If there were any doubts that the proposed Constitutional amendment to remove legal obstacles to the provision of quotas in promotions for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes will drag the debate down to the lowest common denominator of caste-based identity politics, what we witnessed in Parliament on Wednesday should remove them.
The pushing and shoving between Samjawadi Party MP Naresh Aggarwal and Bahujan Samaj Party MP Avtar Singh Karampuri is merely a trailer, as they say. The real picture will unfold only now. The physical jostling is only a metaphor for the larger scramble in the political domain as each of these parties - and others too - seek to advance the interests of their core constituencies.
Although the Samjawadi Party's objection to the constitutional amendment proposal is voiced on the ground that the provision is unconstitutional, the real objection lies elsewhere, and is unconnected with any high-minded principle. The Samajwadi Party will be persuaded to give up its inhibitions about the unconstitutionality of the provision if, for instance, the provision for quotas in promotion were not restricted to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes alone, but extended to the Other Backward Classes as well.
DMK president M Karunanidhi, who has elevated casteist politics to a high art, too backs the Samajwadi Party's stand, and wants the quotas in promotions to be extended to Other Backward Classes as identified by the Mandal Commission.
And suddenly, the Congress, which initiated this constitutional amendment provision in the hope of harvesting political benefits in the guise of advancing "social justice" is caught in the crossfire of the identity politics that characterises Uttar Pradesh, between the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, both of which notionally support the UPA government from the outside.
That disquiet over being at the risk of falling between two stools was manifest in Parliament on Wednesday, when the Congress treasury benches - barring the Dalit MPs in the Congress - did not rise to challenge the Samajwadi Party's objections to the constitutional amendment bill that its own Minister, V Narayanaswamy, introduced in the Rajya Sabha.
In effect, the caste-based tensions are coming to the surface because the proposed measure is seen as pitting the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes against Other Backward Classes in the most cynical fashion. The clamour for reservations within government is increasingly being seen as a zero-sum game, where a concession to one is seen as a loss to another.
Of course, if history is any precedent, parties across the spectrum will find a way ahead by extending the quote in promotions benefit to Other Backward Classes too - either now or at a later date. But that will only trigger off another round of competitive casteism, because once all 'lower castes' and Scheduled Castes become entitled to the same benefits, they now have to seen to be advancing the case of their constituencies relative to other sub-castes as well.
This is entirely in keeping with the way the discourse over reservations has evolved over the decades. Introduced as an exception to one segment of the population that had legitimate claims to having been socially discriminated against, it has become the rule, where even groups that don't quite deserve the benefit (since they never faced social discrimination) - such as Jats in Rajasthan - have begun to qualify for it. At every successive stage, the provisions for reservations have been so debased as to take them farther and farther away from the original intent of providing an exceptional, time-bound benefit to a small constituency of socially backward people.
And a provision that was intended as merely an enabling instrument has perversely gone on to become a right, to be claimed by ever widening circles of caste groups.
When the Mandal Commission recommendations, under which reservations were extended to Other Backward Classes, were introduced in 1989-90, the opposition came principally from upper caste groups. At least some of the opposition came from genuine concerns that the Mandal Commission's methodology for arriving at its classification of "other backward classes" was flawed. For instance, the then Left Front government in West Bengal found it could not trace some of the castes that the Mandal Commission had listed: the same was the case in Odisha. Odisha Chief Minister Biju Patnaik at that time pointed out that some 20-plus castes that had been listed by the Mandal Commission as belonging to the OBCs were already recognised as Scheduled Castes, and that some of the surnames that the Commission had listed as identifying 'lower castes' were used by 'upper castes' as well.
Yet, the attempt then and now has been to project all opposition to the flawed recommendations of the Mandal Commission as arising from 'upper caste' elitisim. The hollowness of that claim is increasingly becoming manifest, with the tussle now principally between the SCs/STs and Other Backward Classes.
The Mandal Commission's recommendations decisively churned Indian politics, not always for the better. The politicking over Mandal also distracted the country from a looming economic crisis, which erupted in full force in 1991.
The political atmospherics, and the economic backdrop, of Mandal present a striking parallel to the events of today. At a time when the economy is on a downward spiral, a new 'caste war' politics is being unleashed, which will, its patrons hope, shift focus momentarily away from the succession of scandals that have beset this government - and from its colossal underperformance on the economic front.
As it did in the post-Mandal era, this new political churn, based entirely on caste-based identity, has serious negative consequences for Indian polity, economy and society.
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