By implementing quotas in the Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Institutes of Technologies, the human resource development (HRD) ministry has successfully initiated the decline of these two powerful brands. Now there is panic among private institutes which fear that they too might be asked to follow suit. Instead of trying to develop the human resource of the country in true measure, the ministry has created social tensions.
Reservation, it seems, was an astute move by the minister to save his portfolio, a last-resort move of an inefficient politician. I think the Congress party made a mistake by not reining in the minister; the party perhaps overestimated the electoral gains that the reservation policy will bring to it. If opinion and exit polls for the Karnataka elections are an indication, then the reservation policy is not helping the party get more votes. One of the reasons for the lukewarm response of other backward castes is that it doesn’t translate into real benefit for a large section of them.
Where 93% of the youth don’t go for higher education, quotas hardly mean anything for the majority of backward castes. In the past, such attempts have brought only temporary gains, especially when there is no simultaneous effort to uplift their standards of basic education, health and social security. On the other hand, it leads to strong polarization against the party of the upper castes who feel betrayed. Voters tend to react more strongly if they are aggrieved than when they are happy.
Reservations give rise to social tensions and in the long run don’t help in building a committed electoral base for the party either. Rather, it backfires. It happened in the past. Gujarat is a case in point.
If Gujarat became the first state to be the laboratory of Hindutva or communal politics, it has some historical reasons, one of which is the reservation politics played by the Congress leadership in the 1980s. The then chief minister, Madhavsinh Solanki, propagated the “KHAM” formula. KHAM was the acronym used for four castes/communities of Gujarat, namely, Kshatriyas (a backward caste in Gujarat), Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims, who were given reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. The idea was to be identified with these communities to get a large chunk of their vote. It did bring in temporary electoral benefit for the Congress, which swept the polls in 1980. But it also led to social tensions. Hundreds were killed in riots between different castes.
Since then, it has been a steady decline for the Congress in the state. The upper castes such as Brahmins and Baniyas got polarized with a missionary zeal against the party. The Hindutva vanguard emerged from these castes. They used Hindutva to counter KHAM and succeeded. Realignment of votes was created using religion. Since there was hardly any effort to offer the backward sections of society something more than just reservations, most of them remained underemployed and backward. Some of them eventually became the cannon fodder for the Hindutva movement. Congress has so far not recovered from the en mass desertion of the middle classes and the onslaught of Hindutva in Gujarat.
Congress needs to learn lessons from history or it will be condemned to repeat it. Reservation at best can bring temporary success. It is a challenge for a political party to resist such temptations and give productive leadership. The HRD ministry is very vital and it has a big responsibility. Our primary education is in tatters as was revealed in a survey conducted by non-governmental organizations led by Pratham. But, we have not heard of any major initiative or thinking out of the box by the HRD ministry to counter the problem. It is most of the time in the news for exercising its control over the higher education sector. Corruption is also rampant. The rates for getting deemed university status is said to be anywhere between Rs2.5 crore and Rs10 crore, depending upon the size of the institute.
It is time the government did something about the leadership of the ministry; it needs dynamic leadership that can offer innovative solutions to the problem of poor quality of education in our schools, not some deadwood who finds it difficult to think beyond caste and reservations.
Premchand Palety is director of Centre for Forecasting and Research (C-fore) in New Delhi, from where he keeps a close eye on India’s business schools. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org