India’s at least 2,000-year-old caste matrix is under attack again. It is an attack led by a wily 78-year-old minister, fighting to make a mark on the country’s history. In some ways, Arjun Singh’s proposal to increase the overall quota in higher education to almost 50% is not new. It is a plan that was suggested by another Thakur, an upper caste Hindu.
In 1989-90, then prime minister V.P. Singh used the “quota card” to strengthen his hold on prime ministership. In the process, he changed the contours of politics. Singh was the father of the Mandal Commission that recommended 50% reservation for scheduled castes (SCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and other backward classes (OBCs) in government jobs. The move spawned a countrywide stir whose face was Rajiv Goswami, a Delhi University student who set himself on fire following an anti-quota protest.
Many backward class leaders such as Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav and Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan made their political fortunes out of the “Mandal” fallout and have been enjoying the fruits of power for nearly two decades now. Had there been no Mandal, perhaps there would have been no Lalu or Mulayam.
Today, 18 years on, at the initiative of another Thakur, Arjun Singh, the apex court has cleared a move to reserve 27% seats for OBCs in IITs, IIMs, AIIMS and other Centrally-sponsored institutions.
There are several similarities between V.P. Singh and Arjun Singh. Besides being Thakurs, both have studied in Allahabad University. Like V.P. Singh, Arjun Singh was smart enough to realize that to survive in Madhya Pradesh, he needed to forge an alliance of backward classes and SCs and STs. He managed to sideline Shivbanu Solanki, a tribal leader. Later, he strengthened his grip over the administration by including several leaders from tribal and backward communities, who largely stayed in the background. As he grew powerful, rivals complained to Rajiv Gandhi about his “growing ambitions” and he was promptly shifted to Punjab as governor. He soon staged a comeback and, after Gandhi’s death, emerged as the principal rival to P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Arjun Singh has always been careful to project himself as a pro-Dalit, pro-backward and pro-minorities politician. Though he doesn’t have the same grip over his home state, his style of politics has survived for two reasons: his fierce loyalty to the Gandhi family and the continuation of the two-party rule in his home state.
Can the Congress encash the judgement? That remains to be seen, and the reservation issue could end up being as beneficial, or not beneficial as the waiver of farm loans and the pay commission recommendations.
S. Srinivasan has covered politics for 27 years and reported on the Mandal issue. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org