If the Congress Party had chosen to emulate the Samajwadi Party, the RJD and the Shiv Sena and declared itself against the very idea of an all-powerful Lokpal, it would have earned the grudging respect of many Indians. That the heart and soul of the Congress is not with a truly draconian Lokpal Bill as favoured by Anna Hazare and his sanctimonious claque is an open secret. It is also understandable that the Congress doesn’t want to take any effective steps that would make its use of discretionary powers answerable to some empowered ombudsman. Having exercised power for too long, the Congress genuinely believes that it is the natural party of government. It is wary of curbs to its authority and, worse, an injection of the principle of accountability.
 
Subterfuge has been the Congress’ signature tune in dealing with the unexpected euphoria around Anna Hazare and his Jan Lokpal proposals. From trying to intimidate Anna, to launching its dirty tricks campaign, the Congress did its utmost to see that the movement against corruption didn’t become a prairie fire. In this endeavour they were partially successful: thanks to unending prevarication and foot dragging, the Lokpal issue became somewhat of a bore.
 
The Congress manoeuvres against the Lokpal proposals were a part and parcel of politics. People may or may not have like it but few could deny that it was part of a normal political game—and the reason why politics is regarded as ethically suspect. Last Thursday, however, the Congress went a step too far. In seeking to divert attention from the inadequacies of the Lokpal Bill introduced in Parliament, the party proffered the mother of all distractions: a quota-based Lokpal.
 
Those familiar with history will recall that V.P. Singh announced the implementation of the Mandal Commission report in 1990 because he wanted to puncture a mammoth Kisan rally that Devi Lal had convened in Delhi. A momentous decision with far-reaching consequences was taken on the flimsiest of reasons. This time too, the founding fathers’ abhorrence of organising public life on religious lines—they had just experienced the devastation of Partition—was casually discarded because the Congress wants to come in third place in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election.
 
The results of springing the quota rabbit from the top hat were exactly as the Congress intended. The focus shifted from corruption and the ways to fight it to identity politics, particularly the issue of religion-based reservation for minorities. The BJP went ballistic over the minority quota whereas Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Yadav forgot their objections to Lokpal and embraced the return of the Communal Award. Read with the introduction of the 4.5 per cent quota for minorities from the 27 per cent OBC share of reserved jobs and college admissions, last Thursday was a landmark in contemporary history. It was the day the political assumptions of the 1950 Constitution were thrown overboard by a cynical political class.
 
It is possible that the formal introduction of religious quotas may take a while. There is certain to be a judicial challenge to the Cabinet decision and this in turn will have a bearing on the final shape of the Lokpal Bill. The Mandal Commission too took many years before the implementation got under way and the Muslim quota (let’s face it, it’s really about a Muslim quota) will probably be the subject of prolonged litigation and, maybe, even a Constitution Amendment.
 
The passage of the proposal will be protracted but what is not in any serious doubt is that a clear majority of MPs favour minority reservations and will be reluctant to oppose it in public. In short, the ideological and political battle over religion-based quotas has been lost even before the battle has begun.
 
The reasons are well known. For the past decade at least politicians in the Muslim community have mounted a spirited campaign for Muslim reservations on the grounds of natural justice. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the proposal, what is extremely clear is that those who favour it are better organised to leverage their numbers during elections. Tactical voting has given the Muslim community a clout disproportionate to their numbers.
 
On the other hand, there is nothing that can actually be called a countervailing Hindu vote. Although the Ayodhya years were an exception, Hindus by and large are disinclined to vote as Hindus—they vote along class, caste and other lines but not on the basis of their Hindu identity. This naturally means that canny politicians don’t have to really bother about any reaction to minority appeasement strategies. The Muslim vote is far more purposeful.

Unless nationalist India awakens from its slumber, the country is faced with a potentially divisive agenda. If the religious quota secures judicial and political approval, it will only be a matter of time before there are demands for religious quotas in the judiciary, the UPSC, Comptroller and Auditor General’s office and even university departments. To talk of the balkanisation of India is woefully premature but it would be safe to assume that the emotional balkanisation process is in an advanced state. There is an Indian identity that still holds its own, but it is only a matter of time before particularist identities overwhelms it.

 

I hope I am horribly wrong, but for India, the Lokpal Bill may turn out to be a costly misadventure.

 

(The author is a senior journalist)