BJP victory: Time for debate on review of reservation policy?

BJP victory: Time for debate on review of reservation policy?

BJP victory: Time for debate on review of reservation policy?

India’s political history has had many defining moments since Independence. In the contemporary era, former Prime Minister V P Singh’s Mandal politics initiated in 1990 sprouted many OBC (Other Backward Classes) leaders across the political spectrum that gave independent identity to different marginalised sections of the society.

Twenty four years later, the 2014 decisive election verdict is a mandate for good governance. The voters’ choice appears to challenge the Mandal politics since some of the backward castes as well as Dalits, especially in the populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have exercised their franchise for BJP leader Narenda Modi who was able to successfully market his performance-oriented and development-driven Gujarat model.

The split in the OBC and extremely backward castes’ votes in the UP, Bihar and other parts of the Hindi speaking belt in favour of the BJP has questioned punditry that only middle class and urban India aspire for a better living and the poor have resigned to their fate of a life in poverty. The UP result was the oomph factor of 2014 battle. The saffron party won 71 out of 80 seats, taking its vote share from 17.5 per cent in 2009 polls to 25 in this elections.

The swing in its favour was contributed not only by youth voting for Modi but the traditional voters of the SP and BSP went along with the national mood, that was summed up in the catchphrase of  “ache din ane wale hain (better days are ahead)”.

The vote share of BSP, which shockingly could not win a single seat in UP, declined from 27 per cent in last Lok Sabha polls to 19.6 this time. The SP too took a hit of 1.5 vote share between the two polls, managing to get merely five MPs elected.

Prof Badri Narayan, a social historian and cultural anthropologist at the G B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, explained the drift of backward classes towards BJP to the inroads the new economic policy has made by changing the face of villages and cities of the Hindi-speaking state which the caste-based parties could decipher. 

“People desired a good life, buying consumer durables, increasing their earning and spending capacities. TV, mobile phones and the Internet started making inroads into both rural and urban areas in a big way. Unable to understand the changing mindset of this 'desiring society', the BSP continued to focus on traditional identity-based politics,” he recently wrote.

Earlier, researchers from University of Oxford in a study “Why doesn’t the BJP face greater resistance from lower castes in Gujarat?” compiled after then chief minister Narendra Modi’s assembly polls victory in 2013 came to a finding that appears to provide some understanding of why have-nots shunned their granted electoral identities for a hope of better tomorrow.

“The success of the Modi regime in constructing a shared political identity around development, while decoupling it from employment security, is by far an important contributor to his successful recruitment of subaltern social groups to his electoral fortunes,” the research paper analysed.

The sweeping outcome of the parliamentary elections can also be read as the growing disenchantment of the backward class towards their politicians and their politics which has failed to empower them educationally and financially despite reservations in jobs. It is perhaps because the advantage of reservation is not reaching out to the targeted group and prosperous among them are running away with its fruits that has lead to backward classes looking out for political alternatives.

Politics of populism

And, if that is so, is it time to review the reservation policy to give government benefits on the basis of socio-economic status instead of caste backwardness?  While a section of political scientists had for years argued for having poverty as the parameter for giving reservation since Constitution provides it on the basis of backwardness and not caste for seeking jobs.

The argument failed to find support all these years among the deserving subalterns who could not look beyond the politics of populism, rhetoric, and subsidies due to lack of exposure and education.

Although reservation was provided on the basis of caste, it was meant for a limited period but Article 16 provides for equality of opportunity for all citizens in employment or appointment to any office under the State. The Supreme Court, deciding on a petition challenging caste-based reservation, did judicial engineering to introduce the concept of ‘creamy layer’ to weed out the affluent among the socially backward.

For, it felt that removing creamy layer would convert into class. But, the apex court’s wish of class getting benefit remains unachieved since socially and economically poor from upper castes still remain outside the ambit.

The Kerala High court had given its nod in 2010 to a state decision to provide reservation in government colleges on the basis of socio-economic conditions. It was, however, challenged in the Supreme Court. The real under-privileged section of the society will continue to get government benefit even if economic criteria were to become the bench mark for giving out doles. The only difference would be that more number of people drawn from the forward castes as well would be added to the bracket.

When India is borrowing global practices to wriggle out of handicaps holding back country’s growth, why should it shut its eyes to some foreign democracies’ belief in virtues that poverty should be the sole indicator for upliftment. The United States is also witnessing a political debate over ‘affirmative action’ that like India seeks to provide quota in employment and education, to correct racial discrimination.

The Supreme Court of the USA, interestingly, ruled in April upholding a Michigan law prohibiting use of racial criteria in admission to educational institutions. The Indian democracy, which had acquired notoriety of underselling progressive politics, has delivered a new message. Will Modi government act on it?