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Gehlot's gambit

Published : Jun 20, 2003 00:00 IST

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Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.-GOPAL SUNGER

Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.-GOPAL SUNGER

The 14 per cent job reservation announced by the Rajasthan Chief Minister stumps the Opposition BJP in an election year and sets off a national debate.

LESS than six months ahead of the Assembly elections in the State, the Congress government in Rajasthan led by Ashok Gehlot seems to have scored a political point over its main adversary, the Bharatiya Janata Party. A few weeks ago, Gehlot was in the news for having put behind bars Praveen Togadia, the international general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, for his communally inflammatory actions. Now Gehlot has stirred a national debate and caused a flutter in the ranks of the BJP after his Cabinet recommended 14 per cent reservation in job and other opportunities for the poor among the "upper" castes. The Cabinet on May 21 decided to provide the reservations for upper castes such as Brahmins, Rajputs and Vaishyas. The two parties and their student organisations, which had opposed the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in the early 1990s, are now playing the caste card for electoral purposes.

The 14 per cent reservation that has been announced is over and above an existing quota of 49 per cent for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. The onus for its actual implementation is now on the Central government as the quota cannot be provided without a constitutional amendment as it would involve going against a Supreme Court order directing that such quotas cannot exceed 50 per cent overall. Here the overall quantum will be 63 per cent. In Indra Sawhney vs Union of India, wherein the Mandal Commission recommendations were challenged, the apex court had upheld the commission's recommendations but held that reservations contemplated in Clause (4) of Article 16 of the Constitution should not exceed 50 per cent. The court had observed: "While 50 per cent shall be the rule, it is necessary not to put out of consideration certain extraordinary situations inherent in the great diversity of this country and the people. It might happen that in far-flung and remote areas the population inhabiting those areas might, on account of their being out of the mainstream of national life and in view of the conditions peculiar to and characteristic of them need to be treated in a different way, some relaxation in this strict rule may become imperative. In doing so, extreme caution is to be exercised and a special case made out."

The court also stated: "A backward class of citizens cannot be identified only and exclusively with reference to economic criteria. It is, of course permissible for the government or other authority to identify a backward class of citizens on the basis of occupation-cum-income, without reference to caste, if it is so advised. There is no constitutional bar to classify the backward classes of citizens into backward and more backward categories." The court struck down a Central government office memorandum providing for reservation of 10 per cent of posts in favour of "other economically backward sections of the people who are not covered by any of the existing schemes of the reservation". The office memorandum was dated September 25, 1991 - during P.V. Narasimha Rao's tenure as Prime Minister.

THE BJP's national office-bearers, who were to meet in Jaipur on May 25, were stunned by the decision of the Gehlot Cabinet, and promptly passed a resolution favouring such reservations. They requested the Central government to appoint a commission in order to define the "economically backward'' class. Predictably, they also urged a consensus among political parties on the issue as it would involve a constitutional amendment. The BJP's discomfiture over having been caught unawares was evident. In New Delhi, party president M. Venkaiah Naidu was at pains to explain that the BJP had, in its Jan Sangh avatar, adopted a resolution in 1985 at a national executive meeting favouring reservations for the economically backward among the upper castes. The National Democratic Alliance government now intends to set up a national commission to recommend reservations for the economically backward classes that are not covered by reservations. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee seems to have given Venkaiah Naidu this assurance.

The Gehlot government's move was driven by two motives. In the last Assembly elections in 1998, the Congress managed a comfortable majority in the 200-member Vidhan Sabha. However, in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections it did not fare as well, while, surprisingly, the BJP improved on its performance in the Assembly elections. But there were certain events that preceded the 1999 elections. In September 1999, at a rally in Sikar, Vajpayee announced that Jats would be given OBC status. The Gehlot government then wanted the State Backward Classes Commission first to study the matter and give its recommendations. But the Central government was in a hurry, and by November the notification had been issued. In January 2000, certain sections of the Jat community based in Dholpur and Bharatpur that had been excluded from the proposal were also made beneficiaries. After the BJP declared its intention to extend reservations to Jats, the Congress was in a quandary. It could not have opposed the suggestion as it would have annoyed those who constituted one of its politically vocal traditional vote bases, nor could it endorse it enthusiastically and thereby lose face before the BJP.

