Every year, as college admissions approach, a general discontent simmers as different institutions spell out their positive discrimination policies for India’s socially marginalized. Many of the young aspirants, mostly belonging to the upper-castes, vent their anger, particularly over the social media, for this general rule of reservation for the Dalits (SCs), Adivasis (STs), and Other Backward Castes (OBCs). ‘It is anti-merit’, say the disapprovers of ‘affirmative action’ – as by lowering cut-offs in educational institutions and reserving positions in public offices, they discriminate against the meritorious. Debates and discussions on this have almost become a cliché. However, while this issue of reservation is talked about from the socio-cultural paradigm, the economic scenario remains outside the area of investigation.
Now, while caste-based reservations have existed in India since independence, there has been little research to provide definitive answers on whether they actually improve socio-economic outcomes for its beneficiaries, or hinder aggregate productivity, as alleged by its critics. This is compounded by the fact that even after six decades of positive discrimination, SCs, STs, and OBCs still fare worse on most socio-economic indicators vis-à-vis the ‘general category’. In this light, a study by Ashwini Deshpande and Thomas Weisskopf on the impact of quota-based reservations, using the Indian Railways (IR) as a case study, becomes very significant. As reported in The Hindu on February 5, 2015, the study finds that at least in the case of IR, caste-based reservations have no detrimental effects on productivity, and in some cases, even enhance it. This, the study argues is because SCs and STs have a lot more to prove in the face of active discrimination, and therefore have greater incentive to perform better at their jobs.
With academic research debunking claims that caste-based quotas undermine efficiency, the ‘role model’ effect, enforced by reservations, becomes quite important. The ‘role-model’ effect, by employing individuals from disadvantaged communities in top positions in their fields, enhances the possibility of excelling in such professions – creating in the process, societal role models worthy of emulation. For communities that have lost much of their self-esteem through decades of social conditioning, it is indeed a morale booster.
Why is such an initiative needed at all? As referred to by Drèze and Sen in their book, ‘An Uncertain Glory’, this is particularly true in the case of India, where the upper echelons of almost every skilled profession are populated by high castes, with almost no representation for Dalits, Adivasis, and other historically disadvantaged communities. Alarmingly, as the book points out, even within the media, there is severe under-representation of these communities, as a consequence of which, the problems faced by them often remain unreported.
Hence, for a young aspirant from these communities, the complete absence of one of their own can act as a severe confidence damper, resulting in a fear of failure. This combined with pervasive discrimination, can deter individuals belonging to disadvantaged backgrounds from venturing into skilled occupations – in the process, not only not fulfilling their own potential, but also causing an overall loss to society. In this perspective, affirmative action, by selectively recruiting individuals from marginalized communities into skilled jobs or elite educational institutions can serve as a beacon for the remainder of the community, apprising them that success is not unfeasible, and furthermore, providing them with the blueprint of a path they can follow in the future.
What can be the possible outcomes of such initiatives then? In the post-independence phase, politics is arguably the area where India’s socially marginalized have tasted considerable success throughout. The political mobilization initiated in the mid-1980s amongst Dalits and OBCs, dubbed as ‘India’s Silent Revolution’ by Christophe Jaffrelot, has played a tremendous role in raising the voice of the socially oppressed in national polity. Concurrently, this has created a number of role models in the arena of politics; starting from the mercurial Mayawati, India’s first female Dalit Chief Minister – and that too in the nation’s most populous state, renowned for its patriarchy – to the maverick Lalu Prasad, and finally, India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi.
However, looking back at the past two decades, one also gets the feeling that these political ‘role models’ have often become too enmeshed in the games of realpolitik and have been distracted away from their social commitments. This is borne out by the severe personality clashes which erupted between the various OBC leaders within the Janata Dal, leading to its continuous fragmentation through the 1990s, and the proclivity to indulge in dynastic politics, mostly to the detriment of their respective political formations. Thus it is indeed sad to witness a Lalu Prasad, emulating the same dynastic politics he once combated during his political heydays in order to prop up his daughter – ironically named Misa, acronym for the draconian law under which he was imprisoned during the Emergency – at the expense of a long-time party comrade.
With the BJP and the Congress often converging in their endorsement of neo-liberal policies and embracing market-oriented growth, combined with the steady decline of the Left, it becomes imperative that the BSP, along with the constituents of the erstwhile Janata Dal provide an alternative voice to India’s socio-economic polity and continue representing the historically marginalized. Leaders like Nitish Kumar in Bihar, with his innovative policies for social upliftment of the poor (for instance, the bicycle scheme for girl students), provide us with the hope that ‘India’s Silent Revolution’ will also translate into a revolution of equal opportunities.
No doubt, access to state resources through electoral success provides these leaders with a far-reaching ability to positively impact their communities and bring about a real change in society. For the sake of their communities, and for the overall benefit to the greater society, it is of utmost importance that these leaders utilize their acquired power wisely, and also live up to being ‘role models’ worthy of emulation within their communities, distinguishable from the remaining political elite entrenched within ‘upper-caste dominated’ parties.