Politics, said a famous economist, is not always the art of the possible. More often than not, it compels those in the business to choose between the disastrous and the unpalatable. Such an unwholesome choice now threatens to upset the calculations of both the BJP and Congress in poll-bound Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

That every effort would be made by the anti-saffron phalanx to stir the caste cauldron in the coming polls had been anticipated all along after the experiment in Gujarat. This time, however, the cookie threatens not to crumble along expected lines, putting the national parties in an unforeseen dilemma.

For a change, the rebellion brewing seems both worthy and reasonable. This is regardless of the fact that it is being driven top-down rather than bottom-up, which the BJP’s enemies had hoped. That the backlash has no political face is both a weakness and a strength. But what cannot be doubted is the credibility of the issues raised by the Samanya Picchda Evam Alpsangkhyak Varg Adhikari Karmachari Sangh (SAPAKS) spearheading the agitation against the latent injustices contained in the clauses of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill. Tempers have flared over the Centre’s ordinance restoring the status quo ante after the Supreme Court struck down the provision to arrest an alleged offender under the Bill without as much as a preliminary inquiry or possibility of bail. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

SAPAKS, though a body of government employees, claims to have the backing of 116 outfits of assorted hues and interests spread all over Madhya Pradesh. Quite apart from savarna (upper caste) formations like the Karni Sena and Brahmin Samaj, religious, farming, labour, and trade interests have also thrown their lot in. The OBC backing has given the movement a further heft. The Gwalior-Chambal valley, the Vindhyas, and Bundelkhand regions have been smarting over the Bill’s biases. The home of Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar in Gwalior was gherao-ed, and black flags flashed before three State ministers from the area. Both MPCC chief Kamal Nath and the party’s election manager Jyotiraditya Scindia had to put up with angry protests during their stumping rounds. Several State ministers were compelled to cancel poll-related engagements.

The Shivraj Singh Chouhan regime’s proposal of reservation in promotions in government jobs has raised the hackles further. Though upper caste employees stand to be the main sufferers, OBCs are equally affected since they too fall outside the ambit of the proposition. Though the apex court has reserved its judgment on the special leave petition filed by the State government against the order of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, matters could get out of hand in case the judgment goes against their interests. Work in the State secretariat has already been affected. Interested sections are sharpening their knives for a prolonged struggle.

SAPAKS convenor Hiralal Trivedi, a superannuated IAS officer, is convinced of the strength of their cause. The law’s anti-atrocity provisions, he says, are atrocious. Show me a single law, he argues, anywhere in the world where people can be arrested merely on the basis of a complaint. A couple of people could be talking among themselves in private. Any mischief monger can go to the police and complain that he had overheard someone spitting out a caste slur! In fact, you cannot even refer to SCs as Harijans, the term’s Gandhian antecedents notwithstanding.

The body, says Trivedi, is not against quotas for SCs/STs per se, but wants them rationalised and humanised in keeping with the demands of equity and justice. The system cannot be self-perpetuating as has been the case since inception. Successive generations of a single family cannot — and should not — be allowed the benefits of reservations. Once someone has entered government service and got his/her comeuppance in life, his children cannot complain of deprivation and claim quota. Competing with others as equals should then be the norm.

The advantage should accrue to the claimant just once in his career, that is at the point of entry, he argues. Nothing can be more unfair than the introduction of quota in promotions where merit alone ought to be the criteria. Imagine the plight of an officer from the general category who enters service at the same time as another from the reserved class, but is compelled to report to the latter due to such a preferential policy. Politicking on these issues can only widen the social divide and deepen unrest.

Trivedi says he is in touch with like-minded bodies in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The response has been encouraging. SAPAKS will, if necessary, put up candidates in all 230 seats of MP in the coming polls. Depending on how things unfold, spreading the movement to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana is on the cards. It’s time all national parties gave the matter the importance it deserves. Enough is enough, he warns.