BUT what the BJP did not bargain for at that point of time was the emergence of a social formation called the Social Justice Front (SJF). Barely one and a half months after the Sikar announcement, it was launched by BJP legislator Devi Singh Bhati, chairperson of the Backward Classes Commission Satyanarayan Singh Saini and BJP national executive member Lokendra Singh Kalvi. Their aim was to oppose reservations for Jats and to demand that the poor among other castes, mainly the upper castes, be included in the scheme of reservations. Kalvi subsequently quit the BJP and Saini resigned as the Backward Classes Commission chairman. The SJF has been making its presence felt by holding meetings in various parts of the State. During the past few years, it has been demanding reservations for the poor among the upper castes.

The SJF is today in the reckoning as a third political force. Recently it managed to disrupt several meetings that were held as part of the Parivartan Yatra led by State BJP chief and chief ministerial candidate Vasundhara Raje Scindia. Even during the 1998 Assembly elections Kalvi was seeking to unite castes on the basis of their economic backwardness. The SJF also disrupted a Congress meeting in Bikaner though its ire seemed to be directed primarily against the BJP. The party had after all let down its traditional vote base comprising the upper castes such as Rajputs, Brahmins and Vaishyas or Banias. The BJP tried to assuage the SJF leadership by suggesting the setting up of a commission and endorsing the proposal to introduce reservations for the poor among the upper castes. After all, if the SJF has any damage potential, it will affect the BJP rather than the Congress.

Side by side with the SJF's demand, other vocal upper caste groups such as the Brahmin Mahasabha are demanding quotas for themselves. The Gujjar community held a meeting demanding its inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe list. Amid all the rhetoric about reservations for the poor, senior leaders of the BJP and the Congress have been aligning themselves with these dominant caste groups. Certain SJF leaders told Frontline that 21 legislators from the BJP and the Congress had so far attended their meetings.

The SJF wants reservations for the poor among the upper castes based on what is known as the Rajnath Singh formula. It was mooted in October 2001 by Rajnath Singh, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Apart from trifurcating the OBC category on the basis of degrees of backwardness, 5 per cent reservation in jobs and educational opportunities was provided for those below the poverty line who belong to the general category. The SJF convener, Kalvi, said that based on that pattern the OBC category could be divided into three, and the poor among the upper castes could be included in one of the categories. He said that the State government was within its powers to implement the measure without the aid of a constitutional amendment. Kalvi felt that while the setting up of a national commission for the economically backward classes was welcome as an idea, it should not be used as a ploy to delay the measure indefinitely. The SJF has been critical of the manner in which both the major parties have been trying to hijack the issue. Kalvi told Frontline that the top leadership of the Congress and the BJP had agreed in principle to the SJF's demand but that it remained to be seen how sincere they were about it. He feared that the move for a constitutional amendment would meet the same fate as that of the Bill to provide reservations for women in the political sphere. Kalvi said: "We do not want to cross the limit of 50 per cent. Neither are we against the 14 per cent reservations suggested by the Gehlot government. But it has to be a separate formula for Rajasthan where we can get entitlements beyond government jobs, which in any case are very few and limited."

A caste-based polarisation seems to be happening with Jats on the one side and the backward classes and the upper castes on the other. As it is, there are not many government jobs available and the situation has worsened after the imposition of a virtual freeze on recruitment. Ravindra Shukla, a State Secretariat member of the Communist Party Of India (Marxist), said that the Congress should spell out the economic criteria that it preferred. In order that the really needy would benefit from such reservations, the poor among the upper castes needed to be identified. There were already too many discrepancies in the system, and it was well known that all the positions reserved for candidates from the Scheduled Castes and Tribes were not being filled. The CPI(M) has not been averse to agreeing to economic criteria for reservations, said Shukla, but the Gehlot government ought to spell them out. He said that in the long run the system of reservations was hardly the way to ensure opportunities for everyone. It was time the right to work and the right to employment were made fundamental rights, he added.

A commission for the economically backward classes is likely to be set up by August 2003. In the matter of Indra Sawhney vs Union of India, the apex court had stated that the Union government and the State governments have the power to, and that they ought to, create a permanent mechanism - in the nature of a commission - to examine requests for inclusion and complaints of over-inclusion or non-inclusion in the list of OBCs and to advise the government, which advice shall ordinarily be binding on the government. But the mere setting up of a commission of the sort that is planned is not going to assuage the SJF. And, should they renege on the commitments that have been made to the upper caste lobby, both the parties will feel the growing heat of caste politics as the elections draw near.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 20, 2003.)

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