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Quota issue is bound to hurt Congress the most. The middle-classes may not constitute a major vote bank but they are opinion makers, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: May 29, 2006 00:34 IST

The union government’s endorsement of the proposal to reserve 27 per cent seats for OBCs in institutes of higher learning may be a victory for HRD Minister Arjun Singh, who was the first to espouse this cause. But it is still not clear whether it is also a victory for his party, the Congress, which, in the past, had always associated itself with issues rather than with politics of caste and community. There is no ambiguity over the fact that Mandal-II is a reality now and it does not matter to our politicians whether the matter will create further divisions within our already divided society. Mandal-I was bad enough and the BJP’s mandir card was equally divisive.

Both these issues changed the face of Indian politics and helped regional leaders and those who dabbled in politics propelled by religious beliefs to come on to the centrestage. In fact, the beginning of the coalition era coincided with the rise of communal and caste forces and once they got organised, the Congress, the only party with an all-India presence, was pushed to the sidelines. It is not without significance that the marginalisation of the Congress and the rise of communal and casteist forces was a simultaneous process and ensured that regional satraps held national interests to ransom often for politics of votes.

During the NDA regime, the TDP often called the shots and forced Vajpayee & Co. to take decisions that they would not have taken had they not been politically dependent on the Andhra party. Lalu Prasad Yadav, too, frequently held the central government to ransom, whether it was when the Third Front was in power or when the UPA formed the government. If the Union government was seen on many occasions to bow to his demands, it was because he commanded power emanating from his strong identification with a region or caste.

The same is true of Mulayam Singh Yadav and, to an extent, Om Prakash Chautala and Ajit Singh, both OBC leaders who have enjoyed considerable political clout. The DMK, AIADMK and other regional outfits from Tamil Nadu, too, have a state-centric rather than national specific agenda. The Akali Dal and Shiv Sena, as also some other smaller parties, fall in this same category. .

The return of the Congress, along with its other UPA allies, to power at the Centre was facilitated by the fact that they formed a front against what they perceived to be communal forces led by the BJP in the NDA. This front successfully cut short the Sangh parivar’s agenda. The greatest strength of Hinduism, which the BJP has never been able to see, is its ability to allow other religions to co-exist. The BJP’s brand of Hindutva failed miserably since the people saw through its lack of commitment and discarded it because they did not wish the politics of hate to spread.

Communal and caste politics are two sides of the same coin and politically, both serve an equally divisive objective. For the UPA, which had managed to carry forward the secular agenda, it was unnecessary to bring in a caste-based issue, especially when everything was running smoothly. This period should have been ideally used to create more infrastructure and make available to the weaker and backward sections educational facilities both at the primary and secondary levels in order to prepare them for higher education. There is no dispute that the country needs to include in its development strategy a well-conceived plan to provide education to all sections of society. The focus should be on building infrastructure rather than taking credit for something that is aimed at getting the support of some sections of society at the expense of losing support of sections already with the government.

The OBC politics that the Congress is now attempting to pursue is extremely complex. A creamy layer has already emerged within the OBC category, comprising castes that have been enjoying power or have benefited greatly through various measures taken during the last few decades. But concerns of the most backward castes still need to be addressed. It is their emancipation that the CPI(M) wants, even at the cost of differences with its own Left partners.

At the national level, it is Nitish Kumar who showed, during the last elections in Bihar, how empowering the most backward castes could tilt the political scales. If politics has to be the name of the game, it is this segment that the Congress must try to woo along with the CPI(M). It can appropriate Nitish’s agenda to offset the growing clout of other OBCs whose leadership has already evolved outside the Congress fold.

But overall, the reservation issue is bound to hurt the Congress the most. The middle-classes may not constitute a major vote bank but they are the opinion makers. This segment is now most upset by what it sees as an unnecessary attempt to upset the prevailing system by making merit secondary to other considerations. This segment had supported the Congress at the expense of the BJP after the 2004 polls. It is inevitable that it will withdraw support to the party unless something is done urgently. The doctors’ strike is just a small example of the disillusionment that is setting in and whenever the next round of polls take place, the impact will be pronounced in cities and small towns.

It may be argued that the largest number of votes come from villages but the Congress has to realise that this vote bank is more tilted towards practitioners of caste and regional politics. The Congress’ greatest strength has been its ability to appeal to people cutting across caste and communal lines. In 1980, Indira Gandhi’s slogan was: ‘Na jaat pe na paat pe, Indiraji ki baat pe, mohar lage gi haath pe’. The latest controversy has forced the party to deviate from its own beliefs. Many of its leaders are speaking in a language that does not synchronise with India’s march into 21st century. They should perhaps be considered for gubernatorial assignments in the near future.

Younger leaders with fresh ideas are what the party needs to rejuvenate itself, not outdated formulas that seek to stagnate the country. In real politik, reservations are all about grabbing power and have nothing to do with social justice. This needs to be clearly understood. Between us.

First Published: May 29, 2006 00:34 IST