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The reservation goose that lays golden eggs

How Indian politicians realised that creating a more equal society was a bad idea and not conducive to winning elections

twitter-logoProsenjit Datta | January 14, 2019 | Updated 14:27 IST
The reservation goose that lays golden eggs

The leaders who ushered in Independence in India were perhaps both naive and unduly optimistic. When the Constitution was drafted and ratified, they thought that only the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes needed reservations - or affirmative action or positive discrimination - to bring about equality in society. And that the task would be completed in 10 years.

As it happens, the original 10-year target was never achieved, and it has been extended merrily for perpetuity. But by the time the first generation of political leaders had died or withered away and the second and third generation of leaders took charge of the government, they had realised that striving for a more equal society was a bad idea. Instead, reservation could be extended - to cover other groups, and thus create additional interest groups and vote banks - and be used to win elections. In fact, perpetuating inequality and keeping the country divided into small vote banks using reservation allowed them to enjoy great power by getting elected, without of course any responsibility to reduce the inequality imparted by the caste system.

That was why the idea of identifying Other Backward Castes (OBCs) first came about. For politicians, the caste-based reservations became a sort of golden goose that kept laying eggs. Sure, everyone knew that at some point the goose would get too old to lay any fresh eggs, but they were confident that by that time some other goose laying golden eggs could be identified. (Of course, it did not matter if the nation's goose was cooked).

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The caste-based reservations worked at the national level and at the state level as well. While scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were common across states, it was perfectly possible that someone could claim to be a backward caste in some state, even if s/he was a forward caste in some other state. So state-wise backward caste lists began to be created. And there was an ever-growing clamour for even reasonably prosperous communities and castes to claim the tag of backwardness.

In the bargain, India became the only country to gain the dubious distinction where citizens agitated to be declared backward so that they too could enjoy the fruits of reservations.

There were a few parties and movements that focused on equality (and therefore were against the caste system). These included the Communists (an imported ideology) as well as the Dravidian movement, which led to the formation of the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Neither, however, managed to expand into all India movements. The Dravidian movement was anyway geographically limited to Tamil Nadu, while the Communist movement actually saw its influence shrinking slowly, until it has been more or less restricted to Kerala.

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Of course, as was always known, there was no more golden eggs based on castes to be exploited. The Supreme Court put its foot down and said that caste based reservations could not breach the 50 per cent limit.

The politicians were unhappy but what could they do. The SC judgment seemed water tight and there seemed no way around it - not that political leaders from different parties did not try to find a way to flout the judgment from time to time.

That is, until the current government became a bit desperate about falling popularity even as elections were approaching. It was then that a brilliant legal brain in the ruling party found a loophole that could be exploited - the 50 per cent cap was for caste-based reservations only - not for creating other reservations based on economic weakness or backwardness.

And hence, months away from the election, the Prime Minister's grand proposal to reserve 10 per cent jobs and educational seats for the economically weaker sections (even though the definition for economically weaker person pretty well covers everybody except the truly rich.)

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As expected, no Opposition party actually opposed the Bill when it was cleared overnight by the Cabinet and whizzed through the Lok Sabha in a single day. In fact, so eager was every politician to push through the Bill that the Rajya Sabha extended its seating by a day, and every political party rushed to vote Yes for the Bill to become an Act.

So now we have a brand new law reserving an additional 10 per cent jobs in the government and public sector for the EWS. It is a different matter that there are no jobs being created - and even existing vacancies are not being filled. At last count, there were 29 lakh vacancies in government jobs. How does it matter if there was no cake being baked - promise the voters a slice of the non-existent cake and hope they do not find out they have been cheated till the votes are over.

This is how Indian politicians came to love inequality and decided to keep it going for as long as possible. It is infinitely easier to do so than to create economic and social conditions that would create equality.  

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