The union ministry of human resource development’s draft Bill extending reservations to other backward classes (OBCs) in central educational institutions like IITs and IIMs has drawn flak for simplistic, if not misleading, reasons. Observers, for instance, have dubbed it as Mandal II, without realizing that it was none other than the Congress party itself that supported the agitation against the implementation of Mandal I in 1990. None other than Rajiv Gandhi, former prime minister, was believed to be opposed to the divisive agenda to impose quotas in centrally funded educational institutions at that time.
Equally simplistic is the spin that paints the concerned HRD minister Arjun Singh as a Judas of sorts as his proposal represents a challenge to the authority of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The Prime Minister, of course, has been very much in the decision-making loop of this draft proposal, but his deafening silence on the issue only fuelled speculation that it is not what the good doctor had in mind. Days before the controversy broke, at a Harvard Alumni Meeting, Dr Singh had stated that the challenge before policymakers was to "'to arrive at a golden mean, which makes both excellence and equity walk hand-in-hand together".
Arjun Singh, for his part, seems to have arrived at his very own mean with 27 per cent reservations for OBCs, besides the existing 22.5 per cent reservation for scheduled castes and tribes in the draft Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Socially and Educationally Backward Classes of Citizens (Reservation of Seats in Central Educational Institutions) Bill, 2006. This draft has yet to secure cabinet approval and might be introduced in Parliament after the ongoing elections in five states are over. There are no prizes for guessing that this Bill will sail through, if the widespread political support for reservations is any indication.
For all this Judas talk, Arjun Singh, when replying to the parliamentary debate after introduction of the 104th Constitution Amendment Bill -- later known as the the 93rd Constitution Amendment Act -- to reserve seats for socially and educationally backward castes in private unaided institutions on December 21, 2005 stated that the ambience for bringing such a Bill forward had been created by the Congress leadership, including Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. Clearly, Dr Singh had been very much in the loop as far as this particular HRD ministry proposal is concerned.
As is well known, the widespread political consensus on reservations ensured the Bill’s passage. Even the CPI (M), which raised a point of order on the "constitutionality" of the Bill arguing that it would be used with impunity by minority institutions, went along. The CPI (M) naturally is sensitive to the mood among partymen against such institutions in Kerala! The BJP, too, for all its minority-baiting, finally voted in favour of the Bill. The across-the board political support for this proposal should be a reminder to those who doubt whether the proposed Bill on reservations in IIT and IIMs will go through.
Gratified with this overwhelming support, Arjun Singh in his reply to that parliamentary debate noted that a query had been raised that the 104th Amendment, no doubt, brings rights to OBCs in private unaided colleges but these do not obtain in many central institutions. "It is a very pertinent question", admitted the HRD minister who went on to assure the House that after the 104th Amendment was passed, "the question of reservation in Central institutions will be addressed frontally and in a holistic manner." The Reservation of Seats in Central Educational Institutions, 2006 indeed reflects that assurance.
The union HRD minister thus has only done what he originally set out to do -- a fact that that does not quite fit with the Judas characterization. To take care of the objection that the Constitution does not recognise OBCs as such, his latest draft Bill clearly states, "Other Backward Classes means the class or classes of citizens who are socially and educationally backward, mentioned in article 340(1) of the Constitution." Clearly, this meets the requirements of OBC MPs who wanted a specific provision in this regard that backward castes are included in quotas to be implemented by private unaided institutions.
The deafening silence on Dr Singh’s part thus is understandable. Arjun Singh interpreted the enabling provisions of the 104th Amendment -- that was originally intended to overturn the Supreme Court order of August 12, 2005 declaring quotas in unaided colleges as "unconstitutional" -- as mandating OBC reservations in the IITs and IIMs and so on. What is worrisome is that the HRD minister is not alone in this regard as the CPI (M) believes that the UPA government’s decision to come up with the enabling draft Bill is only a "consequential action" after the 104th Amendment was passed.
To be sure, the Union HRD ministry’s draft Bill will be challenged in the courts. The former chief justice of India whose 7-judge bench had ruled against quota in private colleges says the quota bill as well as the amendment to Article 15 (5) of the Constitution could be struck down: "The ball will be in the court's court now". But there should be no denying the widespread political support for this move, if the parliamentary debate of December 21, 2005 is any indication. There are also no prizes for guessing that what is keeping the Prime Minister silent is the inexorable logic of this affirmative action drive in institutions of higher learning that will force him one day to go along with reservations also in the private sector.
Since Arjun Singh has been cast in the role of Judas in this controversy, there are also those who point to the recent revelations about the Gospel of Judas, according to which Judas was only acting on Jesus' directions. The irony couldn't be more pronounced. There are also those who are going through every pronouncement of the Prime Minister, and are willing to read much even into his cryptic remarks in a different context as he gave away the Goenka Journalism awards: "Mass media may give greater expression to those who are vocal and articulate, but it is the electoral process that reflects the will of the silent majority. No democratically elected government can ignore the interests of the silent majority."
Contrary to the simplistic interpretations of the reservation controversy, l’ affaire Arjun Singh is yet another illustration of the difficulties of working in a rainbow coalition in which the Left has a significant constituency within the ruling Congress party itself to exert pressure for affirmative action and social sector spending than reforms per se. Dr Singh has so far successfully dealt with Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar but responding to Arjun Singh’s draft Bill is not going to be that easy as his idea is also one whose time has perhaps come!
N Chandra Mohan is a Delhi-based analyst of economic and business affairs