About a decade ago, at a former young colleague’s wedding in New Delhi, the priest in an informal chat said, “We (the Brahmins) need an Ambedkar today.” It was a stunning revelation that reflected the unfathomable complexity of an ancient civilisation like India, especially north India, where the future clashes with the past, the psychedelic contours change colours rapidly under the neon lights of the present. Faced with this mind-boggling reality, politicians who pretend to be master manipulators seem to be reduced to the status of the manipulated.
The BJP-NDA government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which finds itself at the end of its tether as it completes its five-year term in office and gears up for the general election in the summer, is indeed using the new reservation policy as an electoral gambit, and a senior BJP leader has admitted that there is no escape from reservation politics in the Indian context. But there is an also an attempt to understand the need for the creation of the new reservation category.
The BJP brains trust is still groping for reasons, and it has come out with the vaguely interesting theory that farming communities like the Jats in Haryana, the Sikhs in Punjab, the Marathas in Maharashtra and the Patidars in Gujarat are in need of the proposed affirmative action because the young among these communities are moving away from agriculture and they have not made any progress in acquiring education and chalking out alternative careers and professions for themselves.
The BJP also seems to calculate that the upper castes among the Hindus like Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias will not make use of this new provision because they are doing well on the educational front and seeking their fortunes abroad. So the BJP believes that the Jats, Sikhs, Marathas and Patidars need a helping hand, and it goes without saying that it hopes to garner the votes of these communities as well. It is also a strange response from the BJP to the simmering farm discontent across the country.
It is made to appear that the latest pre-poll move by the Central government is a response to the emerging social crisis in the farming communities. On the face of it, it is a far-fetched argument because the people who need to move out of agriculture are the landless labour, and not the owners of the land. At the beginning of its term in 2014, the government wanted to amend the land acquisition law brought in by the Congress-led UPA government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the contentious argument that farmers do not want to remain farmers, and therefore the terms of alienation of the land should be more flexible. But the BJP could not carry the day and the issue was buried six feet deep. In the last five years, no one from the Narendra Modi government has even mentioned it in passing.
The party and the government also seem to believe that they will circumvent the 50 per cent ceiling on reservations mandated by the Supreme Court in its ruling in cases relating to the Mandal recommendations of reservations for the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) because the new category will not be touching on the castes and communities covered by Article 15(4) and Article 16(4) of the Constitution with regard to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other socially and educationally backward classes in terms of admission to educational institutions and in terms of employment respectively. The argument for the new category of reservation is on the universal principle of “equality of opportunity” inscribed in the Preamble of the Constitution.
The ostensible purpose of the new reservation measure is to help the poor, and as the poor in the other categories of SCs, STs and OBCs are already covered, among the “open category” of the people, but the political cunning behind it is to reach out to the influential farming communities who are in the process of being losing their economic clout and slipping into the category of the economically weak or vulnerable class. It is indeed a mighty sleight of hand. The BJP is quite confident that the Congress Party would not oppose it for the same political compulsions as that of the BJP, and the “poor” label in the new measure will strike the pro-poor Communists like lightning and they cannot oppose it. Though the religious minorities are in principle included in the new category, as far as educational opportunity goes, they cannot take advantage of it because under Article 29 of the Constitution, 50 per cent of the seats in minority-run institutions are reserved for them. The issue is complicated at many levels and the BJP will be caught in the coils of its own cleverness, and every other party that subscribes to reservations of any kind.
But as the country moves into the future and the economy diversifies and prospers, the state’s affirmative action policies are going to get obsolete because the state will not be able to offer jobs on any significant scale, and it cannot mandate that the private sector implement the reservation policy. But the private sector, both organised and unorganised, is sure to absorb people from all classes, poor and rich, educated and uneducated, skilled and unskilled, because a thriving economy needs all hands on the deck. The state will remain a passive spectator despite the delusions of politicians that they will determine the fortunes of the people at large. The economy cannot keep out people on grounds of religion, caste, class and education because it needs producers and consumers across the board. So the argument that private sector is elitist will not wash.