The governments decision to implement 10 per cent quota in jobs and educational institutions in the general category has the two-fold purpose of playing up to the Sangh Parivars upper caste constituency and, more importantly, holding off the prospect of organized violence that an upper caste-led agitation could possibly trigger. The anti-Mandal protests following the V.P. Singh governments decision to implement the Mandal Commission report on reservation to the Other Backward Classes in government jobs and educational institutions provide a telling background of how violent and tragic such an agitation could become.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has obviously been thinking ahead in implementing these reservations. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which provides the ideological leadership to the saffron family, has been against caste-based reservations, insisting that economic criteria should instead be the basis for this. Four years and more into the tenure of a rightwing government where the BJP government did not need the support of allies – troublesome or benign – to stay on in power, failure to counter the so-called Left liberal discourse on affirmative action with a version of its own would have appeared to be reneging on a promise. Following the recent losses in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat helpfully reminded the Modi government that what they were witnessing was an upper caste backlash.
Of course, it is a problematic premise to consider only the economic criteria as the basis for reservations in India. A perfunctory Google search of the number of Dalit youth who have been attacked and sometimes grievously wounded for no more than sporting a moustache would show what they are up against. Two Dalit boys were attacked in their homes because they were felicitated by then Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav for cracking the joint entrance examination for admission into the Indian Institute of Technology. A Dalit groom had to be accompanied by over 300 policemen because he wanted to ride a horse to his wedding venue – something that the upper caste residents of his Uttar Pradesh village had objected to. These are stray cases that have been reported and represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg of the debilitating disadvantages that people from the lower castes routinely face in trying to rise above their condition.
Introducing quota for the upper castes based on economic criteria could, meanwhile, open up new fronts against the BJP even as it tries to close off new ones. As the BJP tries to expand its base, from being the one that aimed to come to power on its own steam, it is now the one that has to be beaten. While it might have the upper hand in having state power at its disposal to present its case better, it is also easily the target of criticism from political opponents – something that Modi himself excelled at when attacking from the outside but now finds that the shoe is on the other foot. He would have realized that fighting allegations is a bit like firefighting because you don’t know where a fire will start out but once it is there, you will have to rush out and douse it. That can sap your strength. Then, the nature of ringfencing oneself against allegations can get a little boring and predictive – as has happened now with the repetitive attacks on the Nehru-Gandhis, which has lost its novelty in the age of 24×7 television coverage.
The intent to introduce quota for the general category based on economic criteria is unlikely to end friction because there will always be a counter move. The pro-upper caste move might help the BJP get traction in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – states in the Hindi belt where caste politics plays a big hand. But this can never be a one-way street. It has been countered in Uttar Pradesh by the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance. This combine has the advantage of having Mayawati, arguably the one party leader who understands caste politics better than anyone else and has the ability to read the tea leaves more accurately when it comes to recognizing changing caste equations. Dalit and OBC leaders elsewhere have prepared the ground to counter the BJP and the Sangh Parivar at large. In that sense, the government’s move on quota for the general category might not be a failsafe strategy to halt protests.
The reason for this is simple and the reference point is once again the anti Mandal protests. Those took place – and tragically turned violent – for the reason that V.P. Singh had sought to politicize the issue. The Mandal Commission recommendations were later implemented following a court order and there were no protests. The current move is also a political one and regardless of the way the vote on the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019 has gone in the Lok Sabha, it contains within it the seeds of social discord. It would require a great deal of tact on the part of the government and top BJP leaders to keep the matter from boiling over, a challenge no doubt as it comes so close to the Lok Sabha polls.