social transformation would be a very slow and a gradual process, especially if the process is envisaged in a non-violent, non-jerky way.

So, at a specific point of time in the social history of India, they had chosen to introduce an instrument that signified their sincere and committed intent to bring about the desired social transformation. However, the present social order needed to show remorse and more significantly, intent and determination to transform the oppressive social structure.

Some of these fundamentals have changed with the coming to power of the BJP in 2014. As election data indicates, almost 50 per cent of the ‘savarnas’ or forward castes favoured the BJP in 2014. And despite the party amassing a higher voting share even amongst STs, SCs and OBCs, especially in comparison to earlier elections, the BJP’s unambiguous leaning towards higher castes is reflected in its proportion of ‘savarna’ MPs (122, or 43.3 per cent) in the present Parliament.

Two-third of the BJP ruled State chief ministers come from higher caste backgrounds. It is true that the BJP came to power under the leadership of Narendra Modi, who is an OBC himself. But it managed to harvest the votes of SCs, STs and OBCs on the plank of development while retaining the ‘savarna’ stronghold within the power structure – a social manoeuvring of sorts.

The same may not work for 2019. The party’s confidence has been shaken with the beating in the Assembly elections and perhaps brought in fears that the higher caste voters are turning away, especially due to issues like the Union government’s stand pertaining to SC/ST atrocities Act in the wake of Supreme Court’s ruling. The party is naturally more worried about the election outcome in UP in 2019. The State’s 18-20 per cent ‘savarna’ voters who backed the BJP whole-heartedly in 2014 are not a certainty.

So, the pronouncement of 10 per cent reservation for economically poor ‘savarnas’, a definite political ploy, hopes to accomplish a social rainbow comprising social groups of all hues as the support-base. But will it yield the desired result for the ruling party?  Let us not forget that post-independent India has opted for a capitalist mode of economic structure and that has in its own way reinforced and strengthened social inequality. The socially dominant groups have become economically strong and hence, more vocal, oppressive and exploitative. Sections among them have not come to terms with the constitutional mechanism of affirmative measures that have provided some space to socially weaker groups. The first opposition came under the garb of meritocracy.

The anti-reservation agitation witnessed in the 1980s in Gujarat bears testimony to this parochial tendency we get to see.
The political ascendancy of the Hindu right wing has emboldened upper castes. The target are Dalits and other weaker groups, including the minorities. Efforts are being made on the one hand to nullify and weaken constitutional measures such as reservations. On the other hand, there comes the demand for a larger share of the cake in the public sphere through blatant aggressiveness using the unholy nexus of the dominant castes with the State machinery.

The demand for reservation by ‘Patidars’ in Gujarat and Marathas in Maharashtra has a further dimension more related to diminishing employment opportunities. Employment options in the public sector are shrinking with open preference for privatisation in almost all sectors. The ‘savarnas’ aggressive demand for reservation within the constitutional framework and government succumbing to it has grossly overlooked the social specificity of the Indian experience under which the provision is introduced. Inclusion of upper caste reservations is therefore violating constitutional sanctity. The Central government seems to be keen on introducing it even by a constitutional amendment.

And it seems that due to political expediency and the short-sightedness of winning elections, the Congress would not oppose this move. That would be an annihilation of the principles for which Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders stood. But such is the decay in terms of norms and ethos in electoral democracy, irrespective of the party, that the larger and noble objective of social transformation is subverted to grab power. So far as the employment issue is concerned, admittedly even the youth of social groups belonging to higher and intermediate castes have been facing a tough and critical time. But can more reservations be the answer?

The overall job opportunities in the public sector are rapidly shrinking as privatisation is growing. And secondly, the problem fundamentally pertains to the economic structure. The demand has to be for a policy change and structural transformation in the economic sphere. Demanding reservation is meaningless and futile. We don’t know if the move will pass through both the Houses of Parliament. But it may benefit the BJP politically in an election year by selling the idea to the higher castes that the party backs them.

Kiran Desai is a noted social scientist and professor at the Centre for Social Studies, Surat. (Syndicate: The Billion Press)

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