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Religion, caste and welfarism

This week’s Supreme Court judgement not only reaffirmed the principle of reservation but it also suggested that it’s no longer necessary to cap reservation at fifty percent.

You can reserve the majority of jobs, places at educational institutions, etc. should you want to. You can also go beyond caste and reserve jobs and places on the basis of economic status.


Gosh, I thought to myself, we have come a long way from the Mandal era!


   You would have to be middle aged to remember the Mandal agitation. On the assumption that most of you are younger than that, here is what happened.


   In 1990, Prime Minister VP Singh announced that his government would implement the proposals contained in a largely-forgotten report of the Mandal Commission. This had not been a major part of VP Singh’s original campaign promises, so he took the country by surprise.


   Essentially, the proposals extended reservations in government jobs beyond the existing categories of Scheduled Caste and Tribes. In retrospect, it seems clear that the proposals were not far-reaching and made little difference to most areas of Indian life. It is as clear that some state governments had already implemented similar forms of reservation.


   But VP Singh sold this move to the country as an era-defining moment that would transform India. Protests erupted at colleges all over India from young people who believed that reservation went against the principle of merit and soon students even began immolating themselves. But VP Singh refused to budge.


   In 1991, when the next General Election was held, VP Singh and his party were wiped out but other parties whose support bases stood to benefit from Mandal did well. VP Singh boasted that though he had been defeated, his agenda had won.


   The conventional wisdom is that the 1991 election marked the beginning of a new trend in Hindi belt politics where caste-based parties now held sway. The BJP was taken by surprise by VP Singh’s initiative and in an effort to counter the caste impact, LK Advani launched on a Ram-themed Rath Yatra, pitting religion against caste in this battle for the Hindi heartland.


   All this was significant because since 1971, caste had begun to play less and less of a role at Indian general elections.  In 1971, Mrs. Gandhi won a landslide across castes and religions. In 1977, when she was defeated, the voting was not caste-based. Likewise in 1980 when she came back with a sweeping mandate. And in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi’s massive victory was based on the support of all Indians.


   In 1989, when the Congress weakened, when the BJP began to make an impact and when such politicians as Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh emerged, this began to change. But it was not till 1991, that we realised that Indian politics was starting to become all about identity.


    That trend has endured. In UP, the battle is between the BJP and caste-based parties. It is the same in Bihar. And Indian politics now is only nominally about ideology or performance: it is really about identity. Even when a urban, normally non-identity-based party like AAP ventures into Gujarat, its leader has to play the Hindu card.


"What the Supreme Court was not asked to consider is a more crucial question: is the regular extension of reservations based on a need to level the playing field?"

   Monday’s Supreme Court judgement and the responses to it reminded me how much the public mood has changed since 1990 and the Mandal agitation.


   In that era, many people objected to the extension of reservation, arguing that even the Dalit reservation mandated by the Constitution was originally meant to be time-bound. If politicians were going to keep extending reservation to other castes, it would mitigate against the principle of equality and merit. (The counter argument was that this was the view of upper castes and therefore biased).


   I found a faint echo of that sentiment in the dissenting view (by the CJI UU Lalit and Justice S Ravindra Bhat) in the Supreme Court case. The dissenters said that the extension of quotas was “contradictory to the essence of equal opportunity” and that it “struck at the heart of the equality code.”


   The Supreme Court was not discussing caste-based reservation. The case had to do with an extension of reservation to economically weaker sections (EWS). There were two significant issues to be considered. Could the quantum of reservation go above 50 per cent of available opportunities? Yes, the judgement of the majority suggested. And was it okay if this extension excluded those covered by other quotas? The majority said yes, again.


   I will not take issue with the judgment which reflects a political consensus as well. But it does raise the important question: are we saying that 75 years after Independence, we have failed so completely to create a society with equality of opportunity that each year, we have to pass laws which assert that merit cannot be the only criteria for advancement; that we still have to come up with special quotas? And that the view of the framers of our Constitution that reservations should be time-bound, have now been junked?


   It would appear we are.


   What the Supreme Court was not asked to consider is a more crucial question: is the regular extension of reservations based on a need to level the playing field? Or have reservations just become yet another way for politicians to appeal to vote-banks to secure their support?


   At every election you will find politicians promising further reservation if they are elected. Every party does it at some level. Just as politicians dole out material freebies (or ‘revdi’ as the Prime Minister has called them), they now offer reservations in the hope of winning votes.


   What is significant is that even the BJP, which was so worried by the Mandal announcement in 1990, is now playing the caste game. It frequently draws attention to Narendra Modi’s status as a backward caste and wins elections by constructing caste coalitions. Add welfarism to that strategy (and reservation for EWS falls into that category) and you have a formidable election-winning combination: religion, caste and welfarism.


   It is not my case that any of this is a bad thing, only that Indian politics in the 21st Century is played by very different rules. Elections are not won or lost on performance or even ideology.


   And the quest for a India where caste would not matter has been abandoned. With reservation, citizens need to know exactly what caste they are — and this will endure for generations to come.


   Though we did not realise it at the time, 1990/1 was the turning point in our politics. It was during this period that identity politics took over. Caste and reservation became the dominant issues after Mandal. And this was when the rath yatra laid the foundations of a new Hindutva-dominant India.


   As for those who immolated themselves, well what can we say? It wasn’t just human beings. Ideals and an entire style of politics also went up in flames during that period.



Posted On: 10 Nov 2022 11:00 AM
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