Editorial\Equal before the law
The man means business
Letters to the Editor

It is always alarming when an intended good turns into a form of abuse. The initial principle behind caste based reservations in India has long been submerged under rapacious vote bank politicking and acrid rivalry among backward segments to get into the reserved categories. The quota system for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes has been cosily institutionalized in India, without any serious assessment being made of its benefits and disadvantages. It is, therefore, reassuring to have the Supreme Court indicate clearly at least one firm limit to caste based reservations. It has ruled that such reservations are not admissible in judicial service.

The court, however, said that in the case of two candidates of equal merit, one from the general category and the other from the reserved one, preference may be given to the reserved category candidate although this would not be legally enforceable. This qualification is especially important in the context of spiralling reservations in the name of positive discrimination. Merit is never the issue. Neither is economic backwardness per se, but the social injustice and oppression � consequent economic deprivation being taken for granted � that each caste or regional group has suffered. Positive discrimination becomes, therefore, a bait for new voters. So holistic programmes for education and professional training can be replaced conveniently by sops of reserved seats and lower qualifying marks in education, special quota percentages in jobs and sometimes faster lanes for promotion. There is no review, and only lip service to ever extending timeframes. What all this leads to, apart from short term advantages for myopic or unscrupulous politicians and a constantly fragmenting polity, is a slow erosion of self-respect among the segments expecting benefits. Dependence on quotas is a dangerous habit, one that many of India�s politicians would like to nurture for their own benefit.

Affirmative action is the subject of debate in the United States even today. But there the keyword is discrimination: the idea is not to discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, colour, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting. It is not quotas that the state is interested in, but in removing discrimination all the way, from the lower rungs of education and childhood environment upwards. Thus merit can always be made the primary consideration in education and employment. This generates an understanding of the importance of self-help, even if the playing field is not yet completely level. Leaders such as Mr Jesse Jackson emphasize this, rather than the expectation of special advantages to compensate for years of discrimination. Affirmative action, even if implemented, is not generally supposed to be based on quotas, or give preference to unqualified candidates. Most important, it is not meant to harm anyone through �reverse discrimination�. There is, of course, no question of quotas in institutions like the judiciary.

No one would suggest that the playing field in India is anywhere close to level, given the numerous caste and regional groups and their various histories. But shortcuts cannot resolve this inequality. No reservation is desirable, not even for women in legislative bodies. In the final analysis, quotas emphasize difference, instead of evening them out. Long term programmes of education and professional training, of awakening of social awareness, are the only ways to resolve inequality. Reservations have proved politically and socially destructive, being in spirit undemocratic, creating bitter and dependent groups of people and providing a handle to unethical politicians. Through quotas the state is evading its real duty. This is the message that the Supreme Court ruling should carry for India�s politicians.    

By singling out the three Ambanis for his only t�te-�-t�te with a private party in India, Bill Clinton washed out all the semantic sophistry about direction and destination and placed his visit in a robust down to earth context. Discussions with N. Chandrababu Naidu further underlined the point of those old sayings the business of the United States is business.

Perhaps there were other nuances that might justify applying Zhou Enlai�s famous comment about it being too soon to judge the French revolution to the five days that Clinton spent here. No doubt we shall hear more about nonproliferation, talking to Pakistan and resolution of the Kashmir problem. But even if the packaging is more daring the contents are not likely to be radically different.

However, Clinton�s personality and manner made the occasion highly satisfying for his hosts who must additionally have relished some of the things he implied about Kashmir and the line of control. In turn, he seemed to enjoy his travels. The president came over as warm, friendly and sympathetic, and there is a greater sense now of personal commitment in an atmosphere of enhanced cordiality. But just as it is self-defeating to imagine that his presence recognized India�s global stature after Pokhran II, it would be na�ve to suppose that the goodwill he radiated reduces the need for caution and firmness in bilateral dealings.

