In giving the go-ahead to the Andhra Pradesh Government to proceed with its proposed four per cent reservations for ‘backward’ Muslims, the Supreme Court has, perhaps unwittingly, triggered a social upheaval whose consequences may prove to be far-reaching and not entirely beneficial to India. True, the entire issue of religion-based reservations that unsettles the 1950 consensus will be adjudicated by a full Constitution bench of the apex court. However, since it may be some time before the court settles the issue, the Andhra Pradesh clearance is certain to become the basis of a new reservations epidemic.
The stage for a new bout of social engineering has already been set. The Ranganath Mishra Commission report favouring 10 per cent reservation for Muslims and an additional quota for Dalit Christians has already become the focus of a Congress that is looking for ways to offset the fierce Muslim hostility to the Women’s Reservation Bill. Cynical strategists of the party have calculated that the emerging solidarity of the backward castes and Muslims can be disrupted by extracting a Muslim quota from the already existing OBC share. In short, since OBCs in North India, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have not shown any inclination to support the Congress since 1967, the best electoral strategy lies in tempting Muslim voters with the lure of reservations. In South India, the consolidation of Dalit Christian and Muslim votes behind the Congress will be additionally beneficial.
That implementation of the Ranganath Mishra report was not an article of faith for the Congress. Indeed, till the Women’s Reservation Bill unexpectedly threw up a new alignment of forces, the Congress was entirely willing to keep the issue on the backburner. Its hesitation was based on the belief that Muslim quotas would give the BJP a new lease of life and solidify its upper-caste support. The Congress felt that in the normal course the BJP hold over the upper and intermediate castes would slip, particularly if the Congress showed signs of resurgence.
It is interesting that the fear of the BJP was not shared by many Muslim organisations. They calculated that an internally-divided BJP was no longer in a position to whip up a Hindu backlash and that the Congress should be pressured to concede the principle of religion-based reservations. After the Women’s Reservation Bill and the Andhra Pradesh judgement, the Muslim organisations are certain to step up the pressure on the UPA, believing it to be more vulnerable than ever before. As for the BJP, the Muslim groups don’t appear to have revised their earlier assessment of long-term decline.
What emerges from this convoluted game of manoeuvres and counter-manoeuvres is a distinctly unappetising picture of India. The politics of entitlements which the UPA believes was the main factor behind its victory in May 2009 has gone completely berserk. If the Women’s Reservation Bill formalised an uneven gender-based faultline, the Ranganath Mishra Report will further compartmentalise the country into religious blocs — a situation we have not experienced since the 1950 Constitution put an end to communal electorates and other religion-based quotas.
The Constituent Assembly believed it was the institutionalisation of religious differences that was responsible for Partition and it was determined to never repeat the process. In a forthright speech opposing separate Muslim seats, Sardar Vallabbhai Patel told the remaining Muslim League members of the Constituent Assembly on August 28, 1947 to ‘forget the past’: “You have got what you wanted. You have got a separate state and remember, you are the people who were responsible for it, and not those who remain in Pakistan…You got the Partition and now again you tell me and ask me to say for the purpose of securing the affection of the younger brother that I must agree to the same thing again, to divide the country again in the divided part. For God’s sake understand that we have also got some sense…”
The unequivocal determination that was evident in the leadership of the Congress in August 1947 to not yield to sectarian pressure has wilted. The reason is not some sudden discovery of entitlements; it is far more basic: there is a solid Muslim vote bank capable of making a difference in anything between 75 and 120 Lok Sabha constituencies but there is no corresponding organised force to offset it. The day such a countervailing force emerges, the Congress will be far more circumspect bowing to sectarian pressure. In 1947, the Congress was a self-assured party and aware of its formidable electoral clout; in 2010 the Congress is merely a first among equals and unsure of a loyal vote that will endure.
This, in a sense, is the real tragedy of today’s India. The political fragmentation of the country has meant that a determined, well-organised minority is in a position to extract its pound of flesh, even if that involves turning the Constitution upside down. If the UPA chooses to travel down the road recommended by the Ranganath Mishra Report, it would be sending an alarming message to the whole country. It would, in effect, be telling voters that sectarian politics cannot be fought with normal politics but by a counter-mobilisation based on a real or imagined religious identity.
In 2009, many middle class voters rejected shrill politics and voted for what they considered a sober, moderate, modernist approach. If the Congress responds to this trust by resurrecting ghosts from an unfortunate past and bolstering religious faultlines, it will be mocking the verdict. Never mind nurturing a modern Indian identity, the ruling party will be telling us to be Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians. Some have heeded the advice. What if others follow suit? Or is it the belief that Hindu unity is an oxymoron?