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Quotas plus quotas don’t add up in polls

Does tinkering around with reservations help a political party? The record seems to suggest otherwise. Debashish Mukerji examines.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2008 22:50 IST

Politicians are forever trying to manipulate the reservation policy for electoral gains. With the Rajasthan assembly polls less than six months away, Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s decision to appease the Gujjars by giving them five per cent reservation in a backward caste category, is only the most recent of such moves.

Does tinkering around with reservations help a political party? The record seems to suggest otherwise. In the late 1980s, the Vanniyars of Tamil Nadu had launched a Gujjar-like agitation. Though part of the OBC list, they felt unable to compete with the more advanced castes in the group, and went on a rampage demanding a separate category listing.

In 1989, M Karunanidhi sought to capture Vanniyar hearts and votes by splitting the OBC quota, reserving 20 per cent for them in the ‘most-backward castes’ category. But this innovative step failed to help the DMK electorally, as it was almost wiped out by the AIADMK-Congress combine in the following elections. In August 1990, VP Singh decided to implement the Mandal Commission Report, with 27 per cent reservation for OBCs, to consolidate backward caste support for his Janata Dal (JD) faction. This historic step nearly set off a caste war, changing forever the contours of North Indian politics. Singh’s JD won only 59 seats in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections, splitting repeatedly and reducing VP Singh to a political cipher. After repeated skirmishes with the high court, in 2000, Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu sought to implement the recommendations of the Ramachandra Raju Commission, splitting up the state’s scheduled caste (SC) list into four. The commission was a response to a long agitation by the Madigas, upset over the more advanced Malas cornering most of the state’s 15 per cent reservations for SCs.

The legislation restricted the Malas to six per cent reservation, but did not win Naidu the undying affection of the Madigas. His TDP was decimated in the 2004 assembly poll and, in November 2004, the Supreme Court struck down the Act as unconstitutional. In 2001, UP’s BJP CM, Rajnath Singh, set up the Hukum Singh Committee to rejig the state’s OBC and SC lists in view of the demographic change following Uttarakhand’s separation. The panel concluded that the Yadavs and Jatavs had cornered a lion’s share of the state’s OBC and SC quota benefits, respectively. Was it pure chance that the Yadavs and Jatavs comprised the core support group of the BJP’s two main rivals in UP — the SP and BSP, respectively?

The committee suggested splitting the state’s 28 per cent OBC quota into three, with five per cent to the Yadavs, and for breaking up the 21 per cent SC quota into two, restricting the Jatavs to 10 per cent. Political analysts saw it as a masterstroke, which would bring all the non-Yadav OBC and non-Jatav SC votes to the BJP. But in the 2002 election, the BJP finished third, well behind both the SP and BSP. With either the SP or BSP being in power since then, the Hukum Singh Report has understandably never been heard of again.

So will Vasundhara Raje’s unorthodox reservation formula — including a 14 per cent chunk for the economically weak upper castes — see her through another five years? Will Union HRD minister Arjun Singh’s dogged persistence in extending the Mandal recommendations to centrally-run educational institutions help the Congress in the next Lok Sabha polls? Going by the record, it seems unlikely.