Fight over caste threatens India's economic reform plans

Business

The government does not have a parliamentary majority and relies on support from the SP as well as its bitter rival, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which draws its support from low caste dalits, formerly know as untouchables.

"We will vote against the bill. We want similar reservation for OBCs and minorities. The bill in the present form would divide society," SP general secretary Mohan Singh said.

The chaos in parliament underlines the problems the government will face in coming months as it tries to balance the conflicting demands of allies in order to pass the economic reforms and big ticket welfare programs ahead of general elections due in early 2014.

The upper house is expected to vote later in the day on a constitutional amendment to allow the affirmative action measure. SP leader Mulayam Singh has threatened to withdraw support from the government over the caste bill, which is supported by most other parties.

However, analysts say the SP may be reluctant to withdraw support totally from the government because of a legal investigation into Singh's assets. At the weekend the party accused the ruling coalition of blackmailling him with the threat of further investigation by a federal agency.

Sixty years after independence for Britain, issues around caste still play a major role in India n politics, with leaders from the dalit castes - formerly called untouchables - fighting for quotas for sought-after government jobs.

Both Mahatma Gandhi and India 's 1949 constitution sought to unravel the caste system, but the identity politics of quotas has become a powerful electoral tool for parties across the spectrum, affirming rather than abolishing stratification.

The idea of preferentially promoting people from low castes through the civil service, not just reserving some jobs for them, is particularly controversial and was opposed even by the dalit politician responsible for crafting the constitution, B. R. Ambedkar.

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