Debating India

OBC RESERVATION

Genie is on the table

Thursday 18 May 2006, by MALHOTRA*Inder

The OBC quota reveals the inner conflict of Congress.

There can surely be a case for reservations, even for the OBCs, officially called ?Other Backward Classes’ but, in reality, Other Backward Castes. The trouble, however, is that this case has never been considered - if the expression is permissible - on merit. It has almost always been driven by crass political, even personal, calculation. Let the record speak for itself.

Jawaharlal Nehru, an incomparable champion of equity, wanted for the OBCs all possible opportunities but no reservations. He was fully backed by the findings of the first OBC Commission, headed by the much respected Kakasaheb Kalelkar. The Mandal Commission, appointed by Morarji Desai, presented its report after Indira Gandhi’s return to power. She let it gather dust in some remote pigeonhole in the bureaucratic labyrinth. So did Rajiv Gandhi who froze to silence a cabinet minister (not V.P. Singh) advocating that something might be done about the Mandal report. Later, he told two aides, “It’s a can of worms; I won’t touch it.”

V.P. Singh’s heart hadn’t bled for the OBCs either during the years he served in the cabinets of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv or for full eight months after becoming prime minister. The OBCs became his passion only when, in the last week of July 1990, he was constrained to sack his troublesome number two, the redoubtable Devi Lal. On August 1, the Haryana patriarch announced that he would demonstrate his strength at a public rally on August 9 (an important date in Indian history). On August 6, the Raja of Manda used the Mandal report as his weapon against Devi Lal. The rest, as they say, is history.

Much worse than the caste conflict and intense violence - eventually escalating into the Mandal versus Mandir war, with inevitable communal fallout - that V.P. Singh triggered was his failure to do anything to build public opinion in favour of the Mandal recommendations. Strangely, the champions of the OBCs continue to forget that, but for the Mahatma’s mighty movement on behalf of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, there would not have been widespread acceptance of reservations even for Harijans and Girijans, now called Dalits and Adivasis.

V.P. Singh was in no position to enforce what he had proclaimed. The BJP had withdrawn support to his government, and Rajiv Gandhi, assisted by Vasant Sathe, had opposed the move. But things change. What VP could not do, PV did. Helped by the Supreme Court’s judgment endorsing OBC reservations, Narasimha Rao’s minority government introduced them. Of course, the apex court had also raised the crucial question about the “creamy layer”. No one speaks about it. Not one voice is raised in support of denial of reservations to the offspring of tens of thousands of OBCs already occupying positions of power, privilege and pelf, so that the benefits can start reaching the really deserving people at the bottom of the heap.

Even this is a minor point, however, compared with the dangerous manner in which the genie of Mandal II has been unleashed. V.P. Singh could argue that, fighting with his back to wall, he had no time consult anyone. But, in heaven’s name, why make the same horrendous mistake a second time? The issue of extending 27 per cent reservations to institutions of higher learning such as the IITs and IIMs - yet to be considered by the Union cabinet - has already been declared an irreversible, indeed immutable, decision. Clearly, the inner conflict within the Congress party is at work and is indeed visible, in all its coarseness, to the naked eye. The cartoonist who depicted the human resource development minister planting a time bomb on the prime minister’s desk has said it all.

This is what has led to virulent agitation across the country, most notably by doctors but also by others. Mercifully, the street action has not yet assumed the dimension it did in 1990. But with the rival sides hell-bent on taking each other on, anything can happen. A potentially disastrous new element in the conflict is the almost complete disconnect between the 300 million, high-flying Indians wallowing in globalisation and the luckless 800 million still mired in abject poverty and backwardness. This breeds callousness and arrogance on one side - and anger and hatred on the other. Some of the police action against the striking doctors has doubtless been egregiously brutal but sadly usual. However, the greater horror this time around is because victims are “people like us”.

It is also amazing that affirmative action, a must in a country of India’s astonishing disparities and discrimination, is seldom even mentioned by the rich, the famous and the powerful. On the other hand, reservations are the only affirmative action known to the vast majority of politicians. A small fraction of the “non-performing assets” (in reality bad loans given to fat cats) of nationalised banks, totalling nearly Rs 1 lakh crore, could give fairly extensive financial assistance to underprivileged students.

However, given the state of the Indian polity, there is going to be no escape from the folly of 27 per cent OBC reservations in medical colleges, IITs, IIMs, and so on. These will be rammed down the country’s throat, possibly through an ordinance that would be accompanied by some sweet words about increasing the number of seats in the institutions concerned to “protect everybody’s interests”. But only the mindless would believe that a change on such a large scale can be introduced in one go. Especially at a time when there are at least 20 per cent vacancies in the faculties of the relevant institutions.

Kancha Iliah, the inveterate supporter of all reservations, put his finger on the heart of the matter when he said on a private TV channel that all children must go to neighbourhood schools with a high enough standard of teaching, and reservations would become irrelevant in 25 years. It is too tall a order for a country that hasn’t been able to make primary education universal and compulsory in nearly six decades, nor is able to reduce the appalling dropout rate in primary and secondary schools, especially among Dalit and Adivasi students.

indermalhotra30@hotmail.com

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