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The Rediff Interview/B G Deshmukh

July 10, 2003

The battle has begun in earnest.

Ayodhya is back in the spotlight and the Bharatiya Janata Party does not appear to have a solution at hand.

The BJP has often said it would go to the people and seek a 300-seat mandate needed to draft legislation to construct a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

The Congress -- blamed for creating the Masjid-Mandir mess -- and presently, euphoric about ruling 14 of India's 28 states, has been experimenting with various strategies to make a dent with voters, trying to beat the BJP at its own game.

This time, it is reservation for economically weaker sections among the upper castes. While the BJP proposed setting up a national commission to examine reservation for upper castes, the Congress government in Rajasthan put the BJP in a spot by advocating upper caste reservation. Going one step further, the Congress also supports reservation in the private sector.

B G Deshmukh, 74, principal secretary to prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi, V P Singh and Chandra Shekhar, feels politicians are using such short term goals to endanger India's social fabric.

In a conversation with Senior Associate Editor Archana Masih at his office in Bombay House -- the headquarters of Tata Sons -- Deshmukh, a 40-year veteran of the Indian Administrative Service and now a Tata director, said the Indian people are no longer naïve to buy such political sops.

Reservation was included in the Constitution to elevate the socially backward. The idea was to use tools like education, health and welfare to improve their condition and bring them on par with the rest of India. But we seem to be bringing more and more people under the umbrella of reservation.

If you take reservation of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the Constitution laid down only 10 years. Actually Dr B R Ambedkar was opposed to reservation but then he was persuaded to have it for 10 years. But it has continued for the last 50 years.

If you continue reservations, you will continue the concept of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. You are legitimising it.

Economically and socially backward castes is a continuing concept because even if you are a very prosperous country, relatively there will be some socially and educationally backward people.

Even in the United States it is called affirmative action, so there is nothing wrong for socially and educationally backward -- not scheduled castes -- to continue for a long time. In a society there will always be a section which is at the bottom and you have try to bring them up.

Even with education etc, you can at the most say the number will go down, but the concept will always be there because it is a relative concept.

But in our country the numbers are not going down?

Unfortunately, family welfare planning has failed exactly in these sections and exactly in those states where these sections predominate.

The number of the socially and educationally backward should go down. Just as people living below the poverty line. We should watch the number and efforts should be made to pull them up.

If you see in southern India, there was not much agitation for reservation for Other Backward Castes because the social movement started in the southern states way back in the early 20th century.

We are starting at the wrong end. Government schemes should improve the lot at the bottom. What is happening among the socially and educationally backward is most people who are already educated will go on monopolising, like the Mahars in Maharashtra, Yadavs in UP and Bihar.

As far as getting government jobs are concerned, getting one itself is not very easy at all.

I used to argue with V P Singh. If I remember right, we made a calculation that Mandal Commission at the most will give a lakh-and-a-half jobs. He used to say, "See Mr Deshmukh, government jobs carries prestige in the north, so even if there are 10 jobs I want to give it."

Hasn't it changed? We see people in government jobs in the north don't get salaries.

That is a different matter, but maybe there is the attraction of government jobs. The security. Even if you are not getting a salary there are other ways of making money.

What is this talk of reservation for the upper castes all about?

Everybody is saying 'upper caste.' This is because the Mandal Commission gave reservations on the basis of caste. As a matter of fact, they should have gone much further and defined groups on the basis of educationally and socially backward. That was included in the Constitution and the Mandal Commission was asked to identify groups that were educationally and socially backward. They could not do it, so they zeroed down on caste.

That is unfair because caste is only in the Hindu religion. What about the socially and educationally backward groups in the Muslim, Buddhist, Christian communities?

Does it mean that if you are a Hindu backward only then can you get reservation? So that is one complication. I am now told that some Muslim organisation has gone to the high court, saying 'What about us?'

Mandal gave preference only to the Hindu religion. This is exactly what is going to happen with reservation for the economically backward among the upper castes -- is it only for the Hindu religion? If you have to define such classes, it should be across all religions, faiths.

You have said that if there is reservation for the economically backward among the upper castes, it should be on the basis of merit. What is this merit?

Merit in the sense -- suppose everybody is economically backward, those [among them] who are more deserving should get reservation. For example, in Maharashtra, the Mahars, Bhangis, Chamars are scheduled castes, but if you were to arrange these castes the Mahars are far better than the other scheduled castes because of their education.

