To bridge the great divide

30 May 2006
Achin Vanaik

To bridge the great divide
Achin Vanaik
The Telegraph (Calcutta), 17 May 2006

It is now time to think about how to use different means to deepen and widen social and economic equality in India, writes Achin Vanaik

What should be the response to Arjun Singh’s proposal for 27 per cent OBC quotas in higher education by those who are deeply committed to promoting greater social equality through and beyond measures of affirmative action? One says ‘beyond’ because affirmative action in jobs and tertiary education, though politically necessary and practically helpful, is not the main pathway to the construction of a more egalitarian society. For that, far more foundational changes are required such as a major redistribution of income and wealth generating assets like land, structural reorganization of the public, primary and secondary education systems to ensure quality education, employment-generating policies, and so on.

But this does not mean that affirmative action, though basically a supplement to these far more fundamental measures, is not important. It widens the caste composition of the middle classes and elites, which is a good thing. Even more significantly, it is a constant symbolic reminder that we have gone nowhere far or deep enough in creating a more egalitarian society. Its persistence is a standing affront to right-wing conservatives who argue that the pursuit of equality has gone too far. Though lip service might be paid to the principle of affirmative action, such conservatives are for the weakening or even rapid abandonment of the principle of affirmative action in the name of efficiency and liberty.

There are then two levels at which one must engage with this issue of other backward classes reservations in higher education. There are the specific pros and cons of the proposal, the motives behind it, the effects it is likely to have, and possible superior alternative forms of affirmative action. Then, at a more fundamental level, there is the question of strongly resisting the systematic attack waged by powerful sections of the Indian elite against the sustained pursuit of social equality, which disguises itself behind the tirade against Arjun Singh’s proposal. In this regard, it is extraordinary that there are some who see no contradiction between claiming that they do endorse the principle of affirmative action (though not further reservations) to promote equality and their espousal of an Indian economic agenda clearly neoliberal in its overall thrust.

Neoliberalism creates greater inequalities of income, wealth and power and is justified in the name of higher growth rates and ‘prosperity for all’. It operates with a conception of ‘efficiency-excellence’ that ignores the skewed social distribution of financial material and cultural capital. In all societies, the three most crucial determinants of one’s social position, status and prospects are inheritance, birth, and then, lagging way behind, merit (in that order); where merit must never be measured by the end point reached — how far up one has travelled economically, professionally or academically — but by the distance travelled between one’s starting and end points.

When neoliberals oppose egalitarian measures in the name of ‘defending liberty’, what they have in mind is ‘freedom of choice’ of the individual. But the rights elevated here as being primary are those of the individual as a consumer, not as a citizen or a producer, and they are to be exercised through the‘neutral’ market. It is a ‘freedom’ whose content is inextricably linked to wealth, which gives one the capacity to exercise greatest choice in the marketplace. Not surprisingly, neoliberals are among the strongest advocates of privatization, commodification and monetization of education and healthcare services. Since this Congress-led government is deeply committed to neoliberalism, the current proposal of OBC reservations can quite justifiably be seen as a political gimmick, a way of establishing false egalitarian credentials, and as a way of pushing more upper caste and better-off students into the private tertiary education sector. With some exceptions, entry into private colleges and institutions is not a function of excellence but of money. Even enrolment to public ‘centres of excellence’ such as the IITs and the IIMs and the best government engineering and medical colleges are now filled up by candidates who have taken expensive pre-exam courses in specialized training institutes that have cracked the entrance examination system.

There is an issue of quotas restricting ‘merit-based’ competitive access to good public institutions. But with an ever-expanding private education sector, it is not an argument that can be given anywhere near as much weight as claimed for it. Once it is clear where one stands — against neoliberalism; for foundational changes in the redistribution of income, wealth, power and life chances; for the investment of greater resources in, and more egalitarian restructuring of, the public primary, secondary and tertiary education systems; for unequivocal defence of the principle of affirmative action — then there is certainly a strong case to be made for alternative, more sophisticated forms of affirmative action than OBC quotas.

Mandal I was vital because the stakes then were much higher. It is often forgotten that at the time, influential voices were clamouring for an end to reservations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. Mandal I diverted upper caste attention away from this to the OBCs effectively, protecting affirmative action programmes for SCs and STs. Furthermore, it inaugurated the ‘politics of recognition’ for other lower castes, highlighting the moral unacceptability of all-pervasive caste discrimination.

We now have to think more perceptively about how to use a variety of means to make constant and cumulative progress in deepening and widening social and economic equality. Quota reservations are the bluntest of instruments unable to cope with the considerable variations in power, wealth and suffering within the OBCs themselves and responsible for reproducing a creamy layer rather than for substantially expanding it. That most political parties today would not dare to oppose such quotas is testimony to the political resonance that lower caste resurgence now has in Indian politics. But these parties, including those that most strongly identify with OBCs, Dalits and adivasis, have done little or nothing to promote the more foundational changes required. In that respect the ‘politics of recognition’ has not led to, or promoted, or even seriously joined, a ‘politics of redistribution’.

This is the crucial strategic need of our times and utterly incompatible with the ideology or policies inspired by neoliberalism. As for affirmative action, we must move towards devising a range of more sophisticated and subtler forms of affirmative action that can be sufficiently sensitive to the complex specificities of the social, economic and educational terrains to which they are to be applied.