Nothing shows more starkly the distortions that have vitiated the policy of reservations as the agitation by the financially and politically influential Patel community in Gujarat for inclusion in the backward-caste category to avail of the quota system in the allocation of government jobs and educational opportunities.
Behind their quest for safety in the reserved categories is the evident failure of the much-vaunted ‘Gujarat model’ of development which was touted by Narendra Modi as the panacea for the entire country.
Yet, since the preference for reservations is a throwback to the days of scarcity during the licence-permit-control raj, the latest upsurge shows that little has changed in the economy. The scourge of joblessness remains as potent under the pro-market dispensation as it was under the controlled economy.
Even then, there is something odd about an enterprising community like the Patels wanting the government to act as their nanny, as it were. The OBC (Other Backward Class) of the Hindi belt, too, comprised dominant groups in the countryside when they secured 27 percent reservations for themselves in 1990.
But unlike the Patels, they occupied a lowly position socially. As B.P. Mandal, a former chief minister of Bihar and author of the Mandal commission report recommending 27 percent reservation, said, he was not allowed as a school student to eat with his upper caste companions by the Brahmin principal. Mandal was discriminated against although he belonged to a wealthy landowning family.
But the Patels or Patidars – the word means the same as zamindars – never experienced such social disadvantages. Not surprisingly, they were part of the anti-reservation movements in Gujarat in the late 1970s and early 1980s directed against the Congress-led state government’s KHAM vote bank comprising Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims.
It is strange, therefore, that the Patels of the Patel-motel fame – they run a large number of roadside hotels across the US – should now want to take a step back into the backward caste category.
Such a regressive outlook is all the more curious because the Patels, like most Gujaratis, are known for their entrepreneurship. For them to seek reservations in government establishments cannot be easily explained when the country has opted for a pro-market economy with its emphasis on the private sector.
The role of the government and the public sector is therefore expected to shrink in the coming years. As such, it makes little point to seek employment in these sectors.
Similarly, seeking admission via reservations in government schools and colleges doesn’t make any sense because of the preference of parents now to admit their children in English-medium private schools as these are believed to be better able to prepare the students to face the challenges of a globalized environment.
In a way, the agitation by the Patels for OBC status is similar to the one by the Gujjars of Rajasthan who wanted a relegation from their existing backward caste category to a Scheduled Tribe (ST) classification since the recognition of Jats as OBCs in the state eroded the availability of reserved jobs.
This kind of a backward march is the result of dwindling employment opportunities at a time when the private sector is not expanding fast enough to make up for the reduction of government jobs. Besides, the Gujarat model may be more hype than reality.
Till now, the failures of this model have been noted by Amartya Sen and other Leftists in social sectors such as infant mortality, whose rate is as high as 60.9 per 1,000 children in Gujarat against 16.2 in Kerala. Moreover, the percentage of people below the poverty line in Gujarat is 31.6 against 19.6 in Kerala.
But the latest disturbances point to failures in the commercial segment as well with the small and medium enterprises not faring well and the capital-intensive industries not creating enough jobs.
While the phenomenon of jobless growth where robots replace humans on the shop floor is one aspect of the scene in Gujarat, another is how reservations have come to be viewed as the panacea for such situations, especially when those searching for jobs or educational opportunities find their prospects blocked not by deserving individuals but by beneficiaries of allotted quotas where castes are the passwords.
In a system where the accident of birth trumps merit, the demand by the leader of the Gujarat agitators, 22-year-old Hardik Patel, that either the provision of all facilities be determined by caste or that the system should be thrown open to all will appear justifiable.
Arguably, the gross misuse of reservations by myopic politicians intent on catering for particular support groups has led to this volatile situation. The worst example of such misuse is how the Supreme Court’s directive on excluding the creamy layer or the successful beneficiaries from the quota system has been negated by a constant upward revision of the criteria for such exclusion by the ruling politicians.
For Modi, the fire in his backyard is the most worrisome of the problems which he faces. And there are many – an economy which refuses to look up, the imbroglio over pension for ex-servicemen and an agitation in the Film and Television Institute of India which underlines the government’s insensitivity to matters of popular culture.