Caste trumps merit for political dividends in India
Passions are running high in parliament and the stakes are huge. The contentious issue of reservation is back to haunt Indian politics and it may well decide who runs the next government in the world’s largest democracy. Sparks were seen flying in the upper house on Wednesday when two MPs from rival parties came to blows during the tabling of a bill to amend the Constitution, providing for reservations in promotions at work for backward castes.
The issue, however, is nothing new. Reservation is a recurring theme in India’s democracy. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s embattled government seems to be returning to identity politics at a time when it is badly cornered, thanks to a string of corruption scandals, a ballooning fiscal deficit and low investor sentiment.
The move comes after the Supreme Court in April struck down former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s policy of a promotion quota in government service.
It also comes at a time India is seeing something of an upsurge in communal tensions that seem to have been stoked by political parties — witness the Bodo-Muslim violence in the northeast, which the BJP has linked to illegal immigration, a favourite fallback of politicians around the world when they are short on ideas and achievements. At the other end of the country, in Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has been stirring sentiment against Sri Lankans.
While affirmative action is recognised in several countries and even gender quotas for woman have been debated in Europe, the multiplicity of religious, cultural, caste and class identities in the world’s second most populous country make it a complex issue.
Reservation in jobs and educational institutions for the underprivileged in a country where the caste system reduced millions to the status of untouchables for centuries is much needed. And almost all opposition to reservation comes from the so-called higher castes who believe it isn’t fair to them.
A promotion quota is, however, a different ball game. After getting a job, shouldn’t all employees be given an equal opportunity to learn, prove themselves and move high up the organisational ladder? As it is, the practice of promoting employees on the basis of seniority — the case with almost all government service promotions — is an archaic idea. Add to it the reservation in promotions and it becomes a heady cocktail of low productivity and mismanagement.
Having a promotional quota is like giving more marks to a student who had already been admitted to college on a reserved seat. If the premise of reservation is social justice and equality, special treatment at work carries the danger of widening the social divide between ‘low-caste’ and ‘high-caste’ colleagues.
India’s former untouchables, known as Dalits, have proven themselves in all walks of life. But is it not part of our larger societal responsibility to help those still burdened with jobs such as removing animal or human excreta with their bare hands.
Or are Indian politicians trying to say that the relatives of Dalits who have made it big — such as Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Mayawati and Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde — need reservations for promotions at work?
Reservation begets more reservation; give it to one group and another begins haggling for it. Last year, the Jat community in Haryana went on the rampage demanding more reservations.
Playing the populist card to regain political mileage before the 2014 elections may or may not work for the ruling Congress but politicians need to understand that the principle of reservation, no matter how positive, carries a date of expiry. Keep using it and it may self-destruct, striking at the foundations of a secular India.