The Gujjars of Rajasthan are back on the streets. This could be seen as an attempt to corner the newly-formed Congress government in the state. Both Congress and BJP have had the taste of Gujjar wrath earlier. It could also be seen as an extension of intra-party factionalism playing out in the open for the Congress. Nevertheless, the renewed agitation alerts us to the larger complications facing policy-making. Reservation appears to be the only answer to all our socio-economic complications. Thus, over and above party competition and internal factionalism, the Gujjar agitation represents the difficulties and distortions that have crept into the reservation regime. And it is not the only agitation of this type.
A similar agitation is waiting to happen in Maharashtra — by the Dhangar community, over their demand for inclusion in the ST category. Unrest among the Patidars of Gujarat and Jats of Haryana is simmering and can explode any time into another round of agitation for reservation. At the same time, the Bombay High Court is hearing a petition demanding that the state’s decision to extend 16 per cent reservation to Marathas be stayed/struck down. The apex court, similarly, is hearing a petition against the constitutional amendment extending reservations to economically weaker sections. Petitions over expansion of reservation beyond 50 per cent are already pending before the court. Thus, even as reservation appears to be the only solution for demands by many communities, the reservation regime is becoming more and more litigation-prone.
For staunch proponents of reservation, these troubles can be resolved by doing away with the 50 per cent cap altogether. The latest amendment giving reservation to the poor has already opened the doors for such parliamentary adventurism. It has done away with the constitutionally permitted gatekeeping mechanism of social and educational backwardness and opened up reservation to everyone — irrespective of social backwardness.
In other words, the solution is to free the reservation policy of the chains of constitutional reasonableness as mandated by the judiciary. This overemphasis on the idea of reservation is marked by four critical aspects that signify a move away from the constitutional scheme of positive discrimination.
One, as we recently witnessed in Parliament, there is a complete absence of genuine debate on the question. No party could take a nuanced position on the issue of “reservation for poor”. In a sense, this is only to be expected if one considers the political fallout of such nuance. Post-Mandal, there has seldom been any serious review or re-examination in our public political life of the way in which the reservation policy is moving. The political arena is much more strongly affected by this new consensus that quietly took shape in the post-Mandal era. So much so that, recently, a lawyer arguing on behalf of the petitioners challenging Maratha reservation was manhandled outside the court. No political party or politician can raise questions about the matter. This is a classic case of consensus as closure. There is a complete closure of the public debate on reservation.
Two, over the quarter century since Mandal, the reservation regime has expanded in many directions. Ironically, most of the times, expansion has contributed to the de-legitimation of the original idea behind reservation. When the reservation policy went beyond SCs and STs, despite the fact that the expansion was justified, it effectively diluted the sharpness of the tool — that it would be employed for extreme cases of discrimination and exclusion. Down the line, when different communities began to claim that they are backward and deserving of reservation, the political clout of these communities and their relatively less deprived conditions meant that the logic of discrimination got diluted. Finally, when the idea of reservations is used to address economic infirmity, the entire basis of the reservation policy gets displaced.
Now, the reservation policy will no more be seen as an intermediate tool to address ingrained social injustice in the Indian social order. As a result, the moral basis of the reservation policy is almost lost. The enabling provision in the Constitution was predicated on the logic that the social order is fundamentally unjust and therefore the state should intervene in favour of the most oppressed sections to enable them to compete in the public sphere and stake their claims for a share in public power. This logic is no more applicable. Instead, the logic now is that there are different groups in society and they need to be accommodated, as far as possible, in a proportionate manner (as I argued earlier too, ‘The New Reservation’, Indian Express, August 1, 2018). This new logic implies that reservation is not a remedy for traditional social ills but a routine policy tool to arrange political and administrative power.
Three, and paradoxically, while reservation for economically weaker sections delegitimises social justice as the basis for reservations, at the same time, the post-Mandal churning has brought forward caste as the primary basis for making claims on the state. Not the injustice perpetrated by the caste system, but caste in itself has emerged as the primary social group for which demands are made, robbing policy-making of the more justifiable bases of deprivation. Instead of an expectation that policy should be directed at and based on some agreed ways of assessing deprivation and its amelioration, now policy can be based merely on the fact that it addresses specific groups. Besides, such public display of caste claims leads more to strengthening identity than ensuring advancement. The identity excess this has brought about has been seldom taken into consideration but effects of this development spill over beyond the policy realm. India’s entire public discourse and political calculus are deeply influenced by single-caste considerations. Caste and caste identity are not new factors but the traction they have now received not just in political calculations but in more routine social relations and personal identifications is a new factor in shaping the public sphere.
Finally, the language of pseudo-justice being popularised by the “quota-for-poor” policy is symptomatic of a larger failure. It replaces the principle that welfare should be the basic raison d’être of public policy, it hides the colossal failure of the state in handling questions of poverty and deprivation and, at the same time, it indicates a dead end in policy making.
What is common between the demands of Jats, Gujjars, Marathas, Dhangars, Patidars, etc on the one hand, and the recently effected coup against the Constitution through the quota-for-poor amendment is a public admission of the absence of imagination and innovation in policy-making. Post-Mandal, the first section to ignore the possibilities of imaginative policies for social justice consisted of the intellectuals. In their haste to brand parties as pro-social justice and anti-social justice, they latched on to reservation as the only policy tool to address social injustice.
The political players were quick to succumb to the temptation of postponing the substantive social justice agenda in favour of decorative policy measures of limited effect. In the process, the fundamental task of politics that it throws up alternatives and enables the imagination, got stunted. We have a consensus on reservation and yet social groups continue to agitate for reservation — representing the closure of imagination in public policy-making.
(The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune and is chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics)