In September 1991, I was backpacking through Namibia. One day in Windhoek, I ran into a bustling Indian trade fair. Several Indian exporters and manufacturers had set up booths, and they were thronged by curious Namibians.
Accompanying the businessmen was a delegation from the Trade Fair Authority of India. It was depressingly obvious that most of them had nothing much to do. When we got talking, they related with relish their experiences while travelling on TFAI business: duty free opportunities in Frankfurt, a nice hotel on a Dubai stopover, that sort of thing. But Windhoek bored them. No decent shops, Dilip-bhai!
Two days later, I met the TFAI delegation at a dinner. There, the conversation turned to Indian politics, and to Mandal. A year after it had erupted into a national conflagration, Mandal still fired passions. The delegation leader launched into a long denunciation of reservations. Implementing the Mandal Report, he said, would elevate illiterate and undeserving people to positions of power. You see, he pronounced to his listeners, VP Singh -- upper lip curled in derision -- wants to give "certain kinds of people" -- curled some more -- jobs they are not qualified for. What would happen to merit?
Even today, I remember the rage that flooded over me. Pros and cons of Mandal aside, there was something galling about hearing a lament about merit from this man. Here he was, luxuriating on a taxpayer-paid jaunt, doing nothing except shop for gee-gaws and sip drinks. This man professed concern for merit!
It struck me that in any regime where merit counted, this fellow would be out on his ear. Instead, he was lounging in Windhoek, wringing his hands over the demise of merit.
When Mandal's critics speak of merit, they think that's a foolproof argument against Mandal. But who are these critics? Have they got where they are because of meritorious services rendered? What is the evidence of merit in their work, or around us? Have they applied their merit to understanding what Mandal really says? (Of that, more another time).
Nobody would seriously argue that a society should ignore merit. But to what extent have we honoured merit in our nearly 60 years?
I mean, tot it up.
Some years ago, we watched then Maharashtra Chief Minister Patil-Nilangekar fudge exam results to get his daughter into a dental college. In Bihar, when CM Lalu Yadav was about to be investigated for crimes, he installed his wife as CM. For five years in the '90s, we suffered a remote-controlling Thackeray as the unelected ruler of Maharashtra; his son, nephew and daughter-in-law also rose to prominence, and taxpayers still pay for security for them all. Prime and other Ministers so easily let their foster- and other children use their name and power to get ahead.
Look around you when you step outside. The garbage that meritorious people throw on the road; the potholed state of roads; the seedy air our train stations sport; the surly service you still expect from most public sector institutions -- these features of daily Indian life tell us how much we have valued merit, dating back to before Mandal ever became a concern. What must we say about the builders of that bridge over Goa's Mandovi River, the one that collapsed before it could be used? Were they selected for their merit at bridge-building, and if so, what happened on the Mandovi?
When we say Mandal is an insult to the primacy of merit, we pretend that merit has always been a primary concern. But as we know well, it never has. And as long as it is used to whack Mandal, it never will.
A followup piece will examine some of what's in that Mandal report.