Ministers have used reserved jobs as an enticement to lure lower-caste voters Affirmative action - intended to help India's lowest castes move up the social ladder after centuries of subjugation - has been turned on its head by cynical politicians. An election in Rajasthan in May showed how upper castes - who have traditionally done the subjugating - have been benefiting from affirmative action intended to give a leg up to the lower castes. Affirmative action, which dates back to the 1950s, has degenerated into a cynical tool for politicians to win votes. As a piece of social engineering, reserving about 27 per cent of government jobs, legislature seats and university places for lower castes was a well-reasoned policy. Without this boost, how would Dalits, or untouchables and other lower castes ever make good in life after being systematically excluded from education and jobs? But over time, politicians have perverted the spirit of the reserved jobs to win votes and advance their own careers. In 1990, for example, prime minister V.P. Singh, worried about losing the support of the backward peasant castes, dusted off an old report, known as the Mandal Report, that recommended a near-doubling of reservations to 52 per cent. The upper castes howled with fury. Then, political parties seeking easy popularity decided that a reasonably prosperous caste - Jat farmers - should also be eligible for reservations. Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot is just the latest politician to use the same weapon. In the run-up to state elections in November, he decreed in May that the poor among the upper castes will now be entitled to 14 per cent of state jobs. What the latest controversy has thrown up is the wider question of whether affirmative action has been successful in improving the lot of India's most wretched citizens. Hard data is scarce, for surprisingly few studies have been conducted. 'The available evidence suggests that while reservations have given the lowest castes more social mobility and greater access to education, the biggest beneficiaries have been the better off within these castes,' says analyst Yogendra Yadav. Those most in need continue to remain excluded. There has certainly been no social revolution, no creation of a new level playing field. High-caste Hindus complain about suffering from 'reverse discrimination', but Brahminical hegemony survives. Brahmins still dominate the civil service, the armed forces, the corporate world, culture, the media and even the Indian cricket team. 'Brahmins have shown an unexpected degree of resilience,' says sociologist Dhirubhai Sheth of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. A recent survey showed they occupied 42 per cent of top civil service jobs. In the civil service, Brahmins grumble about the 'appalling' incompetence of low-caste colleagues who got their jobs through quotas rather than merit. Supporters of reservations say Brahmins have benefited from centuries of practice in learning and doing well, while the lower castes have been left in the dark. 'The first generation of low-caste students and civil servants may be struggling but it will be easier for the second generation,' said Satish Deshpande of the Institute of Economic Growth. The only revolution of sorts has been political - the emergence of powerful low-caste parties in north India claiming to represent the interests of Dalits and other deprived groups. Ironically, though, this has led to a reinforcement of caste identities rather than a less caste-conscious society. Low-caste voters vote for low-caste politicians purely because they belong to the same caste. Some Indians are dismayed that dalit leaders have focused on job quotas rather than on fighting to change the culture and society that breed contempt for the low castes and perpetuate social injustice. They fear the upper castes may consequently have the last laugh, because the public sector is shrinking through privatisations and there is no reservation system in private enterprise. This realisation has alarmed Dalit leaders such as Udit Raj, who now want reservations in private-sector jobs too. 'By the time dalits get to enjoy their time in the sun, there might be nothing left,' he says.