At the Indian Express, about once a week, we have this event called ‘The Idea Exchange’. A politician, businessman or academic is invited. He/she gives us – the reporters, desk people, what have you although its strictly for IE employees – a talk after which anyone can ask questions. It’s great because you actually get a lot of information straight from the source and sometimes it provides a good background. I enjoyed the Arun Jaitley session a lot. There was Kapil Dev last week. Sunil Mittal day before. And this French academic who writes about India, Christophe Jaffrelot, yesterday.
So we start this conversation with Jaffrelot’s defense of reservations which he feels is a corrective measure to liberalization – because it can be used as a tool to ensure that there are no widening gaps when it comes to the redistribution of wealth. This, he feels, is one of the building blocks of our society. See, the point is that you can always talk of class v/s caste and now caste is what is being held back. But in a way, caste becomes a class if they are so held back. So, although the courts have said that reservations cannot be implemented because there is no relevant (updated) data on the OBCs available, this should not be a reason to not do it. What should be done, instead, is that this data should be called for. His suggestion then is to go ahead with it, and keep this policy open to revision as and when new data emerges. A few important points were raised (some by my boss who I would never like to debate against, even in another life, and others). To go through a few – reservations do not hit the nail on the head – the problem lies in the fact that quality education is in short supply. So, if only ‘x’ number of seats are being reserved, they are really not helping anyone except perhaps in a symbolic fashion. Also, if his suggestion of going ahead with the reservations are carried out, in all probability, when it comes up for ‘revision’ there is no chance in hell it can be scaled back because of (unfortunately) entrenched political interests in this entire debate.
Jaffrelot has also done muchos work in the field of caste politics in India, and the question being put to him was the nature of BJP and Hindutva today. He feels that while the BJP has given more tickets to lower castes than the Congress has (on the whole), yet BJP leadership does not reflect such assimilation. But, the lower castes who have made their mark – Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti etc – (as was pointed out) – have in fact behaved more fundamental than less. I have to add here that I’ve been racking my brains for a very similar phenomenon elsewhere and I’ll edit to add, but the same thing happened in another community where the newcomers just wanted to fit in so they behave even more extreme than the extremists in the first place. Argh. Alright, moving along…
Now the problem is that perhaps caste politics has been too divided, and parties are now beginning to realize things may have gone too far. (A point I shall return to) Jaffrelot feels that the BSP has been ideal in trying to expand its votebank and dilute caste based politics. He says that the fact that their leadership stems from the lower castes as opposed to the Congress, BJP is where the strength lies -- but makes an interesting observation – that he feels Buddhism is gaining ground, especially in Maharashta.
He was asked, do you think the rise of caste politics in India was inevitable? It is a signal that this was the building blocks of society. He quoted Amedkar on this – that caste is not just a reflection of the labour, but the labourer. So, as I’d mentioned in the last paragraph (and a point brought up by another senior staffer), while caste politics might be a natural extension of how castes and classes are placed in Indian society, politically, its becoming a liability. Its said now, for the BJP to go from 0 to 100 seats it needs Hindutva, but to go from 100 to 270 seats, it needs to dilute its agenda.
This brings us to the BJP itself. After its defeat three years ago, people thought the party was done for. Clearly, that is not so. Now, is this because there has been a re-think in its ideology, especially when it comes to fundamentalism? For example, in the early 90s, they called for only Hindi – that’s gone. But what Jaffrelot pointed out was that he thinks that in states where the BJP is in the minority, this is not the case. And look no further than Gujarat. There the party certainly does not mind treating the Muslims as second class citizens – those that need to be ‘kept in their place’. Its unprecedented that the Modi government sent back the money meant for Muslim victims to the centre.
This next point was the cause of much debate: Does liberalization mean that social policy suffers? He pointed out that the RSS/BJP did not object to liberalization beyond a point because, after all, it mainly affects the middle classes and not the lower classes. (Read: the lower castes are not getting any benefits, so all good). But it is things like this that allow fundamentalism to take root, because the poor will grasp at any solution. But what of the fat middle class? Does this mean that the more economically liberal you are, the more politically illiberal you become? In other words, like the middle class, if you are comfortable, you do not particularly feel the need to vote? And that capitalism lends itself to fundamentalism? But as was pointed out, we might be able to -- and I say might -- make a case in India. But look at the US – it’s the fat cats who are involved in politics more because they need to protect their interests. So you could spin it either way.
Phew. Anyway, I have clearly left many gaps and questions and observations in the middle but its 2am and I’m quite exhausted. But this session was followed by a regular day at ze office, but twas so interesting – to me anyway – that I really did want to share. And so I did. Woohoo.