Poll-time gimmick

Source: By Kiran Desai: Deccan Herald

It is evident that the government is on uncertain ground as it prepares for the coming general election in April-May. This is the message from the 10% reservation announced for the economically backward among upper castes. The proposed reservation, approved by the union cabinet, passed by the Lok Sabha and by the Rajya Sabha, is an unmistakable violation of the principles enshrined in the Constitution. The provision of reservations for the SC/ST/OBCs in jobs and education is in order to rectify centuries of injustice meted out to them through caste-based discrimination.  

The principle of reservations 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 a majority of the population.

B R Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and other leading progressive figures were aware that the instrument of reservation was nothing but a small corrective measure which could not right age-old wrongs unless the social structure was shaken and revolutionised entirely. They were also conscious of the fact that social transformation would be a slow and gradual process, especially if the process is to be non-violent. So, at a specific point of time in the social history of India, they had chosen to introduce an instrument that signified their intent to bring about the desired social transformation.

Some of these fundamentals have changed with the coming to power of the BJP in 2014. As election data indicates, almost 50% of the savarnas or forward castes favoured the BJP in 2014. And despite the party amassing a higher vote share than previously even amongst SC/ST/OBCs, the BJP’s unambiguous leaning towards higher castes is reflected in its proportion of savarna MPs (122, or 43.3%) in the present parliament. Two-thirds of the BJP-ruled states’ chief ministers come from higher castes. 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 SC/ST/OBCs on the plank of development while retaining the savarna stronghold by a social manoeuvring of sorts.

The same may not work in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The party’s confidence has been shaken with the beating in the recent assembly elections and perhaps caused fear that the higher caste voters are turning away from it. The party is naturally more worried about the election outcome in Uttar Pradesh in 2019.

The state’s 18-20% savarna voters, who backed the BJP whole-heartedly in 2014, are not a certainty for it. So, the pronouncement of 10% 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. Will it yield the desired result for the ruling party?

Let us not forget that post-Independence, India 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 that we get to see.

The political ascendancy of the Hindu right-wing has emboldened upper castes. The targets 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, there comes the demand for a larger share of the cake in the public sphere through blatant aggression 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. Jobs in the public sector are shrinking, with open preference for privatisation in almost all sectors.

The savarnas’ aggressive demand for reservations and the government succumbing to it has grossly overlooked the social specificity of the Indian experience under which the provision was introduced. Inclusion of upper caste reservations therefore violate constitutional sanctity. The central government has even amended the constitution to introduce such reservations.

And it seems that due to political expediency and short-sightedness of winning elections, the Congress and other political parties did not oppose the move. That is annihilation of the principles for which Gandhi, Nehru and other Congress leaders stood. But such is the decay in 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 reservations is meaningless and futile.

The passage of the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019, providing reservation to upper caste poor may benefit the BJP politically in an election year by allowing it to sell the idea to the higher castes that the party backs them.