Shades of the past

Print edition : April 20, 2007

The OBC political class sees the socio-political situation emerging now as similar to the one that developed in the 1990s.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

V.P. Singh, Ram Vilas Paswan and Sharad Yadav at a rally in 1992. The Mandal report-based initiatives of the V.P. Singh government in 1990 brought several politicians to the forefront of national politics.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

POLITICS centred around the identity and assertion of Other Backward Classes (OBC) seems to have entered another intensive phase with the Supreme Court stay on OBC quotas in Central higher educational institutions. Almost all the mainstream national parties and regional political organisations have reacted against the order and several States have witnessed massive demonstrations and public strikes opposing the stay. There are also signals that these initial reactions will develop into more concrete political, legislative and administrative programmes to counter the court order. By all indications, a plan of action will be set in motion between the recommencement of the Budget session of Parliament in the last week of April and the winter session in November-December.

Talking to Frontline, V. Hanumantha Rao, convener of the OBC Parliamentary Forum consisting of OBC Members of Parliament belonging to different parties, said that all parties had taken the judicial challenge seriously and were keen to evolve a common approach. "The proposals thought about include a constitutional amendment but the immediate concern is to ensure that the limited quota [9 per cent of seats for OBCs as per the recommendations of the M. Veerappa Moily-led Oversight Committee] stipulated in the institutions of higher education for the current year does not lapse on account of the court order. A clearer picture on the short-, medium- and long-term steps will emerge after discussions among the members of the forum," he said. In the meantime, a joint meeting of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Left parties on April 6 decided to move a review petition against the Supreme Court order, and also resolved to facilitate all steps necessary to implement the limited quota for 2007-08.

There is a growing view in the OBC political class that the situation emerging after the Supreme Court order is similar to the socio-political environment that developed in 1990, when Vishwanath Pratap Singh's National Front government announced its decision to implement the Mandal Commission Report, which recommended reservation for OBCs in jobs and education. The move had a dramatic effect on the polity, radically changing the style and content of political discourse in the country. The most important change was in terms of the intensity of assertive OBC politics.

Assertive OBC politics was indeed prevalent in many States even before 1990, but this involved essentially regional political ventures built around local manifestations of caste discrimination. But the V.P. Singh government's initiative and the debate it started on the Mandal Commission recommendations united these diverse OBC political groups on a common platform, enhancing the social, political and organisational influence of OBC politics. The electoral manifestation of the development was the steady and prominent presence in offices of power of parties and leaders advancing OBC-oriented politics. This was most apparent in the North Indian States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where OBC leaders, parties and populations had for long been forced to play a subservient role to upper-caste political interests.

OBC leaders from Andhra Pradesh say that even in the 1990s, one front in their struggle was against sections of the judiciary. Hanumantha Rao recounted how a Congress government in the State issued an order in 1994 recognising four caste groups - Kapu, Telaga, Balija and Ontari - besides Muslims as backward classes in order to extend to them the benefit of reservation, and how a single-Judge Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court stayed the order. Later, a full Bench of the High Court referred it to the Andhra Pradesh Commission for Backward Classes for its recommendation. The commission's undertaking, given to the court, to give its view on the matter has not been realised yet. Meanwhile, the groups mentioned continue to do without the benefits.

The recent Supreme Court stay order has revived memories of these past struggles. Ranjan Prasad Yadav, vice-president of the Lok Janshakthi Party (LJP) led by Union Minister and Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan, says the new tussle with the judiciary may be more intense and long-drawn-out. He says the political class can effectively take on this challenge only if all leaders claiming to be champions of OBC politics see the stay order as a catalyst to rediscover the spirit of the 1990s movement. "It is the responsibility of all those OBC leaders, who emerged basically on account of the 1990s movement, such as Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati, to stand united on the issue," he said.

The LJP leader, himself a product of that movement, added that recapturing the spirit of the 1990s did not merely mean fighting unitedly against negative judicial intervention, but also the development of an inclusive and participatory process to ensure that the benefits of assertive OBC politics are spread far and deep. Prasad pointed out that purposive progress of Dalit-OBC assertive politics and ideology was the hallmark of the political churning in the early 1990s and the resultant rise of the OBC leadership to significant political offices. "However," he said, "over the years most of the influential OBC-oriented parties and their leaderships started perceiving occupation of offices of power as the only goal, leading to unseemly bickering within the OBC leadership." Prasad added that such bickering was essentially motivated by an urge, among the leaders of powerful OBC-oriented parties to corner benefits for their own respective communities.

