Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

The warping of the logic of reservations

It has become a quick and dirty fix for problems caused by the state's inability to deliver inclusive growth and good governance

The Maratha Kranti Morcha (MKM) is in no mood to ease up now that it has the Devendra Fadnavis government in an armlock. MKM protests continue despite Fadnavis reiterating his government’s commitment to pushing through Maratha reservations. His capitulation is unsurprising. With other political parties in Maharashtra lining up behind the MKM, he has been backed into a corner. That, however, does not make it any less disappointing.

The Maratha reservation demands, like those of the Patidars in Gujarat, the Kapus in Andhra Pradesh and the Jats in Haryana, are the inevitable outgrowths of the political warping of the logic of reservations. This has been a contested issue since its inception. The Constituent Assembly fiercely debated the potential divisiveness of a policy of religion or caste-based reservation during a time of nation-building. Mahavir Tyagi summed up a strain of thought that has persisted since when he argued that he did not “believe in the minorities on community basis, but minorities must exist on economic basis".

He has a point. But the argument is incomplete. First, when it comes to certain groups that have been systematically oppressed for centuries, community identity and economic outcomes are difficult to disentangle. The Dalit experience has often been compared to the African-American experience. The comparison holds true here.

A solid body of study in the US has shown that centuries of slavery followed by decades of discrimination in housing, education, employment and law and order continue to affect African-American communities today in terms of capital formation, social capital and economic mobility. Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes face the same problem in India. In addition, economic opportunities, entrepreneurship, access to credit and the like are still mediated to a large extent through informal kin and caste networks today. This compounds the problem. As Rishabh Sinha has found in a World Bank paper, Closer, But No Cigar: Intergenerational Mobility Across Caste Groups in India, there has been no significant convergence in the occupational mobility of SC/ST men and non-SC/ST men. In addition, SC/ST men are more vulnerable to moving down the intergenerational ladder. Given that no other caste group in India is so uniquely disadvantaged, it is difficult to argue against reservations for it.

Second, affirmative action on an economic basis must be nuanced. It cannot be the job of a state as large and diverse as India to carve out a slice of the pie for every economically disadvantaged citizen. Nor is it within its capacity. Its job is to grow the pie via inclusive growth, ensure good governance that will give citizens a fair shot at it and put in place social safety nets for those who can’t find a place at the table. Economic reservations, if they are to exist, must be only in instances of persistent, intergenerational poverty.

This is where successive governments at the Centre and in the states have failed comprehensively. Decades of a closed economy failed to deliver the growth necessary for socioeconomic progress and rid the country of entrenched modes of crony capitalism. Various administrations have also failed to put in place policies and governance structures that will allow them to fulfil their basic functions: delivering public goods to citizens and enabling them to partake of economic growth.

The politics of reservation, kick-started by V.P. Singh’s implementation of the recommendations made by the Socially Backward Classes Commission under B.P. Mandal, should be seen in this context. It is a quick and dirty fix for problems that are best addressed by the longer, more arduous process of good governance. It also has the advantage of being a practical tool of targeted political mobilization. The current demands for reservation are thus rational self-interest. Caste logic is another form of economic logic. When the most efficient way to access economic opportunities is through quotas, that is the option communities will choose. This is doubly so when quotas also become a way to access political and state power that is unevenly deployed.

Nor can all the blame be laid at the feet of politicians. In May 1949, Vallabhai Patel had said during the Constituent Assembly debates that rather than quotas on the basis of religion, he would “wait for the blossoming of… toleration and fair-mindedness… for the growing conscience among my own countrymen, for there can be no future for this country except on the basis of true democracy and fair opportunity for all." Given the caste consciousness that still runs deep in Indian society—and the negative ways in which it shapes socioeconomic structures—his optimism was woefully misplaced.

It would take political courage and effective governance of a high order to push back against quota politics. Even then, results would be slow in coming. In their absence, politicians will continue to ride the tiger. But as Fadnavis is finding out, it isn’t always easy.

Does it make sense to extend reservations to dominant caste groups? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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