The Mandal moment
Thirty years ago, on August 7, Indian politics and society changed. In a historic move, the VP Singh government decided to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, and open up reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs. This came in the wake of the gradual political rise of the backward communities, which was due to a set of complex factors. The first was the demographic weight of the backward communities. The second was the fact that OBCs were not a natural constituency of the Congress and preferred peasant-based formations, socialist parties and regional parties — all of which were on the ascendant then. And the third was the impact of the Green Revolution which led to their economic empowerment and desire for upward professional mobility. The immediate political trigger for Mr Singh’s decision was an effort to counter the Mandir politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which sought to prioritise religion over caste, but its impact went way beyond that.
The Mandal moment saw ferocious backlash by sections of upper castes. This opposition was articulated on two axes — the fact that reservations compromised merit, and if at all reservations should open up beyond what was offered to Scheduled Castes and Tribes, it should be on economic lines. These arguments hid beneath it a real fear of losing power and opportunities. And it launched an era of open hostility between upper castes and backward communities, particularly in the Hindi heartland. OBCs became a force to contend with, and it is no surprise that no government in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar can now be formed without their active support.
But it also opened up a Pandora’s Box. For one, the resentment of those communities which did not have a share in the reservation pie increased. And political parties, in order to appease them, continued to expand reservation — to the extent that now economically weaker sections of dominant communities avail quotas, and in many states, there is over 70% reservation in key spheres. This has undermined the entire purpose of reservation, envisaged as a tool to address historic injustice, and made it an exercise in power distribution and employment generation. Second, within OBCs, some communities benefited more than others, which led to a political divide and demands for sub-categorisation, a process currently underway. Mandal empowered communities. But the entire architecture of reservations needs a review, with the aim of creating a just, inclusive and equal society, without pandering to populist movements.