Arjun Singh's Politics: Reservation and the Politics of Reservation!

The die is cast. The government has declared war against anti-quota students. Mr. Arjun Singh masterminded the maneuver. His calculations must have been simple. State power can crush students and doctors. The overwhelming majority of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) would ensure an electoral sweep if polls were held. But before jumping to conclusions three things are worth noting: reservation, the politics of reservation, and the politics of Mr. Arjun Singh. Consider all three.

Reservation for OBCs is a flawed concept. Affirmative action for India's deprived requires top priority. Among them the Dalits comprise a special category. Apart from poverty and discrimination they suffer untouchability. That is an inhuman practice that Black slaves in America never faced. That was why Mahatma Gandhi consistently and courageously fought against this evil. Because of untouchability the government rightly offered Dalits reservation on the basis of caste. After fifty years reservation should have ended. It has not. That betrays failure of governance. But that's a different issue.

After Independence Dr. Lohia voiced political concern for OBCs. He wanted reservation for them too. During those days rural populations were mostly frozen. Villagers had little mobility. It was easy to identify caste with class. Class injustice took shelter behind its hypocritical opposition to casteism. That's why Lohia favored OBC reservation. Today the distinction between OBC and Dalit reservation has blurred. Even experts on TV tend to talk of both in the same breath.

In retrospect Lohia was wrong. If covert casteism distorted class struggle the right step lay in removing distortions that had crept into class struggle. Lohia and Choudhary Charan Singh attempted to take short cuts which are now extracting a heavy price. Personal encounters with them confirmed that both leaders had private misgivings about OBC reservation. Lohia feared that reservation would replace revolutionary zeal by material greed. Charan Singh feared that caste divisions could disintegrate society. Nevertheless both persisted. Their followers should not hesitate to point out their error. All great men ' Gandhi, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Roosevelt and Churchill among others ' sometimes took wrong decisions. They were human. It is human to err.

Different Backward Class Commissions have given varying figures. The latest figures claim 52 percent of India's population as being OBC. It was spread among 3743 different castes. Putting them all together in one OBC category is ridiculous. The powerful Yadavas have hogged most of the reservation benefits for OBCs. Even among Dalits the powerful Chamars have done likewise. Dividing OBCs into Most Backward Castes (MBC) and Extreme Backward Castes (EBC) does not help. There are too many castes to ensure equitable reservation, on a caste basis, for all the castes. What is the objection to well defined economic and social criteria to determine reservation? Only one objection comes to mind. Pro-reservationists might claim this would result in partial selection because of forward caste bias. There is a simple solution to this. Let all selection boards have reservation. Ninety percent of board members could be Dalit, OBC and Minority. That would allow affirmative action without accentuating caste in society.

To establish a genuine level playing field would require compulsory standardized government-run neighborhood schools throughout the nation. Even if the entire budget outlay for education were spent on implementing this the results would justify the investment. Other ideas to ensure effective affirmative action for circumventing caste could be considered, but it would be pointless. It is the politics of caste that motivates politicians to support caste-based reservation.

The parties don't dare to question the Mandal formula, for fear of alienating voters. But the dynamic of electoral politics ensures that caste always influences selection of poll candidates. The social and ethnic composition of a constituency remains uppermost for democratic parties across the world. This is healthy and natural. It is the raising of caste representation to the level of ideology which creates divisiveness. This is what the Mandal Report achieved. This approach never brought electoral gain in north India. VP Singh's post-Mandal electoral failures hold lessons. Parties propagating reservation as central ideology have not won. For example, would a Mandal-based OBC formation attract Mayawati's Dalit voters? Only class consolidation can unify votes across castes to create a wave.

This makes the CPI (M)'s current support for reservation all the more pathetic. Mr. Karat wants caste-based reservation but excluding the creamy layer. And yes, the poor among forward castes should also get reservation! Then why have caste as a criterion? Ironically, the Marxists criticized Lohia for caste politics because it polluted class struggle. Today, they have forgotten class consolidation and fallen into the Mandal trap! The Mandal Report itself has categorized the same castes forward in one region but backward in another. Doesn't that make nonsense of caste as a criterion?

Mr. Arjun Singh is as smart as they come. He knows all this. Then why did he rake up the reservation issue? Certainly not, as he claims, because Parliament approved the measure. Many Parliamentary Bills, including those signed by the President, are languishing unimplemented without Mr. Arjun Singh shedding a tear. Mr. Arjun Singh claims that the PM and cabinet had approved the policy. But did they approve his springing this issue in public the way he did?

Could Mr. Arjun Singh's heart be bleeding for OBCs? Two incidents come to mind. In 1980 the Madhya Pradesh CM was to be elected. There were two candidates, Mr. Arjun Singh and a tribal leader, Mr. Shivbhanu Singh. Mr. Arjun Singh procured 85 votes. His opponent received 120 votes. Sanjay Gandhi was approached. He dispatched his emissary, Mr. Pranab Mukherji, to intercede. Consequently Mr. Arjun Singh became CM. So much about his sympathy for Backwards! Again, in 1993 a Madhya Pradesh CM was to be elected. The High Command appointed Mr. Arjun Singh as observer. The candidates were Raja Digvijay Singh and Mr. Subhash Yadav. The consensus favored Mr. Yadav. But Mr. Arjun Singh prevailed. A fellow Thakur, Raja Digvijay Singh, became CM.

After creating an intractable problem for the Prime Minister, Mr. Arjun Singh is receding into the shadows. He advised protesters: 'On the issue of reservation the PM has made an appeal. There is need to have faith in him. After this appeal the agitation should end.'

This pious advice should be viewed in the context of secret confabulations among senior Congress leaders. One meeting took place at 2 am! The vibes are reminiscent of 1969 when Congress began to split. Mr. Arjun Singh's move could lead to either rebirth or burial of Congress. Either would be better than the present. Earlier I had advocated burial of Congress. Now I wish Mr. Arjun Singh Godspeed.    


More by :  Dr. Rajinder Puri

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