Debating India

OBC RESERVATION

Which side of quota divide is PM on?

Thursday 20 April 2006

NEW DELHI: The government’s promise of reservation in private sector was whetted by the Centre’s move to appoint a Group of Ministers to examine various options, including a law, on how to push the quota frontiers to the private sector.

The GoM played safe, but did not rule out the option of legislation. Given this, the PM himself may have to explain which side of the quota divide he is on.

With the expected beneficiaries of quotas - both SC/STs and OBCs - looking to gain advantages, Congress will find it politically difficult to satisfy them with diluted offers like voluntary action on the part of the private sector.

A social justice ministry official pointed to the political costs involved by arguing that the proposal for private sector quotas was born of UPA’s NCMP.

The OBC demand for quotas in the private sector followed the clamour from Dalits, but has gained traction.

DMK chief M Karunanidhi and PMK leader Ramadoss have written to the PM asking for OBC quotas in private sector employment a couple of months ago.

The aggressive lobbying by OBC interest groups will not be easy for the government to turn down - particularly as it has itself played the backward card.

Quota politics seem to be tying the government in knots with its attempts to woo SC/ST and OBC groups threatening to boomerang.

This was evident as the PM’s statements were intended to be a mild and middle-of-the-road approach to the controversial issue but ended up provoking a vociferous response from reservationists.

Both officials and Dalit activists are reading a political plan in PM’s intervention.

It is being seen as a tactic to repair his credentials as a "merit" votary which took a beating when HRD minister Arjun Singh made the controversial move for OBC reservations in Central educational institutions.

This assessment stems from the fact that the "voluntary action" proposal is at odds with drift of policy discussions within the government over the last two years.

If the PM felt anxious about the way things were moving, he till Tuesday kept his counsel to himself. His sudden intervention at this stage carries the risk of boomeranging on him because he can be accused of prejudging the issue when GoM did not rule out the option of legislation.

The observations of GoM are yet to be considered by the Cabinet. Indeed, the Sharad Pawar-led GoM collated legal opinion, with the law ministry even suggesting the radical route of framing a law and placing it in the Constitution’s Ninth Schedule for legal immunity.

Dalit activists are quick to point out that the voluntary route does not work as lists of meritorious engineering students from the SC and ST categories provided to corporates have evoked no response.

PM’s stand on quota angers Dalits

Brushing aside as a "pipe dream" PM Manmohan Singh’s proposal to let corporates work out reservations for SCs and STs in the private sector, the quota lobby on Wednesday ratcheted up pressure for a law even as OBC groups also demanded job reservations for themselves.

Annoyed by PM’s suggestion that corporates ensure "diversity" in their recruitment policies and the immediate reluctance of industry to compromise on "merit", Dalit interest groups argued that Singh’s vacillation signalled the government’s readiness to abort the move to enact a law for quotas in the private sector.

The anger among Dalits over what they see as a sudden switch in government’s approach was articulated by National Commission for Scheduled Castes chairman Suraj Bhan, who said: "When reservation has not been implemented in government where it is subject to a law, how do you expect a hostile industry to do so on its own?"

The view was echoed by Dalit activists who have been lobbying with the UPA government for the last two years.

The developments have also provoked the powerful lobby of OBC MPs - which has been unhappy over quotas in Central universities and elite institutions like IIMs and IITs being caught in Election Commission codes - to demand that backward castes be considered for quotas in the corporate sector.

They also demanded quick action on a law, promised by the government, for quotas in Central educational institutions.

The Parliamentary forum of OBC MPs will meet next week and take up both issues. "We will ask for a law on education quotas soon, it will be taken up when Parliament meets on May 10," said Congress MP Hanumantha Rao, convenor of the forum.

"We will be taking up quotas in private sector," added V Narainswamy, a member of the forum and AICC general secretary. The political damage to Congress from the quota storm may be considerable unless it moves swiftly to manage the cauldron of expectations that has been stirred by promises to implement quotas over its two-year tenure so far.

See online : The Times of India

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