"Rebelling against Quotas
The Times of India, August 2, 1998
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 Christians.
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 whom now view racial quotas as an insult to their abilities, as institutionalizing 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 Associatyon 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 longstanding 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 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 assert my right to think for myself, to refuse to have my ideas assigned to me s 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 institutionalize racial divides. he is not the only black rebel. Reverse discrimination has helped create a significant, prosperous black middle class. Yet having attained this states, the same blacks find racial quotas a hindrance. They wanted to be viewed as having risen on heir own merit, yet are constantly seen as handicapped persons who have risen because of their colour. so, what began a device to diminish the worst forms of racism has, unwittingly, led to a new form of racism.
Black intellectuals like Thomas Swell and Glenn Loury have long stressed the need to go beyond the reservation syndrome if blacks are to progress. Even Jesse 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 has 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 market 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 up-end white managements. ‘You can block the track, but that is only negative power.
Suppose you cold 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, 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 norms 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 favoring 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 maters 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 bet 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 sigh was to Mulayam Singh Yadav. When Deaver left the Reagan Administration and returned to is old profession of pubic 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 Indian and the US. Despite some economic liberalisation, India continues to be 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 al three.
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 look monumental, yet is essential.