Sunday, June 4, 2006

The Reservation Debate & The Tyranny of Indian Polity


India's leaders has forever played politics along two dimensions – the religious/caste divide and the economic divide. Attempts to bridge them have been few and far between. On the contrary, steps that further divide them have created factions that can never find consensus for wholesome development and progress. Politicians elsewhere play their ‘politics’ too, but rarely have they stood in the way of nation building or promoted division along the lines of beliefs or economic conditions - two things that people do not choose when they are born.

Consider these:
1. Mrs. Gandhi declares emergency to counter the growing opposition to her and the Congress party in 1975. Congress loses power at the Center for the first time, after 1977 elections
2. Mrs. Gandhi builds up Bhidranwale to weaken the Akalis in Punjab in 1983. Bhidranwale becomes the face of the Punjab rebellion, leading to Operation Bluestar and the killing of Mrs. Gandhi
3. Rajiv Gandhi amends the constitution to invalidate the Shah Bano verdict and woo the Muslim vote in 1986. The Shah Bano issue becomes one of the rallying cries for Hindu mobilisation that would eclipse the Congress later
4. Rajiv Gandhi opens the lock of Babri Masjid in 1986 for worship by Hindu devotees to woo the Hindu vote and balance out the Shah Bano effect in 1986. Babri Masjid becomes the main rallying cry for Hindu mobilisation and the remarkable rise of BJP to power
5. V.P. Singh uses the caste quotas to blunt opposition from Devi Lal and Hindu mobilisation by BJP in 1990. Reservation policy leads to the consolidation of other backward classes in UP and Bihar, but VP Singh and his part pass into oblivion
6. BJP leaders watch joyously as their chief minister in UP facilitates the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992. The Ram Mandir movement loses steam, BJP stumbles out of power in UP
7. BJP's Gujarat CM Narendra Modi condones the mass killing of Muslims in retaliation for the Godhra massacre of 2002, and to consolidate Hindu votes in the next state elections. Modi wins the elections, but the Gujarat violence contributes to the BJP losing the next general elections
8. The Manmohan Singh government plays the caste card again in 2006 to win votes in the coming Uttar Pradesh election and power Rahul Gandhi's entry to Congress. Denouement awaited
[Source: Political masterstrokes and their deouement, Business World, 5 June 2006]

Politicians have debated on the fringes of idealogy, they have voted against racial, religious, and economic prejudices in favour of national interest. Most political battles have been waged on the lines of farm subsidies, foreign policy and so on that protected national interests both in the short term and long term. India's crisis around reservations for 'backward' classes in India is a classic example of the depravity of moral fiber and sectarianism in India's polity. We have become, as one leading industrialist noted "the only country in the world that would fight and demand backwardness". We have enough evidence for the curse that reservations brings:

1) Reservation has brought in substandard work ethos to the country’s workforce. Look at government run schools, institutions or industry. Compare productivity in the public sector (where reservation is honored) and the private sector (where meritocracy is encouraged). Shashi Tharoor in his book "From Midnight to the Millenium" documents that between 92 and 93, of 237 of India's public sector companies in existence, 104 had losses amounting to some 40 billion rupees of the Indian taxpayers money. Most of the remaining 133 companies made only a marginal profit. In the same book Tharoor quotes a March 1996 issue of Time Magazine as saying that the country’s public sector electric utilities alone lost $ 2.2 billion in the preceding twelve months. Today's numbers aren't going to be to startlingly different.

One of the reasons Tharoor cites why the public sector is kept running at losses is to prevent political fallout. On the other hand, India's software firms that believes in meritocracy contributes to more that $ 6 billion in revenue and employment for at least 150,000 people including people from the so-called backward classes. The industry contributes over $ 20 bn to the national exchequer and provides direct employment to over 3.5 million indians, indirect employment for 10 million and wealth for nearly as many indian citizens.

2) Meritorious students and qualified workforce on the other hand from unreserved categories despite being brilliant and meritorious lose their right to work. Reservation will erode the quality of professionals that the country's premier institutions are known to produce - this is a perfect receipe for backtracking the nation. Imagine for a moment the Ivy league institutions in the United States abolishing merit as a criterion for entry into their campuses.

While the country's educated and productive workforce are not against reservations for the econonmically underprivileged, what they are seeking is for the removal of caste and religion as a criterion for reservations. Reservation should be given to people on economic grounds irrespective of caste and creed. Funding primary education. Support two generations of a family below poverty lines. Developed nations have used reservations to protect the interest of the economically priveleged and have only reduced the percentage of protectionism over the years and not increased it. India seems to be going backward all the more.

No self respecting individual would like to be known as belonging to a "backward caste" neither would they want any one (including the govt) to brand them as "backward". Labelling anyone as such is a form of racism. It is a disgrace to a hardworking individual. Under the current reservation policies, there millions of Indians in 'backward' communities enjoying the sops of the government for generations even when they are economically well off and have amassed enough wealth for generations under the banner of reservations. Reservations are not helping the poor even in the backward communities, on the contrary it is helping a few individuals get wealthier and wealthier.

The government has no moral right to impose a policy that has seen so much of opposition especially when a new India is emerging and making a huge impact globally. 50 per cent of India's population is below the age of 25, if the government were to go ahead with the current plans on reservations, it will impacting the future, opportunity and morale of India's youth to develop on the basis of their own merit. The politicians of this generation will have been dead and gone much like their predecessors have from whose legacy and policies India as a nation took years to break free to begin to be seen of some worth in the global arena.

India at this juncture doesn't need protectionism. What India needs is empowerment, fairness and freedom to build capabilities to win in a fiercely competitive global marketplace – be it for employment or for commerce. Instead of dividing India's young people, look for empowering them to out do competition from other nations.

The principles that made India look upwards for the first time since independance after years of protectionism, were not protectionist, sectarian or divisive. Only a culture of meritocracy can bring India a bright future even if a political party or leader loses his or her political career in the short term. Do what is right for the country. We do not need Politicians who sacrifice the prospects of a nation for their own short term personal gains. India's people are our assets and let us do the right thing for the country.

Click here to send this page to a friend

If you enjoyed reading this, consider buying India's Innovation Blueprint