While VP Singh’s overnight embrace of Mandal Commission recommendations caused a serious stir, the 2019 tool is a step in the right direction
The summer of 1990 was simmering in more ways than one. The decision to implement the controversial Mandal Commission recommendations led to widespread agitation. As young students, aspiring to join the elite Indian Civil Services, many of us felt that it was a brutal assault on our opportunities, regressive and a desperate ploy by the then Prime Minister VP Singh to latch on to a plank that would ensure his survival. While Delhi boiled literally, agitation gripped large parts of north India. Anger was enormous and spilled over to the streets — it was a mass protest of anguish and rejection of populist politics. Thirty eight years later when a new provision has been made to allow 10 per cent reservation in jobs and education for the economically-backward people in unreserved category, the mood is that of justice done; protests are confined to those who have pursued a regressive political ideology. India has moved on. The warmth of social engineering tool of reservation to those who need it has subsumed the chill of January 2019.
For many of us, who grew up young and were in awe of a progressive, non-conventional Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh was an iconic opportunist. Desperate to latch on to a turf that he had scaled with shrewd political manoeuvres, and by raising a pitch of honesty in the wake of Bofors murmurs, Singh sensed the Mandal Commission recommendations as a tool that would cement his shaky political standing. He became the Prime Minister in 1989 after a regional coalition of political parties, called the National Front, won the general election, earning a simple majority. Parties like the BJP and the CPI supported the National Front from outside and Singh was dramatically installed as the Prime Minister, causing severe heartburn in Chandra Shekhar, who, too, aspired to occupy the slot. Within days of taking over, Singh faced a huge crisis when the daughter of his Home Minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, was kidnapped and the Government had to release dreaded militants in exchange.
Sensing his dwindling political fortunes sooner than he had anticipated, Singh embraced the Mandal Commission by championing the cause of reservation and projecting himself as a messiah of social justice for the backward classes despite he coming from the upper caste. He notified the implementation of the commission’s suggestions that would grant 27 per cent reservation in jobs in Union Government and public sector undertakings to members of the Other Backward Classes. The recommendations section of the Report read: “As the Commission had concluded that 52 per cent of the country’s population comprised OBCs, it initially argued that the percentage of reservations in public services for backward classes should also match that figure. However, as this would have gone against the earlier judgment of the Supreme Court, which had laid down that reservation of posts must be below 50 per cent, the proposed reservation for OBCs had to be fixed at a figure, which when added to 22.5 per cent for SCs and STs, remains below the cap of 50 per cent. In view of this legal constraint, the Commission was obliged to recommend a reservation of 27 per cent only for backward castes.” The 52 per cent figure was certainly flawed and many alleged that the Census data was compromised by partisan politics.
Along with widespread protests, the recommendations also triggered an intense intellectual debate with many saying that the estimates were problematic. According to the National Sample Survey 1999–2000, about 36 per cent of the country’s population could be categorised as OBC. The proportion would fall to 32 per cent if the Muslim OBCs were excluded. A National Family Health Statistics 1998 survey put the proportion of non-Muslim OBCs as 29.8 per cent. In fact, LR Naik, the only Scheduled Castes member in the Commission, refused to sign the Mandal recommendations, arguing that intermediate backward classes are relatively powerful, while depressed backward classes, or most backward classes (MBCs) remain economically marginalised. The 10 per cent reservation policy has received widespread support, barring some notional political Opposition. On Wednesday, after the 124th Amendment Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was “a victory of social justice.” He added that the Bill would ensure “wider canvas for yuva shakti to showcase their prowess and contribute towards India’s transformation.”
This perhaps sums it up. The difference between the ‘summer of 1990 and winter of 2019’ is the statement of intent. While VP Singh was a desperate Prime Minister wanting to create a new constituency of supporters, which would ensure his sustenance in office, Modi’s act is that of a series of equity tools being unleashed for all classes of people. While Singh’s overnight embrace of the Mandal Commission recommendations caused a serious stir, the 2019 tool is viewed as one of delayed and deserved, justice for a class of people who suffered the ignominy of neglect by myopic political ideologies. It promises to bring parity and corrects a historical folly.
(The writer is a strategic communications professional)