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Article on Quotas
Read a good article by Swaminathan Sanklesaria Aiyar in The Economic
Times. Follows a transcript of the article which I thought the Forum
members will find interesting.
INDIA NEEDS A VOICE AGAINST QUOTAS
by Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar
INDIAN politics is about quotas. We have demands for a quota for
Parliamentary seats for women, a sub-quota for backward caste
women, job reservations for backward Muslims and Dalit
Now, granting reverse discrimination is a form of social
progress, a recognition of the need to correct historical wrongs.
But real progress is better indicated by a rebellion of the
beneficiaries of reservation. Such a rebellion is beginning in
the USA among black Americans, some of them now view racial
quotas as an insult to their abilities, as institutionalising
them as second-raters.
Leading this rebellion is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
His uncompromising criticism of racial quotas has enraged other
blacks, who call him a traitor. Thomas was invited to address
the National Bar Association's annual convention this week, but
many black members of the Association voted to withdraw the
invitation, while others walked out.
Fellow blacks, especially those in his own profession, have spent
their lives campaigning for racial quotas. They argue that,
despite much progress in the last three decades, racism continues
to be a major problem. So they are appalled by Thomas's long-
standing objections to affirmative action. As chairman of the
Equal Rights commission in 1984, he described traditional black
activists as people who "moan and moan, whine and whine".
In his convention speech this week, Thomas deplored those who see
"the racial divide as a permanent state", those who "establish
the range of our thinking and our opinions, if not our deeds, by
our colour. I have come here today to asseert my right to think
for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me as though I
was an intellectual slave because I am black".
Thomas believes the way to end racism is to view all human beings
as one entity, not to institutionalise racial divides. He is not
the only black rebel. Reverse discrimination has helped create a
significant, prosperous black middle class. Yet having attained
this status, the same blacks find racial quotas a hindrance.
They wanted to be viewed as having risen on their own merit, yet
are constantly seen as handicapped persons who have risen because
of their colour. So, what began as a device to diminish the
worst forms of racism has unwittingly led to a new form of
Black intellectuals like Thomas Sowell and Glenn Loury have long
stressed the need to go beyond the reservation syndrome if blacks
are to progress. Even Jessee Jackson, the former Presidential
candidate, now says many of the problems faced by blacks are of
their own making and that it is time to address these. He has
exhorted blacks to strive for better education and family values
(up to 70 per cent black children are born out of wedlock and
this factor alone is a huge handicap). Recently, Jesse Jackson
launched a campaign called the Wall Street Project to increase
black ownership of (and influence over) stock and bond markets.
Earlier, the absence of black investment in stock markets was
interpreted as a lack of money. But it persists, despite the
rise of a prosperous black middle class, and now looks like black
reluctance to enter a traditional white man's zone.
Jackson says that the financial markets are where the real power
lies, not in government jobs and quotas. His aim is not to upend
white managements. "You can block the track, but that is only
negative power. Suppose you could convince the man who owns the
track that you have a deal that could benefit him with more
customers, that if his train stops at certain places they'll
build towns in those places and bring him more customers and
investors." This is a vision of blacks and whites as partners,
not rivals. No wonder his project has the backing of President
Clinton and Fed chairman Alan Greenspan.
Old time radicals like Malcom X would have condemned this as a
sell-out. Martin Luther King would probably have called it
premature. But the US has moved on since the days of Martin
Luther King and Malcom X. Racial quotas served a very important
purpose once. But redneck southerners no longer represent white
reality for blacks. Civil rights for all are now universally
recognised and the US now has black mayors and police chiefs
galore. Racism continues but blacks now have opportunities to
rise and some (like Thomas) want to rise on the basis of merit
rather than racial quotas.
What are the lessons for India? I wonder why we have no rebels
against quotas like Thomas. After 50 years of quotas, Harijans
still suffer some discrimination, yet the old untouchability is
virtually gone. Reservation has put many of them in Parliament,
the bureaucracy and the police. They now have their own
political party. Like American blacks, Harijans have gained a
limited measure of empowerment. But unlike in the US, no Harijan
leader calls for ending quotas. They are like Malcom X, not
Backward castes are not a persecuted minority, they constitute
the majority. Historically, they suffered caste oppression. But
democracy has converted their advantage in numbers into enormous
political clout, far exceeding anything enjoyed by blacks in the
US. Job reservation has been in force for over 60 years in South
India, and supposed backward castes like Vokkaligas and Lingayats
are now dominant castes. Yet we hear demands for more
reservation, not less.
The original aim of reservation was to abolish casteism. While
the old casteism is indeed disappearing, it has been replaced by
a new, 20th century version of casteism. No longer is caste an
upper caste weapon of domination. It is now a sectarian tool
used by every caste to demand a share of the loot and patronage
that characterises politics and the bureaucracy.
What accounts for the big difference between India and the US?
Why do we see black rebels favouring meritocracy in the US but no
caste rebels in India?
Some will say social progress in India has been too slow to throw
up Thomas like rebels. I disagree. South India threw out
Brahmin domination long ago.
The real reason is that merit matters much more in the US.
Notwithstanding shortcomings, that country gives both opportunity
and justice to talented newcomers.
Venture capital and vibrant markets enable new entrepreneurs like
Bill Gates to take on and beat the most powerful multinationals
like IBM. The biggest corporations have to keep restructuring
themselves to survive competition from upstarts.
Moreover, the justice system works, penalising even the rich and
powerful. Remember Michael Deaver, who was as close to president
Reagan as, say, Amar Singh was to Mulayam Singh Yadav. When
Deaver left the Reagan Administration and returned to his old
profession of public relations, he stepped over some technical
lines. He was promptly jailed for peddling influence. His old
pal, the president, did not lift a finger to save him.
Can you imagine this happening in India where politics is nothing
if not influence peddling? Can you imagine the former United
Front government prosecuting Amar Singh for influence peddling,
or Mulayam refusing to interfere?
No, and here lies the big difference between India and the US.
Despite some economic liberalisation, India continues to be a
place where outcomes are decided mainly by money, muscle and
influence. They are not decided mainly by merit. As long as
this is so, you will not see the emergence of Justice Thomases
pleading that meritocracy is a better route to social justice
than quotas. As long as advancement depends on money, muscle and
influence, people will view quotas as a way of maximising all
To improve the cause of meritocracy, we need three things.
First, administrative reform to make civil servants accountable.
Second, to put all violators of laws, no matter how powerful,
behind bars. Third, continued economic liberalisation that
enables new entrepreneurs to beat entrenched businessmen. The
task looks monumental, yet is essential.
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