Is India on the verge of a major social and political change? Two contradictory events - one raising the spectre of caste wars and the other of caste reconciliation - have introduced dramatic new possibilities to the Indian scene.
There is little doubt that the recent confrontation in Rajasthan between the Gujjars and Meenas - the first a backward caste community and the other a scheduled tribe (ST) - has induced second thoughts about the policy of reservations based on castes, which the political class has been pursuing merrily for a decade and a half.
Ever since the reservations for the Other Backward Castes (OBC), to which the Gujjars belong, were introduced in 1990, parties promoting the cause of the various OBCs had gained a new lease of life.
They aggressively championed the policy of reservations for the OBCs as well as the scheduled castes (SC) and STs in virtually all spheres of life - institutes of higher learning, the judiciary and even the media.
But the Gujjar-Meena fracas has underlined the danger of such reckless populism. The dispute arose over the Gujjar demand for relegation to the ST category since the admission of the Jats to the OBC list had made the group too crowded, thereby affecting educational and employment opportunities in government establishments under the reservation scheme.
However, since the Meenas are now resisting the entry of the Gujjars to the ST list, the matter has been referred to a commission, but not before the Gujjars indulged in violent protests which the Supreme Court has described as a 'national shame'.
While the commission mulls over the conflicting demands of the Gujjars and the Meenas, the customarily myopic Indian political class has woken up to the possibility of widespread caste conflicts.
As long as only the numerically small upper castes were protesting against the OBC reservations, the politicians could ignore them as elitist. But now when the OBCs and the STs are poised for a fight, the moment of truth has arrived for them.
Tentative suggestions have been made, therefore, to turn the emphasis away from caste-based reservations to a quota system based on economic criteria, benefiting only the poor, irrespective of caste or creed.
Among those who have made the proposal is the new Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Mayawati, whose rainbow coalition comprising the Brahmins and the SCs is currently the talk of the town. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have largely agreed to this move.
Before any concrete steps are taken in this direction, it is clear that the efforts that were being made in favour of reservations for the Muslims and Christians, following a suggestion to this effect by the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, would be ignored.
After the Gujjar-Meena confrontation, the political class doesn't have the heart to open yet another Pandora's box.
But in case the economic criterion is introduced, what will be the fate of the parties that have come up solely on the basis of advancing a caste-based quota system?
Among such parties in northern India are the Janata Dal-United (JD-U), which is currently in power in Bihar along with the BJP. Its main support base comprises the Kurmis, a backward caste, although it also enjoys the backing of upper castes like the Bhumihars and the Rajputs via the BJP.
The JD-U's predecessor in Bihar was Railway Minister Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), which has the Yadavs, the most influential of the OBCs, as its main body of supporters. Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party, too, banks mainly on the support of the Yadavs.
The two prominent South Indian parties, the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) and the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK), are also dependent on the OBCs for their political strength.
No one knows, therefore, what will happen if the props of these caste-based parties are suddenly removed. Will they collapse or will they accept or reject economy-based quotas or will they work for a combination of the two systems?
Since none of the leaders in question - Lalu Prasad or Mulayam Singh Yadav or M.Karunanidhi of the DMK - seems to have given any thought to the possibility of a political future without castes, the chances are that at least some of them will oppose any move to dispense with caste-based reservations.
A hint of the kind of stubborn response that can be expected was available when Karunanidhi called for the scrapping of the constitution when the Supreme Court put on hold the OBC reservations in institutes of higher learning.
In this context, a minor player, Ramvilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party, has reiterated a demand for reservations in the private sector.
But these leaders will also know that if caste wars do break out, then they will begin to lose their support among the people in general because they will be accused of instigating sectarian passions. And a caste conflict is very much a possibility because the commission's verdict will displease either the Gujjars or the Meenas, while both the communities have made it clear that they are not willing for a compromise.
The problem with the OBCs - a middle caste - is that though still socially and educationally disadvantaged, their economic status has improved as a result of years of reservations. So, they may well be the losers if the economy-based quota system is introduced.
Had they dispensed with the 'creamy layer' among them, as advised by the Supreme Court in 1990, then there might have been room for manoeuvre. But preferring to eat the cake and have it, too, they have retained the creamy layer, mainly by periodic upward revisions of the economic indicators for this group. Now, they are caught in a bind as their policies are sowing the seeds of violence.
Since the matter is too complex for the leaders of the OBC parties, who tend to wear regional blinkers, it is up to the two parties with nationalistic pretensions - the Congress and the BJP - to find a solution.
Historically, the Congress had tended to be above caste or communal affiliations. But its recent decision to play the OBC card by proposing quotas in institutes of higher learning - a brainchild of Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh - has put it in the company of the regional parties.
The BJP's disadvantage is that its pro-Hindu and anti-minority bias restricts its ability to play a credible role.
Much will depend, therefore, on politicians like Mayawati, Lalu Prasad and Bihar's Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to find a way out by toning down their aggressive espousal of caste politics. Mayawati has already done so by reaching out to the upper castes in Uttar Pradesh. So has Nitish Kumar via the BJP in Bihar while Lalu Prasad's impressive performance as railway minister has shown that he is coming to terms with the merit-based and caste-neutral modern world.
These leaders will obviously have to work closely with the Congress and the BJP to steer the country away from a caste-based to an economy-based system of non-coercive affirmative action.
If they succeed, they can avert a caste war. If they fail, the outcome is too grim to contemplate.