Diversity doesn’t mean reservation

As we approach the coming election season, more and more people will climb on to the bandwagon of job quotas for minorities and SCs/STs in the private sector. The Congress party has done just this at its Shimla conclave. Mayawati and her BSP have protested that growing privatisation, as well as VRS (voluntary retirement schemes) in the government service and public sector, are reducing the number of jobs reserved for SC/ST candidates. If indeed social justice requires job reservations in the public sector, they argue, why not in the private sector too?

Now, the Congress party has special reasons for getting into caste politics, which have little to do with morality or justice. The party came up as an umbrella organisation claiming to represent all sections of the population during the independence movement. That was a useful strategy to prevent the British Raj from using tactics of divide and rule. And when India gained independence, the umbrella approach helped the Congress co-opt any group which seemed to gain popularity. The party claimed to speak for SCs, STs, OBCs, Muslims and everybody else. It co-opted and rewarded Dalits like Jagjivan Ram, tribals like Jaipal Singh, Muslims like Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed. For some decades, this tactic undercut attempts by caste groups to become politically strong.

But this game ended in the 1990s, when identity politics finally overcame the Congress’ umbrella approach. The BSP gained critical mass and took away the Dalit vote. The OBC votes were progressively garnered by OBC leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar. Muslims voted tactically, opting for Mulayam and Laloo in North India. Parties based on religion (the BJP, Shiv Sena) and region (Telugu Desam, BJD, AGP, AIADMK, Akali Dal) became stronger in the 1990s. So the Congress, which claimed to represent everybody, was in danger of representing nobody. Let me not exaggerate: the party is still strong enough to win several state elections. But it has been dealt a severe blow by the rise of parties based on caste, and its new talk of job reservation in the private sector is a thinly-disguised attempt to win back lost voters.

Forget the Congress’ vested interest, and look at the issue of social justice. Does this require job reservation in the private sector? Proponents point to the recent Supreme Court judgement in the United States upholding affirmative action. If affirmative action is regarded as socially just even in the US, should it be otherwise in India, where the very Constitution talks of special protection for historically disadvantaged groups?

These are serious questions that deserve a serious answer. But some are based on misinformation, and need to be weeded out.

Affirmative action in the US has never been based on a federal law mandating quotas for blacks or other groups. Civil rights legislation in the 1960s abolished what were called Jim Crow laws, that had long disenfranchised blacks. After that, affirmative action became a social movement more than a legal requirement. Throughout the country, colleges started having implicit or explicit quotas for blacks, without legal compulsion. Mayors and local governments began giving preference to black contractors in issuing local contracts. Even the armed forces went out of their way to attract blacks at all levels. But never did Washington prescribe job quotas by law the way the Indian Constitution has done for SC/STs.

The recent US Supreme Court decision on the University of Michigan’s admission policy held that the University had a right to regard diversity as one factor in admissions policy. This was the first time that diversity, as distinct from combating historical handicaps, was held to be a legitimate criterion. Critics had claimed that the university had no business to use any criterion other than merit. The court disagreed.

Both Mayawati and Sonia Gandhi favour job reservation in the private sector, but that must not be confused with the concept of diversity. If diversity is made mandatory, it will imply that a Muslim employer cannot hire Muslims, a Tamilian employer cannot hire only Tamils, and so on. That is neither desirable nor workable. Diversity should be permissible, even desirable, but not mandatory.

Job reservations in government service and educational institutions are subject to minimum cut-off marks. If a Dalit candidate does not get the minimum marks needed to qualify for admission to the civil service or an engineering college, he will be rejected even if the reserved quota is unfilled. For this reason, huge numbers of reserved positions remain unfilled year after year. Indian courts have upheld the principle that reservation is subject to minimum qualifications.

However, jobs in the private sector are not determined on the basis of getting marks in an examination. There is no objective cut-off mark that can be used to establish minimum qualifications. So the analogy with admission into the civil service or educational institutions does not hold up. Nobody can insist that corporations must hold UPSC-type exams. That would not only be inefficient but unconstitutional: it would abrogate the right to carry on business. G D Birla and Dhirubhai Ambani never passed any UPSC exam, nor did they go to some fancy business school, yet were among the finest business brains in the world. Business acumen cannot be judged by marks in an exam.

But what about social justice? What should we do about a situation where hardly any SCs, STs or OBCs figure in corporate hierarchies? The answer, surely, it to ensure good educational facilities for all, in which case the lower castes can break out of the cycle of poor education and poor jobs. The state is guilty of deplorable failure in its duty to the poor and downtrodden. But the answer to a third-rate state cannot be to create a third-rate private sector. Nor will the tribulations of hundreds of millions of Dalits be cured by giving a creamy layer among them a few hundred corporate jobs. We need true social justice, not job tokenism.

What do you think?