Reservations in jobs and educational institutions have become a political ploy in India and may become a lethal weapon in the next elections.
The reservation system has been put under scrutiny in India.
In heterogeneous societies, where one class of people are less developed so as to be unable to compete on merit with the other for public service employment, it is an established practice to reserve for them a quota of seats both in government jobs and higher educational institutions. But its demerits exceed its advantages. It generates complacency that numbs endeavour and the urge to excel. Students end up with poor grades in class, lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial selfsegregation on campus, lower selfesteem and so forth.
In Malaysia, the quota raj started under the notion that ethnic Malays held relatively little economic power because of a colonial legacy under which the country’s more urbanized Chinese inhabitants tended to prosper. In reality, however, under the British colonial rule, there was free education for the majority Malays but the Chinese still completely outperformed the Malays, both in educational institutions and in the economy. Three decades of the quota system produced more Malay university graduates and professionals than the Chinese; but it did not produce performers or a quality workforce. As a result, the Malaysian government announced in 2003 that admissions to the universities would now be by academic records, with computers determining who gets in and who does not, without regard to ethnicity.
In India, reservations have been in force, for the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) since 1950, yet there has been no perceptible change in their overall conditions. However, whether it is the SCs/STs or the OBCs (Other Backward Class), most fruits of the reservation have been eaten by what is called the creamy layers within these groups.
Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in his letter to the chief ministers on 27 June, 1961, had emphasized on the need for empowering backward groups by giving them access to good and technical education and not by reserving jobs based on caste and creed, saying, “If we go in for reservations on communal and caste basis, we swamp the bright and able people and remain second-rate or third-rate. I am grieved to learn of how far this business of reservation has gone based on communal considerations. It has amazed me to learn that even promotions are based sometimes on communal and caste considerations. This way lies not only folly, but disaster. Let's help the backward groups by all means, but never at the cost of efficiency.”
The quota system has flourished in India because of its usefulness in garnering votes. It has been in such favour that now some higher castes want to be “desanskritised.” “Sanskritisation”, a term espoused by the great Indian sociologist M N Srinivas, denoted the process by which castes considered lower in the hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. But now 'upper' castes want to come ' lower' to become SCs, STs and OBCs. Gujars in Rajasthan demand reservations as part of the ST quota, and Jats in Haryana, Rajputs in Uttar Pradesh, Patels in Gujarat, Kapus in Andhra Pradesh and Marathas in Maharashtra, want OBC privileges. Earlier this year in Haryana, Jat leaders led several demonstrations and protests demanding reservations; the Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had previously said the government accepted the demand of the Jats to give jobs to the next of kin of those who had lost their lives in the agitation last year.
But it is in Bihar that the quota system is being put to full political use. Hence, after becoming JD (U) President recently, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has demanded not only raising the limits of reservations beyond the 50 percent limit for the SC, ST and Other Backward Classes ( OBC) in education and government jobs, but also extending these provisions to the private sector jobs. It is not surprising that Nitish Kumar, a product of OBC politics, is making this demand. This is a demand which has been periodically made by all the OBC leaders. Their point has been that the quantum of reservations should be dependent on the number of the people to be benefited; that means that if the combined population of the SC, ST and OBC in the country is 75 percent, then there should be 75 percent for them. In fact the OBC for them has nothing to do with backward “classes” but entirely with intermediate “castes.”
Nitish Kumar is aware that the main Opposition RJD wants to paint him as
“anti-reservation” because of his decision to team up with the BJP in Bihar ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
But, this demand is the logical outcome of the recent recommendation of National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) that legislation be passed under which private entities, including businesses, hospitals, schools, trusts, etc. will have to reserve 27 per cent of jobs for OBCs. It is important to note that this recommendation has not been opposed by any political party that matters in India today. The Communists have wholeheartedly supported it. The ruling BJP and the principal opposition Congress party want a national debate over the issue. But, the BJP sees a "valid ground" for reservation in the private sector “only after creating a conducive atmosphere. It should not be imposed."
However, in a caste-ridden state like Bihar, quota is an extremely politically sensitive issue, and CM Kumar is aware of the fact. Though he is part of NDA, he has used his own brand of quota politics to counter RJD during his more than a decade rule in Bihar. It is to his credit that he brought the different Extremely Backward Castes (EBC) within the OBC under one political umbrella, Ati-Pichchara.
So far, he has ensured benefits of quota politics for different EBCs by reserving seats for them in the panchayat elections.
Kumar prefers to accommodate women from every section and it has helped him create a “women vote bank” in the state. With his return to the NDA camp, his bargaining power has decreased a bit, but he continues to believe in the slogan: “growth with justice (nayay ke sath vikas)”.
The chief minister faces criticism from his political opponent and former CM Lalu Prasad Yadav who wants to make the 2019 LS battle as RJD vs. BJP.
Aware of the challenge ahead, Nitish Kumar introduced reservation in outsourced contractual jobs provided by the state government. Bihar is a state where caste plays a vital role in the political calculations of the ruling and opposing parties. The RJD’s main aim was to portray Nitish Kumar as ‘anti–reservation,’ given the decision made by him to team up with the BJP in Bihar ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. As a countermeasure therefore, he brought the different Extremely Backward Castes (EBC) within the OBC. He has, to a certain extent, proved that quota politics is beneficial for different EBCs by reserving seats for them in the panchayat elections.
What dividends his policy pays in the general elections next year, remains to be seen. The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of SouthAsia.
Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar.