The diminishing political utility of reservations

The diminishing political utility of reservations

By: || Updated: 16 Nov 2014 01:44 PM
Reservation for Jats did not help either the Congress or Ajit Singh, a tall Jat leader from Western Uttar Pradesh who was an important member of the union cabinet in UPA 2 which took the decision of providing reservation to the community. Bhupinder Singh Hooda’s own stature as a Jat leader notwithstanding, not just the Lok Sabha elections, even in the Assembly elections in Haryana, Jat reservation did not bring electoral gains for the party which implemented it.


In Maharashtra too, reservation for the influential Marathas had no electoral bearing on the results for incumbent Congress led government. The Congress secured 10 out of 62 seats in Vidarbha and 10 out of 46 seats in Marathwara – two regions of Maharashtra which show backwardness among the Maratha community. Narayan Rane, a six term MLA and senior Congress leader, who headed the panel which recommended reservations for Marathas lost his own seat.


Different analysts will attribute different reasons for the results in Western UP and the Jat belt in Rajasthan and Haryana - Amit Shah’s engineering that resulted from Muzaffarnagar riots, a pro Modi wave or an anti Congress wave. In Maharashtra too, the result can be attributed to several factors that may have had nothing to do with the decision to provide reservation to the Maratha community. Apart from anti-incumbency there were other dynamics that came into play with the announcement of reservations for Marathas. Dhangars of Maharashtra have been demanding inclusion in the ST Schedule, which would make them numerically strong among tribals. They are currently treated as OBCs in the state, as per which they are among 27 other castes falling under the OBC category. Scheduled Tribe leaders are opposing this demand. Reservation for Marathas also consolidated other non-Maratha castes against the Congress as they apprehended that the already powerful Marathas will only get more influential with this decision. Of the 178 powerful sugar cooperatives in Maharashtra, 90% are controlled by Marathas.



Both in terms of what it did for its beneficiaries and its impact on the political dynamics of the country, affirmative action through caste based reservations can be categorized in three rounds. 


The first round of reservations for the Scheduled Castes comprising 16.6% of the total population and Scheduled Tribes comprising 8.6% of the total population attempted to ensure representation in government of these underprivileged sections of the society which had historically faced caste based injustices and resultant backwardness. This round can be called state protection for the 1108 marginal castes and 744 marginal tribes to help them achieve a just educational and social status.


In the second round which is the Mandal round, the backward classes other than those mentioned in the First Schedule but socially and educationally backward got the benefit of 22.5% reservations after a violent resistance put up by upper caste youth. The exact numbers of OBCs remains disputed. The Mandal round strengthened OBC parties like Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh and Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, giving political representation to numerically dominant castes falling under the OBC category. These castes became Dabangg under state patronage electorally wrested by their leaders. As far as jobs and seats in higher education are concerned, vacancies under the OBC quota often go unfilled. Thus the second round of reservations became a tool for political patronage to the numerically strong and politically organized backward groups.


The third round of reservations as in the case of Jats and Marathas shows an attempt to help maintain the status quo of the traditional ruling elite increasingly threatened by the rise of an articulate, aspiring and prospering middle class comprising of the beneficiaries of 49.5% reservations and of other caste-neutral beneficiaries of private sector inspired economic growth.


There are economically backward Jats and Marathas, just as there are economically well off Balmikis. By and large Jats are considered to be on the right side of a land lead economic boom. Between INLD and INC, Haryana was under Jat rule for over 15 years. There was a reasonable representation of Jats in the union cabinet too. Likewise, Maharashtra, for the last 15 years has mostly had Maratha Chief Ministers.


The Mumbai High Court has stayed the decision on reservation for Marathas. However, the ruling BJP which has a Brahmin Chief Minister would like to be seen standing in favor of reservation for Marathas.


This third round of reservations can be termed as political protection to a traditional power structure.


Subsequent rounds of reservations are resulting in identity fragmentation and prolonging an initiative which has outlived its utility both for the beneficiary and the benefactor. In some states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, the reservation percentages are way above the Supreme Court imposed restriction of 50%


With the potential of government as employment provider shrinking rapidly and with a growing private sector, job reservations are fast becoming redundant in an aspirational society. In terms of electoral advantages too, caste based reservations have been milked to death. However much we delay it, we are heading towards the 4 round of affirmative action based completely on economic parameters. With AADHAR based digital interventions, risks of misuse can be minimized. Nehru’s vision with regard to the issue of affirmative action can be seen through this letter he wrote to the Chief Ministers on June 27, 1960, “The only way to help a backward group is to give opportunities for good education…..but if we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people…..this way lies not only folly, but disaster.”

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