Manoj Jha, Rajya Sabha member and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) spokesperson, cannot stop beaming. He confesses it’s because of the rousing response to RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav’s demand to have 90 per cent reservations in government jobs. “The mainstream isn’t covering Tejashwi’s campaign, but Bahujan consolidation is happening in Bihar,” Jha says in his office at the prestigious Delhi School of Social Work, with stacks of books looming over him and portraits of first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru staring at visitors.
The Mandal Commission’s report, which introduced affirmative action for backward classes in 1990, had pegged OBCs (other backward classes) at around 52 per cent of the population and stated that a commensurate percentage of central government jobs should be reserved for them, just as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes (SCs and STs) get reservation in proportion to their population – 15 and 7.5 per cent, respectively. However, the commission did not recommend proportional representation for OBCs out of deference to a court ruling (MR Balaji vs State of Mysore, 1962) which had limited reservation to 50 per cent. They were, therefore, allotted a 27 per cent quota to ensure that the 50 per cent cap is not violated. And herein is the moral catch – OBC leaders say their acceptance of 27 per cent was a sacrifice, and that since the government has removed the 50 per cent cap, the limitation Mandal imposed no longer holds. They say OBCs should get their 52 per cent quota before 10 per cent is granted to economically weaker sections (EWS), essentially a code word for upper castes.
So, by announcing a 10 per cent EWS quota among castes not in the reservation pool until now, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has gifted to a clutch of parties an issue they will use to deepen India’s caste chasm, often perceived as upper castes versus backward castes.
“This 10 per cent reservation is nothing more than midnight robbery,” says Jha, who, though a Brahmin, is opposed to it.
Tejashwi is not the only leader with a backward class base rallying people around the issue. At a meeting of Samajwadi Party (SP) president and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav that a news website organised on February 9, he too was asked to spell out his position on the new quota. Yadav said he has always wanted jobs among all social groups—SCs, STs, OBCs and general—to be distributed according to their percentage in the population. Call it a system of proportional representation, which, philosophically, undercuts the idea of competition among individuals without taking their identities into account.
Even beyond the northern belt there’s growing frenzy over the issue. Regional outfits favour expansion of the reservation pool because they view quotas as a battle for hegemony between elite and non-elite social groups. This is in sharp contrast to the perspective of the national parties. Neither Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) nor Congress want to expand caste-based reservation. “The decision to give 10 per cent quotas to the poor in the general category has been taken in a completely constitutional way,” says Bhupender Yadav, Rajya Sabha member and BJP national general secretary. “It has been done without so much as touching reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs, for whom there is adequate representation.”
It can be argued that both national parties want to woo elite-caste voters while smaller regional outfits seek to polarise Bahujans—the majority—against elite-castes. Rajeev Gowda, Rajya Sabha leader and Congress spokesperson, says, “The 10 per cent allocation has set a very high income bar of Rs 8 lakh annually. Rich upper caste members would benefit, not poor non-reserved people.”
Gowda supports alternative means to address systemic inequalities, based on the principle that identity and deprivation are not fully captured by caste alone. “The Dalit-non-Dalit barrier still exists in society. So do the gender, rural-urban, poverty and language divide. These need to be re-imagined so that the most deserving get reservation,” he says.
Of course, the last word on reservation lies not with political parties but the Supreme Court. “Reservation for the economically weak has been brought only for electoral purposes. It’s not what the Constitution mandates,” says PS Krishnan, who, as welfare secretary, signed on the Mandal report during VP Singh’s term as Prime Minister. “So far, the Supreme Court has not conceded to reservations on economic criteria. It won’t in future, if the case is properly argued in court,” he says.
“The limit [of 50 per cent] should be crossed for OBCs as well,” says Anil Mahajan, who heads the Maharashtra Mali Samaj Mahasangh, a pressure group of the Malis or gardener caste, the state’s second most numerous community after Marathas. Last year, Maharashtra allotted Marathas 16 per cent reservation, months before the 10 per cent quota was cleared by the Centre. “As we OBCs are 52 per cent of the population we should get reservation proportionally,” says Mahajan.
In fact, leaders such as Mahajan contest the Marathas’ claims of backwardness and want them kept out of the OBC share in reservation. The 10 per cent quota has given them a new avenue for assertion, to demand higher than the allotted 27 per cent share. Add 52, 16, 22.5 and the state will end up reserving roughly 90 per cent of government jobs.
Even in southern states, which remained calm during the violent reactions to the Mandal report in northern states, backward groups are gearing up for confrontations along caste divides. “We are not satisfied with how Andhra Pradesh is handling the 10 per cent quota,” says Vasireddy Yesudas, president, Kapu Sadbhavana Sangam (KSS), referring to the state government assigning half this quota to Kapus.
KSS speaks on behalf of Kapus, an agrarian caste who are the third most populous in coastal-central Andhra after backward classes and scheduled castes. Kapus are said to be 27 per cent of the population. During the British era, Kapus had got reservation but later it was taken away. “Therefore, we are lagging behind and want 7.5 (over three-fourths) of the 10 per cent for Kapus,” says Yesudas.
This would not only be seen as opposed to the interests of other groups seeking OBC status in the state but also heralds a third front in Andhra Pradesh politics. Lately, the powerful Reddys, once Congress supporters, switched to YSR Congress Party led by Jaganmohan Reddy. The Kammas, who have excelled in lucrative media and film industries, traditionally constitute the second pole. They back Andhra Pradesh chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu.
Now, the 10 per cent quota is leading to Kapu assertion. Previously a section of Kapu leaders, including Telugu star-turned-politician Pawan Kalyan’s Jana Sena party, campaigned for the BJP. Kalyan now wants to fight the elections. Naidu has tried to appease the Kapus—and is getting mixed results.
Recently Mudragada Padmanabham, a prominent Kapu leader, taunted Naidu in an open letter: “Naidu should tell us—has the Centre given reservation to Kapus or has the state government done it?” In Tamil Nadu as well, the 10 per cent quota was opposed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which is significant considering its politics revolved for decades around building an anti-Brahmin front.
The 10 per cent quota has set the stage for conflict at three levels: forward versus backward castes, individual versus group rights and regional versus national perspectives. If the demand for proportional representation comes to pass, the upper castes would be undeniably affected. In granting reservation to economically weaker sections, the government, in the long run, may be responsible for shrinking the general category from 50 to 10 per cent.