One of the stupidest things Manmohan Singh did was to superimpose a caste census on to a socio-economic census. The 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC 2011) is being released in dribs and drabs, and the Modi government is seen to be hesitating over the release of the caste part of it, with the Vice-Chairman of Niti Aayog now mandated to make sense of it all.
Given the vociferous way in which OBC politicians are demanding the latest caste data, clearly they believe the time for Mandal 2 has arrived: this means there will be demands for more reservations and quotas in education and government jobs. OBC politicians believe that SECC 2011 will show a higher proportion of OBCs in the population, which means their vote banks have swelled even as they deliver less governance and development. This opens the door to more caste-based politics. This is why Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar are singing the same duet on SECC 2011, even though they have struck discordant notes on other issues.
But, in another way, you could also call SECC 2011 a stroke of Manmohan Singh’s genius. Now that you will know both a person’s caste and his socio-economic status, it could potentially give reformers the ammo to include cutoff points for excluding people from all castes from receiving reservation and welfare benefits. But that needs political gumption, and no politician has that in sufficient quantity these days. So Mandal 2 is the more likely outcome.
The best solution to the problem of socio-economic deprivation is universal access to good quality education and fast-paced growth. But since this does not happen, the second-best option of affirmative action and quotas should be on the basis of socio-economic status, and not caste. By putting caste into the equation of backwardness, we have created a mess whereby affirmative action is often wrongly targeted. The undeserving get it, and the truly deserving may be excluded, since the better off in each caste have stronger clout.
Caste-based reservations also have a way of perpetuating themselves. Once put in place, they are never reversed for fear of alienating those who benefit from it.
Consider the impact of the Mandal Commission. Set up in 1979 to figure out how many castes were backward and in need of affirmative action by the state beyond SC/STs, it came up with a list of 1,257 castes and communities – about 52 percent of the population – and classified them as OBCs (other backward classes). But three-and-a-half decades later, the OBC list has nearly doubled, not shrunk, even after the reservations. There are now more than 2,300 castes and communities qualifying as OBCs.
One can bet that Manmohan Singh’s SECC 2011 will show further accretions to the size of the OBC population and the number of castes seeking to be listed as backward.
There are two reasons for this.
First, the British-era caste census of 1931, on which Mandal based his recommendations, was not intended to offer welfare benefits. This time it is. So more castes will seek to classify themselves as backward, unlike 1931, when people wanted to up their actual caste origins to gain status. This time we could see more caste downgrades.
Second, since populations tend to grow faster at the bottom end of the economic pyramid, there is a fair chance that the OBC numbers will show a smart rise in 2011. This has already been established in the case of well-recognised disadvantaged groups – SCs and STs – where their population share has risen from 14.6 percent and 6.9 percent in 1971 to 16.6 percent and 8.6 percent in 2011.
The political clout of the poor is growing, as is evident from the rise in the number of reserved parliamentary seats for SC/STs from 79 and 41 to 84 and 47 – a rise of 11 seats in all. The SECC 2011 caste census will, if it shows any rise in the OBC population, open the doors for more caste-based political power. Even if parliamentary seat counts do not rise as in the case of the SC/STs, OBC politicians like Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar and many others will raise demands for more seat and job reservations.
As things stand, reservations for SCs, STs, and OBCs in government jobs are frozen in the range of 15 percent, 7.5 percent and 27 percent to avoid breaching the Supreme Court-mandated 50 percent ceiling. But states like Tamil Nadu have already raised quotas to 69 percent with impunity, and the chances are SECC 2011 will bring pressures to make 69 percent reservations universal.
SECC 2011 will give politicians the ammunition to make the quota systems worse than it is. We are heading down the slippery slop of Mandal 2. My prediction is that the reservations game will be upped before 2019, and BJP may seek political gains from it. The BJP's recent rise has been the result of internalising Mandal politics, and there is no reason it will not push as hard as the regular OBC parties for it.
Updated Date: Jul 17, 2015 15:00 PM