This week’s Supreme Court judgment on the Economically Weaker Sections or EWS quota not only reaffirmed the principle of reservation but also suggested that it’s no longer necessary to cap it at 50 per cent. You can reserve the majority of jobs and seats at educational institutions should you want to. You can also go beyond caste and reserve jobs and seats on the basis of economic status.
Gosh, I thought to myself, we have come a long way from the Mandal era! You would have to be middle-aged to remember the 1990 agitation. On the assumption that most of you are younger than that, here is what happened.
In 1990, Prime Minister V.P. Singh announced that his government would implement the proposals contained in a largely-forgotten report of the Mandal Commission. This had not been a major part of Singh’s original campaign promises, so he took the country by surprise.
Essentially, the proposals extended reservation in government jobs beyond the categories of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In retrospect, it seems clear that the proposals were not far-reaching and made little difference to most areas of Indian life. Some state governments had already implemented similar forms of reservation.
But Singh sold this move to the country as an era-defining moment that would transform the nation. Protests erupted at colleges all over India — young people believed that reservation went against the principle of merit, and soon, students even began immolating themselves. But Singh refused to budge.
In 1991, when the next Lok Sabha election was held, Singh and his party, the Janata Dal, were wiped out, but other parties whose support bases stood to benefit from Mandal did well. The former PM boasted that although he had been defeated, his agenda had won.
Beginning of a new politics
The conventional wisdom is that the 1991 election marked the beginning of a new trend in Hindi belt politics where caste-based parties now held sway. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was taken by surprise by Singh’s initiative, and in an effort to counter the caste impact, L.K. Advani launched the Ram-themed Rath Yatra, pitting religion against caste in this battle for the Hindi heartland.
All this was significant because since 1971, caste had begun to play less and less of a role in general elections. In 1971, Indira Gandhi won a landslide victory that cut across castes and religions. In 1977, when she was defeated, the voting was not caste-based. Likewise in 1980 when she came back with a sweeping mandate. And in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi’s massive victory was based on the support of all Indians.
In 1989, when the Congress weakened and the BJP began to make an impact and when such politicians as Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav emerged, this began to change. But it was not until 1991 that we realised that Indian politics was starting to become all about identity.
That trend has endured. In Uttar Pradesh, the battle is between the BJP and caste-based parties. It is the same in Bihar. And Indian politics now is only nominally about ideology or performance: It is really about identity. Even when an urban, normally non-identity-based party like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ventures into Gujarat, its leader has to play the Hindu card.
Also read: EWS verdict shows merit matters only when it’s ‘their’ children, not ‘our’ kids
From 1990 to 2022
Monday’s Supreme Court judgment and the responses to it reminded me how much the public mood has changed in three decades.
In that era, many people objected to the extension of reservation, arguing that even the Dalit reservation mandated by the Constitution was originally meant to be time-bound. If politicians were going to keep extending reservation to other castes, it would mitigate against the principle of equality and merit. (The counter-argument was that this was the view of ‘upper’ castes and therefore biased).
I found a faint echo of that sentiment in the dissenting view by outgoing Chief Justice of India U.U. Lalit and Justice S. Ravindra Bhat. They said that the extension of quotas was “contradictory to the essence of equal opportunity” and that it “struck at the heart of the equality code”.
The Supreme Court was not discussing caste-based reservation. The case had to do with an extension of reservation to EWS. There were two significant issues to be considered. Could the quantum of reservation go above 50 per cent of available opportunities? Yes, the judgment of the majority suggested. And was it okay if this extension excluded those covered by other quotas? The majority said yes again.
I will not take issue with the judgment, which reflects the political consensus as well. But it does raise the important question: Are we saying that 75 years after Independence, we have failed so completely to create a society with equality of opportunity that each year we have to pass laws asserting that merit cannot be the only criterion for advancement; that we still have to come up with special quotas? And that the view of the framers of our Constitution that reservation should be time-bound, have now been junked?
It would appear we are.
Also read: EWS quota will finally destigmatise caste reservation in India
Freebie politics writ large
What the Supreme Court was not asked to consider is a more crucial question: Is the regular extension of reservation based on a need to level the playing field? Or have quotas just become yet another way for politicians to appeal to votebanks to secure their support?
At every election, you will find politicians promising further reservation if they are elected. Every party does it at some level. Just as politicians dole out material freebies (or ‘revdi ’ as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called them), they now offer reservation in the hope of winning votes.
What is significant is that even the BJP, which was so worried by the Mandal announcement, is now playing the caste game. It frequently draws attention to PM Modi’s ‘backward’ caste and wins elections by constructing caste coalitions. Add welfarism to that strategy (reservation for EWS falls into it), and you have a formidable election-winning combination: Religion, caste, and welfarism.
It is not my case that any of this is a bad thing, only that Indian politics in the 21st century is played by very different rules. Elections are not won or lost on performance or even ideology.
And the quest for an India where caste would not matter has been abandoned. With reservation, citizens need to know exactly what caste they belong to — and this will endure for generations to come.
Although we did not realise it at the time, 1990-1991 was the turning point in our politics. It was during this period that identity politics took over. Caste and reservation became the dominant issues after Mandal. And this was when the Rath Yatra laid the foundations of a new Hindutva-dominant India.
As for those who immolated themselves, well, what can we say? It wasn’t just human beings — ideals and an entire style of politics also went up in flames during that period.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)