Use of 'reservations' as a tool for increasing political support base suffers from a dual paradox. One, even though 'reservations' is a populist measure, it doesn't bring new votes; but it might lose you votes.
Second, the moment a person is empowered, he will no longer be beholden to the party or person who empowered him. After all, isn't empowerment all about being able to exercise choice?
Indeed, once empowered, an individual and a community will not be satisfied with the sops given in the past; their demands will increase and political players will find it increasingly difficult to live up to rising expectations of the newly empowered.
This is why Bijli-Sadak-Paani (BSP) and issues like law and order are taking centre-stage in areas where once Mandir and Mandal ruled the roost.
The politics of competitive reservations is useful only until the policy is implemented. Once reservations are implemented, they stop yielding any dividend to their advocates. Remember the Hindi saying; 'Bund mutthi lakh ki, khul gayi to khaak ki' (the closed fist is worth a lakh, but once it is open it is worth nothing).
Look at what happened to V P Singh. He is so rootless that he is reduced to trying to project himself as a messiah of the weak by protesting against eviction of slum-dwellers, and this, not in his local constituency -- which he doesn't have -- but in Delhi where he can't win a resident welfare association election.
The fate of 'leaders' like Human Resources Minister Arjun Singh, who have lost even the pretension of having any sort of a mass base among the electorate and yet continue to espouse anachronistic policies that they hope will make them relevant once again, will be no different.
Using reservations as a tool to carve a vote-bank has a number of other problems. The biggest problem is that any new reservation policy tends to polarise society along caste lines. The result of this social polarisation is that the beneficiaries of reservations tend to gravitate towards their caste-men, causing a political polarisation in which caste leaders emerge on top of the political process.
But since a single caste is not large enough to win elections, caste alliances are struck, which in turn leads to further social and political polarisation. The biggest casualty in all this is governance. With politics getting reduced to caste affinities, nothing that a supporting caste-man does is wrong -- rape, murder, dacoity, sedition, kidnapping, every crime of caste leaders is forgiven to retain the support of the caste.
The second big problem with reservations is that since no political party has the guts -- or vision and conviction -- to oppose quotas, they all support this policy. This is a damage limitation exercise by political parties.
Political parties know that opposing reservations will lose them votes of the sections of society being targeted by the reservations; but they also know that supporting the policy of reservations will not them bring new votes.
In the end, this becomes a zero-sum game in the face of a difficult political situation.
In this process, people like Arjun Singh, who hope to attract voters, turn out to be the biggest losers. Not only do they not get the votes of those whom they are targeting, they also lose votes of those sections of society who have lost out because of the new reservations.
Indeed, even though political opponents have been forced to support the reservations, they manage to attract the support of the sufferers, who in reaction to the policy, want to punish the proponents of the policy by voting for their opponents.
Interestingly, ever since the Congress government has announced its intentions of unleashing another round of reservations on this country, a strange phenomenon seems to be unraveling -- the OBC leaders aren't going ga-ga over the proposal.
A decade-and-a-half after Mandal, and the consequent crystallisation of caste vote banks, OBC leaders have realised that they now need to broad base their appeal. This can be done by attracting upper caste voters into their fold.
Mayawati is wooing Brahmins, Laloo and Mulayam are wooing the Rajputs, the trading community are hedging their bets and are no longer entirely in the BJP camp. The OBC leaders also know that while no one will be able to oppose these proposals, the wrath of the sufferers will fall on the proponents, while the benefits will accrue to them, after all they are the representatives of those who will benefit from Mandal-II.
So why make a song and dance about the whole thing and unnecessarily antagonise potential vote banks, something that will only benefit rival parties like the BJP.
Politics apart, reservations now being contemplated -- in all educational institutions (government and private) and probably also in the private sector -- will have devastating consequences not only on social harmony in the country but will also severely restrict opportunities for that section of society that seeks to get over its disabilities by advancing through education.
What is worse, if implemented, this reservation policy will lead to a reverse monopoly over avenues of advancement in favour of the OBCs. As things stand, the OBCs are today dominating politics in both the states as well as the Centre. They are also increasingly dominating the civil services. The only avenue left for the so-called upper castes was the very competitive private sector. But to get into the private sector required good education. This too will now be denied, or at least severely restricted, because of reservations in educational institutions.
Perhaps, if reservations were limited to only government or government-aided institutions, new opportunities would be available by the setting up of private educational institutions. But here too politicians have reserved seats for the so-called deprived sections. So, where do upper-caste students go?
It is not just the unfairness of the whole thing that is so galling. The whole reservation policy is really nothing more than taking a short-cut to address the deprivation of the weaker sections, a short-cut that in the long-run doesn't help anyone and leads to only an abyss.
This is because once a community gets used to walking on crutches, it can never find the moral, physical or even intellectual strength to walk on its own two feet. While there is not an iota of doubt that deprived and depressed communities require a degree of affirmative action, reservations is certainly not the answer to raise the self-esteem of marginalised people.
Rather than reservations, the government must provide excellent public education to all citizens. Let government schools compete and even beat private schools in education. But this means doing hard work to revamp the moribund public education system. In fact, the state schools are so bad that their products are educated worse than they would be as illiterates.
This was not always the case. Before independence, hardly anyone studied in private schools. The standard of even village schools was so good that their products went on to join top colleges and excelled in their chosen professions and careers.
But now, it is a curse to educate a child in these schools. The thousands of crores spent every year on public education is nothing but a huge waste. It is an open challenge to show one political leader in India, including VP Singh and Arjun Singh, who's children study in state schools.
Unless this happens, there isn't a hope in hell for public education. Incidentally, these messiahs of the poor prefer to get their own treatment done in the most expensive hospitals of the world where they know that no reserved category doctor will be treating them.
So before we start off on a new round of reservations let us pass a law that no one will be allowed to go abroad for medical treatment.
Finally, a word about the people who have most to lose from the new reservation policy. Frankly, the Indian middle class deserves what it is getting. The basic lesson which they need to learn is that if they don't shed their supercilious attitude towards politics and don't vote, and don't express their outrage with everything that is wrong in this country, they will get by-passed.
Today, not one MP depends on the middle class for winning his seat. As a result, not one MP espouses the cause and concerns of the middle class. Unless the middle class organises itself into a lobby and learns to leverage its votes for good governance, it will continue to be ignored and marginalised in their own country.