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  Undoing India through Caste Reservation  


By: Naagesh Padmanaban
June 08, 2006
iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


(The author is a US based Banker and the views expressed are his own and not of the organization he works for)

The anti-reservation protest in India has attracted wide attention and anger among most Indians. Almost all reasonable citizens and non-citizens have condemned the move to establish quotas in educational institutions. Many have written on this issue. The common theme has been to expose the attempt by Arjun Singh and his backers to divide India on caste basis under the guise of affirmative action. There was rising public anger against Arjun Singh for designing a problem which was at best forgotten and against a weak Prime Minister whose repeated assurances on the issue fell on deaf ears. We have seen how these gambles have already snow balled into a disaster for the present government. The issue is now being considered by the supreme court of India.

The visuals - of doctors being lathi-charged, women students being water cannoned or fasting students lying in shamianas - have evoked strong emotions across the country . Middle class India - that symbolizes today’s India - sympathized with the striking doctors. The issue is far larger than a problem the doctors and would be doctors alone had to fight. The middle class automatically identified the problem as theirs too. Even corporate India had a stake. The middle class in India has been sized by several market research estimates at about 300 million. Assuming a 10% margin of error, the middle class translates to at least 270 million Indians. Even if we assume only 50% of this group is against reservation – I am being very conservative here - this still is a huge number - 135 million Indians had every reason to be angry. In other words, here is an emerging constituency of almost 10% and counting of the total population thanks to the government’s ill conceived and cunning move.

Well, let us face it. Nobody is against affirmative action. The poor and under privileged in India need to be provided quality Medicare, primary and secondary school education, reasonable chances to pursue college degrees and better economic opportunities. But since Independence, the political parties have lost credibility by playing the caste card under the guise of affirmative action. Even if half hearted attempts had been made, fifty years is a long time for bleeding hearts like Arjun Singh to better the lives of India’s poor. But the sad fact is that today the largest collection of the world’s poor live in India. Pray tell us, Arjun Singh, what did you do as Chief Minister to really better the lives of OBC in your state? Millions in your state remain impoverished in spite of your benevolence. Bottom line, the middle class does not buy Arjun Singh’s concoction. So that explains the reservation rubbish. But what is new?

Unlike the times of Mandal-I, today’s India’s rapid reduction in poverty is well documented. The economy has seen very rapid growth rates and is touching 8.4%. Forex reserves are north of US$ 130 Billion. Agriculture and industrial growth have been impressive. MNC investments in India are routine news. More people are well employed resulting in rising per capita incomes. Planned and/ or forced economic reforms – depends on how you see it -over the years has quietly changed India’s face - the economic one at least. So when Arjun Singh speaks of Mandal-II he is addressing an India that has come a long way from Mandal-I. There began his miscalculation.

Mandal-II or shall we say Arjun Singh-I had more differences. Probably for the first time the private sector raised its voice. Several industry leaders have spoken up unequivocally against reservations in educational institutions as well as the corporate sector. This new confidence of India Inc. stems from successes it had seen both in India and abroad against global competition, thanks to meritocracy rather than quota-cracy. Secondly, the demise of license-raj has severely limited the political class’s ability to punish or harass a private sector.

Protesting doctors and students found endless supplies of cash donations, food, bottled water, cooling fans and other goodies streaming into protest venues. Retired Chief Justice Lahotia and other legal luminaries offered legal counsel to the students. The message was clear. The student protest threatened to get out of control. Well, only those who were insulated from reality would have been oblivious to the consequences anyway. It now appears Arjun Singh is one of them. Even in his wildest dreams he could not have foreseen the middle class response and consequent consolidation. Or is he really shrewd and playing Shakuni to destroy the Congress party where he never had a chance anyway? Or is a new chapter in India’s political history unfolding? But one thing is clear. The political class can no longer play the reservation game without shooting itself in the foot in the first place. It will be interesting to watch the battle to undo India through caste reservations move from the streets to the Supreme Court. Stay tuned folks.

Naagesh Padmanaban

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