Elections are a time for ruling parties to dole out largesse in the hope of retaining or capturing community vote banks. The Union Cabinet’s untenable rush to include Jats from nine states in the list of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) eligible for reservation in central government jobs and educational institutions exemplifies the 10-year-old UPA government’s weaknesses.
Governments that fail to alleviate fundamental developmental problems tend to fear a backlash and are the worst culprits of such destabilising practices. In this game of vote bank politics, it is unfortunate that the constitutional mandate to employ reservation as a tool for social and economic justice is being diluted for short-term gains. Reservation was meant to help discriminated communities catch up with the privileged. In hurriedly conferring backward status on a proud and dominant community on election-eve, the government has effectively reduced affirmative action to a race between competing communities.
Due procedure has become a casualty in the Cabinet asking the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) to review its 2011 decision that the Jat community’s demands be evaluated after a socio-economic survey. Now the Cabinet has asked the NCBC to bypass the survey and rely on existing literature like annual reports of the Haryana and Himachal Pradesh backward class commissions, and refer books on caste, land, political power, and socio-economic status of farming communities of North India. To find method in this madness is ridiculous. Political agenda, bereft of scientific study, has driven the inclusion of several communities in the OBC and Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) lists at the central and state level. In the case of Jats now, the disappointing performance of the Congress in Rajasthan, the Jats of Western UP gravitating from Ajit Singh’s RLD towards the BJP after the Muzaffarnagar riots, and the impending elections in Haryana, seem to be helping their cause.
The Gujjar agitation in Rajasthan for inclusion in the ST category was blamed on the inclusion of Rajasthan Jats (excluding Bharatpur and Dholpur districts) in the central OBC list in 1999. The NCBC while recommending the Rajasthani Jats’ inclusion in 1997 rejected the claims of their counterparts from Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Madhya Pradesh. The NCBC noted that these Jats did not suffer from intermediaries like jagirdars and zamindars, they lived in areas directly under British rule or princely rulers belonging to the Jat community, had dependable irrigation, and had access to political power in the late-medieval and modern period. The commission also noted the positive influence of the Arya Samaj movement against caste-based inequalities on Jat self-esteem, the equitable pattern of land ownership in UP and urbanisation in Delhi. Irrespective of the NCBC’s findings, Jats have found their way to the OBC list in nine states now.
Meanwhile, Sharad Pawar has been demanding the inclusion of Marathas in the OBC list. The perception that dominant communities jostling for OBC status crowd out the weaker backward classes is undermining the concept of reservation. The creamy layer concept has also been progressively diluted to appease the elite in reserved communities. There are fundamental issues that deter the poorest of the weaker sections — this includes Muslims too — from benefiting. Without addressing two such issues — landlessness and access to education — no amount of focus on reservation or setting up central universities for minorities on election-eve can help the poor.