Is it better to be a poor Brahmin or a well-to-do Dalit? Your answer will determine on which side of the reservations debate you stand. ‘Backwardness’, whatever politicians might make of that much-abused term, is a condition from which communities, like individuals, want to move away. The argument is that to help such a process, the State must provide a ‘leg-up’. Once a time-bound ‘de-backwardisation’ process is complete, the community will hopefully be like the fortunate others outside the SC/ST list.
Unfortunately, the matter of such a time-bound process with its accompanying inspections does not exist in India’s great affirmative action policy. ‘Backwardness’ has become a much sought-after tag that brings with it benefits that the lucky unlucky refuse to give up once — and if — they’re asked to forfeit it. But for politicians, including those in the central government, to admit that the backward tag that makes one eligible for quotas may not have a sound correlation with real (read: economic) backwardness means to set off on the road to political suicide. Which is why we have been hearing Solicitor-General G.E. Vahanvati over the last few days defending the Centre’s legislation allowing 27 per cent quota to OBCs in admissions to educational institutions before the Supreme Court. Mr Vahanvati insists that caste is the “starting point” for determining a community’s backwardness. Which, to our mind, sounds like stating that the starting point to determining womanhood is wearing a sari.
The Centre’s counsel seemed to also have got his Caesarean nuances wrong. Mr Vahanvati states that the 27 per cent quota legislation is, like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion. Once again, the cart has been placed before the horse, for a legislation must be above suspicion, not automatically deemed so just because it is a law. Mr Vahanvati also seems to be protesting too much when he says that reservations are not about ‘vote-bank politics’ — as if doing the right thing and playing vote-bank politics are always at odds with each other. But what exposes the lack of logic in the quota policy is the response to the charge that the government neglects its commitment towards universal primary education because of its obsession with quotas: that dramatic results have been achieved by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). Exactly. And that’s because the SSA is free of quota politics.