Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Opinion | The myth of meritocracy has begun to bite the dust

Election ticket distribution is an example of how privilege is preserved down the generations in India

All it takes is a good recession for some truths to unscramble. Ever since the 2008 financial crisis and the accompanying global economic slowdown, many home truths have come undone. Globalization, free trade and liberal democracy are all terms that began sounding hollow once the developed world started feeling the pinch of an economic slowdown. The latest word to join that grouping is “meritocracy", a portmanteau created to make people believe in some mythical, non-existent value.

The college admissions scandal in the United States has revealed how the rich and famous bend rules and norms to get their wards admitted to top universities, including bribing officials or appointing dummy exam writers; Malcolm Gladwell has painstakingly documented how some Ivy League schools have for decades employed dodgy admission methods that favoured a certain class, but actively frowned on students belonging to certain ethnic communities.

The scandal has now demonstrated how the concept of meritocracy was fed to the unsuspecting masses to have them believe in a system that didn’t exist. Meritocracy, in retrospect, seems like a ruse to make people think that those at the top have reached there by their hard work and not through privilege. What is propagated and immortalised is the half-truth that merit is determined by competitive access to good education; what they don’t tell you is that access to “good" education is largely determined by a womb lottery, or where you are born. The rich and powerful have always been able to get their wards admitted to the best institutions, which were seen as passports to the best jobs and other elite positions. This is the new class system, or the new aristocracy. Over the years, through repeated use, the term “meritocracy" and its weighty implications have got deeply embedded in the mass psyche.

British sociologist Michael Young satirically coined the word “meritocracy" in the 1950s, as a combination of merit and aristocracy, to disparage the British government’s efforts to institute a dubious selection process based on “intelligence and aptitude" without questioning the shortcomings of the extant education system. Somewhere along the way, the irony was lost and meritocracy gained legitimacy.

India is a prime example of how privilege is preserved across generations. A former diplomat and now prominent member of a national political party once commented during a TV debate how a large proportion of India’s diplomats came from similar educational backgrounds. It is also not surprising that the wards of India’s bureaucrats, politicians and industrialists always manage to get into the best schools and universities in India and overseas, which then helps them get the best jobs; the cycle continues with their children and grandchildren.

Cut to the on-going preparations for general elections and what emerges is the continuing prevalence of family networks, the overhang of an old semi-feudal social system. A recent analysis by the newspaper The Indian Express of candidates nominated by political parties in Maharashtra highlights the phenomenon. For example, the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party has nominated close to 55% of its candidates (12 out of the 22 seats it is contesting) from families that already have a member who is a public representative either at the centre or the state—as a member of Parliament or the legislative assembly. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has used anti-dynasty politics as one of its main electoral planks, is not too far behind: nine of the 23 seats it has declared (it is contesting 25, and, till the time of going to press, needed to select candidates for two more seats) have been gifted to members of political dynasties. The original dynasty-based party, the Congress, has so far announced candidates for only 23 seats, of which six (26%) belong to political families. Of all the candidates announced so far by the four leading parties in the state (including Shiv Sena), 38% boast of a political lineage. It will be interesting to see how numbers stack up on an all-India basis.

Using merit to explain this away might then be a bit of a stretch. Civil society, public intellectuals and institutions must also try to wrap their heads around another emerging issue and decide whether it sows the seeds of further inequality and class barriers: a universal basic income or a minimum income guarantee. Regardless of whether it is truly universal or means-tested, the two national political parties have skimped on key details, hoping to muffle them with the din and flash of election campaigning. The real issue is the continuing availability of public goods—such as education or healthcare—even after either of the schemes is introduced, and critical steps to ensure inclusive access.

Writing aboutYoung in The Guardian recently, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah observed: “We cannot fully control the distribution of economic, social and human capital, or eradicate the intricate patterns that emerge from these overlaid grids. But class identities do not have to internalise those injuries of class. It remains an urgent collective endeavour to revise the ways we think about human worth in the service of moral equality."

The debate on meritocracy is often silent on the issue of human dignity, or questions about the value that future regimes are willing to place on equality.

Rajrishi Singhal is consulting editor of Mint. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal

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