It is not very often that a country’s political capital is cut off by angry mobs making relatively petty demands. And yet the recent demands for affirmative-action programs reflect the inordinately complicated political arena of India, and put to serious test the government’s ability to reform. I have written previously [1] about the poor reform record of India.

At the heart of the most recent mess in Indian politics is an attempt to impose affirmative-action programs – “reservations”, in local parlance – that will apply to the admission of students to government-owned educational institutions, after previous extensions to government employment. The main categories for identifying people in need of economic assistance relate not to economic pointers but to castes.

Ancient mess

It is fair to say that foreigners would be hard pressed to understand how an apparently racist system can ever underpin an economic-development program, and yet that view would be precisely wrong, because caste has always been about economics in India. From ancient times, the idea of dividing citizens by their functional roles served to foster specialization and concentrate wealth with vested interests. In this respect, Indian society was no different from the evolution seen in Western societies, which just happened about 2,000 years later, as with the example of England during the period from 1100 to 1750 or so. [2]

There was really nothing to choose between the Indian caste system and European feudal society as seen by examining two features – first, that a person’s status in society depended on birth, which also determined what he could be expected to achieve in his life. The second and perhaps more execrable feature was the lack of mobility in and out of castes, although many authors claim this was a post-Mughal affair, as the induction of foreigners into specific warrior castes from time to time showed that the system was actually open to both internal and external inputs.

All of that, however, pales in significance when one examines the plight of people outside of the caste system, namely the untouchables. In the words used by George Orwell 20 centuries later, they were “non-persons” [3] whose fate was worse than that of animals in Hindu society. That the situation persisted despite centuries of internal and external reform movements, from Buddhism to the Islamic and Christian invasions, was testament to the significant economic strength of the caste system as a way to specialize production and concentrate profits, on which of course any government’s taxes depended.

Thus the caste system flourished not so much because Indians believed in the religious mumbo-jumbo associated with the ideas of rebirth, sins and virtues, but because it made economic sense for both governments and vested interests – namely businessmen and warriors – to keep the system intact. I have already written about why the caste system wasn’t dismantled by the Buddhists, Muslims or Christians in the aforementioned article, so I will not repeat my arguments here.

Racing to the bottom

One of the greatest achievements of the Indian state over the past 60 or so years was something that did not happen, namely a major famine like those in Bengal [4] that wiped out more people than World Wars I and II combined. That achievement was only made possible because for the first time government became answerable to the people in the democratic system.

This has of course meant that caste lobbies became more visibly entrenched in the political system. I would stress that point – that castes simply became more visible in a democratic system, while previously they had played a more indirect albeit equally authoritative part in determining the course of social justice.

India’s choice of a socialist system of government was to prove a historical blunder that owes much to the erudite idiocy of Jawaharlal Nehru (prime minister 1947-64). I will focus on the follies of centrally planned economies in the next article, but here the focus is on the interplay with the caste system. A country with lower-than-potential economic growth is always marked by internal strife, and that has become the way for India.

In particular, lower economic growth meant that the lot of fewer Indians improved, and these tended to be city dwellers mainly. Anyone who travels on public transport in any large Indian city can come away with one key observation, which is the complete absence of caste distinctions in urban India. Jostling for space on a crowded train to work inevitably means that you cannot choose to be near people of your caste, or indeed choose the caste of the person next to you.

Despite its recent economic success, much of India is completely untouched by economic progress of the kind seen in China. Given that, the gap between rich and poor in India is also one between urban and rural India, and inevitably a gap between castes. Indian media frequently report on a common theme of emigrants to cities achieving riches and then coming back to find their status unchanged at home, in turn setting off conflicts. As the “developing” and “lagging” parts of India collide, it appears inevitable that caste-ridden rural India would revolt against the largely casteless urban society – which is why the roads to Delhi were blocked last week. But the revolt was more about the desire for economic development than any caste-war notions, and therein lies the good news.

Think about the conflict for school spaces – if India built enough schools, why would anyone feel left out of the educational system? With sufficient schools, all castes are accommodated, and provided with quality education. The political descendants of Nehru, though, are masters of subterfuge, and thus focus on creating any controversy that can help to mask their own failures. It is a bit like Arab governments mentioning Israel whenever their legitimacy is questioned internally.

Thus Indian politicians of all hues have to embrace affirmative-action programs, which can help gather support from rural caste-based voting, as seen in recent state elections. This issue has rapidly become a sacred cow, but its main argument of providing social justice is fundamentally misplaced. Affirmative action in education renders standards lower and, by thus devaluing the main benefit associated with a quality education, fails to serve the intended purpose of improving living standards.

A person worried about hair loss may have the luxury of choosing the right-looking quack to deal with his problem, but someone suffering cardiac arrest is less likely to consider the hairstyle of his doctor but instead focus on getting the highest-quality care. In much the same way, private-sector employers do not have any incentive to pick dolts in their workforce, as competitive demands far outstrip any other consideration. Governments, though, have the luxury of choosing employees on criteria that have nothing to do with efficacy, because by and large governments are useless from a strictly economic perspective.

Looking at the relative ease with which Indian cities have shaken off the caste system, the solution to achieving social justice is elsewhere, namely economic development. Rapid urbanization of India would make castes less relevant and force through social changes. This, rather than what caste gets which classification, should be the higher priority for Indian governments.

Tomorrow: Pork barrel politics

1. Indian reform: All bark and no bite, Asia Times Online, August 16, 2006.
2. It’s the money, honey, ATol, December 22, 2006.
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
4. The Bengal famine of 1943 is estimated to have cost more than 5 million people their lives, and one in the same region in 1770 wiped out about twice that number.