Debating India


A juvenile government searches for vote banks

Saturday 3 June 2006, by NEHRU*Arun

The reservation issue is getting out of hand and the recent observations made by the Supreme Court on the issue should be treated with respect and consideration by both sides. I think in national interest we must avoid confrontation between the government of the day and the leaders of the future. The year 2006 is very different from 1990, and as we slip into a global economy with global challenges, we have to pursue standards of excellence. Merit cannot be enforced by legislation that is motivated by vote bank politics and political leaders with little sensitivity towards the future. The students have risked their lives and their careers on this matter. Business leaders too (this is a very pleasant surprise) speak with confidence and are openly critical of reservation. Clearly, the government is looking for compromises and has very few options. I think both sides should work around the Supreme Court’s observation and find a solution in national interest. There will be no winners if the path of confrontation is adopted. As we hurtle towards superpower status, I am surprised how "juvenile" the government of the day can be in search of political vote banks. The Congress and the BJP are both on the decline, and if the election trends are any indicator, then the Third Front is very much a reality. And this issue of reservation will only help a third force. The lessons of 1990 are, sadly, not taken into account in the current situation.

The Mandal decision demolished both the Janata Dal and V.P. Singh as a political leader. The Congress, after a brief spell of Chandrashekhar’s government, opted for elections and trying to play on both sides lost its electoral bases in both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Both states went to the Mandal leaders (Mulayam Singh and Lalu Yadav) and the leadership of the Janata Dal passed to Sharad Yadav. This was a logical thing to happen because neither the Congress nor the BJP has any relevance in this political space. Attempts by both parties at social engineering have resulted in electoral debacles. We hear from the media that President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam has expressed his views that the creamy layer among the OBCs should not be part of the quota. I think this is correct as there are few sensible citizens who would oppose special treatment and opportunity for the poor, irrespective of caste affiliations, in institutions. We have been through hundreds of years of divisive politics where society was divided to keep foreign powers in control, and laws and systems were devised to contain and control the Indian effort in all relevant fields of activity. It makes little sense for a free nation to pursue these policies for the sake of political expediency. We have huge disparities and there is no magic solution to make them disappear instantly, but we need the right decisions and decision makers for the present and the future. We live in the present and the future and as we move towards superpower status and achieve levels of excellence, we cannot take our success for granted. The biggest asset we have for the future is our manpower, and it is a pity that we are subjecting it to a class war and using water cannons as these resources fight for their future within the system. Indian companies are now multi-nationals, acquiring assets on a global scale. Can we subject them to rigid conditions like recruitment on the basis of caste, as they compete on the global arena?

The memory of 1990 is a painful one, and clearly, the Mandal decision was an accident. V.P. Singh, under "siege" at the time, sought to checkmate Devi Lal after his exit from the party. Mandal was very much a part of the election manifesto, but go back in time to see that the subject was rarely raised during campaigns and even when in governance, it was never discussed. It was actually in a CCPA sub-committee headed, if I remember correctly, by Devi Lal. The sudden decision surprised and alienated both the Left and the Right (neither was consulted), and almost instantly, everyone thought that we were creating a caste base for future elections. We lost political credibility among our allies in pursuit of a minority and the backward caste-vote banks and the election results of 1991 destroyed the very existence of the Janata Dal as a party. It continued to splinter and split into smaller units over the next decade. The Congress lost out as it made the tactical mistake of aligning with the Mandal forces and lost the minority vote bank to the SP and RJD, and the Dalits to the BSP. The results are evident today in UP and Bihar, where the party’s upper caste base has also gone. It will take many a miracle to restore the party fortunes in these states in future elections. Politically, we can always argue that a strong leader in the Congress could have made a difference, but this in my opinion may not be correct, as we saw in 2004 in the defeat of the BJP. Atal Behari Vajpayee, after five years of governance, was unable to swing the vote at the national level and every state voted in a different manner. Clearly, the electorate was divided in its approach and coalitions had come to stay both at the Centre and also in the states.

Governance today is very difficult with a part-time Prime Minister who lacks political authority and with Sonia Gandhi who avoids accountability and public scrutiny. Clearly, political accidents will continue to take place as has happened on the reservation issue. If this was a policy decision, then a major issue like this should have been handled by the PM or Sonia Gandhi. There was little need for giving confusing signals and media briefs by those in power. No political party in view of vote banks can speak in public against the issue, but see the reaction of the future leaders as they take on the government in a classic confrontation, and we see the drama on our television screens. The year 2006, as I have mentioned earlier, is not 1990 and the electronic media brings home the facts and the debate into every home, rich and poor, and clearly, this is one accident which the UPA should have avoided after two years in governance.

Arun Nehru is a former Union Minister

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