Thursday, December 7, 2023

To Quota or Not to Quota…

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RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent call for a review of the national reservation policy has brought the focus back on what has long been a contentious issue. But will political parties agree to refine, re-design or even re-think on a formula which has successfully kept their caste-based politics ticking?

By Kalyani Shankar

The debate on reservation or quota for various caste categories as well as denominations got a new lease after RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently pitched for a review of the seven-decade-old reservation policy, contending it has been used for political ends. He has also suggested setting up of an apolitical committee to determine who all needs the facility and for how long. The sensitive issue has triggered off a controversy as expected—there are more vocal backers of reservation than those for quota abolition.
Sharp reaction from the Mandalites led by the RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and the quick words of explanation from the BJP distancing itself from the RSS chief’s suggestion shows that politics supercedes everything else. Even the NDA allies like the Rash-triya Lok Samata Party have come up with a sharp response.
So why did Bhagwat say what he did? While the Mandalites may oppose his views on the quota system, there is certainly some merit in the RSS chief’s thesis. There is truth in his assertion that the quota system has been politicised and it is not being implemented in the spirit with which it was introduced. Bhagwat got support from an unexpected quarter as the young Congress leader and former Union minister Jitin Prasad, who is a Brahmin, has also asked his party to look into whether there should be a rethink and a new mechanism be considered to do justice to the downtrodden.

NEW DELHI, AUG 30 (UNI)- Convenor of Patidar Anamat Andolan Samiti (PAAS) Hardik Patel (C) addressing a press conference at the Pres Club of India, in New Delhi on Sunday. UNI PHOTO-5U

It is clear that at least in the case of admissions to educational institutions quotas have been cornered by some influential OBC castes while others have been left out. The irony is that even influential communities like the Kerala Brahmins are now demanding quota. Gujjars had agitated for it in the past. The current Hardik Patel agitation in Gujarat has added to the fire as the Patidars want reservation for all or for none.

The BJP is in a dilemma. While it cannot openly ask for abolition of quota system it is doing so in a clever way. For instance, the 2014 BJP manifesto had been silent on the issue of reservation while the Congress and other political parties spelt out detailed policy measures, including reservation for SCs and STs in the private sector. The BJP had not even stuck to the promise in its 2009 manifesto to introduce reservation for the economically weaker class in 2014.

However, reservation system is the winning mantra for Indian politicians and their vote bank politics. No party wants to annoy any caste group, howsoever small. After the BSP chief Mayawati’s success with her social engineering in the 2007 assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, most other parties follow her formula. Ironically, while politics is helping it, as different castes bond with each other to aggregate votes, social engineering also leads castes and sub-castes assert stronger caste identity consciousness and up demands.
Even 69 years after Independence, the de-bate continues whether there is need for the quota system, and if so what should be the criteria and who should get it. Since it was more politics than social justice that triggered the introduction of reservation, there is a demand now that it is time to end quotas based on caste. Even BR Ambedkar, himself a Dalit, called for the annihilation of caste.
According to some observers, the seven decade quota experiment was long enough to prove the efficacy of the system or lack of it. It came into being in 1950 when those who framed the constitution made a special provision for the Scheduled Castes and Sche-duled Tribes in jobs and admissions to colleges, and that too for ten years, with possible extensions if need be.

Look at the way how new quotas based on gender and castes have been added over the time. The then prime minister VP Singh dus-ted the Mandal Commission report from the cupboard and implemented some of its recommendations in 1990 which included quotas for the “Other Backward Classes”, comprising some 27 percent of the population. Interestingly, the Supreme Court, addressing the OBCs in particular, defined the concept of a “creamy layer” of the wealthiest and most privileged among the OBCs, saying they must now be excluded from quotas.
The Mandal agitation of 1989 showed that the quota for the Backward Classes further divided society. This resulted in a violent agitation by the student community and the then prime minister VP Singh lost his job despite having implemented the Mandal Commission report.
The Mandal agitation of 1989 led to political churning and the birth of identity politics

However, it resulted in the political churning and Mandal politics created leaders like the RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, Samaj-wadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and many other Backward Class leaders who emerged successful on the basis of their castes. And they even captured power in their respective states. The identity politics also brought leaders like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati of the BSP to the forefront, resulting in the growth of identity and caste-based politics. Elections to parliament and state assemblies ever since begin and end with caste calculations.

