The move to reserve jobs for the "economically backward" upper castes is fundamentally ill-advised. It sits poorly with the original, and still valid, rationale of reservations for Dalits as people who are socially excluded and whose human dignity is denied.
It has been called a "master stroke" and an "astute" move to weaken the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) savarna (upper caste) base in Rajasthan while boosting the Congress' chances of winning elections. The Ashok Gehlot government's dramatic May 21 announcement that it would reserve 14 per cent of state jobs for economically backward (EB) layers among the upper castes - over and above the 49 per cent reserved for Dalits and Adivasis and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) - took the BJP by surprise. In the short run, it may yield some votes for the Congress in Rajasthan.
The move has since snow-balled way beyond Rajasthan. However, it is deeply fraught, indeed profoundly ill-advised. It will probably end up helping the BJP consolidate its dwindling savarna support-base in crucial northern States such as Uttar Pradesh. It is likely to hurt the cause of secular politics based on a commitment to equity and social justice. More fundamentally, reserving jobs for the EB is morally incompatible with a rational concept of positive discrimination relevant to Indian realities.
Broadly speaking, the idea of creating EB job quotas falls in the same category as Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh's proposal to ban cow slaughter (and promote cow worship and use of cow's urine). Both measures are instances of political manoeuvres called trasformismo in early 20th century Italy, a phenomenon to which the great theorist Antonio Gramsci paid close attention.
Trasformismo, which literally means transformation, is the tactic of appropriating your opponents' agenda, or stealing their clothes so to speak, in order to weaken their support and strengthen your chances of survival. This is different from countering or confronting your opponents by launching a campaign based on your own distinctive agenda. V.P. Singh used such a counter-tactic in 1990 to fight the mandir (Ayodhya temple) movement with Mandal (adoption of the Mandal Commission report to create quotas in Central government jobs for the OBCs).
Trasformismo is problematic by its very nature because one's opponents set the core agenda in the first place, usually on their terms. They can always reclaim it. The gains from the tactic are typically shortlived and are particularly paltry when the substance of the agenda sits ill with the basic thrust of one's political ideology, programme and appeal.
In the present case, the BJP has already appropriated Gehlot's proposal. Its general secretary, Pramod Mahajan, originally dismissed it as a mere "political gimmick on the eve of elections." Some Rajasthan BJP leaders also characterised it as an awkward response to the on-going agitation for reservations by upper-caste groups under the banner of the Social Justice Front (SJF) chaired by BJP legislator Devi Singh Bhatti. Some called it "Gehlot's googly". Others were more confused. The Rajasthan Brahman Mahasabha rejected the EB quota idea as "an attempt to befool the Brahmin community and gain political mileage." (It wants poor Brahmins to be explicitly included in the OBC category.)
However, the BJP quickly understood the political potential of the EB quota and made a U-turn. It called an emergency meeting of State leaders in Jaipur a day before the May 25 national office-bearers meeting there. Mahajan himself took an SJF delegation to meet Advani, who reportedly told it that its demand was "genuine" and that a national commission would be set up to study the viability of creating upper-caste quotas.
The very next day, BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu announced that the party had taken up the demand with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who "assured us that a commission would be set up soon." Venkaiah Naidu stated that the demand was part of the BJP's original agenda. "The BJP at its Bhopal national executive meeting in 1985 itself had asked for such reservation," he said.
The Congress, for its part, is equally keen to claim parentage for savarna quotas - its spokesperson S. Jaipal Reddy emphasised that the Narasimha Rao government issued an executive order in 1991giving 10 per cent reservation to the upper castes, which was struck down by the Supreme Court. He also recalled that the party promised EB quotas in its manifesto for the 2002 Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) Assembly elections.
The Congress is trying hard to prevent the BJP from getting political mileage out of the issue. It accuses the BJP of resorting to "dilatory and diversionary tactics" by proposing a national commission. Instead, it wants a constitutional amendment right away; a commission could be created as part of the amendment process. Gehlot has since written to Vajpayee saying EB quotas are "necessary for the nation as a whole on the principle of equity and equality. I am confident that the initiative ... will have a salutary effect on social fraternity in all sections of society."
It is hard to predict which of the two contenders will win the quota contest. The issue is important for both. The Congress lost most of its upper-caste base in the north long ago, although it has begun to attract some Brahmin and Rajput support in U.P., where these castes are disillusioned with the BJP because of its alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). There is a "Rajput revolt" against the coalition because of Mayawati's detention of Raghuraj Pratap Singh under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA). The Congress is eager to strengthen its savarna appeal. It reckons that if it can make a dent in the Brahmin-Rajput-Bania vote in U.P., Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, it could win the coming round of Assembly elections.
The BJP is desperate to win back its eroded northern upper-caste support. In U.P., its savarna base is in tatters and it lives in mortal fear of losing even what is left of its OBC support, thanks to its alliance with Mayawati. It can win this year's Assembly elections, which hold the key to the next Lok Sabha elections, only if it can appeal to its core constituency - the savarnas. It sees the EB quota as the key to this. The savarna quota idea has the BJP salivating. The Indian Express quotes a party office-bearer: "This reservation is going to be the Ram-baan (panacea) for all our ailments. Just watch out! Once we are able to work on this, we will beat our adversaries hands-down, even in U.P."
