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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.

Ajay Gandhi


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
Justice Thomas.

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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