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Reservations: The real reasons

By Shalabh Kumar Singh
July 01, 2006 16:31 IST
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Although a lot of emotion is being spent on the issue of reservations, national-level leaders and parties need to make a rational choice.

The reservation juggernaut continues. It has already received attention in the media from a wide variety of angles.

We will work here with three possible rationales:

  • Political parties are rational and want to maximise their vote share;
  • Reservation will promote economic growth and spread the gains to the neglected sections of society; and
  • It will promote and uphold the moral basis of the Constitution of India.

Let us examine these rationales closely.

The rationality assumption: Will reservation ensure political success?

The logic behind using reservation for maximisation of vote share depends on two further assumptions: (i) OBCs form a majority of the electorate; (ii) OBCs will support the relevant political party. If the current NSS and NFHS survey-based figures about the percentage of OBCs in the population are any indication, the first assumption seems flawed.

For the second assumption to hold true, national parties need the OBCs to identify with them. This is difficult in an environment that promotes and solidifies caste and religious identities of both groups and individuals.

A political party aligned to OBCs is more likely to receive allegiance than a leader of a broad-based national party, even though the latter may have brought in reservation for them. Any electoral gains may, thus, be cornered by regional parties and its leaders aligned along caste, class, or religious lines.

Using reservation as a political strategy also sends out the signal that the relevant party does not and, more importantly, cannot represent the entire nation. As the reaction to the recent proposal shows, each attempt at reservation fractures the polity further by increasing caste and religious awareness and alienating those groups that perceive themselves to be net losers.

A national party or a party aspiring to go national will have a difficult future ahead. It will be immensely difficult, if not impossible, for them to (re-) capture the political space currently being vacated by narrow identification. V P Singh's political marginalisation is a precedent indicating the potential dangers of the inherently flawed logic behind using reservation for electoral supremacy.

Participatory economic growth: Is reservation the answer?

Only around 7 per cent of the Indian population aged 17-23 years acquires a college degree. And out of these, only a small miniscule goes to the educational institutes of excellence. In fact, it can be safely assumed that those reaching the level of college education do belong to the creamy layer of society.

The really disadvantaged are those who cannot even dream to acquire a college degree and these are people from all castes, but too poor to afford education. Since a majority of the Indian population would not benefit from reservation in education, it is a poor instrument to ensure participatory growth.

The global investors as well as the domestic corporate sector have already begun complaining about labour shortages. This is so when the country is still struggling to solve the unemployment problem. One of the complaints of corporate sector is that a large proportion of graduates in India are not employable because the quality of education they have received is not good enough, or does not match the requirements of the industry.

There are some early indications that foreign investors are becoming wary due to shortage of skilled manpower in India. In order to sustain the global interest in India, we will have to invest in "Education for all" and not look to divide the existing cake between different sections. This is the only means to ensure that the growth process is not hindered, is broadly participatory and provides equal opportunity to all.

There is a window of opportunity for India. The population in developed countries is ageing fast, even declining in some countries. China is going to age fast, too. India, in order to benefit from the demographic dividend, will have to invest heavily in its human and physical capital.

One of the key issues is to replicate the success of the institutes of excellence. While it may appear that the issue of merit is a fig leaf that the so-called higher caste is hanging on to in order to protect its interests, it is an issue that we as a nation can ignore only at our own peril. You can distribute the golden eggs only as long as the goose is alive.

Putting more pressure on the already burdened institutes of excellence is tantamount to killing the goose. We missed the bus when other countries were benefiting from global investments and cannot afford it again. In this context, an affirmative action is not synonymous with reservations.

The moral argument: Does it serve some higher purpose?

If reservation is not likely to pay rich dividends at the polls and does not ensure participatory growth, then obviously the defence must rest on some higher purpose, a moral postulate that cannot be questioned. This could come from the government's need to uphold the directives of the Constitution.

To my mind, the biggest moral objective for the framers of the Constitution of India was to ensure that caste, religious, linguistic and regional identities get merged within a larger national identity. Reservation is not a means to achieve this objective because it propagates these identities.

This is probably why the framers of the Constitution of India put a timeline of 10 years on reservations in public jobs for SCs and STs.

The Directive Principles call for education of all children below the age of 14 years. Not only has this objective not been met, but it has received little attention in public dialogue. This is an objective that needs to be met before reservation in higher education can play out its stated role. Literacy rates in India are unacceptably low and dropout rates before completion of elementary education are alarmingly high.

Conclusion: There is a lot of emotion being spent on the issue of reservation. While that may be unavoidable to some extent, the national-level leaders and parties need to make a rational choice.

Rationality dictates the choice of a broader and more inclusive issue, such as education for all, which can fetch greater gains for the national level parties at the polls. Such an issue would also have a more positive impact on the economy, ensure participatory growth and permit these parties to own the high moral ground, with positive feedback on the electoral performance. 

The views expressed here are personal.

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Shalabh Kumar Singh
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