The visit did not mark a watershed. It will yield no dramatic fallout because it was the fallout. Clinton came because Americans believe the watershed has already been crossed and that prospects for a rewarding partnership have improved. Two assumptions sustain this hypothesis. First, the end of the Cold War enables the US to review its south Asian priorities. Second, India�s economic reforms offer opportunity to American businessmen. It is in India�s interest to encourage both premises, but on terms that benefit India. That means facing up to certain hard realities.

One, it is rubbish to read any particular meaning in the fervour of the crowds that surrounded Clinton. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter were also honoured. While our political-bureaucratic machinery would turn the tap on for any VIP, but more especially for lords of the Western world, the less said about Indian mob management the better.

Two, no matter what the state of India-US ties, a large number of Indians will yearn to go and live there. They will do well, and will then throw bridges to the abandoned motherland. The effort makes them feel less uncomfortable (and irrelevant) in their prosperous new incarnation.

Three, however annoyed Clinton might be with Pervez Musharraf�s military regime, democracy has never been a compelling factor for foreign policy formulation in Washington or New Delhi. Official India�s close ties with the Soviet Union, and US sponsorship of such Asian dictators as the Shah of Iran, Syngman Rhee or Ferdinand Marcos gave the lie to effusions about the world�s biggest and oldest democracies being natural allies.

Four, the Americans happily separate profit from politics, and have no difficulty doing business with countries with which Washington may have differences. The flag follows trade, as in the case of Vietnam when American business lobbies forced the administration to restore ties, ignoring its earlier precondition about missing soldiers.

Five, the example of China demonstrates that pragmatic business partners understand and adjust to each other�s national interest. There was no need, therefore, to placate the US with import relaxations that even the World Trade Organization did not demand.

Finally, though at one level it was almost unpatriotic to think well of the US (as a former Indian ambassador in Washington put it), at another, like Barkis, India has always been willin�. As Eric Gonsalves, then a secretary in the external affairs ministry, told American reporters in 1980 (Indira Gandhi had sent him to the US to warn that Pakistani militarism would exploit the Afghanistan crisis to plunge the subcontinent into another war), �We are prepared to be as pro-Western as you will permit us to be. But every time we try to make an opening you kick us in the teeth.�

Sadly, our media has swallowed hook, line and sinker the unceasing Western chant that the estrangement arose because India leant towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Yes, India did, but only after the US had chosen its subcontinental partner. At that time, the Soviet ambassador in Delhi was under a cloud and the Soviet trade commissioner in Calcutta had been withdrawn. Jawaharlal Nehru was denouncing the Cominform, warning Indonesia against the �new imperialism� and holding up Indo-British ties as the international ideal. Moscow called him the �lackey� of imperialism and Gandhi a �reactionary� while fomenting rebellion in Telengana.

So, the US�s preference had little to do with India�s alignment. A 1949 memorandum by the joint chiefs of staff dismissed south Asia � with one exception � as a region of �negligible positive strategic importance�. The exception was Pakistan. It offered scope for �ideological and intelligence penetration of the USSR�. It was �required as a base for air operations against central USSR and as a staging area for forces engaged in the defence or recapture of Middle East oil areas�. Simultaneously, the state department decided it would be desirable to arm Pakistan to redress �the existing disparity in military strength between the two dominions (which) has its own dangers�.

The following month a highpowered committee of defence and diplomatic officials recommended �commercial arrangements which would in emergency facilitate development for operational use of base facilities in the Karachi-Lahore area�. The report also claimed that �so long as the defence of the Afghan frontier remains secure to us the air bases at Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar might prove equally important in conducting air operations against the industrial areas of the Soviet heartland, or in defending Middle East oil�.

Another meeting of policymakers, held in Nuwara Eliya in what was still Ceylon, decided in February-March 1951 that the US and Britain should �bring about an early build-up of Pakistan ground forces assisted by the provision of military equipment�.

Of course, there were other considerations. Nehru�s personality and prejudices for one. The determination of India�s raucous democracy to assert its independence for another. The insidious influence of the British who warned that military aid to Pakistan �should not be directed too obviously against India� but should be �provided under some sort of blanket assurance to countries of the Near East generally� was a third factor.

