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In an interview earlier this month, Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), questioned the logic of reservations in the country. In the interview, he said a committee “of people genuinely concerned for the interest of the whole nation" should decide which sections of society need reservations and for how long.

Soon enough, this led to a war of words in Bihar where former chief minister Lalu Prasad declared a “war" between upper and lower castes. The Bharatiya Janata Party was forced to distance itself from Bhagwat’s remarks. But, by then, the political temperature in Bihar had been raised sufficiently.

This is not the only instance of caste mingling with politics in recent days. In the other extreme of the country, Gujarat, the Patidars, a dominant caste, have unleashed an aggressive campaign for reservations in educational institutions and government jobs. Patidars are not the only dominant caste seeking affirmative action: the trend is visible in some of India’s richest states.

All of a sudden, it seems that the entire caste spectrum—from the so-called lower castes right up to the dominant castes—wants to be brought under the umbrella of reservations in some form or the other. Not to be left behind, even castes right at the top of the hierarchy want some help; the difference is that their demands are couched in economic terms. Suddenly, caste seems to have lost its original meaning.

At one level, affirmative action has indeed benefited those who have been given help to at least make a start in life. This effect has been both quantitative and qualitative, and as far as the former goes, the story is certainly positive. It is the latter aspect that is troubling: with each passing decade, the reservation pie has been sub-divided further under an upper limit of 50%. This has been affirmed by the Supreme Court in different judgements. This level has been breached here and there in different states, but remains untouched at the central level.

The effect, as can be seen clearly from the ongoing agitation in Gujarat and the bitter war of words in Bihar, is simple: politically, affirmative action has pitted deprived sections of Indian society against each other. Each year brings forth more claimants seeking a share of a thinly sliced pie. This provokes a backlash from those already availing of the benefits.

The twist in the tale, as realistic observers on the Left note, is twofold. On the one hand, it imparts great stability to India’s democracy as each caste fights for its “rights" in the electoral arena. On the other hand, each new caste group admitted to the affirmative action list ensures that collective action across groups in overturning the stranglehold of upper castes in power becomes harder by every passing year. A caste group can get its name added to the list, but the substance of power eludes it. The combination of these two factors has reduced Indian politics to nothing more than an entertaining spectacle.

It will surprise no one if dominant castes in states such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and elsewhere are put in the category of reserved castes. That is the simplest thing for governments in these states and at the centre to do. Seen from the perspective of upper castes, this is not a bad thing at all.

What suffers most, however, is the idea that India can give a better future to all its citizens. The number of persons who can be given government jobs by affirmative action will always have a hard upper limit. This is not only due to limits imposed by the judiciary but also practical constraints: an entire country cannot be absorbed in government employment.

From this vantage, caste-based reservations beyond a point have done immense harm to the country. The mechanism is simple. First, if each caste group acts as a vote-bank, then there is no reason for political parties to do anything more than provide a rock-bottom floor of “rights" to the poor and the destitute. Second, by ensuring this, voters do not act in their individual judgement, but in terms of a group. Representatives are rarely chosen on the basis of their potential as leaders, but on the basis of their caste and other attributes. These two effects feed into each other viciously, making rational, individual choice in elections almost non-existent. The Aam Aadmi Party—notwithstanding its questionable policy platform—was an experiment in a different method of political mobilization. One does not need to look too hard for reasons why it has met with success only in Delhi.

It is not a bad idea for the remnants of the realistic, non-official, Left to try and understand what Bhagwat tried to say. The founders of modern India—B.R. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru, in particular—knew well that the secret of prosperity lies in expanding the pie and not sub-dividing it irrationally. A caste-based programme of justice ignores this vital dimension of progress.

With this column, Reluctant Duelist calls it a day at Mint.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist took a fortnightly stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere.

Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist-

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