Friday, June 02, 2006

Ruthless merit (June 2, 2006)

A glimpse of the hazy contours of a brave, new India

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is an English disease, peculiar to a particular class, of using language to mask feelings rather than express them. Indians are different. Our political class is naturally prone to hyperbolic disorders. The past few weeks have, however, been an aberration. We have witnessed the novel spectacle of Indian politicos falling back on diplomatic understatement and even reticence to avoid the ignominy of incomprehension.

When Human Resource Development minister Arjun Singh played out the factional war in the Congress by peremptorily adding 27 per cent to the existing quotas in central universities and specialist institutes, the initial reaction of the affected classes was one of disgust and despondency. Yet, the opposition was uncharacteristically mealy-mouthed and cautious, so unlike the outrage that greeted another Thakur’s equally cynical attempt to redraw the political mosaic in 1990.

The official discourse has been distressingly predictable. Social justice, everyone agreed, is a good idea but shouldn’t some thought also be given to merit, particularly now that India’s economy is far more globalised than in 1990? Shouldn’t the announcement of new reservations have been preceded by consultations with all political parties? And isn’t the time ripe for a “creamy layer” exclusion clause?

For lack of application and originality, take the BJP as a case in point. As the premier opposition party it had a natural obligation to respond to the UPA Government’s initiative. Yet throughout the ill-fated Bharat Suraksha Yatra when leaders proffered their opinions on a variety of subjects that are not even remotely linked to national security and terrorism, neither L.K. Advani nor Rajnath Singh said a word on the mounting controversy over reservations. Indeed, it was not until last week—nearly six weeks after the HRD Minister made his move—that the top leadership of the BJP met to formulate a coherent response. The party was paralysed by the fear that any response which revealed its inner disquiet would alienate the substantial OBC support it had built up over the years. Its leaders fell back on inanities about social justice and social consensus. Language became the instrument of obfuscation.

It was the spontaneous revolt of medical students, first in Delhi and subsequently across the country that changed the rules of engagement. Unlike the anti-Mandal protestors in 1990 who enjoyed the surreptitious backing of both the Congress and the BJP, today’s agitators were not blessed with political tutoring. Apart from cricketer-turned-parliamentarian Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is not exactly a political heavyweight, no politician of consequence came forward to embrace the Youth for Equality. At best the agitation that finally compelled the Supreme Court to intervene was complemented by the angry resignation of two members of the Knowledge Commission, a largely decorative body dominated by friends of the present regime.

The political innocence of today’s protesters was very revealing. Whereas the conventional wisdom in the national parties that depend on cross-caste appeal was that nothing must be done to trigger a backlash of the beneficiaries of the new reservations, the protestors were not bound by electoral calculations. Indeed, most of those who participated in the street protests, hunger strikes and public meetings probably nurtured a healthy disdain for the prevailing political culture of India. In a country where most legislators don’t even know how to handle a personal computer, the anti-reservationists took the aid of SMS, email and blogsites to link disparate groups across the country. With finite resources, modern communication methods became the instruments of forging solidarities and creating new pressure groups and political communities across India.

In time to come, historians will look back on the protests of April and May 2006 as the first modernist upsurge against a decrepit political consensus. The nature of the demands put forward by the Youth for Equality point to a heartening freshness, particularly when contrasted with the tired rhetoric of India’s elected representatives. The demand for equality of opportunities was once the signature tune of progressives throughout the world. Unfortunately, the discovery of affirmative action by the Sixties’ sociologists had relegated this republican aspiration to the dustbins of political activism. The youth revolt has resurrected this forgotten ideal. It is a plank that now awaits political adoption.

Second, whereas Hindu social reformers of the 19th century and nationalist stalwarts of the 20th century had made eradication of caste identity a symbol of an emerging modern India, the practitioners of electoral democracy have banked on caste-based mobilisation. By once again positing an aggregative Indian identity, the protestors have implicitly questioned one of the central assumptions governing political mobilisation. Viewed in totality, the anti-reservations stir has been one of the most cosmopolitan movements witnessed in recent times. It has been defined by a vision of India as a modern, dynamic capitalism. There is none of the angst-ridden, anti-imperialist and counter-culture piffle which characterised the student movements of the Sixties. This was a movement which symbolised the determination of a section of India to face the world on terms of equality, minus controls and crutches. This was a movement of a vanguard, not a class. No wonder there was a striking mismatch between their aspirations and the mindset of a government hell-bent on creating a nation on doles and crutches.

Finally, this was a movement which successfully broke through the hierarchies and inhibitions of gender. The sight of highly motivated young boys and girls joining hands for a common objective went contrary to a stereotype surrounding women’s participation in public life. This movement demonstrated that a separatist agenda prefaced on shrill feminism is not imperative in bridging the gender divide. In the emerging India, women have as much of a vested interest as men in ensuring a level playing field for all.

A movement which breaks the mould of existing politics is bound to draw flak. However, the political class has been uncharacteristically restrained in their criticism. This is partly because there is a tacit recognition that a 49 per cent reservation could have a long-term debilitating effect on the competitiveness of India’s knowledge economy. At the same time, there is a belief that the anti-reservations stir is ephemeral, elitist and selfish. CPI national secretary D.Raja’s charge that it was an “upper caste stageshow” reflecting “the greed of the new generation in an unequal society” will find an echo in populist circles.

That a movement based on the principles of ruthless meritocracy is going to be confined to a few economically vibrant enclaves is obvious. Even assuming most of the participants were nominally upper caste Hindus, it was no more an upper caste movement than the early nationalist movement was a Brahmin conspiracy. The self-image of the movement was markedly anti-caste rather than upper caste. This may explain why its reach was limited to the centres of academic excellence and the citadels of the new economy.

As an electoral force the anti-reservations stir is unlikely to make an immediate impact, except perhaps contributing to the decimation of the Congress. Yet, the movement has a larger significance. This is the first movement conceived and conducted by a generation that has come into its own after the process of economic liberalisation began in 1991. This explains its sharp rupture with past student movements. Given India’s demographic profile, political parties will be signing their own warrants of obsolescence if they don’t internalise the emerging trends. In the anti-reservations stir we have glimpsed the hazy contours of a brave, new India.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, June 2, 2006)

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