The issue of which classes should be deemed backward has surfaced again with the recent violence in Haryana, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, where some castes want ‘backward-class’ status. A community cannot be on the backward-class list unless its economic and educational backwardness is strongly supported by data. Since the state governments have the powers to include any community on the backward-class list, the process of the inclusion of backward communities has been manipulated. Once included, no community has been removed from the list.
Assessing backwardness on the basis of caste and including castes arbitrarily make a mockery of social justice. In addition, this practice has been denting the base of national parties. In the recent assembly elections in Bihar, the Congress was a subordinate partner in the Congress-RJD-JD(U) alliance. With the decline of national parties, the narrative on national development and national spirit has taken a severe beating. The intention of regional and caste-based political parties is to gain the maximum from the consolidation of their targeted but limited vote base in select constituencies. This strategy of limited targeting cannot work for national parties because they have to gain votes across communities and that could happen only when they could appeal to individual voters, irrespective of their caste affiliation. Since the Congress could not work the caste calculus, it has become almost irrelevant in UP and Bihar since the 1990s. The BJP also has faced serious setbacks intermittently in UP and Bihar mainly for this reason.
If we look at the opinion polls and surveys on reservations in the past 20 years, about two-thirds of the people have supported economic criteria for reservations. In accordance with the existing pattern of reservations, about two-thirds of the population have been in one reserved category or the other. Even then, only one-third of those surveyed support caste as the criterion for reservations. Why? That’s because reservations have been cornered by the well-to-do among the reserved communities.
Given this situation, why should the national parties toe the line of the caste-based parties? This is because the national parties are not realising that their canvas and that of the caste-based parties are not the same. The larger issue with caste-based reservation is that political power is required to consolidate and continue the gains indefinitely. And the space for political parties that try to appeal across communities shrinks.
Without breaking the links between caste-based reservations and voting patterns, national parties cannot survive in India. In its own interests and in the interests of the nation, the Congress should take the first step in demanding income criteria for backward-class identification.
Ramakrishnan TS did his PhD in Public Systems at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad
The views expressed are personal