Despite its choice, the US always sought to keep a window open to India whose regional predominance it recognized, sometimes grudgingly. But the heart of the matter was the assessment that US strategic interest was better served by promoting a compliant Pakistan that was �willing to make a significant contribution to the defence of the Middle East provided its fear of India can be removed�. The Nuwara Eliya report proposed �giving Pakistan assurances with respect to such an attack by India�.

The US is too pragmatic to remain a prisoner of the dead past. As it slowly changes course, so must India. There is bound to be some disequilibrium between two such unequal partners. Some American homilies may grate on Indian sensitivities. But today�s climate of dependence no longer permits repeating � no matter how great the temptation � Nehru�s testy warning to the American ambassador that �he was tired of receiving moralistic advice� and that �India did not need advice from US or any other country as to its foreign or internal policies�.

Happily for Nehru�s successors, the Hyderabad and Mumbai meetings suggested that there is now an economic solvent for political irritants. Sentiment or sanctimoniousness can have no place in a relationship of which the Ambanis are a symbol. Clinton�s benediction on them even suggests a desi equivalent of the boast about General Motors and America � What is good for Reliance is good for India!    


Look beyond the cooking pot

Sir � Will someone please walk up to Nitin Gadkari and tell him his lone dharna in front of the Vidhan Sabha might not be enough for his gastronomical cause (�On the boil over cook transfer�, March 30)? What he needs to do to take his revenge on the Democratic Front is actually throw his weight behind Bal Thackeray�s call to pull down the government in Maharashtra. In this country where hunger stalks, it is good to find a politician so thoroughly committed to the cause of food. But as the luck of those millions who dangle below the poverty line would have it, this is one who evidently can�t think beyond his cooking pot. Not even of adhering to the call of politics from which he earns his daily bread.

Yours faithfully,
Radhanath Sharma, Calcutta

Sporting chance

Sir � The striking similarity in the thinking processes in India is remarkable. Private airlines lose no time in forming a cartel to match the fare chart of the wasteful Indian Airlines. Affordable air tickets thus continue to remain elusive to Indian passengers. In a totally different context we have the Doordarshan and the private channels playing a cosy ball game together, only to ignore soccer, the most popular game in the world. Working in tandem, they have chosen to glamorize cricket, a game played by a handful of former colonial and colonized countries.

On March 15, a very important game � that between FC Kochin and Salgaocar � was being played in Kerala. This would have decided the players for the national soccer championship final. I turned in vain to all television channels and found not a word being uttered about the match. No wonder that, in an atmosphere like this, our most talented soccer star, Bhaichung Bhutia, is not even a regular reserve bencher in Bury, the United Kingdom�s second division professional soccer league team.

There is both money and prestige in the world of soccer. It is time the TV industry woke up to the reality of what soccer means to the world and do justice to a game of great entertainment.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Das, Calcutta

Sir � Ignorance about rules might have been responsible for Sujata Kar�s and Alpana Seal�s failure to get employed by international sports clubs (�Golden goal missed in bungle�, March 27). But then knowledge of rules or keeping to them has never been the forte of even the Indian sports authorities, who are supposed to be in the know of things. How else would one explain the fiasco of two Indian wrestlers being sent back from Atlanta for being too overweight to fit their category?

Yours faithfully,
Rakesh Munshi, Calcutta

Out of work

Sir � Despite the entry of a eunuch into the Madhya Pradesh assembly, the general condition of the community has not improved in any way. Thousands of eunuchs in India face a bleak future with begging and prostitution as their only sources of livelihood. Training in vocations like carpentry or electrical work would do them a world of good.

Yours faithfully,
A.F. Kamruddin Ahmed, Bandpur

Sir � The extortion of money by eunuchs from families where there is a birth or a marriage has reached an unusual high. They demand a fabulous amount of money which families are forced to part with for fear of harassment. Local police stations are reluctant to intervene. The police should be instructed to deal with such extortion.

Yours faithfully,
Arup Mazumder, Calcutta

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