The Debate Over Reservation
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The Debate Over Reservation

The Congress has lost its traditional voter base over the last decade. And it is now doing all this in an effort to lure back those voters, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: May 01, 2006 01:03 IST

The Congress has lost its traditional voter base over the last decade. And it is now doing all this in an effort to lure back those voters. Reservation has damn-all to do with balancing society. It has everything to do with winning elections. When the debate over caste-based reservation began all over again a month or so ago, I felt a sense of dread overcome me. It wasn’t that I was scared of having to give up this column to a worthy writer from the backward castes or that I feared that I would now find it difficult to get my son into college.

No, my dread was less personal, more professional. If you’ve been in this game as long as I have, then you come to loathe the hardy perennials of the columnist’s trade-- the subjects that come up again and again, every four years or so.

By now, I’ve probably done a dozen columns opposing reservation, dating back to the heyday of the Mandal agitation. More to the point, so has nearly everybody else in the business. Almost every argument in favour of and against reservation has been rehashed innumerable times. And, truth be told, there’s not very much new left to say.

In some ways, I suppose, the ‘reservation column’ has become to us grizzled old hacks what Hamlet is to Shakespearean actors. They know every line in the part; they’ve played it themselves again and again. And the only novelty in seeing a new, young actor take on the role lies in observing which bit he emphasises: Does he overdo the indecision aspect? Does he throw away the “to be or not to be” soliloquy? Is that really daddy’s ghost or is Hamlet played as a nutter?

So it is with us journos and the reservation debate. Each time I read a new editorial on the subject, I look with mild detachment to see which arguments have been played up. Has the stuff about “a society based on merit” become the heart of the piece?

Is there a reference to how only the creamy layer has benefited from existing reservations? And what about the traditional para about how Mandal divided Indian society?

As you can guess, I approached this week’s Counterpoint with some trepidation-- and more than a little weariness. Quite apart from the “We’ve all said this many times before” sense of déjà vu, there was another factor: the definitive piece about the current proposals has already been done. It appeared in this paper last week and its authors, Sunil Khilnani and Devesh Kapur, so conclusively demolished Arjun Singh’s proposals that I don’t think that any more need be said.

So, I’m going to spare you all that stuff about meritocracy-versus-caste-quotas. Instead, I’m going to focus on something else: how the manner in which this debate has been conducted tells us five things about contemporary India.

And those five things hold true, I think, no matter which side of this debate you are on.

One: The entire debate is characterised by hypocrisy; by self-interest dressed up as ideology. At one level, it is the Dalits who talk of social justice but actually only support the proposals because they benefit from them. And at another, it is the upper castes who talk about merit but are only worried about getting their kids into medical school.

But there’s another, more significant, level. If you say that quotas are necessary to restore social balance and order, then you must apply this principle across all categories. And yet, nearly everyone uses the argument selectively. You will find hundreds of TV-friendly activists and fiery feminist dial-a-quote peddlers who will tell us that seats must be reserved in Parliament for women to restore the social balance. Ask many of these same women about caste-based reservation in jobs-- or even in Parliament, for that matter-- and they’ll suddenly sing a very different tune. So, reservation based on gender is okay. But caste-based reservation is regressive, apparently.

Or, ask the backward leaders in the BJP who tell us that more castes should be included in the reservation list why the same arguments should not be used to secure reservation for Muslims. After all, they are much worse off than most backward castes on every parameter. But not only will the BJP refuse to concede the logic but even the Congress will pretend that ‘social justice’ only applies to Hindus.

Two: The founders of modern India-- men like Jawaharlal Nehru-- had a vision of a country where caste would soon become irrelevant. In the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, as electoral mandates cut across caste lines, that vision seemed to be coming true.

Then, after Mandal, everything changed. Today, Indian politics is about caste. When I was growing up, I had no idea what my caste was; nor did most of my friends. But the problem with today’s caste-based reservation is that every Indian will now need to know his caste even before he learns what his blood group is: his education and his job will depend on that knowledge.

I find it extraordinary that the Congress-- which Arjun Singh represents-- has so completely betrayed Nehru’s vision. And I think that it is a sad commentary on modern India that nobody even thinks that this is worth commenting on.

Three: In the bad old days of 95 per cent income tax, urban land ceilings and wealth tax, I used to always say that the tragedy of Indian politics was that our politicians seemed to think that India’s problems were about distribution. In fact, they were about production.

The way ahead was not to redistribute the little that there was but to free the economy so that we could produce much more. That way, there would be more to go around and we would not need penal tax rates, foolish laws like FERA and income tax raids.

Fortunately for us, Dr Manmohan Singh saw the point in 1991 and the Indian economy is now booming.

The same holds true for reservation. We must be the only country in the world where every parent is traumatised by the prospect of getting his or her child into school or college-- not because of the expense but because of the scarcity of seats. Indians value education. So why don’t we have more schools? Why doesn’t the government spend its money on more colleges?

If college seats were not so scarce, then nobody would get so agitated about reserving seats on a caste basis. But our politicians have failed to translate the lessons of economic liberalisation into the education sector. So, the scarcities continue. And all solutions are framed in terms of redistributing scarce seats.

Four: As opposed as I am to the current reservation proposals, I have to say that I find the attitude of much of the urban middle class deeply disturbing and, at a more primal level, loathsome and revolting.

In the last five years or so, the Shining India of the towns and cities, of the mega-malls and mobile phones has grown increasingly insular. Most of us have never known so much prosperity. But rather than opening our eyes to that part of India that is not Shining, the money has made us petty, selfish and greedy. We look to Manhattan or Seattle for our reference points; and we forget the debt-ridden farmers who kill themselves a few hundred miles from our homes.

This attitude shows up in everything that Shining India does. And the reservation debate is no different. Once again, it has become a them-and-us issue. And once again, the urban elite has failed the nation by not voluntarily offering some form of affirmative action for the
less privileged.

Of course, I oppose reservation. But I am often ashamed to stand next to the self-satisfied, rich people who share my position. Because it isn’t reservation that they are really against. They oppose everybody who is poor, who is disadvantaged, and who is not like them.

Five and finally: If it is true, as this government claims, that 60 years after independence, the backwards still have not got social justice, then whose fault is it? For something like 50 of those 60 years, the Congress was in power. How come Arjun Singh and his Congress pals did nothing till this year?

You and I both know the answer to that. These proposals are not about social justice at all. They are about vote banks. The Congress has lost its traditional voter base over the last decade. And it is now doing all this in an effort to lure back those voters.

Reservation has damn-all to do with balancing society. It has everything to do with winning elections.

So, forget for a moment about the arguments for and against quotas. Think instead of the way this debate is being conducted. And consider what it tells us about today’s India.

There’s not very much to be proud of, is there?

First Published: Apr 29, 2006 23:58 IST