Then there is a gender-based quota for women with 33 per cent of seats in local bodies reserved for them, after a 1993 constitutional amendment. Surprisingly, this has worked well and more than a lakh of women have become village sarpanches and are gradually asserting their rights.

Had the bill supported by Sonia Gandhi been passed in the Lok Sabha, it would have provided similar reservation in parliament too. Although it was passed in the Rajya Sa-bha on March 9, 2010, political parties while giving lip sympathy to the women’s cause sabotaged it. Now the bill is almost buried.

In the field of education, quotas and special scholarships for backward groups were first established in the 1920s. For secondary schooling, state funds were allocated to help encourage more Dalit and tribal children to come to schools. Reservation in colleges and university led to lowering the entry marks required by Dalits and other backward applicants to help them opt for higher education. This was similarly introduced in the selection process in the administrative services.

There have been many arguments in favor and against reservations. It is not anybody’s case that the quota system has completely failed. Quotas under various heads have partly achieved their basic goals.
Official statistics reveal that in public jobs members of backward groups claim more posts than earlier. Dalits who had just 1.6 percent of the Group A civil servant positions in 1965, rose to 11.5 percent by 2011, and the share is higher for more junior posts. The pro-reservation interests want continuation of the quota system. Some states like Tamil Nadu have even gone beyond 50 percent reservation.

Kaka Kalelkar, the chairman of the first Backward Classes Commission had cautioned that reservation on the basis of caste would not be in the interest of society or the country. The shrillest voice opposing it comes from the upper castes who seek reservation for the economically weak. Either do away with all reservation or give it to everyone, they demand. Some others argue that quota is only demarcating society further.

The third contention is that it is being used for the uplift of one section of the society at the cost of the other. The fourth is that the intention of the authors of the consti-tution has not been achieved in the past seven decades as benefits have not percolated down to the deprived and needy as they are cornered by a few. Even among the Sche-duled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the few who have entered the IAS and other services have not done much to pull up their deprived brothers and sisters.

Fifthly, the quota provision has been criticized for discouraging a merit-based system and it has ended up creating another privileged section. Finally, there is also the argument of reverse discrimination.

Therefore, some may say the time has come to review and assess whether the quota system has worked well or not and rationalize it further. Moreover, if the quota is to be determined on the basis of population of the Backward Communities then clearly the extent of the quotas to be given has to be determined from time to time. After all, there are varying degrees of poverty and prosperity amongst them. Is the Indian political class willing to take a re-look at the quota system, refine and redesign it while keeping social justice at the core? Not so long as it looks at quotas as a tool to play vote bank politics.

But then there is the view that there is need to abandon quotas and substitute it with a time-bound affirmative action programme. To give Dalits or OBCs or even Muslims the opportunities that they are justly entitled to, it is necessary to create alternative programs. While the SC and ST reservation should continue, as it will take some more decades for them to reap the benefits, there should be no more addition to the quotas.

New sections like Gujjars, Patels, Brahmins and other forward classes demanding quotas should be firmly told that they are only for the economically backward. The EBCs, whichever caste they belong to—be it the upper caste or the lower caste—certainly deserve some reservation.

Academics like Yogendra Yadav and Satish Deshpande have suggested that a new system creating a multi-layered deprivation index should be considered. They suggest that besides the economic criteria, it must include others factors like education of the parents, place of residence, present background and access to facilities, etc. It would entail rationalizing promotions, or putting a one-generation cap in the case of OBCs even if Dalits and tribal categories are left un-touched. There is also a demand for quotas for transgenders.

While it may be difficult to immediately reverse reservations, at least a beginning should be made to assess the system. And the sooner the political class realises this, the better it will be. But any reform in a democracy will depend heavily on the political
will of those in power and the dominant political parties.

The writer is the former political editor of Hindustan Times

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