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MERIT AND MILIEU
- Those fighting against quotas are defending exclusivity

Earlier this year, the entire student community in France went on a rampage. The students were fighting for a cause, they had rebelled against a proposed new labour legislation which would have badly affected the interests of the working class and the economically disadvantaged. In the face of the virulence of the student agitation, the French government gave in and withdrew the proposal.

In India, we have been witnessing a similar phenomenon: students led by young medicos across the country are in revolt; the mood is one of total frenzy. However, unlike in France, the student uprising here is against the proposal to accord special consideration to the economically disadvantaged, against reservations in higher education for the poor and backward classes. Merit, the agitating students demand, must be the only criterion for admissions to institutions of higher learning.

Though temporarily reined in by the Supreme Court, they remain defiant; they do not like the obfuscation of the 93rd amendment to the Constitution nor the mollycoddling of particular sections on the pretext of caste. It is a matter of high principle for them. In a democratic system, all citizens, they are of the view, must be treated on an equal footing. Equality is sovereign. All those aspiring to enter the portals of higher education must be accorded an equal basis: it would be a violation of the democratic code if favours were shown to specific groups on the alleged ground that they were poor or suffered from backwardness. If any group of young people is unable to compete on equal terms in the marketplace, including the marketplace of admissions to institutions of higher learning, that is the young people's tough luck, the state has no business to intervene.

Please listen carefully to what the rebels are trying to put across. They are the children of liberalization. Efficiency, or merit, it has been dinned into their ears, is the only issue of relevance in the world of market reality. It is an integral part of the law of nature ' Charles Darwin comes in here ' that the meritorious ones weed out those without merit and the efficient ones make mincemeat of those who are inefficient. That, in fact, is the essence of human progress. The goal in life is to maximize the rate of return in all spheres. The rate of return is a function of efficiency cum merit; those who have received the imprimatur of merit will go forward, those bereft of this attribute will have to drop dead. The state will be palpably guilty of deviating from the free market philosophy if it has the effrontery to meddle in and refer to either the 93rd amendment or any rubbishy directive principle of state policy.

No point in beating about the bush, the issue has to be joined not so much with the rampaging youngsters, but with those in power in New Delhi. It is the latter who made liberalization the operational mantram for the community. The students have merely imbibed, in the course of the past couple of decades, the lesson the authorities wanted them to imbibe. They, therefore, do not feel any moral burden when they dare to declare that those who are not efficient or meritorious have no right to exist. The authorities are truly caught in a jam; they are not in a position to discard the portmanteau of the democratic process which includes periodical polls on the basis of adult suffrage. The students do not have to meet the challenge of elections; the political leaders are denied that advantage.

Should not, one can still ask, the moral burden for the ongoing mess devolve squarely on the authorities themselves' The mindset of the students in rebellion has been spawned by what has been done by the powers-that-be to the polity and the economy since 1991. The controversy is now in effect reduced to the interpretation of the concept of equality. Equality ought also to mean, it is being maintained, equality of opportunities, including the opportunity to be equally meritorious with those who were born in privilege.

The state has a role here as arbiter; it cannot abdicate the responsibility to create conditions which could enable all constituents of society to strive to be efficient and meritorious. Merit, after all, is a function of the milieu. Not that exceptions do not occur; despite the base surroundings in which an impoverished child is brought up, he or she might still turn out to be the freak of a genius and shine in life. It, however, rarely happens that way. On the other hand, children from affluent families, who have the backing of resources spread over generations, are nurtured in an ambience which enables them to attain efficiency with relative ease. Merit is a derivative. Children born in the lap of poverty are denied the privilege of benefiting from the rationale of this derivative. The self-centred crowd may not like it, but the state has the obligation to try to correct the irrationalities which follow from the fact that asset distribution in society has been for ages horribly skewed. The distribution of assets determines the distribution of merit.

To amend the unevenness in the spread of both assets and merit, the country's Constitution has suggested the restructuring of assets distribution and, in addition, reservation of opportunities for those not at the moment sufficiently meritorious to wrest a place under the sun through open competition. Some may consider these measures odious, others may consider them inadequate, but the context of their social compulsion cannot be wished away.

Students manning the barricade are assuming they are fighting the battle of equality; they are, it will be pointed out, in fact fighting against attempts at equalization of social and economic opportunities. They are propounding a doctrine of exclusivity: since their class has been hogging the enjoyment of the milk and honey society has on offer, they must continue to do so and there should be no nonsense of reservations for those who do not belong to their club.

Suppose they win the present battle and the government retreats; do they have the faculty to envisage what might follow' The urban middle and upper classes, whose progeny are leading the ongoing campaign, do not make up more than 10 to 15 per cent of the population. Their obduracy would put on hold the opportunities the government has promised to those who constitute the nation's overwhelming majority. The battle over the meaning of equality could soon translate into the thesis-counterthesis of the democracy of merit vis-'-vis the democracy of numbers. Should the economically disadvantaged and the underprivileged be kept out of opportunities on the ground of lack of merit, they are likely to register their discontent at periodic elections. The marketplace might then prove no match for the polling booth; the mobilization of 85 per cent would make mincemeat of the meritorious crowd. Once that happens, the retribution that could await the affluent classes might assume a frighteningly massive proportion.

Desperate human minds will always look for escape hatches. Some years ago, a newspaper, aghast at the monotony of the Left Front winning election after election in West Bengal, had suggested a constitutional amendment to prohibit a political party from assuming the reins of office if perchance it won the polls in a state or at the Centre for more than, say, three consecutive terms. Similarly, there could be a proposal on behalf of the meritocrats that the Constitution be amended so that we could revert to the British era and allow the suffrage only to those who pay income tax or municipal tax and possess a minimum educational qualification. Such an amendment would, at least in theory, enable the nation's privileged to win national polls, protect their interests and scrap reservations.

Yes, the nation's affluents would thereby protect the cause of their class. But only almost for a bare fortnight. A million riots would then take over.

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