Policies and Politics of Social Justice

I am posting here the gist of 28th JP Memorial Lecture delivered on 23 March 2008 at Gandhi Peace Foundation, Delhi, by Professor Yogendra Yadav of CSDS. I read the text of this lecture in The Radical Humanist, May 2008 issue, which does not have an online presence. I found the lecture offering a new perspective on the contemporary debate on reservations and affirmative action.


Policies and Politics of social justice have reached a dead-end in contemporary India. While policies of social justice refer to the entire gamut of affirmative action policies, politics of social justice is usually identified with political parties like the BSP, the SP or the PMK OR the DMK. Whatever be the exact outcome of the next general elections, it is certain that the next government will include parties committed to social justice agenda. In all probability either the Left or the BSP or both, formations committed to the same agenda, will emerge as the pivotal player in the next Lok Sabha.

The apparent ubiquity of politics and policies of social justice is a pointer to their dead-end. If the language and legacy of social justice has a wide presence in our public life today it is because social justice has turned into a thin foil that can be used to wrap virtually any substance. The success of politics of social justice has become limited to the accession of leaders from dalit communities to governmental power. The policies of social justice are confined to effective implementation of reservations in government jobs.

The electoral requirement to gain plurality of votes has led to an imperative to create social coalitions. Most social justice parties either face fragmentation or co-option. In either case their capacity to use state power to push policies of substantive social transformation is very limited. Rather than annihilitation of the caste system, much of the politics of social justice ends up drawing upon if not reinforcing the same caste system.

In the Mandal II debate, the dead-end of the policies of social justice was quite visible. In the face of a very aggressive media-led anti-reservation campaign, the pro-reservationists were clearly on the defensive, not just because they were outnumbered and out-shouted in the elite circles, but because they did not have fresh and robust arguments. Policies of social justice are increasingly weak in the moral and ideological contestation for legitimacy. The policies have proven particularly fragile in dealing with challenges that arise from within.

Thinking about social justice must not be restricted to the arena of state. Besides state power, politics of social justice needs to be aware of and encompass social institutions, institutionalised religion and market. The success of affirmative action policies and politics had little impact on the social character of other power centres like the media or the NGOs. It is time that politics and policy of social justice focussed its energies on the private sector that represents the largest arena of economic opportunities.

Any attempt to change the unjust social order must begin by looking at the cumulative impact of these multiple inequalities. The current practice of identifying the beneficiaries of affirmative action with reference to a community or a similar identity needs to give way to an evidence based approach. Social justice need not reject relevance of ability, effort and choices to life prospects. Reservation in one form or another should be used as a measure of the last resort, rather than the first or the only tool of social justice. The existing system of reservations, which remains valuable and robust, needs to be fine-tuned.

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1 comment
  • This lecture deserves a wider attention. Can you request Prof.Yogendra Yadav for permission to publish the full lecture in this blog. Given the topic of the lecture it would be better if it appears in publications like Outlook or Tehelka.