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Very far from a class Act

Instead of helping the Congress, the quota order will help some of its allies and opponents who are into caste-based politics, writes Pankaj Vohra.
Hindustan Times | By Pankaj Vohra
UPDATED ON OCT 06, 2008 04:41 PM IST

The 27 per cent reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in central educational institutions, including the IITs and IIMs, is now official after the Supreme Court upheld the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Admission) Act, 2006, on Thursday. Though the order is balanced, the new principle has ensured that merit will be pushed down further in the priority list given that no political party has the guts to oppose this move. The reason: politicians feel that this Act will bring with it rich political dividends.

There is no doubt that the right to education is important and the State has to ensure that children attend primary and secondary schools. But reservations in institutions of higher learning are a sure way of compromising merit at the altar of politics. This is not to say that OBCs should not get a chance to study in these institutions; they should do so on merit only.

The court’s suggestion that graduates will not qualify for reservation in institutes of higher learning is apt and must be interpreted in the right spirit. Anyone who goes beyond the graduation level in humanities and science and above Class XII in professional courses must have merit. Otherwise, the whole purpose of education gets defeated.

With capitation institutions mushrooming all over the country, particularly in Maharashtra and Karnataka, money has started playing a major role in shaping the careers of doctors and engineers. The result is that a large number of doctors, engineers and MBAs have joined the job market but many among them lack basic skills. In fact, states should conduct a survey to ascertain the credentials of these professionals.

Would any of us like to be treated by doctors who have qualified either through the capitation or reservation routes but are not capable? Would we like our bridges and roads to be built by engineers who use this route or MBAs who apply principles, which are being questioned even in developed countries, to a developing (or underdeveloped) society like ours?

While there is a case for making education compulsory at the primary and secondary levels, merit should be the only yardstick for higher education. This is where political parties have gone wrong. They treat higher education either as a knowledge industry or a vote-bank. One is reminded of TS Eliot’s famous lines: “Where is the life we have lost in living, where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge and where is the knowledge we have lost in information.”

The SC order has made the Congress-led UPA government happy. But they have not realised that they will have to face the brunt of these developments politically. Human Resource Development Minister Arjun Singh, the chief architect of the law, has described it as “historic”. But does he understand that he has done an incalculable harm to his own party? After VP Singh’s ‘mandalisation’ divided our society in the early 90s, Arjun Singh’s ‘Mandalisation, Part II’ will divide it further. If ‘Mandalisation, Part I’ triggered the decline of the Congress, this new round will further it. Surprisingly, the Congress is foolishly thinking that this Act will reap political dividends for it in the next parliamentary polls. The Congress is the only political party that has never identified itself with any community, class, region or religion. It was known to carry all sections with it, and though it suffered badly after the ‘Mandalisation’ of politics, it remained the only hope of sections that did not flex its muscles using its lineage.

This feeling is now bound to change. And it could even backfire, especially in the cities. In fact, the other side of the implementation of this law is that the section, which are opposed to any kind of reservations but were with the Congress because of its past track record, will also move away from the party. This is certainly going to reduce the already-shrinking base of the Congress. At the same time, it is going to strengthen regional and casteist forces represented in Parliament and assemblies by some of the regional parties. As it is, the Congress’s over-emphasis on minorities has already distanced many in the majority community from it. Now castes and sections that have been hit by reservations and those who believe in the merit argument will also start having second thoughts.

One wonders why the Congress leaders don’t realise what is good for them even if they don’t realise what is good for the country. The HRD Minister was suspected of pushing his agenda when he introduced the OBC card in 2006. He could have been checked at that stage. Instead of helping the Congress, the Act will be a boost for some of its allies and opponents who are into caste-based politics.

The Act will also lead to polarisation on the basis of castes and, therefore, strengthen the argument for a third alternative. In the process, the Congress as well as the BJP will be adversely affected. Ironically, it is Mayawati who is reacting the same way the Congress would have done some years ago. But then Mayawati is enemy No 1, thanks to the perception of some senior Congress leaders who feel that Mulayam Singh and the Samajwadi Party are natural allies in the fight against communalism and restoring the rule of law. No one seems to realise that the Congress has taken on Mayawati, something that the SP should have done. In any case, the SP has the third front as its first option.

It is indeed a sad day for the country that we are reducing opportunities for those who may help to put us on the world map. Education must be made compulsory at the lower levels but merit should be the only measure in the higher levels — caste, creed, religion and region notwithstanding. The country is above everything else. Between us.

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