Why is India's middle class so hostile to the empowerment of the poor?
This column is not being written to defend Arjun Singh, nor the new quota regime, nor any formula/mechanism to implement reservations. That debate has been so polarised and distorted that any intervention which does not take one or the other side is destined to fall on deaf ears. No. My purpose is to point out that the passion-charged street power and the virulent rhetoric against reservations should be seen as part of a larger, disturbing pattern. India's smug, selfish, self-centred, satiated middle class, fattened on the fruits of the booming economy, is positively hostile to any policy which sets out to empower the poor. Over 900 million of our citizens live on less than Rs 90 a day. Of this, 300 million live on less than Rs 45 a day. Meanwhile, 200 million privileged have decided that these citizens must remain roughly where they are-or wait till the enormous wealth the rich, the ultra rich and the nouveau rich are accumulating trickles down. This is an obscenity. No fancy economic formulation can hide this appalling reality of India 2006.
Take the employment guarantee scheme or selling cheap grain to BPL card-holders or the Right to Information Act (which allows the marginalised to check corruption in moneys spent in their name) or increasing subsidies for essential commodities used by the aam aadmi. You need to jog your memory only lightly to recollect the outrage of the haves at these schemes. They said India would be ruined, the finances of the nation would collapse if "utopian" proposals were implemented. The poor are poor because they are lazy, worthless, unenterprising, incapable of availing existing opportunities. Of course, I caricature the argument and the mentality. But only slightly.
One understands India is an economic superpower challenging China, it is experiencing unprecedented growth rates, its middle class can buy Danish bacon and Spanish olives at the neighbourhood store. Conspicuous consumption reigns. But nine hundred million people must wait for market forces to somehow touch their lives. Sheer callousness apart, these 900 million people have something called the vote. And they use it extremely craftily. In 2004, they threw out a government which considered itself invincible. Forget the ethics, forget conscience, any political party which panders to the prejudices of India's fickle middle class is committing electoral suicide.
Remember, the poor will not go away. You cannot tuck them away in Kalahandi or Bastar. They will haunt India's affluent in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai at traffic lights, in unregulated slums, in shopping malls, outside five-star hotels. They will join Maoists and threaten the Indian state while slitting the throats of rich farmers. The 'Red Corridor' is an ominous development. Any moderately sane middle-class person must ask himself why the wretched of the earth increasingly decide to take up arms against a vastly better-armed and organised force in a war they know they are bound to lose. Better to die fighting than to die of hunger.
Doubtless, there are many infirmities in the proposal to allot 27 per cent seats to OBCs. The percentage may be too high, some wrong people may avail of the benefit, a few genuinely deserving might be unfairly penalised, implementation could throw up anomalies. It will not be painless. But you have to live in a state of permanent denial, you have to keep your eyes, ears and mind closed to avoid the fact that poverty and extreme poverty in India are closely linked to caste, closely linked to historical discrimination.
Let us take the crux of the reservation rejectionist's thesis. We're told that quotas and academic excellence are fundamentally incompatible. You can't have both.Added to the above is the rider that corporate India's "global competitive edge" will vanish. In other words, there is the firm assumption that affirmative action (AA), which in India takes the form of quotas (voluntary or mandatory), will produce second-class students.
In the hysteria generated, with assistance from a conflict-hungry media, this assumption has become gospel truth with the honourable but publicity-smart members of the Knowledge Commission lending their weight to the flawed thesis. In Harvard, Princeton and Yale, institutions at whose altar the rejectionists worship, the experience of AA has been hugely positive with no dilution of academic standards (see Outlook cover story Two Faces of Reservation, May 29).
Consider the story of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala where mandatory quotas ranging from 69.5 per cent to 49.5 per cent have been in place since decades without social turbulence. Are we to assume that engineers, doctors, mbas from these southern states are substandard?
If notions of compassion and equity are alien to the rejectionists, perhaps the spectre of Maoists rampaging through pockets of urban India might help focus minds on the grotesquely unjust society superpower India is spawning. It could be the fire next time!
(Vinod Mehta is Editor of Outlook magazine)