In the Ranchi leg of the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra on 5 January 2024, former Congress president Rahul Gandhi said that Congress will remove the 50 per cent ceiling on reservations and conduct a nationwide caste census once it gains power in the centre. This he said with reference to the landmark judgement issued in 1993 in the Indra Sawhney versus Union of India case.
The judgement laid down the parameters to determine socio-economic backwardness and had capped the reservations at 50 per cent, a limit which could only be breached under ‘extraordinary circumstances.’
In his rally speech, Rahul Gandhi further said that Dalits, Adivasis and those from the Other Backward Category (OBC) were being increasingly marginalised, reduced to bonded labour and denied fair chance in all walks of life.
Referring to the former Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren, currently under arrest on charges of corruption, Gandhi said that BJP had implicated the latter because of his Adivasi roots.
Discussing social justice, though commendable, may not guarantee success for Gandhi, especially given Congress's historical stance on reservations.
'This Way Not Only Lies Folly But Disaster…'
In a letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to the state chief ministers, dated 27 June 1961, the then prime minister said that he disliked any kind of reservations on the basis of caste, particularly in public services.
"They (scheduled castes and tribes) deserve help but I react strongly against anything (here, reservation) which leads to inefficiency and second-rate standards. I want my country to be first-class in everything. The moment we encourage the second-rate, we are lost," he wrote.
Nehru further in his letter expressed his disenchantment with the increasing clamour for reservations in the following words:
“I am grieved to learn how far this business of reservations has gone.. It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are decided sometimes on communal and caste considerations. This way lies not only folly but disaster.”
While Nehru accepts in the letter the need to uplift the socially backward sections of Indian society, it is not clear as to whom he refers to as the ‘second-rate.’ Nonetheless, his reference to reservation as ‘crutches’ implies that the first premier was not in favour of reservations.
This is evident more so from his decision to oppose the proposal for a 'caste census'.
Congress Opposition To The Mandal Commission's OBC Quota
While it is common knowledge as to why the former prime minister V P Singh had hastily decided to implement the Mandal Commission’s recommendations for 27 per cent reservation for the OBCs, what is not often talked about is the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s stance on the same.
According to an India Today report dated 30 September 1990, in his three-hour long parliamentary speech from the opposition benches, Rajiv Gandhi not only opposed the enforcement of Mandal recommendations, but also opined that his party's governments in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka had erred in expanding the ambit of reservations.
While Rajiv Gandhi opposed the OBC reservation in parliament, a section of Congress leaders from the newly enlisted backward caste category rejoiced and supported V P Singh’s decision.
According to the report, Gandhi later in an interview accepted that his opposition had been overruled within his party.
It is interesting to note that while Rahul Gandhi argues for ‘jitni aabaadi utna haq’ (alluding to the idea of proportionate representation on caste lines) and questions BJP about how many OBC and Dalit leaders does it have in the union cabinet, he seems to have forgotten the treatment meted out to Dalit leaders in the history of his own party.
Sajjan Kumar, political analyst and co-author of ‘Maya, Modi, Azad: Dalit Politics in the Times of Hindutva’ in a recently published article pointed out, how in 1967 it was the Congress which had enabled the fall of the Samyukta Vidhayak Dal (SVD) coalition government in Bihar. The predominantly socialist alliance which also included Jana Sangh, was jointly-led by Karpoori Thakur, a Gandhian-Socialist committed to the cause of uplifting non-Yadav extremely backward sections within the OBCs.
Prime Minister Modi in his address to the parliament on 5 February 2024 said that by posthumously awarding Bharat Ratna to Thakur, the injustice done to Thakur by Congress had been undone.
This apart, in a widely criticised incident from 1982, Rajiv Gandhi had publicly lashed out at the first Dalit Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh T Anjaiah, merely for having organised a grand ceremony to welcome him at the Shamshabad Airport. It is said that Gandhi had then called him a ‘buffoon’ which left Anjaiah in tears.
This incident was later frequently cited by N T Rama Rao in the run up to the state elections held next year and is said to have been one of the factors that led to the defeat of the Congress and the rise of Rao’s Telugu Desam Party.
BJP And Its Subaltern Leadership
Contrary to popular perception, the BJP right since its inception in 1980, seems to have made conscious efforts to cultivate and provide platform to the OBC leadership.
For instance, if the OBC leaders in Maharashtra today are able to brave the numerical super-strength of the traditionally dominant Marathas, the credit goes to organisers like Vasantrao Bhagwat.
In the 1980s when the party had only a few elected representatives, Bhagwat, then a Sanghatan Mantri in the newly formed BJP, extensively travelled across the rural parts of Maharashtra. It was in this journeys that he made conscious efforts to identify youth with leadership skills from Mali, Dhangar, Vanjari and other smaller castes which had been until then on the margins of power politics. This later came to be popularly known as the MaDhaV pattern.
It was such conscious efforts on the part of BJP that propelled leaders like N S Pharande, a Mali; Annasaheb Dange, a Dhangar and Gopinath Munde, a Vanjari to the higher echelons of political power.
Even later when V P Singh announced the enforcement of the 27 per cent OBC reservation, reports show that BJP had protested only against its hasty implementation and not the implementation per se.
Later, several of its state units, as shown above, had in fact published booklets explaining the need and its support for the OBC Reservation.
In such booklets, the party had also made a case for reservation to the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) among the unreserved. Following this the P V Narasimha Rao led minority-government of the Congress had unsuccessfully tried reserving 10 per cent seats for the same in 1991.
The EWS reservation was finally made a part of the rule book in 2019 by the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. However, it is pertinent to note here that on both occasions, the EWS quota was not created on a super-numerary basis but by setting aside 10 per cent of the remaining 50 per cent unreserved seats.
Reservations or caste-based preferential treatment surely is no one-stop solution to undo the reality of social discrimination and inequality. However, what is undeniable is its vulnerability to be used as a tool for polarisation and provoking caste passions in the electoral politics.
It was just a few months back that the Rohini Commission Report unseated the hitherto popular notions of social-justice discourse by recommending sub-classification of the OBCs to ensure adequate representation to the smaller castes.
In the run-up to the elections, promises made by political leaders to expand quotas, without acknowledging such nuances, only harms the purpose of reservations. Neither do such promises help the intended beneficiaries nor does it eliminate the existing animosity on caste lines. Thus, it being important even more so to place the present day views of politicians and their outfits on reservation in the historical context.
Staff Writer at Swarajya
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