Debating India


Striking difference

Friday 2 June 2006

Post the Supreme Court’s direction, a continuation of the doctors’ strike would have raised a whole lot of piquant questions, not the least among them the strong possibility of the protesters losing the not inconsiderable sympathy they had engendered. The strike being called off was therefore quite the right decision.

But the relief the government undoubtedly feels should be laced with a strong dose of self-criticism. Why did it take the Supreme Court - which was after all hearing a PIL on the validity of the quota extension policy and was not petitioned on the strike per se - to persuade a group of educated, disaffected young Indians? What does the government and the general political culture lack that it can’t impress those who are not professional agitationists, nor trained in the black art of organised, politicised collective bargaining? Why do official promises sound hollow while judicial directives work? To answer these questions simply by pointing to the far greater credibility the Supreme Court has, would be to allow our political class a much undeserved escape. The real answers lies in the manner politicians look at policy and people.

Consider the take-it-or-lump-it fashion HRD Minister Arjun Singh first introduced the quota extension policy. Here was an attempt at social engineering that would drastically change the already brutal arithmetic of admission to quality institutions. But for days the government and the general political class seem to be saying that anyone opposing the policy was simply being elitist or retrogressive or casteist. Why wasn’t a clear blueprint of higher investment in higher education laid out? It took a fortnight for the government to come out with a seat increase plan in a few institutions that was clearly insufficient to address the issue at hand. No remotely intelligent attempt was made to make the numerical/social basis of the extra quota clear. No one explained why, when higher education needs a policy paradigm shift, did the government find it so urgent to play with the most ineffective of public policy tools? Of course, none of this was done because behind the whole mess was a political calculation. That the calculation may yet prove wrong for the Congress, as this newspaper has argued, merely makes everything that has happened in the last month or so even more ridiculous. The protestors had always caught this whiff of cynical politics every time official spokespersons opened their mouth in conciliation. Thus their unwillingness to listen to politicians.

See online : The Indian Express

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