Politicians have ridden the reservation tiger for seven decades and don’t know how to get off it now
Election cycles are not the best time to get politicians to own up to mistakes and to make a dramatic switch in their policies, but given the problems the BJP continues to face because of Hardik Patel—and the way the Congress party is trying to woo him—the party just has to know the reservation tiger that politicians have ridden for seven decades is becoming that much more difficult to control. It is possible the BJP will ride out the Hardik popularity, thanks to prime minister Modi’s hold over people, or it may end up splitting the movement or by wooing other caste groups to neutralise the powerful Patidars.
But the larger point is that such movements are increasing by the day, and across states, and they are getting bloodier—witness how the powerful Jats laid siege to Rohtak and burned down large parts of it in their reservation agitation a few years ago. The Jats, like the Patidars, cannot be considered either deprived or backward by any conventional logic, but the fact is that they feel aggrieved and have the power to make governments bend over backwards to try and accommodate them. So, while the National Commission on Backward Castes (NCBC) had, in 2014, said Jats “as a class cannot be treated as a backward class”, the UPA notified them as backward since elections were in the air; in 2015, this was struck down by SC but, the very next year, the Khattar government passed a Bill declaring them backward.
Rajasthan continues to grapple with the problem of Gujjars and, in Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis is struggling with giving powerful Marathas reservation. Several commissions, going back to Kalelkar in 1955, have rejected their demand for reservation—the 2014 elections ensured the Congress-NCP government granted them a 16% reservation but this ran into trouble at the Bombay High Court. All these governments will try and get shelter under the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution but, even if the Centre obliges, SC had ruled against this in IR Coelho in 2007—so it is not clear how much longer the political class can keep these agitations on hold when the reservations they announce are struck down by the courts.
Why rich and powerful castes like the Patels and the Jats should want to be in the group of OBCs is obvious: government jobs pay 2-3 times what private sector jobs do at the clerical levels, with complete job security and no particular obligation to work and, more important, reservations guarantee a place in a good educational institution which is critical for a higher salary. According to PRICE’s all-India survey for FY14 (see graphic), an OBC household headed by an illiterate person earned Rs 84,394 and this rose to Rs 325,713 when the OBC household was headed by a graduate. Put another way, while an upper caste household headed by an illiterate earned more than a similarly uneducated OBC household—generally seen as ‘evidence’ of discrimination—it earned a fourth less than an OBC household headed by someone who had studied for even a few years. In each caste group, salaries rise with education.
If education is the biggest differentiator, it is natural for powerful castes like the Patels and Jats to feel aggrieved when their children don’t get into good colleges despite their higher marks due to reservations. If an OBC with 85% marks can get into a top college, this ensures general category students with 95% marks get left out. While trying to placate the Patels, the Jats and the Gujjars, the government is also trying to find ways to woo other caste groups by setting up a commission to examine the sub-categorisation within OBCs. The commission is going to look at “the extent of inequitable distribution of benefits of reservations among … OBCs” and to work out a “mechanism, criteria, norms and parameters, in a scientific approach, for sub-categorisation within such OBCs” so as to be able to identify various castes/communities/sub-castes that need to be included in the list. But if the commission does its job well, how is the government going to handle the bloody agitations of the Jats and the Patels? And when powerful OBCs are removed from the list of reservations or see their share curtailed, surely the government doesn’t think they will take it lying down?
In other words, at some point, Mandal-type agitations have to multiply; and the more the reservation policy goes on, the bloodier it will get. Excluded groups—whether traditionally powerful like the Patels or marginalised ones—will all push to get into the tent and those being pushed out will want to prevent this from happening. At one time, the RSS’s reservations about reservations held out some hope of reform; today, it too has abandoned its position. Even if the BJP contains Hardik this time around, it will be someone else the next time around.