Current affairs Blog
The fatal attraction of quota politics
- January 9, 2019
- Posted by: admin
- Category: Indian Polity ,Governance & Issues
The govt’s proposal to expand the country’s affirmative action agenda implicitly shows how electoral behaviour continues to be defined around religious and caste denominations
On Monday the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government moved to expand the country’s affirmative action agenda. It has proposed 10% reservation for the economically weaker sections in the general category of the population for government jobs and admission to education institutions, both in the public and private sectors.
At present, the affirmative action is restricted to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs)—cumulatively adding up to 50%. The additional reservation will mean upping the reservation quota to 60%. Interestingly, the quota prescribed for education extends even to private sector institutions. To implement this it proposes to amend the Constitution of India to specifically include economic deprivation as a criterion for affirmative action. This is because under Article 15 and Article 16 of the Constitution, affirmative action is allowed to correct for social and educational backwardness. The proposed action raises several issues.
For one, the timing of the proposal, with just under two months left for the next general election cycle, has led to the charge of political opportunism being levelled against the BJP, especially since it is well received by the upper castes, a traditional BJP vote bank which, of late, has felt alienated. To be sure, though, this has been a long-standing demand—most recently expressed by Mayawati, the chief of the Bahujan Samaj Party—and may well be justified as political action that is long overdue.
Regardless, the episode implicitly raises a more fundamental question on how electoral behaviour continues to be defined in this country around religious and caste denominations—exactly why you have political parties defined around such electoral currencies. In turn, this has enabled politicians to pursue a flawed list of priorities for the country—eschewing basic focus areas such as health and education—without being challenged.
This is a fatal failure for India as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen pointed out in an interview published in Mint on Monday. According to him, the situation is so dire today that most of the poor neither have a school nor a hospital to turn to for receiving basic education and diagnostic healthcare.
And as he points out, this is a systemic failure over the last seven decades: “The main thing is India has never tried to develop on a solid footing either primary healthcare or primary education. In the absence of that, you cannot make anything else stand.” The second cause for thought is that the proposed change is walking a very fine line on social justice.
As Dalit scholar Chandra Bhan Prasad pointed out in Mint on Tuesday, that the original idea of reservation for SCs and STs was premised on correcting deprivation forced upon them by centuries of prejudice. A similar justification is missing in the argument justifying enhancing the ceiling on quota to accommodate the economically disadvantaged. Prasad is right in claiming that the latest move will open the door on dilution of the original idea of affirmative action.
The Modi government’s reservation gambit is neither sound policy nor smart politics
India presents a classic case of proto-politics. Nothing that is institutional has an appeal and the insatiable clamour for quick surprises is a constant. While on Sunday at a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) event as part of its Dalit outreach, a world record was attempted by cooking 5,000 kg of ‘khichdi’, on Monday the Central government announced 10% reservation for ‘economic backwards’ to reach out to upper castes. The announcement is clearly aimed at the 2019 general election. However, it needs to be seen whether playing the reservation card in its inverted form would be a ‘zero sum game’ or a ‘win-win’ situation for the BJP?
In the last decade, India has been witnessing the interplay of the agrarian crisis and demands for reservation by dominant peasant castes, Jats in the north, Marathas and Patidars in the west, and Kappus in the south. The resultant political crisis leads to absurd complexities whereby reservation is sought and promised as the remedy for agrarian distress. Similarly, the BJP’s recent electoral reverses in three Hindi heartland States signalled that a section of the upper castes, the core support base of the party, had drifted away. This seems to have necessitated the proposed policy-cum-political measure of reserving 10% seats for them to woo them back. However, here too the party may be drawing the wrong inference. A significant section of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Dalits accompanied upper caste voters in moving away from the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. While, anti-reservation forums like SAPAKS, or Samanya Picchdaa Evam Alpsankhyak Samaj, had campaigned against the BJP on account of controversies related to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, in reality they merely deflected the root cause of the anger due to agrarian and rural distress. The fact that the BJP performed better than the Congress in the Baghelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, the core region of SAPAKS activity, indicates this.
Subaltern, Hindutva, Bahujan
The key to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 electoral success lay in meticulously fusing the social support bases of two antagonistic discourses of 1990s emanating from Mandal and Mandir politics. By the early 1990s, Mandal evolved into a Bahujan experiment wherein the ‘Other’ were the upper castes, while the Hindutva discourse attempted to forge a solid social support base by giving thick political representation to subaltern Hindus to constitute Muslims as the common ‘Other’. It succeeded vis-à-vis Bahujan discourse on account of the two-fold internal social contradictions: between Dalits and OBCs on the one hand, and between dominant OBCs and lower OBCs on the other.ALSO READThe Hindu Explains: The new 10% quota, its implications, and more
In fact, by the late 1990s, the BJP managed to shed its anti-reservation image and emerged as a platform for the lower OBCs, who felt left out from the benefits of Mandal politics. By 2014, Mr. Modi (along with allies) took the logic of subaltern Hindutva to its zenith by winning 73 out of 80 seats in Uttar Pradesh without fielding a single Muslim. Subaltern Hindutva seemed deeply entrenched as lower OBCs got thick political representation out of the seats denied to Muslims besides occupying crucial organisational posts in the BJP and other Hindutva groups. It must be noted that a majority of Dalits and dominant OBCs were less fluid as compared to the lower OBCs, whose political alignment has of late emerged as the determinant of electoral outcomes, especially in the Hindi heartland. It is this section that appeared too to have become the core support base of the BJP with the ascendency of subaltern Hindutva.
However, since the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls in Uttar Pradesh, the original claimants of the Bahujan experiment, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have tactically revised their approach by giving more representation to lower OBCs, thereby hitting the comfort zone of the BJP.
It is against this backdrop that when the BJP faces the Mahagathbandhan in U.P. and Bihar, its policy priority should be the lower OBCs whose electoral fluidity may stem trouble for the party. Appealing to upper castes through a judicially unviable proposition at this juncture is neither good policy nor smart politics. All it would end up doing is denting the already weakened image of Mr. Modi as a leader of backward sections and giving electoral ammunition in the hands of the Mahagathbandhan, which may not oppose the reservation openly but will position itself to emerge as the beneficiary of the possible reaction by Bahujans.
The proposed Bill flies in the face of constitutional provisions and court verdicts. Even if a constitutional amendment inserts ‘economic backwardness’ as the basis for reservation besides existing social and educational backwardness in Article 15(4), it cannot make a persuasive case to breach the 50% cap for reservations, as the constitutional provision is clear that the scale of reservation under Article 16(4) has to be minority in nature.ALSO READ10% quota Bill may fail legal test
This would mean that either the proposed Bill would be nullified, or the 10% reservation would have to be accommodated in the existing 50% cap. Either way it would be a dead-end for the BJP.
Reservation is neither an instrument of poverty-eradication, nor does it have the scale to cope with the agrarian and other economic crises afflicting India today. At a time when a deep institutional response is warranted, going for the easy and lazy measure of earmarking reservation amounts to policy escapism. The trend of making public policies and institutional response subservient to electoral exigencies as a norm is tantamount to treating India as a proto-state. And on a pragmatic note, elections are fought and won by appealing to fence-sitters rather than hypnotising the ‘core’ again and again, as the BJP now seems to be doing.
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