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Different faces of deprivation

Mayawati’s move to widen reservations demonstrates how the policy needs an economic rationale to stay meaningful

Written by Sudha Pai |
September 30, 2011 3:35:51 am

With the relative weakening of identity politics through this decade in the Hindi heartland states,and particularly following Nitish Kumar’s victory in Bihar,it looked as if developmental issues might play a more central role in the campaign for the UP assembly elections due next year. Last year,the backwardness of Bundelkhand generated considerable “politics of development” between the BSP and the

Congress,forcing the former to take some action. Over the last six months,concerns such as land acquisition,law and order,corruption and urbanisation assumed importance as political parties began to flag off their campaigns.

However,the subject of reservations has once again been brought centre-stage by the Uttar Pradesh chief minister,Mayawati,who has written to the PM demanding that the Central government accord reservation in government jobs and college posts for three communities — the upper-caste poor,Muslims and Jats. With this,issues of community and identity have assumed renewed importance and created greater space for competitive populism.

Through this step,Mayawati hopes to carry forward the “sarvajan” strategy that underlay her victory in 2007. Sarvajan is a socially inclusive policy to cover all communities; the attempt is to build a broad-based political party — like the erstwhile Congress — but with a Dalit core.

Accordingly,Mayawati hopes to obtain the support of three influential communities — the minorities,backwards and upper castes — who,together with her core constituency of Dalits,could have a determining impact on othe 2012 elections. Muslims constitute about 18 per cent of the population,can affect one-third of the 403 seats in the UP assembly and have been constantly wooed by all parties. Though the upper castes supported the BSP in 2007,it is believed that this may have dwindled. Mayawati now hopes to woo the poorer sections among them,who constitute about 12 per cent and fall below the poverty line. With the rise of lower-caste parties and the decline of the BJP,it is felt that this group needs attention. The Jats,once a prosperous landowning community,are now financially and educationally backward because of the decline of agriculture,but are influential in 55 assembly constituencies in western UP,where they have been in the forefront of the recent agitation against land acquisition. Already included in the UP OBC list in 2000,they are threatening an agitation to be included in the Central list. Traditionally supporters of the Samajwadi Party or Rashtriya Lok Dal,who do not support lower-caste parties,Mayawati hopes to gain their support by seconding their demand for higher compensation in land acquisition and reservation.

Moreover,since assuming office Mayawati has tried to implement a number of developmental/welfare programmes for all communities,such as urbanisation,housing,infrastructure,law and order and education to create a broader base for her party. The BSP has the political space required to try out its strategy of sarvajan,and despite opposition from a section of Dalits,Mayawati has not abandoned this strategy; rather,there is simultaneously a greater emphasis on the needs of Dalits and the poor,needy and destitute belonging to all castes. While some progress is recorded,given the prevailing economic underdevelopment in UP,fulfilling these goals is a Herculean task for any party. Thus,these remain long-term goals and with elections approaching,there has been a retreat to old-style vote-bank politics,a shortcut to gain votes.

The move by Mayawati is also a response to the never-ending populist promises of reservation from opposition parties in the hope of obtaining votes from various communities. This is particularly true with regard to the Muslim minority,34 groups of which are already included in the official OBC list in UP. Both the SP and the RLD — who have been demanding reservations for Muslims — point out that Mayawati has not taken any concrete steps to help this community,and that this demand is being made with an eye on the elections. Several Muslim organisations also argue that the BSP has not done anything based on the Ranganath Committee report,which advised giving Muslims 15 per cent within the OBC quota,or passed a law against communal violence. Mayawati’s demand also comes at a time when the Congress party is considering giving reservations based on the Andhra model,in which 4 per cent of government jobs are reserved for Muslims.

Will the BSP benefit from this,or are such promises moving towards electoral exhaustion? Electoral results over the last few years provide contradictory signals. The BSP won all three assembly and two Lok Sabha seats in the by-elections held in April 2008. More important,the victory demonstrated that the Muslims in constituencies such as Muradnagar and Azamgarh,and the Brahmins in Khalilabad and Bilgram,continued to prefer it to the Congress or the SP. The BSP virtually swept the panchayat polls held in October 2010,suggesting that the party still has a hold over its Dalit constituency. But it could not perform well in 2009,with observers arguing that substantial Dalit and Muslim votes had shifted to the Congress.

In sum,while the policy of reservations was adopted at

Independence to help groups that were historically disadvantaged,over the decades it has become highly politicised,and parties use it to build patron-client relationships. Consequently,all social groups are demanding a fair share in reservations. UPA 1 had made a new beginning in trying to provide rural jobs,food security and education based on a more inclusive approach,giving priority to need-based entitlements and rights on an economic basis, rather than a purely caste-based approach. A second model was attempted by Digvijaya Singh based on the Bhopal Document,of providing a share in government contracts,which would produce entrepreneurs among SC/STs. However,today all parties seem bereft of ideology and prefer,when elections are due,the same tired and divisive politics,which does not benefit any group. In fact,the only way in which reservations can be made worthwhile is by linking them with economic criteria. If not,they have outlived their usefulness and merely promote a race to be identified as backward.

The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies,and rector,at Jawaharlal Nehru University,Delhi

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