India’s Hindu caste quotas edge towards private companies
The issue of redressing the imbalance of Hinduism’s ancient caste system by creating job and college entry quotas for lower caste and other disadvantaged groups in India seems to be gaining headway in an election year. Now it may be the turn for private industry.
Parties across India’s political spectrum appear to be seeing caste-based reservations, as the quotas are known, as potential vote winners. It is a sign again that caste consciousness will become ever more important in what in theory is a secular Indian state.
Now multinationals enjoying the fruits of an Indian economic boom may find they are not immune. Much to the horror of many industrialists worried about their international competitiveness.
India’s Supreme Court has already this year upheld a government policy to reserve about half of all state college seats for students from lower castes, in what some call the world’s biggest affirmative action scheme.
Then, the Indian Express quoted on TuesdayHindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary Gopinath Munde as demanding quotas for lower castes in private companies. His comments were not endorsed officially, but the caste issue was out of the bag for a party that could well win the next general election. The Hindu nationalists’ election strategists must realise they could win millions of votes with such policies before a general election due by early 2009.
Turn a few pages of the Indian Expressand there is a full-page advert for Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, known as the “Queen of the Untouchables” and the potential “king maker” in the next general elections. Celebrating her first year in power, she proudly espouses her move to introduce quotas to private companies participating in state partnerships in her state, India’s most populous. It was the first prominent policy in India to include private business into the quota system.
I recently returned from Bangalore covering the Karnataka state election in southern India where the Janata Dal (S), the main regional party, made headlines by proposing to reserve about a third of seats in IT companies in Bangalore for local Karnataka residents.
IT multinationals are currently free to hire from anywhere in India — a policy that has increasingly annoyed many local Karnataka residents. Karnataka has its own language and many feel they are discriminated against as highly-educated Indians move to their state to work .
Most leading businesses have shunned the idea of quotas, worried it will worsen their competiveness in a global market, especially in the fast moving world of IT.
For those that think that all this talk of caste quotes in private industry is just small parties playing politics, remember it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a 2006 speech, who first raised the spectre of quotas in private industry.
He then called on companies to take voluntary action to help lower castes get jobs, a statement at the time widely seen as a warning to India’s booming business sector to act or face possible legislation.
India’s economy may be booming, but this debate highlights how these religious and social issues of inclusiveness could dictate the election campaign. And then companies may find they are not immune to the issues of caste and Hinduism, no matter how proud they are of their global branding.