Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Jitni abaadi utna haq’ call isn’t about elections or Mandal. Goal is reform

None of the 140 unicorns in India have a Dalit, Tribal or OBC founder. On the flip side, 100 per cent manual scavengers belong to these communities.

Praveen Chakravarty
April 26, 2023

File photo of Rahul Gandhi | PTI

File photo of Rahul Gandhi | PTI

Rahul Gandhi in his speech in Kolar, Karnataka, said that only 7 per cent of all government secretaries belong to the OBC, SC, and ST communities.

He could have added that out of 104 unicorns in India, none of the founders are Dalits, Adivasis or OBC. None of the top 50 companies listed in India’s National Stock Exchange are headed by Dalits, Adivasis, or OBCs.

Or let’s take the Adani Group. Rahul Gandhi has been evicted from Parliament and his home for highlighting the Group’s ‘nexus’ with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. According to Congress data research unit’s analysis of surnames, (perhaps barring one or two) none of the 74 directors and top leadership in the Group’s 16 main companies are Dalits or Tribals or OBCs. To put it cheekily, not only is the Adani Group an alleged recipient of undue patronage from the Modi government but it accrues mainly to the ‘upper’ caste leadership of the Group.

On the flip side, as per government data, nearly 100% of manual scavengers belong to these oppressed castes.

Surely, these are not mere coincidences. If Dalits, Adivasis, and OBCs constitute nearly three-quarters of India’s population, then what explains their exclusion from the top of the professional ladder while they represent the absolute bottom (manual scavenging) in its entirety?

For far too long, this incredible skew has been explained away as ‘meritocracy’. The argument is that the professional positions at the top are filled purely by ‘merit’ and it so happens that the 5-10 per cent of ‘upper’ castes constitute 90-95 per cent of all meritocratic Indians. This is such an absurd argument that it is shocking it has survived for so long. It is both statistically and theoretically illogical to claim that three-quarters of a population has no ‘merit’ and all ‘merit’ is concentrated in the top one-tenth.

Need for caste census data

Undeniably, there is a problem in how professional success has manifested itself through Indian society over time. Such a stark caste-skew is clear proof that caste is a statistically significant factor in determining social outcomes in India, as any empirical scientist would concede. Either we accept this as an inevitable outcome of the laws of the human jungle or we acknowledge the need to fix it as a civilised society. But before we yield to the temptations of finding solutions, it is only logical to understand the gravity and the scope of the problem on hand.

This is where the need to release the caste census data arises. We neither have official nor updated data of India’s population by various identity groups. We do not know the extent of progress or lack of it for each social group. We do not know where the shortcomings are—education, health, income. The diffidence in making the caste census data public seemingly stems from the fear that it could lead to social unrest when people realise the enormity of the inequality that pervades Indian society and the lack of an immediate and elegant solution to fix it. The fear is both real and understandable. But the lack of an immediate solution cannot be a justification to not acknowledge and understand the problem. It is important to separate the need for caste census data from potential solutions to right these wrongs.

Asking for caste census data does not immediately have to be interpreted as asking for greater reservations or Mandal 2.0 or removing the 50 per cent cap on reservations or any such policy measures. The need to retool policies to fix the skew is obvious. But the design of the next generation of social reform policies will first depend on the size of the current problem, for which we need the caste census data. Caste census is Indian society’s right to information first, and later, a call to action.

When Rahul Gandhi said ‘jitni abaadi utna haq’ (proportional rights) in Karnataka, it was understandably interpreted as just an election campaign speech intended to rabble rouse. But in Gandhi’s mind, it is not confined to Karnataka or an election. He will undoubtedly echo this in other parts of India and during non-election speeches. It is fundamentally a call for 21st century social justice that yields an equitable distribution of success.

Next generation of social justice reforms

If we acknowledge the skewness in the share of success in our society and the need to correct it, then the underlying principle for a solution is one of proportional share. That is, if Dalits constitute one-fifth of the population, then it is only fair and reasonable to expect roughly one-fifths of government bureaucrats or unicorn founders or CEOs to be Dalits. This is so obvious and justified as a first principle and a social objective to aspire for. Again, this call for proportional rights does not necessarily or immediately imply that it has to be forcibly achieved through increasing reservations or by bringing Mandal 2.0. The political call for ‘my share, my right’ given by Rahul Gandhi can be interpreted along the lines of ‘no taxation without representation’ slogan by American political leader James Otis in the 18th century for the American independence movement. It is first a goal to strive for based on principles of fairness, justice and equity, and then determine a path to achieve it.

Once the caste census data is released and it is agreed that we will strive for ‘jitni abaadi utna haq’, the next obvious question is how. This is where one needs to tread carefully and deliberately. There are no easy or quick-fix solutions. Juggling quotas or expanding reservations to the private sector are obvious solutions but they can lead to unintended consequences in today’s India. It is time for the next generation of social justice reforms and not mere retooling of old policies of reservations or affirmative actions. At its core, the imperative is to fix the problems of the birth lottery. Perhaps there can be solutions through a social lottery of opportunities. All ideas, new or old, bold or timid, radical or stale, must be put on the table and deliberated in great detail to arrive at solutions.

Rahul Gandhi’s call may seem sudden or electorally motivated but it is not. It was decided after extensive deliberations backed by research that the time has come for India’s next generation of social justice reforms. Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge’s letter to the prime minister asking for caste census data to be made public is the first step in this new movement. The government’s imputed stand that unless there are clear solutions to the caste inequality problem, the data cannot be made public is both myopic and untenable. It is time for ‘jitni abaadi utna haq’ – a new India that is just and fair and not discriminatory based on birth. Let’s start with the data.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and a senior office bearer of the Congress party. He tweets @pravchak. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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