By merit I mean if there is a Mahar family that has taken benefit once, it should go at the bottom and other [castes] should come up. Otherwise, one group in the same community will monopolise. It should go to the more deserving.

Doesn't it make it very difficult to decide who is really more deserving?

That is what I am saying. My main objection is why do you do these things when the elections are coming? Nobody has any concern for social welfare, but only (for) vote banks. If you approach this, merit will never be recognised.

Surely, it is evident to those among the Indian voters whom this measure is trying to elevate that this is an election ploy. In that case, do you really think political parties can get any mileage out of this?

They are not going to get mileage because everybody is going to play the game. If everybody is going to play the game then nobody is interested.

Both the Mandal Commission recommendation and then Bihar chief minister Karpoori Thakur's announcement for reservations in 1977-1978 sparked public outrage. Why is it that we haven't seen any public opposition to this proposal for reservation among the economically backward among the upper castes?

People have seen through the game -- that this is only vote politics. Once the elections are over they will forget it. Even if they want to do it, unless the Constitution is amended, they cannot do it. Before that, elections will take place and quietly people will forget.

People are very cynical. When the parliamentary election draws near in November 2004, again this will be brought up.

Is it also because reservation has become a jaded issue? It does not affect as many people as before, and people are fed up of the corruption they have to endure to get government jobs.

In those days people used to say -- banks were nationalised -- so they said if public money is being used by the private sector for loans etc then there should be some restrictions. Today if I go to a private bank and take credit, why should I have reservation? So this is all humbug. There is no legal basis at all. These are only promises which were not kept even when nationalisation took place. This [reservation] for private sector has been going on for the last 15 years.

So on what basis is the Congress party making claims like one job per family. Do you think this can become a reality?

No, it can't happen. Political parties forget one thing. Even if you promise, unless you create the jobs, who is going to get the jobs? We are completely ignoring economic realism. We are wasting our time in these controversies and not giving enough importance to economic development.

The correct thing would be to have economic development. Jobs will be created and automatically people will get jobs. For example, in Maharashtra, there is the economic development scheme. Why can't we start this scheme in rural areas everywhere?

What is this Employment Guarantee Scheme?

If in a village or in a group of villages, 25 people come with an application that they are willing to do physical type of work, the government is committed to giving them jobs. Tank digging, afforestation, road work. The government is legally bound to create jobs.

Assuming reservations in the private sector were to happen, how do you think such a measure can be brought about?

The government has no legal and Constitutional right to have reservations in the private sector. They are just trying to fool people. They can't reserve jobs in the private sector.

Reservation for the economically backward in the upper castes was included in a Congress policy paper. Why do you think it was included if such measures are unlikely to take off?

It is just like in the government. Just as officers want to have jobs, political workers also want to have jobs. I am not joking. It is a fact.

Everybody basically should concentrate on only two things -- let the economy progress and keep peace and order. Nothing more than that. The other things will follow, but these are two things they are not exactly doing.

If you give reservation to upper castes, you will have to take something from somewhere [reduce the existing number of reserved seats so that it does not exceed 50 per cent]. Then this will again lead to jhagda (fight) between them.

A case in point is the Madhya Pradesh government. Five years ago, they had sent a bill -- increasing reservation for Other Backward Classes from 14 to 27 per cent in the state -- for President Narayanan's approval. The bill was returned and awaits assent. Now it is said the state government is not awaiting assent this time. Do you think they can issue a notification?

They cannot violate the Supreme Court judgment. The Supreme Court has said that reservation cannot exceed 50 per cent on the basis of equality. If they do so, anyone can file a case of contempt of court. They [the state government] are very clever, then they will say we want to do it, but the court is not allowing us to do so.

What effect will these short-term measures have on India's social fabric?

This is nothing but tearing away the social fabric. In south India people may not protest against OBCs, but the number of admission in schools is so restricted that there is a lot of resentment. These politicians are tearing away the social fabric for short-term political gains. They don't understand that by continuing reservations, they are continuing the system.

The creamy layer must be taken away. Why should Yadavs continue to be OBCs? Why should Punjabi Jats continue to be OBCs? Because they are very prosperous. Slowly and gradually, we must remove this creamy layer from reservation.

So, irrespective of what politicians say, reservation for the economically backward cannot be brought about without a Constitutional amendment.

This word economically backward is not in the Constitution at all. So the Constitution will have to be amended and secondly, reservation cannot exceed 50 per cent.

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda



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