In the long run, the BJP may be better placed than the Congress to win savarna support. For one, its Hindutva core ideology has an upper-caste bias. The BJP, especially the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is attached to the Greater Traditions within Hinduism, including the smritis and Brahminical scriptures, not the Little Traditions that are popular among the "lower" castes and Dalits. For another, the savarnas are "naturally" attracted to the BJP's pro-globalisation, pro-privatisation policies, which favour the elite (itself largely composed of upper-caste Hindus). The sarvanas' bond with the BJP, all the way down to the village level, is far stronger than that with the Congress because of the BJP's conservative image and its leaders' profiles. .
The Congress lacks a coherent upper caste-friendly identity and risks losing some of its support, particularly among the urban poor, Dalits and Adivasis by pushing for EB quotas. This would be even truer of other secular parties - most emphatically the Left but also caste-based or regional parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the BSP, the Telugu Desam Party, the Akali Dal and various Janata Dal factions
It must be pointed out that the BJP's greatest political success arises not so much from a rapid spread of Hindu communalism as from its dramatic creation of a unique confluence between Hindutva, militant nationalism and a sharply defined upper-caste identity. This confluence is reflected more powerfully, among the business classes, professionals and the media, than the size of the BJP's vote would suggest - roughly a fourth and nowhere near the Congress' vote-share when in power.
HOWEVER, a far stronger argument against EB quotas flows from the ethical rationale of reservations for Dalits, some of it set out in Constituent Assembly debates and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's writings. This starts from a clear recognition of the truth that Dalits have for centuries faced an explicit, structured and systematic denial of their human dignity, and exclusion from public life and the political community on grounds of descent. The denial of their humanity was sanctioned by the dharmashastras and other scriptures beginning with the Manusmriti. Anti-Dalit discrimination based on ritual "impurity" and "untouchability" has received religious legitimacy as no other obnoxious practice in Indian society has.
Reservations for Dalits were above all an acknowledgement of this horrifying injustice and were conceived as a means of bringing these victimised people into the social and political mainstream. This was the moral rationale of Article 16 of the Constitution, which creates the right to equality of opportunity and employment in public offices, but with the proviso, under Article 16(4), that the state can reserve appointments for under-represented "backward classes of citizens". Following this comes Article 17, which abolishes untouchability.
Reservations for the upper castes cannot possibly have such justification. The savarnas were never excluded from the mainstream or discriminated against on grounds of descent and ritual purity. Nor have they, by any stretch of the imagination, faced a denial of their human dignity. The scriptures, which they interpret, never sanctioned discrimination against them as a group, although the caste hierarchy has its pecking order.
Secondly, the real function of quotas in jobs and educational institutions is not so much to create opportunities for individuals to improve their condition as to uplift and empower a whole community of underprivileged people whose aspirations were crushed for centuries. The function is political. This too does not apply to savarnas, however poor some of them might be. As a group, they are privileged and hence undeserving of preferential treatment. This does not deny that there are some underprivileged, socially backward savarnas who are under-represented in government employment. Of course, there are. This is a society of "competing inequalities" and injustices. But reservations are not meant, and should not be used, to address the grievances of individuals or small sub-groups.
Finally, the idea of savarna quotas, when equated or assimilated to reservations for Dalits, obscures the quality of discrimination, disadvantage and oppression that the wretched of the Indian earth face. To this day, Dalits are killed, made to carry human excreta on their heads, humiliated in a hundred ways and raped - just by virtue of being Dalits - with impunity and by the invocation of "custom" or "tradition". (see "The terrible reality of the 160 million", Frontline, June 4, 1999 and "Costly retreat from social reform", Frontline, October 25, 2002.)
There is no other group in society, not even among the OBCs, to whom this description applies. Even an economically better-off Dalit remains socially disadvantaged. Dalit children grow up in homes where they are exposed to few books and newspapers and where they learn "dialects", rather than the "standard" language that the savarnas speak. Their ability to compete with upper-caste children is severely hampered.
It is wholly absurd to assume some kind of essential equality between Dalits, the OBCs and upper castes. The poorest of Brahmins can excommunicate a Dalit or impose ritual insult or punishment upon her, however rich she might be. The abuse of Dalits is banned by law but it is widely prevalent.
It might be argued that some of the reasoning for reservations for Dalits does not fully apply to the OBCs and hence no fuss should be made about savarna quotas too. The first argument misses the point that the logic of the Mandal report is to break the savarna stranglehold on government jobs and the professions. The second argument is totally mistaken too. There is a case for positive discrimination in favour of the OBCs but none for the savarnas.
This does not mean that nothing should be done to help certain savarna groups which remain under-represented in public employment because they are economically backward, for example Brahmins in Himachal Pradesh, parts of Garhwal and pockets of eastern U.P. A case for some kind of affirmative action can be made, such as setting up special schools or vocational guidance facilities, and even for declaring that the government will encourage under-privileged savarna groups to apply for certain jobs.
However, this does not even remotely create a basis for the strongest form of positive discrimination, which is what job quotas are. Such measures are not compatible with the Supreme Court ruling in the 1992 Mandal case that nobody can be "debarred from a government job solely on the basis of his income or property-holding." One can only hope that we will not have to wait for a legal verdict to quash the savarna quota move and that it will be opposed politically.