By Raghav Behl
No, no way, not now but hey, hold on, yes, maybe .
These words may work splendidly on a cold night when you ask to be let in for a cup of coffee at your dates doorstep; but in politics, these same words are dangerously ambivalent.
So, I was surprised when, in the Rajya Sabha debate on the 10 percent forward quota bill, one political stud after another began with a stinging rebuke, then wrung his/her hands and ended with an abject no but yes. Just look at this roll call of honour among Indias opposition heavyweights:
Now, having poured such vitriol on the Modi governments cynical, opportunistic politics, you would have expected these opposition titans to push the no, nay, never button in the vote, right? Wrong. All of them (except for DMK, RJD, and IUML) quietly fell in line and greenlit the bill, even in the Rajya Sabha, where the government stood no chance of getting a two-thirds majority. If these leaders wanted, they could have easily supported DMKs motion to refer the Bill to a Joint Select Committee.
But the nation watched, stunned! In two days flat, the alchemy of Indias equal-opportunity democracy was altered.
Parliamentary Consensus At Odds Against Fractured National Sentiment
However, the sentiment on the ground was/is fractured. In that sense parliament short-changed India. Its members should have manifested the will of the people, which is nowhere near as unanimous:
- Several SC/ST/OBC beneficiaries fear that this is a ‘test encroachment’ that could eventually replace caste-based reservations with affirmative action based solely on economic criteria. The fact that this happened under an RSS-dominated government adds grist to this apprehension. After all, the RSS has never hidden its desire to rid India of caste distinctions, while the current reservation regime sharpens sub-identities. So for them, this could be the first step in a long-term game plan. The fact that the founding fathersread, Bhimrao Ambedkar, perhaps the most dubiously cited iconwanted caste-based reservations to be temporary could eventually become a handy justification to end the old system.
- Even those entitled to the new quotas are restive. Many feel that by stipulating such a high watermarka daily household income of Rs 2,100, which covers almost 95 percent of Indias population for a paltry 10 percent reservationthese benefits will be cornered by the well-off in the general categories, once again denying the real poor their due. They are ready to agitate for a much lower cut-off, perhaps at Rs 2.50 lakh per annum of household income. They are afraid that instead of demolishing economic privilege, this bill could entrench it.
- The salaried classes, once again, feel they are the first to be whipped. While they cannot fudge salary statements, those with unaccounted money shall enjoy the privilege of producing false certificates showing lower incomes.
- Finally, there is extreme resentment brewing in the top 5 percent who are not covered by any reservation. Even if you forget about the super-rich who are not bothered by this exclusion, there are nearly 5 crore middle and upper-middle-class Indians who are chafing at the leash. Whats the point of living in a country which outlaws merit, they ask in simmering anger. They are contemplating a distraught brain exodus.
Clearly, with the two-day Constitutional shock wearing off, several peopleincluding current beneficiaries, non-RSS citizens, the real poor among the general categories, salaried classes, and the richer/excluded tierswant to articulate their protest. This is the vacuum that Indias opposition parties could have jumped into, if only they had said a firm no instead of an amorphous no but yes. Now, having pressed that dreaded aye knob in parliament, opposition parties will find it difficult to win the trust of the naysayers.
The Payoff From A Categorical YES Or NO
An amorphous no but yes has left every opposition politician stranded in no-mans land. All the bragging rights on this have been turned over to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In turn, he is bound to paint the oppositions flaky yes as, at best, how he outwitted them, and at worst, their weak hoodwink.
On this one, I am afraid its tails I win and heads you lose.
Frankly, I am a tad surprised why the opposition parties have left themselves scrambling. They could have said a full-throated, unqualified YES, thereby cutting Modis political payoff in half. Else, they should have cracked a loud NO, saying we fully support the bill, but want to examine its pitfalls/infirmities in a select committee for two weeks. Once that is done, and the bill has become fair and just for all, we shall insist on a special session to pass this historic bill.
This would have halted the Modi steamroll and given the opposition time to harness the gathering disenchantment into a potent protest movement. They would have occupied the critical opposition space, exactly as they have done with the Triple Talaq Bill. Or with the Citizenship Bill. In both these instances, theyve stood firm, taken the blows, but slowly welded the narrative away from the government, at least with those fearing exploitation and disenfranchisement.
I wonder why they missed that trick here, especially when the lessons of recent electoral history are clear.
People back decisive politicians; they endorse risk-takers.
Today, the country is again yearning for change. What it doesnt need from its politicians is shades of that evocative Bollywood song main peeta nahin hoon peelayi gayi hai (I dont drink, but have been forced to drink), that is:We did not want to support the government, but heck, we were forced to.
Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between Chinas Hare and Indias Tortoise, and Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World