In a move widely talked about for the past five years but only now coming to fruition, India has introduced quotas for Muslims in government jobs and educational institutions operated by the government.
With the move, the largest minority in India receives a 4.5 percent reservation in the broader quota meant for economically and socially marginalized communities, known as Other Backward Classes (OBC). Indian law provides a 27 percent reservation to the OBCs.
The National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, set up in 2007 after the submission of the Sachar Committee report, recommended that 15 percent of government jobs be reserved for religious and linguistic minorities, who are extremely under-represented in government jobs.
The Indian government had been largely silent over the report, but with the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh drawing near, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance has decided to partially implement the suggestion.
Some Muslim organizations have criticized the government for what many consider a token gesture, while others have called for an increase of the quota to 7 percent to allow for a more effective intervention.
Political analysts believe that the revival of the Congress Party in the nation’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, which has 80 seats in the lower house of parliament, is largely dependent on the support of the millions of Muslims in the state, who make up almost 20 percent of its population.
The grand old party of India has been in the political wilderness in UP for more than two decades, not least because of the shift of votes among Muslim and marginalized castes away from the Congress. By offering affirmative action for religious minorities the Congress clearly intends to break this pattern. In the 2009 general elections, it was largely due to the support of the Muslims that the Congress managed to win 22 seats and emerge as the second-largest party in the state. By offering the sop of reservation, it clearly wants to consolidate its gains.
Muslims in India have traditionally been supporters of the Congress, but grew disillusioned after the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. The minority blamed the Congress for succumbing to pressure from Hindu rightist groups, complaining that Congress had allowed them to demolish the 16th century religious structure.
If the Congress were to succeed in Uttar Pradesh, the biggest losers would be regional parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP). These two parties survive on the marginalization of the Congress, and have in recent years shared the support of economically and socially marginalized communities, including Muslims. The upper caste vote has traditionally gone to the rightist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).
The UPA’s decision could therefore have long lasting consequences, especially for regional parties. Success for Congress will mean the marginalization of regional parties in the most crucial state. The BJP, which has also been the beneficiary of the Congress’ decline, is now fighting to retain its identity in the state, which has often reflected its national ambitions. The party has used religion to gain a foothold in the state and win the support of the upper and middle castes in UP. But the BJP’s divisive brand of politics has started to wear thin.
If the under fire Congress gets what it is hoping for with its quota plan, it may succeed in redrawing the country’s political landscape.