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.