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Playing quoits with quotas

UPA government announces quota for Muslims", shouted the headlines. Does this mean that a new policy for religion-based reservations has been announced by the government? Does this mean that all Muslims will now have reservations in government jobs? Does this mean that the share of jobs for unreserved categories will now go down by 4.5 per cent? 

The answer to all these questions, as you'd have guessed by now, is No. Backward sections of religious minorities -- Muslims, Christians and Sikhs -- are already covered under the 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Classes (OBC) in government jobs. In an Indian peculiarity, Muslims and Christians also have castes (officially called groups) which are covered under the OBC quota. For eg, Gujarat has 27 Muslim and 12 Christian castes in its OBC list. In Uttar Pradesh, 32 Muslim castes are listed as OBCs. 


Quota politics: As long as there are community-based quotas and 
elections, there will be politics around them

UPA government's announcement, put on hold by the Election Commission, does not cover all Muslims or Christians. It carves out a sub-quota of 4.5 per cent for minority groups already included in the list of OBCs, from within the existing 27 per cent reservation for OBCs in government employment. The unreserved component of jobs thus remains unaffected. 

Indubitably, the Congress-led UPA government announced this sub-quota to reap electoral benefits in the forthcoming assembly elections. But this is not the first time that a sub-quota has been created in reservations. In Bihar, there is the precedence of splitting the OBC quota into the OBC and MBC quota and SC quota into that for Dalits and Maha Dalits. The latter was done by Nitish Kumar to outwit Laloo Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan in the caste-politics of Bihar. 
UP is no different and all the political parties are trying to work this announcement to their advantage. Congress is eyeing the Muslim vote with this promise while Mulayam Singh is projecting it as a reduction in the 27 per cent quota available to Yadavs and other dominant OBC castes. BJP hopes to consolidate hardcore Hindu votes by highlighting this as another proof of Muslim appeasement by the pseudo-secular Congress party.

As long as there are community-based quotas and there are elections, there will be politics around them. Reservations for SC/ ST were a temporary constitutional measure and should have been done away by now. Instead, reservations have both expanded and deepened in the last six decades. Considering the realities of electoral politics, no political party can propose the removal of job quotas. 

To contain the divisive politics around job quotas, the next best alternative then is to make government jobs both unattractive and irrelevant. Evidence from southern and western India shows that economic growth and rise of private sector is the best way to reduce the relevance of government jobs. These growth models can be replicated across the country only by initiating the second generation of economic reforms.To inverse the cliche, it will be a case of good economics leading to good politics.

Notwithstanding the growth of private sector, a well-functioning state will still have its share of government jobs. Such is the attraction of government jobs today that MBAs quit jobs with MNCs to join the government on one-third the salary. We need root-and-branch reforms in governance to diminish the power, perks and rent-seeking associated with government jobs. Our current leadership, however,  lacks the political will to push these reforms against entrenched bureaucratic interests.

At a fundamental level, the politics around job quotas, whether on the basis of caste or religion, is a reflection on our conception of the Indian state. To quote Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Gandhi in particular, and the Congress Party in general, had a conception of India as a kind of federation of communities. Creation of India was about friendship among a federation of communities, and not a project of liberating individuals from the burden of community identity. We don't have a conception of citizenship where identities matter less to what political rights you have as an individual. It has never been seriously considered as a political project in independent India.

The challenges may be daunting and the questions complex, but the Aam Aadmi can do what RK Laxman's Common Man asked three decades ago: "Cast your vote. Do not vote your caste."

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review.

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