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Sonia punctures caste quota balloon
Cong chief snubs Dwivedi, rules out rethink on reservation for backwards

New Delhi, Feb. 5: As Congress leaders wondered whether senior general secretary Janardan Dwivedi’s statement against caste-based reservation was a trial balloon, Sonia Gandhi aimed a shot and blew whatever it was into smithereens.

“There should be no doubt or ambiguity on the stand of the Congress on the system of reservation for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Castes. They were introduced by the Congress, have been strengthened by the Congress and they will continue to be championed by the Congress,” she said in an exhaustive statement in the evening.

That left no room for ambiguity but the Congress president chose to recall in detail all the measures the party has taken in the past decades to uplift the socially discriminated castes.

“The Congress is of the firm opinion that the system of reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs must continue. This is essential to deal with the discrimination imposed by centuries of subjugation and oppression,” Sonia said.

The prompt response came after an assessment that the perception of a rethink on caste-based reservation would destroy the party’s electoral chances. A large number of senior leaders had angrily raised the issue with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, asking them to clear the air without losing time.

Although the social media — often accused of being disconnected from ground reality — and some upper caste leaders hailed Dwivedi, his interviews to news agencies came as a bolt from the blue to a party grappling with too many odds at election time after a strong 10-year anti-incumbency.

PTI had quoted Dwivedi as saying: “Caste-based reservation should have come to an end. Why it did not happen so far was because vested interests got involved. Does the real needy person even among the Dalits and backward castes get the benefits of reservation? Those in the upper crust of these communities only avail the benefits. There is a difference between social justice and casteism. The concept of social justice has now turned into casteism... I believe there is a need to dismantle this.”

He added: “Reservation on the basis of economic condition of people should be talked about. Rahulji is the future leader of the Congress. Only one who rises above all this and breaks the boundaries of caste and communalism will be the future leader of the country.”

Dwivedi chose to speak to PTI and ANI to ensure maximum coverage. Later, he explained that he was not opposed to special measures for backwards but was only suggesting that caste should not be the sole criterion for reservation.

Because of the general perception that Dwivedi is a member of the inner coterie, most Congress leaders presumed that Rahul was toying with the idea of tweaking the existing reservation system and this would be reflected in the manifesto for 2014.

The Congress Working Committee resolution of 1990 was also cited by some to justify this position but these leaders forgot that Rahul has a different approach to the caste system in India than his father Rajiv Gandhi. No Congress leader in the past has stressed the need for social justice within the party system and in the country as Rahul has done.

In fact, there is a perception in some sections of the Congress that Rahul is overdoing caste engineering; they point out that no state unit chief in the entire country except Bengal’s Pradeep Bhattacharya is a Brahmin. The only Brahmin chief minister, Vijay Bahuguna in Uttarakhand, was removed a few days ago.

But Rahul is determined to change the Congress, which has been viewed as a party of upper castes, at least in terms of leadership. Invitation to the deprived sections of the society is at the very crux of Rahul’s pet project to open up the system.

Sonia’s statement today said: “Empowerment of the SCs, STs and OBCs has been an article of faith with the Congress. It is the Congress that introduced the system of reservation for SCs and STs in government employment and educational institutions as well as elected bodies way back in the early 1950s. It is the Congress that introduced reservations for OBCs in the mid-1990s and later.”

She further clarified: “In 2009 Lok Sabha election manifesto, the Congress had pledged to carve out reservation for economically weaker sections of all communities without prejudice to existing reservations for SCs, STs and OBCs. A dialogue on this has already been initiated.”

The Congress president also recalled other steps the party had taken, including promotions, scholarship, business, budgetary allocations and reservation in the private sector.

The forceful statement seeks to undo the damage caused by the fierce speculation Dwivedi’s interview had triggered but many in the party continued to wonder why the senior leader who has never spoken out of turn chose to give this interview.

While most leaders spoke on condition of anonymity, Ajit Jogi, who heads the party’s ST department, issued a statement demanding immediate rejection of Dwivedi’s suggestions. The party’s SC department chief, K. Raju, too was reported to be unhappy and raised the matter with Rahul.

Party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said: “It is Dwivedi’s personal opinion. The Congress continues to adhere to, subscribe to and support the existing reservation policy.”

While some leaders demanded action against the general secretary, others felt his regular interaction with the media should be curbed. Dwivedi, who on behalf of the party has pulled up innumerable leaders for speaking without authorisation in the past, particularly his fellow general secretary Digvijaya Singh, now ironically stands in the dock himself.