It was not a pretty sight, SP MPs raising slogans noisily in the Rajya Sabha as an increasingly agitated Speaker tried to reason with them. But then, given the volatility of our elected representatives, the fact that the quotas in promotions bill should excite such passions came as no surprise. The bill is scheduled to be put to the vote on Monday but already we have seen the pressure that both the central government and the UP government are facing on this issue. Around 18 lakh government employees have gone on strike protesting the bill and the SP government, which is against the bill but cannot be seen to endorse a strike, is in a dilemma. Of course, the mercurial BSP leader Mayawati has been quick to move in and corner all the credit for the bill.
Now irrespective of whether the bill goes through or not, it must be examined whether, in principle, the very idea of quotas in promotions is a feasible one. We have seen all too often that what begins as an affirmative action tends to become something that holds in perpetuity. It becomes something of an entitlement and politicians are able to use this to their advantage. Quotas in promotions will certainly pander to caste politics whatever the arguments may be about the SC/STs needing a leg up. Dr BR Ambedkar, whose name is evoked every time any politician wants to take up the cause of the Dalits, himself did not favour reservations for them for more than 10 years. But what we see today is not any attempt to erase caste but to actually provide it political and institutional support. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken of a meritocracy as a dire need in a globalising economy like ours. His own life is a prime example of where merit can take you.
There is no doubt that there are not enough SC/ST candidates in top government jobs. But a divisive promotions quota will not solve the problem, rather those who benefit will not escape the taint of being labelled mediocre. In any government job, seniority will take you up to a point but after that it is merit which becomes the criterion. We have seen that for jobs at the highest level, the government has often bypassed the hierarchy and disregarded seniority in favour of merit. What the SC/STs need is better education facilities, better training and coaching and more access to jobs, whether government or otherwise. At a time when our economy is privatising, SC/STs cannot be expected to limit their horizons only to government jobs. They should be able to hold their own with the best. This is a long way off, but sweeteners like quotas in promotions will only perpetuate the dependency syndrome. This will be a drag on the system and will eventually not favour either those whom it is meant to benefit or Brand India.