There is a touch of mystery in the brief but brisk storm at the higher echelons of the Congress over the sensitive issue of caste-based reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. So much so that Congress president Sonia Gandhi had to issue a strongly worded statement to put an end to the controversy that had arisen suddenly, and was avoidable.
The first surprising element in the whole episode was the uncharacteristic manner in which a sober, staid, reticent and veteran Congressman, Janardhan Dwivedi, virtually lit the fuse. He is not only a very senior general secretary but is known to be in the inner circle of the Congress president. He may no longer be the chief of Congress publicity, but whenever an important announcement has to be made, he is entrusted with the task. At the famous AICC meeting at the Talkatora stadium on January 17, he was the master of ceremonies.
Yet, he took it upon himself to plead for an end to the caste-based reservations and their replacement by reservations for the economically weaker sections of all castes and communities. He argued that the benefits of the present system go to the “well-off within the reserved categories” — the “creamy layer”, in the words of the Supreme Court — “and the poor are left at the bottom of the social pyramid”. He added, for good measure, that his views were in conformity with the resolution passed by the Congress Working Committee in August 1990 when V. P. Singh, then prime minister, announced 27 per cent reservations for the OBCs — called Other Backward Classes in the Constitution but are, in fact, intermediate castes — as recommended by the Mandal Commission.
It is necessary to mention that the Mandal Commission was appointed by the Janata government in the late 1970s. But by the time the commission submitted its report, the Janata was history and Indira Gandhi was back in power. She quietly consigned it to some pigeonhole. In Rajiv Gandhi’s time, some voices began to be raised that this report should be implemented. He confided to
an aide: “The Mandal Commission’s report is a can of worms. I won’t touch it.” Later, when Singh did take the plunge and there were widespread protests leading to violence and firings by the police, Rajiv told the same aide: “V.P. Singh is the most divisive man in India after Mohammed Ali Jinnah.” In Parliament, the Congress party opposed the legislation on the subject.
That, of course, was a long time ago. A short while later, observing the rise of caste-based parties in various states, the Congress also accepted OBC reservations. The man who advocated this vigorously was Arjun Singh. Strangely, Dwivedi remembered this recent history only partially. Or else, he wouldn’t have spoken out and addressed his message specifically to “Rahulji”, adding that he was responding to the Congress vice president’s appeal to all Congressmen to give him their ideas for inclusion in the manifesto for the looming general election. Dwivedi said his contribution was that henceforth reservations should be confined to the poor of all sections of society.
It is equally puzzling why a seasoned politician like Dwivedi could not foresee that behind the scenes, if not publicly, all hell would break loose within the party he has served for 35 years. Some Congress leaders immediately embarked on damage control. They declared that Dwivedi had expressed his personal views that had nothing to do with Congress policy. However, that was a sideshow.
The real drama took place hidden from the public view. Any number of Congress leaders conveyed to the Congress president that just before the elections, when the Congress was trying to attract the Jat vote in as many as 13 states and hoping to have alliances with some caste-based parties, untold damage had been done by Dwivedi’s statement. The Congress’s opponents, including the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, had already gone on the offensive. This probably determined both the timing and tenor of Sonia Gandhi’s statement.
“There should be,” she said, “no doubt on the stand of the Congress on the system of reservations for the Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes and the OBCs.” Indeed, she underscored that it was the Congress that introduced the reservations for “SCs/ STs in the 1950s and for the OBCs in 1990”. (In view of what has been stated above, she was right about the SCs/ STs but wrong about the OBCs.) That, however, is a minor matter. What is important is her firm declaration that the present reservations must continue because “it was essential to deal with the discrimination imposed by centuries of subjugation and oppression”. Not content with this, the Congress president also drove home what else her party has done, or proposes to do, that virtually amounts to stealing the thunder of caste-based parties. According to her, these measures range from the strengthening of a framework to implement the benefits to the deprived effectively to a dialogue to “ensure affirmative action for the SCs/STs in the private sector”.
Let me conclude by narrating the circumstances in which V.P. Singh was driven to announce reservations for the OBCs without even consulting his allies from both ends of the spectrum, the BJP and the Left Front. Returning from Moscow in the last week of July, he found that his defiant deputy prime minister, Devi Lal, had revolted against him. He therefore dismissed the “Tau” from Haryana. On August 1, Devi Lal announced that he would stage a mammoth rally on August 9. Singh tried to take the wind out of the Haryana leader’s sails by releasing the genie out of the bottle. The BJP was infuriated, and later, withdrew support to him. His government fell in 11 months flat.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator