Populism or Fair-play

It does not come as a surprise to see the reaction coming from the political parties in India who are now busy criticizing the Supreme Court stay order on the implementation of the 27 per cent reservation for ‘other backward castes’ (OBCs) in institutes of higher education. The Congress-led UPA Government has in fact resolved to find a way to vacate the stay order. The manner in which the judiciary is itself responding to the quota issue, there is likelihood of a confrontation between Parliament and the former. The Legislature may argue that the court has no say over the matter as there is almost a unanimous legislation to give effect to OBC reservation in professional institutions. The court may likewise respond that it has the mandate under the Constitution to interpret the laws made by the legislature. The situation thus presented is a delicate problem that needs careful dealing so that any impending constitutional crisis is avoided.

With polarization appearing over the issue with both supporters and detractors, the country may once again come under the spell of quota politics and competitive populism. The issue that needs to be debated is whether such a proposal has a clear objective in mind. It is also open to question on whether it is desirable to open the floodgates of quota politics in an age of global competitiveness. On the one hand, young people in general are becoming increasingly bitter over the prospect of having to be discriminated against. This could also be the reason as to why such disgruntled youths are seeking better opportunities abroad. It is also being argued that reservation has generated a tendency to suppress the inherent capability of the individual and that it will adversely bring down the efficiency of the system. There is some truth in such arguments as it makes people complacent. The quota system also views the individual as passive recipients rather than active participants in the development process.

Reservation per se however should not be the issue here as the process itself has been given legitimacy by the constitution. However the question of how much, for whom and for how long remains a matter of contention and for which reasons, the vehicle of reservation itself has been driven for political ends rather than being aimed at the overall social and economic objective that it was meant to address in the first place. It is now close to six decades since this policy had been initiated. But close scrutiny suggests significant distortions in its implementation. Firstly, rather than helping the poorest of the poor, reservation is seen as benefiting the better off among these sections resulting in the formation of a separate elite class who usurp most benefits. Given this reality more and more people now look at quotas as attractive proposition prompting them to lobby for their inclusion in the reserved category. In response, politicians are only too eager to help with their eye on electoral politics. 

As things stand, benefits of reservation has been hijacked by powerful caste lobbies and concomitantly the policy has been effectively used as a tool of vote bank politics by politicians instead of it being mobilized as a tool of social justice. As a matter of policy, the government instead of expanding the scope of reservation into the hitherto unknown area of professional education, it would be more desirable if the concerned ministry makes a serious effort to make the present reservation system more rational, scientific and effective for it to become a viable tool of social change and in order that the real benefits are passed on to those for whom it is meant.