A closer look at the situation in various States bears out Prasad's observation. In Uttar Pradesh, the major beneficiaries of OBC assertive politics are the Yadavs led by Samajwadi Party (S.P.) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. In Bihar, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar ensured that their communities - the Yadavs and the Kurmis respectively - climbed up the social ladder. Similar promotion of communities, which have influential leaders, is seen, too, in States like Maharashtra. Here, the prominent Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) has a huge following among the Maratha community and there is a growing demand within the community, led by organisations such as the Maratha Seva Sangh and the Shambhaji Brigade, for OBC status for the entire community. At present, only a section of Marathas called the Kunbi Marathas have been awarded OBC status. The NCP may not openly support this demand, but its leadership does its best to nurture this vote bank.

The net effect of such lopsided priorities, pointed out Professor Kishori Das, chairperson of the Bihar-based Coordination Committee of Neglected and Extremely Backward Communities (CCNEBC), was that many of the core political-ideological issues and concerns of OBC politics got pushed aside. One result, in his view, was that the social, economic and political benefits of OBC assertive politics were not distributed evenly. Sections among OBC communities have emerged as a new elite while others got pushed further down the socio-economic ladder.

Das's view was that "whatever the new plan of action of the OBC leadership, it cannot merely have an outward thrust, it has to look deep inside and correct its own deficiencies". According to Das, central to such course correction would be a readiness to intervene more effectively to improve the socio-economic condition of the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) among the OBCs. He was also of the view that this should be supplemented with sincere efforts to identify and set aside the creamy layer among the OBC communities from the purview of reservation benefits.

Lalu Prasad, who was one of the OBC leaders who made headlines with his backward caste politics, kicking off the Mandal yatra from Madhepura in Bihar. V.P. Singh and Paswan participated in the event.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

This opinion finds echoes in many social, political and academic fora. Talking to Frontline, Suhas Palshikar, Professor of Politics at the University of Pune, said there must be a periodic review to assess how far a particular community or a section of it had accrued the benefits of affirmative action favouring OBCs. Ajit Abhyankar, a Maharashtra-based activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said: "There needs to be a renewal of inclusion." The CPI(M) has consistently held the position that the creamy layer should be excluded from reservation benefits. However, there is also considerable opposition to this. The contrary view is that if the `creamy-layer' formula is implemented immediately for reservation in institutions of higher education, the OBC quota might not be filled up. A mechanistic combination of the `creamy-layer' formula and the system of cut-off marks, it is feared, could lead to the denial of opportunities to qualified OBC candidates with adequate marks. On the other end, candidates who are not part of the creamy layer might be kept out by the cut-off marks system.

The Oversight Committee led by Veerappa Moily, which took steps last September to prepare a road map for implementing the OBC quota in Central educational institutions, seemed to have been confused by these divergent views on the `creamy-layer' formula. When it presented its final report, it skipped a decision on the creamy layer in spite of an assurance in the interim report that it would take a view on the issue. It was clear at that time that the Congress, as the leader of the ruling coalition, had given in to pressure from partners such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) not to exclude the `creamy layer' from reservation. All that the Oversight Committee would suggest, in terms of introspection and course correction, was a periodic, five-yearly review of the implementation of reservation.

However, it is clear from recent experience that such a review would not be an easy exercise. In Andhra Pradesh, the State government had asked the State OBC Commission to undertake a revision of the list of communities enjoying reservation. The revision was to identify and list groups that had overcome social and economic backwardness. The order kicked up a controversy when it was suggested that the communities of Padmashali, Goud, Munnurukapu and Mudiraj, which were influential in the Telangana region, should be deleted from the OBC list. Members of these communities embarked on the path of agitation and finally the State OBC Commission issued a clarification stating that no such move was planned.

The demand for a fresh caste-based census of the population has gathered greater momentum on account of such developments. Politicians as varied as Paswan and Bangaru Dattatreya of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have endorsed the idea. But such a census could create more problems than it solves in the larger context of the socio-political confrontation between assertive OBC politics and upper-caste-oriented politics. As NCP leader and Public Works Minister in Maharashtra Chhagan Bhujbal pointed out to Frontline, another census could actually show that the OBC numbers have gone up. Such a census would naturally escalate social tensions.

Obviously, leaders of the political class, particularly the ardent advocates of assertive OBC politics, need to tread carefully even as they get ready to take on unitedly what they perceive as unpalatable judicial intervention. Their initiatives need to be motivated by the spirit of the 1990s, which will help them to make clear and forceful socio-political interventions evolved on the strength of deep, course-correcting introspection.

With inputs from Anupama Katakam in Mumbai and S. Nagesh Kumar in Hyderabad.

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