The need for reservation for other backward castes is being deliberately confused with the needs of the Dalits. However, the former, the who gained economic equity in the form of land after the abolition of landlordism, do not suffer social deprivation any more, while the latter do. The Congress maneuver is likely to land it in bigger trouble in the future. The article below, which appeared in The Hindustan Times May 16, 2006
War is supposed to be a continuation of politics by other means. Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but there’s one similarity between the two — it does take genius to profit from political and military masterstrokes. It is relatively easy to execute a coup, but quite another to manage its consequences. Whether it is Yamamoto and Pearl Harbour or George W. Bush and Iraq, history is littered with instances of triumphs gone wrong. The same, perhaps, could be said about politics-as-war, and politician generals. Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was not intended to be what it became. Closer home, think of the Mandal I and Mandir, the two dazzling strikes, whose dénouement, viewed in 2006, is not quite what its protagonists — V.P. Singh and L.K. Advani — anticipated.
Perhaps, HRD Minister Arjun Singh is truly imbued with the desire to uplift the OBCs and go down in history as another Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj. But perhaps not. Considering that there was no movement demanding OBC reservations, it is more than likely that Singh’s plans had purely political aims. If so, it’s time for the Congress to pause and ponder. Those who think that the Grand Old Party is served by infallible strategists with deep experience and commitment to the party’s well-being, would do well to recall the autumn of 1989. General elections were on hand, coming after five eventful years in which the Congress had ruled the country with a majority of 415 seats in the Lok Sabha. The previous period had been a difficult one for Rajiv Gandhi — dogged by Bofors and friends-turned-foes on one side, and the Sangh parivar’s Ayodhya campaign on the other. Ten days before polling day, the Congress managed to get some sants to carry out a shilanyas for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Its protagonists undoubtedly saw it as a master-stroke, but it was anything but that. Arguably, the Congress would still have lost the election, but a glance back suggests that the action cost crucial Muslim votes and brought the party’s tally down to 196.
So the question remains: Is Singh’s move a bold gamble to seize the political high ground lost to the Yadavs — Lalu and Mulayam — in Bihar and UP? Or merely a means of unsettling Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership? If it is the latter, there is not much to say by way of comment. But if it’s the former, the Congress party’s a bit too late. It wasn’t the reservations of Mandal I that consolidated the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, but the mobilisation that came in its wake, one which the Congress rightly opposed. But the caste-based mobilisation could not appeal to the whole and has in just about a decade displayed its ephemeral character.
Perhaps the Ayodhya campaign itself is an instructive example of how history simply does not repeat itself, and that there is no class of beneficiaries who will be waiting to reward the Congress in the next elections. Through the Nineties, the issue of the Ram mandir in Ayodhya resonated across northern India — in elections in MP or Rajasthan, and even, to an extent in UP. Through the NDA years, annual uprisings were staged by the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and associated sants and mahatmas. But in retrospect, it all looks a bit theatrical and crucially dependent on the prop of a friendly government in either the Centre or the state. The Ayodhya fever has left the body politic, and Vinay Katiyar’s fate in the recent Rae Bareli by-poll underscores that. So, from the political standpoint, Mandal I or II is strictly last season’s fruit.
Almost all arguments for OBC reservations conveniently link the issue to that of affirmative action for Dalits. Yet, to do so is to be historically incorrect and do disservice to the depth of prejudice and discrimination that the latter continue to face. While both groups faced deprivation, only the Dalits faced systemic repression as well. While one was an outcast, forbidden all but the most menial of professions, the OBC’s deprivation arose from poverty and the lack of education. An example of the difference was in the recruitment to the army — OBCs could and were recruited into the combat arms, while the Dalits (except the Mahars in Maharashtra) were permitted to work only in their traditional professions. The various state laws abolishing zamindari gave land to the tiller, mainly OBCs, while the Dalits who were prohibited from tilling land anyway, got nothing. Fifty years since, and a decade-and-a-half after Mandal I, while Dalits continue to face social discrimination despite mandated reservations, the OBCs do not.
Discrimination on the basis of race, caste and gender are not uncommon across the world, as indeed have been efforts to remedy the problem through various schemes of affirmative action. What they do tell us till now is that a person must not just be equal, but also feel equal, and this does require some act of acceptance by a peer group. Legislation can get you into a classroom or workplace, punish those who may verbally abuse you, but it cannot compel them to accept you as a social equal — people you dine or go to the movies with. That is a more complex process that calls for changed mindsets. These can be made to change through force majeure, as in the case of the upper castes and the Bahujan Samaj Party in UP. But the more lasting transformation comes when people of a deprived group match ,and on occasion exceed, the achievement of the peer or, in our context, ‘elite’ group. Quotas can remove the physical deprivation of not having access to education or a job, but they cannot provide that vital ingredient that promotes individual achievement — self-esteem.
The essence of generating self-esteem is to help the disadvantaged without being overweening. This can be achieved by a strategy that lowers the initial hurdles for underprivileged athletes in a 110-metre race, but insists that the height of the last set of hurdles will be the same for all. In other words, provide preferential access to high quality education at the primary and secondary levels,with a view to ensure that the final product can compete anonymously — and equally — at the level of entry to a professional course as an engineer, a doctor or a government or private sector manager. But, of course, this cannot happen because instead of focusing on those very hurdles — the lack of quality primary and secondary education — the political class wants to lower the last set of hurdles, generating resentment in all directions.
The Congress’s peregrinations in the last two decades have clearly not taught it the appropriate lesson. The natural place for a party of the freedom movement and of the 415-seat majority is at the centre of the political spectrum. To play to a sectional interest is to court disaster, to start with, in the state where it must make a critical breakthrough — UP, a state as rich in voters as in their disproportionately larger numbers among the upper-castes. The formation of a Muslim party in UP should be warning enough of the already slippery slope of sectional politics.
Mandal II was not the consequence of any agitation by the OBCs or their leaders. It is, at best, a high-risk manoeuvre to turn around the long retreat that has brought the party from the Kaveri and Ganga to the banks of the Yamuna. There may be some value in the move as a last gamble. But there is wisdom in understanding what every prudent general knows: success usually visits the one who has also thought through several moves ahead.