India Insight

Caste trumps merit for political dividends in India

Passions are running high in parliament and the stakes are huge. The contentious issue of reservation is back to haunt Indian politics and it may well decide who runs the next government in the world’s largest democracy. Sparks were seen flying in the upper house on Wednesday when two MPs from rival parties came to blows during the tabling of a bill to amend the Constitution, providing for reservations in promotions at work for backward castes.

The issue, however, is nothing new. Reservation is a recurring theme in India’s democracy. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s embattled government seems to be returning to identity politics at a time when it is badly cornered, thanks to a string of corruption scandals, a ballooning fiscal deficit and low investor sentiment.

The move comes after the Supreme Court in April struck down former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s policy of a promotion quota in government service.

It also comes at a time India is seeing something of an upsurge in communal tensions that seem to have been stoked by political parties — witness the Bodo-Muslim violence in the northeast, which the BJP has linked to illegal immigration, a favourite fallback of politicians around the world when they are short on ideas and achievements. At the other end of the country, in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has been stirring sentiment against Sri Lankans.

While affirmative action is recognised in several countries and even gender quotas for woman have been debated in Europe, the multiplicity of religious, cultural, caste and class identities in the world’s second most populous country make it a complex issue.

How to get more women into parliament?

As part of its 100-day action plan, the Congress-led UPA government is pushing for the Women’s Reservation Bill, which seeks to reserve 33 per cent seats in parliament for women.

The UPA has also promised to give women 50 percent seats in local government institutions like the village council, up from the 33 percent of seats currently reserved for them.

That measure has  been in place for over a decade and a half. But has it done any good?

First, Second or Third (Front) – What’s the difference!

Much has been written about the imminent arrival in New Delhi of the Third Front, the joker in the Indian political pack that has talked itself up as a serious alternative to the two national parties in the 2009 parliamentary elections.

The difference they tout is of being more inclusive, bringing into the public fold social groups neglected or oppressed by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Whether this claim, that some take rather very seriously, is sustainable is the moot question. The answer may be no, if the history of this rag-tag group that has emerged with near-decadal precision since 1967 is any guide.

India’s Gujjar mess underlines problem of relying on quotas

There is no doubt that India is a deeply unequal society, that people at the bottom of the pile face discrimination, and struggle for the opportunities they need to raise themselves up. But is the answer caste- or tribe-based quotas in government jobs and universities?

Members of the Gujjar community beat a burning effigy of Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje during a protest in Bikaner district of India’s desert state of Rajasthan May 28, 2008. REUTERS/Vinay Joshi (INDIA)This week, the debate is back in the headlines, as the Gujjar community takes to the streets again, blockading India’s capital to reinforce their demand for more quota-based jobs . Nearly 40 people have been killed in the latest violence, most shot dead by police.

I am not qualified to say whether quotas are right or wrong.

On the one hand, they reinforce caste identity and rivalry and seem to fly in the face of a secular India. On the other, they can be a useful tool in forcing an end to discrimination and giving people a leg up.

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