Political consensus

Print edition : May 09, 2008

Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M), K.V. Thangkabalu (Congress), Swami Agnivesh, D. Raja (CPI) and S. Ramadoss (PMK) at a rally organised by the Pattali Makkal Katchi in New Delhi on November 12, 2007, in protest against the inadequate representation given to OBCs in Central government jobs.-V. SUDERSHAN Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M), K.V. Thangkabalu (Congress), Swami Agnivesh, D. Raja (CPI) and S. Ramadoss (PMK) at a rally organised by the Pattali Makkal Katchi in New Delhi on November 12, 2007, in protest against the inadequate representation given to OBCs in Central government jobs.

The general reaction of political parties to the verdict has been laudatory, and it is realpolitik that seems to shape responses.

FOR over two decades and a half, the politics around reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC) has developed essentially with two dimensions. At the primary level, it has been characterised by clashes between social and political forces that support and oppose reservation for OBCs in education and employment. The forces supporting the concept perceive reservation-based affirmative action as an instrument to uplift sections that have been oppressed for centuries, while those who are opposed to the idea subscribe, directly or indirectly, to the doctrine of upper-caste hegemony. At the secondary level, the politics around OBC reservation has developed on the lines of realpolitik, and this has entailed competition for popular support among pro-reservation groups.

This has been the trend right from December 1980 when the legendary B.P. Mandal submitted the Mandal Commission recommendations to the government. The clash between pro- and anti-reservation politics rose to its most intense levels in the early 1990s after Vishwanath Pratap Singhs National Front (N.F.) government decided to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations. In later years, such clashes have again captured significant space in the national political arena.

Yet, there is a growing sense of realisation among social and political forces that the policy of reservation for OBCs based on affirmative action cannot be summarily reversed. Even organisations of the Hindu right, such as the Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which practically brought down V.P. Singhs government in 1990 with its opposition to the move to implement the Mandal Commissions recommendations, seem to realise this. This realisation has, in turn, fed the political impulse to use affirmative action for popular support.

The United Progressive Alliance governments announcement, in April 2006, of the proposed move to implement 27 per cent reservation in Central institutions of higher education met with virulent opposition. Not only were there protests on the streets but the government was also challenged in court.

No significant protests, however, have greeted the April 10 ruling of the Supreme Court upholding 27 per cent reservation for OBCs. Youth for Equality (YFE), a students organisation that spearheaded the anti-reservation agitation in 2006, has announced plans to advance its campaign with a fresh perspective, but there have not been many voices opposing the ruling. Kaushal Kant Mishra, a founder member of the YFE and a doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said the organisation would try to stress a new definition of the term reservation. Since reservation is meant for socially, educationally and economically backward classes of society, Mishra said, an OBC graduate cannot avail himself of the benefits of reservation. Going by this logic, nobody applying for postgraduate and other higher studies is entitled for reservation. The YFE plans to appeal against the verdict and this, apparently, is going to be its line.

Most mainstream political forces, however, find this position ludicrous. The general reaction of the political class to the verdict has been laudatory. Various political parties have come up with their own nuanced interpretations of the judgment and its socio-political background. According to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), all questions related to OBC reservation in institutions of higher education could have been handled smoothly had it not been for the unwarranted aggressive approach of HRD [Human Resource Development] Minister Arjun Singh.

B.P. MANDAL submitting his report to Home Minister Zail Singh in December 1980.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said that Arjun Singh and his Ministry should not claim undue credit and insisted that the judicial verdict was everyones victory. Javadekar added that the BJP had always favoured social justice measures and that the political force to benefit most out of the implementation of the quota would be the BJP since it had the largest number of OBC members in Parliament.

This self-congratulatory tone has been adopted by parties both in the opposition and in the government. But, almost all of them, barring the Left parties, have uniformly expressed their misgivings about the creamy layer exclusion parameters suggested by the court. The court said that extending benefits to the creamy layer went against the basic structure of the Constitution. The ruling also contained the suggestion that children of legislators should be considered as belonging to the creamy layer.

The Left parties have consistently advocated 27 per cent reservation for OBCs excluding the affluent sections, arguing that the truly deserving should get the benefits of reservation. However, a number of politicians of the UPA and the National Democratic Alliance have expressed opposition to the points raised by the Supreme Court in relation to the exclusion of the creamy layer.

Railway Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad raised the issue in the Cabinet. He said that the implementation of the Supreme Courts suggestions could defeat the very purpose of OBC reservation. According to Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav, excluding the so-called creamy layer was unwarranted because reservation was meant to address social and educational backwardness, not economic backwardness. Other leaders, including Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, have expressed similar opinions. Mayawati asked for a redefinition of the creamy layer, saying that inflation had eaten into incomes and the value of possessions. Responding to queries from Frontline, Arjun Singh said that the government had taken note of these opinions and would try to evolve a consensus (see interview).

Within the Congress, there has been wrangling over the credit for the verdict. Many Congress politicians, including a large section considered close to the Prime Minister, are reluctant to see the verdict as a victory for Arjun Singh and his Ministry. The verdict was not unexpected, they say, especially since the Mandal Commission had recommended reservation for OBCs in jobs and education. This could have been termed a real victory if Arjun Singh and his department had succeeded in getting the governments current position on the creamy layer endorsed by the Supreme Court. In the absence of that, there is no need to present this as a major victory, said a Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh who has been consistently opposed to Arjun Singh.

Arjun Singhs own comment, made after the verdict, projecting Rahul Gandhi as the future Prime Minister has been seen as further reflection of the wrangling in the Congress. Large sections in the Congress leadership saw the comment as a blatant attempt to build on the political advantage that the verdict brought for Arjun Singh.

MANDAL report proposals were implemented 10 years later, in 1990, by the National Front government led by V.P. Singh.-MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

By all indications, Congress president Sonia Gandhi herself shared this perception. The terse, formal reaction from party spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan, saying there was no vacancy for the post of Prime Minister and that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul have kept away from any environment of sycophancy, gave a clear indication of this.

Even the proposal for extending OBC reservation to the private sector seems to be turning into an instrument for political gamesmanship. Oversights Committee chairperson M. Veerappa Moilys response to the verdict was to suggest extension of reservation to the private sector. Arjun Singhs response to that was to remark that there was a lot of difference between talking and implementation and that nobody was making a discovery if they said that the private sector should also be covered by the reservation policy.

In the midst of all this, the government has initiated procedures to implement the Supreme Court verdict. The process began way back in 2006, when Arjun Singh first proposed the idea but was suspended when the issue was taken to court. Now that the process has started again, officials in the Ministries of Human Resource Development and Social Welfare insist that the concerns of students in the general category would not be overlooked.

Government departments are working on a plan to increase the number of seats, so that seats in the general category do not dwindle, and to improve infrastructure in Central educational institutions. The Oversight Committee had recommended a 54 per cent increase in the number of seats, over three years.

Finance Minister P. Chidambaram had set aside Rs.26.98 billion in the 2007-08 Budget for Central educational institutions under the Human Resource Development Ministry. Part of this money was meant for increasing the number of seats as suggested by the Oversights Committee. Budget 2008-09 has allotted about Rs.25 billion for Central universities and institutions such as IITs and IIMs.

As the Ministry works out how best to implement 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in Central institutions, realpolitik will surely be the crucial factor in shaping political reactions. There seems to be, however, little possibility of any virulent opposition to reservation surfacing again.

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