The signs are unmistakable. Indian politics will slowly but surely try to build up to a new axis of majoritarian politics by around the 2019 elections. But this axis will be around an old issue: Reservations. There are many reasons to believe that the fragile post-Mandal equilibrium is about to come under severe pressure. The Mandal equilibrium was premised on a court-brokered constitutional compromise that there would be a cap of about 50 per cent on reservations. It was premised on a sociological assumption: That the demand for new groups to be included in the OBC list would expand only incrementally rather than exponentially. And it was premised on an economic hope that the private sector would create enough quality jobs to lessen the burden on the public sector as an arena of opportunity. All these assumptions are now under severe stress.
The political incentive for opening what is called a “new social justice” front is clear. If leaders like Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad have any national ambitions, this will be the ticket to that ambition. It is the only ideological idea, other than prohibition, that allows them to transcend their states. It will manifest in three demands: The release of the socio-economic census data on caste as a prelude to expanding reservations; a call for a constitutional amendment to rejig the 50 per cent cap, or at least allow the states to set their own caps; and increasing pressure on the private sector for some kind of reservations. This theme is increasingly running through the political remarks of a variety of leaders, and finding expression in manifestos of assorted regional parties from Bihar to Tamil Nadu. On the ground, in state after state, the Mandal equilibrium is being questioned: Whether by Jats in Haryana or Patels in Gujarat. The possible inclusion of these dominant groups into the existing pie will increase the political pressure to expand the reservation pie, since more groups will in turn make the demand and many existing beneficiaries will lose out.
One of the oddest alchemies of the social justice debate is the complete conflation of backwardness and discrimination as categories. Indian society has changed much, and we do need new data to understand these changes. But there is an illusion being peddled that merely the availability of data can help craft a transparent, rule-bound affirmative action scheme. This is an illusion for several reasons. The debate is as much normative as empirical. What should count as backwardness? Should the same instruments that we rightly use to redress the oppression of Dalits be used to address the social challenges of other dominant castes? To what extent are OBCs a descriptive or a constructed category? Is there a selection bias in the hypothesis when we assume that caste is for all groups the predominant axis that explains their condition? Much hope is being reposed in data to resolve these questions. Data is needed. But it is more likely that identities and norms will structure the salience of the data than the other way round. Based on current evidence, it is wishful thinking to assume that political discourse will allow for anything but the expansion of the current paradigm of reservations.
Other political signs also point in this direction. No one had any illusion that caste would disappear from Indian politics anytime soon. And there is no question that politics has to be widely representative. But the leadership choices of parties at the state level are reinforcing the salience of caste politics. B.S. Yeddyurappa has not been reinstated because of his governance capabilities or new ideas; the BJP’s choices in UP reflect the same pattern. Leaders of dominant castes like Jats in Haryana do not even countenance the legitimacy of being governed by non-Jats.
In short, the building blocks of which parties are made reflect the politics of particular identities, and these leaders will do everything to reinforce it. They do not offer much hope of a newer and better social justice paradigm.
The reservation coalition, as Vinay Sitapati has pointed out in his essay in the new Oxford Handbook of the Indian Constitution, has transitioned from a discourse of social justice to a discourse of majoritarian politics. In order to buy legitimacy for breaching the 50 per cent ceiling, for including new groups, for subdividing existing categories, it will be important to keep the Dalit-OBC consensus on expanding the current system of reservations. And the deal will be raising the ceiling on reservations and opening some door to private-sector reservations. Nitish Kumar is, in some senses, well placed to broker exactly this deal. Raising the demand will also immediately put the Congress and the BJP in a bind. The BJP has been spectacularly trying to build a base amongst backward castes and Dalits, and the reservation issue will be the way in which the “social justice” coalition will call its bluff.
The social dynamics on the ground make this political gambit more plausible for three reasons. There are undercurrents of social agitation on caste lines in several states. And if Haryana is the canary in the mine, these can take a violent shape, leading to new forms of inter-caste violence. The economy may not be doing too badly, but dynamic private-sector job creation is still a distant dream. In fact, many erstwhile dominant communities, including groups like Rajputs and Jats, are feeling immeasurably cheated by the new economy.
Third, education was supposed to have been the alternative path to equal opportunity. There have been some gains in this area. But these gains put heightened pressure on the system for secure jobs; the jobs available are incommensurate with the expectations of the education. And there is also the blunt truth that education has not been the leveller it was supposed to be. The supply of education is still a disaster, mired in low quality. So, in effect, it is hard for the state to credibly look anyone in the eye and say that it has been able to create conditions for somewhat more equal opportunity using means other than reservations.
Politics is always contingent. So, in principle, circumstances, including the performance of the economy and shifting micro coalitions, could change the political passions behind reservations. But there is a new alignment of political incentives and social unrest emerging that could make reservations once again an important axis of Indian politics.
Unless political parties are farsighted and morally nuanced, the current fragile equilibrium is about to be shattered, and not entirely for reasons of social justice.