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Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: The mirage of social justice

In the face of authoritarianism, communalism, and institutional disintegration, the Opposition seems to be coalescing around the plank of “social justice”. It is reflected in the Congress’ new war cry “jitni aabadi utna haq”, and the calls from various parties to mobilise on caste issues. Caste still structures opportunity and power in Indian society, and has to be reckoned with on any journey to a just society. But this “social justice” agenda, in response to Hindutva, is a deeply poisoned chalice. It will do almost nothing to address the real issues that arise from caste inequities. It will once again sell snake oil in the name of social justice. Its moral logic shares more with the majoritarianism it seeks to combat. And it is politically imprudent. Even if it brings short-term gains, its long term political logic will be self-defeating.

India needs strong affirmative action programmes, particularly for Dalits, and some deeply marginalised sections of OBCs. But post-Mandal, the logic of social justice discourse has rarely focused on the ethical issues of discrimination, the agenda of creating economic growth that is inclusive, or of creating a state and public institutions that deliver the material basis for dislodging the inequities of caste. Instead, social justice has been reduced to a simple formula of the distribution of government largesse based on officially reified caste identities. “Jitni aabadi utna haq” is admittedly just a slogan. The obvious question is: On what basis is the division of the population being measured? And over what goods will this distributive logic apply? The answer seems to be caste: That the logic of numbers should be used to relax the already flimsy 50 per cent cap on reservations so that a larger OBC population can be accommodated. And second, that this category can be appropriately subdivided in light of social progress communities might or might not have made over the last few decades.

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Then there is the tricky question of over which goods this distributive logic applies, besides education and government jobs? Will this criteria apply to the private sector and all private economic activity? If this is the case, then the policy will be deeply unsettling. We need an inclusive economy. It is a mistake to think that such an inclusive economy can be legislated into existence by measuring the share of officially created caste groups and then distributing largesse according to it. If not, is this then just about expanding and redesigning the distributive logic for OBCs in the government sector? If that is the case there is nothing new to this. But neither is this social justice.

The most important things that are required for social justice do not require caste data. Making quality education available to all, the creation of public goods in which all can participate, the design of welfare or other cash support schemes, the best mix of subsidies and income enhancing measures, and most importantly, an expanding economy that creates mobility do not require the framework of caste. The mistake of the social justice agenda was that it forgot Ambedkar’s lesson that to effectively attack caste you have to (for the most part) strongly but indirectly attack the range of material deprivations that make its logic so insidious. Second, we have to express the blunt truth on so much of what went under the name of social justice politics in North India.

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In my years of dealing with higher education, it was rare to come across a social justice party that shed a single tear for the decimation of public education or the destruction of universities. But all their social justice outrage was focused on the one single point of reservations. So in Bihar you got the RJD that, for all its tapping into the politics of dignity, decimated the governance structures that could have empowered marginalised groups. In UP, under the garb of social justice agenda, we tolerated parties that had little interest in governing. What was called the deepening of democracy in North India did not lead to deepening of governance or inclusive growth.

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This agenda shares an elective affinity with Hindutva politics. Like that politics it has an air of fantasy about it. It sidelined and appropriated a history specific to Dalits and made it its own. It seeks as a cure for the ills of actual social injustice a set of policies that do little to address it. Indeed the rhetoric of OBC mobilisation often obscures the complexity of how backwardness is produced. Second, it reduces politics to a numbers game. The expansion of OBC reservation, which is the not so unsubtle subtext of this policy, is simply a new form of majoritarian politics, often done at the behest of dominant caste groups. It may be less deadly than Hindutva but it is majoritarian nevertheless. And finally, like Hindutva it has an obsession with compulsory identities. Caste, as historically practised, was an oppressive form of a compulsory identity. But this is a project that wants to re-inscribe that sense of compulsory identity, now through officially sanctioned categories, and then have smaller caste groups fight over a few small fish. In a subtle sense, it also collapses reason into identity. Social justice now means only one thing — how dominant OBC mobilisation defines it.

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This agenda is also politically self-defeating. Social engineering has not gone away. But one of the few silver linings in Indian politics is that so many chief ministers have held on to power because of governance and welfare coalitions. Many state governments have been innovating — Andhra in cash transfer, West Bengal in rural health, Odisha across a range of goods. The Congress in Rajasthan has staked a lot on health, as the AAP did on education in Delhi. But if the most visible plank of the motley coalition of opposition leaders is not their ability to project the capacity to effectively govern together, but a plank of doubtful economic consequence, they will obscure their own achievements. There is also something odd in thinking that projecting political unity on the basis of social division is a winning formula.

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But in a deeper psychological sense this new social justice agenda represents a narrow and deeply pessimistic politics. It underestimates that caste and communal politics can be aligned and are not antithetical to each other. It cedes the space on matters of truly national importance to the BJP. And it is a measure of how low our expectations are that we can present caste majoritarianism as the paradise that will be the answer to the hell of communal politics.

The writer is Contributing Editor, The Indian Express

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