New Delhi: The Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the government’s decision to reserve seats for other backward classes, or OBCs, in some educational institutions gives the Congress, the dominant constituent of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, an opportunity to regain its traditional positioning as a party that looks after the interests of the poor, underprivileged and backward.
The decision is also implicit acceptance of the fact that previous reservation programmes have served to move at least some people up the social hierarchy.
While the Congress could not have foreseen the court’s provisions regarding the so-called creamy layer, as the second generation beneficiaries of reservation are termed, analysts say that this will help the party challenge the status quo in electoral politics.
Union minister Arjun Singh. The Congress is convinced it will reap the benefits of reservation policy in the Lok Sabha elections
Today, there are leaders of farmers, Dalits (a backward class), or OBCs who derive power from groups that have traditionally been the Congress’ votebank. “OBCs have been a fragmented section, represented in different parts of the country by different regional parties, all of which sprang up by hijacking their cause from a national party, mostly the Congress,” said Manjeet Chaturvedi, head of the department of sociology at Banaras Hindu University.
Many of these OBCs in power will not be able to gain from reservation because they have previously benefited from it.
The exact benefit to the Congress isn’t immediately known. There are varying estimates of the number of people from OBCs. While the Mandal commission estimated the OBCs to be 52% of the population, a National Sample Survey Organisation study put it at about 36%. Some amount of this would be people in the creamy layer. It is the rest who stand to benefit from the UPA government’s reservation gambit.
However, experts say that for the Congress to really leverage the reservation policy and the court’s ruling that, while clearing the policy, placed the restriction regarding the creamy layer, the party will have to come up with a sustained plan to empower OBCs and find one individual who can take credit for the policy and be seen as its architect. That’s because, much like previous reservation schemes did their bit for social mobility of backward classes, so will the new one.
“Reservations at any level will improve the lot of OBCs, as we have seen in Tamil Nadu,” said A.R. Venkatachalapathy, a professor of history at the Madras Institute of Development Studies. The state passed a law mandationg 69% reservation in colleges as long back as 1980. A.K. Singh, director of Lucknow-based Giri Institute of Development Studies, however, cautioned that as the Tamil Nadu experience showed, sustained political support could only be ensured through sustained empowerment. That means that as people move up the social order, they expect more from the government. And the Congress, now that it has chosen to walk down this path, will need to sustain its campaign to empower OBCs.
“While the Congress party’s immediate imperative is to claim credit for its initiatives, its long-term challenge would be to manage the social change that is bound to result.,” said Chaturvedi.
If the party fails in this, it will suffer at the elections, as proved by its dwindling appeal among the underprivileged and fading support for Rashtriya Janata Dal leader and railways minister Lalu Prasad in his home state of Bihar.
“Reservation can at best serve as a symbolic first step towards assisted progressive social change,” said Singh. “The history of reservation shows that those who benefit from it, the now better off among the scheduled castes for example, tend to get alienated from the political parties that represented their interests in the first place.”
Still, the Congress is convinced it will reap the benefits of reservation policy in the coming Lok Sabha elections.
“Political gains will naturally follow from the OBC quota since the current government is the only one to have achieved it,” said K.C. Lenka, chairman of the Congress party’s OBC department.
The party’s rivals seem to think so too, which could probably explain why they are seeking to project the Supreme Court’s statement on the creamy layer as a failing of the Congress. are not happy with the provision. Among the UPA constituents, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Lok Jan Shakti Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal have all demanded that the cabinet intervene and work to find a way to ensure the creamy layer wasn’t left out.
The gains the Congress stands to make, Chaturvedi said, depend on its ability to project a party figure as the architect of reservation. In this case, he added, human resource development minister Arjun Singh could have been projected, but the party would not like to restrict its campaign to this issue alone: “Arjun Singh does symbolize the section within the party that seeks to reach out to the minorities and the marginalized. However, such symbols work wonders only if they become part of the electorate’s belief system.”
Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul Gandhi appears to be working at challenging precisely such a belief system in Uttar Pradesh, repeatedly reaching out to the Dalits who have long been weaned away from the Congress by chief minister Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party.
Analysts say just as Mayawati’s discomfiture, revealed through repeated personal attacks on Rahul Gandhi, underscores the efficacy of his strategy, the non-Congress OBC leaders’ guarded welcome to the proposed reservation reveals the party may have posed problems for them in their constituencies.
But Shailendra Kumar, a Lok Sabha member of the Samajwadi Party, the largest party representing OBCs in Parliament, however, claimed the “Congress had more to lose because of the exclusion of the so-called creamy layer....”
And Ganesh Prasad Ojha, head of the department of political science at University of Patna, said that at least in Bihar he saw no immediate impact of the Centre’s initiative.