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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 16, April 15, 2023

Looking into the Other Side of Merit: Rethinking Our One-Dimensional Imagination | Gyan Prakash

Saturday 15 April 2023


by Gyan Prakash *


The discourses around merit often delink an individual from his/her social and cultural history. One-dimensional imagination of merit checks the emergence of alternative thinking. There is an immediate need to ensure the equality of conditions in order to meet the tyranny of meritocracy. Broadening the idea of affirmative action could be a way forward. 

A judge from Patna high court while hearing a case related to a suspended district land acquisition officer commented "Bharti ji reservation par aaye thae naukari me kya? (Bharti ji, did you get this job through reservation)". The comment triggered laughter from the lawyers in the courtroom. The video of the proceedings made huge rounds on social media inviting a diverse range of opinions from both pro-reservationists and anti-reservationists. Many people while analyzing the whole episode concluded that the weakening of the Mandal movement over the years has made such comments from a chair of authority look very normal. There is no doubt that strong positions in favor of Mandal have not been made by the political parties which led the politics of social justice, but such remarks have been very common since the early 1990s when the idea of Mandal was implemented partially and parties of social justice were very strong in assemblies and parliaments. The comment is the public reflection of the collective conscience of a society that celebrates the making of an individual that upholds the logic that develops around merit. We have seen how a specific category called ‘Quota Wala’ have developed in every institution in general and universities in particular. Believers of merit often see the people entering the universities and public institutions with the help of reservation as a burden on the economy and society. Over the years, it has become a commonsensical idea that affirmative action is responsible for the dismal state of the country, be it the breaking of a bridge, an unsuccessful surgery, or the failure of certain policies.

 There is something very deep in such remarks made by a person sitting in a chair of authority, university staff, and common people which is rooted in the uncontested faith in meritocratic ideals. It forces us to revisit the logic of merit in a society that promises to attain democratic ideals through a constitution given to us by the collective efforts of our forefathers. Michael Sandel, while writing about meritocracy argues that, although it did away with a system that distributed status and privileges based on birth, a system based on merit is posing a danger in the way of constituting a moral and democratic society. He brings to the surface the dangers that our common goals of an inclusive and just society face in the wake of an uncritical acceptance of meritocracy. He points out some major limitations of such a society. First, it delinks an individual of his social, economic, cultural, and political history and robs his or her potential of any sociological imagination. Devoid of such imagination, the individual becomes an isolated entity responsible alone for his or her success and failure. Once the history of an individual melts into the deep sea of individualism, the present becomes everything. The horrible experiences of the past, the systemic exclusion and discrimination at the hands of a system dominated by caste, the compelling nature of hierarchies based on birth, and being forced to live on the outskirts of the village and in urban slums under subhuman conditions are forgotten to the extent that taking of one’s privileges and based on birth becomes blasphemous.

  The successful individual in a fully meritocratic system believes that he or she has some charismatic features and should be endowed with legitimate rights over all the productive resources of the society, be it control over politics and economic resources or status and dignity. Anurag Thakur, a cabinet minister and parliamentarian from the state of Himachal Pradesh came up with a scheme under which the top 20 marks-getters (girls) were taken on an all-India tour with government support. No one shall be opposing the idea of organizing an all-India tour for young Kids, but the very basis of selection should be critically scrutinized. What becomes of the self of those who could not make it to the top 20? Isn’t it the beginning of an early internalization of the belief that the successful must be the first to claim right over the resources of this nation and the unsuccessful have to live their life with a tormented self? Rather than minimizing the programmes that endorse such immoral division between the successful and the unsuccessful, every government has been blatantly pursuing such schemes.

 Within such a system, the unsuccessful have to be mandatorily deprived of any status and respect and deserve to be humiliated in every sphere of public life. In an attempt to save their kids from such humiliation, corruption has become endemic in nature. Sandel talks of the side door wherein the parents of the elite sections buy question papers, bribe the college administration and indulge in all sorts of illicit activities to get a seat in the institutions that produce merit i.e, the college and universities. In India, it has become routine to come across news where question papers are leaked for employment to jobs and admission to universities.

   Recently, a student in Bihar tweeted wherein he asked the officials to ensure that the academic session runs on time and degrees be awarded soon so that he can go to his village and get some respect from his kin and relatives. Those with degrees deserve all sorts of respect and degree have-nots have to remain prepared for all sorts of violence inflicted upon them. The institutions imparting merit in the form of degrees have become immensely powerful. The elite schools train their pupil in a completely different world that hardly shares the common goals and common history of a society. Therefore, such a brute system of analyzing human potential leads to the massive dehumanization of all those who could not make it to the much-celebrated and coveted circle of meritorious because of forces beyond their control. The production of the unsuccessful self through the machine of meritocracy posits a perpetual threat before any imagination of a democratic socio-political formation based on the ideals of justice, equality, liberty, and fraternity. Thus, the common sense it propagates produces people who face discrimination and humiliation in their social life and live under compelling economic conditions but have uncontested faith in the idea that "Jisko Padhna aur Aage Jana hoga wo apni mehnat ke dum par kahin se bhi padh kar aage jaa sakta hai (those who has to attain upward mobility can attain so by studying from anywhere by his or her hard work).

 A system based on merit worships upward mobility and not equality as an ideal to be strived for and the only condition that the state needs to ensure for meeting this goal is the equality of opportunity. The stories of upward mobility of few are sold at the cost of the systemic exclusion of groups. The individual and his or her success remain the cornerstone of a system in which efficiency is measured in terms of upward mobility. A system that strives for equality is threatened by the loss of social solidarity even if there is an increasing pile of the successful few at the top. A society in pursuit of equality must awaken to the call for freedom and justice which is continuously being targeted in the name of merit. So, if we follow equality of opportunity, nothing is disturbing if a Dalit child who has helped his family in the fields and failed to attain regular schooling, has been silently forced to join an occupation that invites stigma and disregard and has experienced a social and educational life full of violence of all sorts is not legally stopped by the state to attend an examination which is also attended by one of his/her fellow citizens who goes to an elite school with his caste title bringing him/her respect and status unknowingly and provided with nutrition calculated precisely by scientific standards and getting to hear words of acknowledgment and appraisals from the teachers and peers.

  Sandel invokes the idea of equality of conditions in place of equality of opportunity to recorrect some of the dangers of merit. Bourdieu, one of the leading French sociologists of the 20th century argues that "merit is the product of the investment of time and cultural capital". The time for which one can access the field that determines the possibility of merit formation is shaped by the economic and social resources at the disposal of his/her family. While the availability of various resources- economic, social, and cultural, makes adaptation to the field of merit very natural to someone, the unavailability of the same set of resources for the other lays the seeds of silent exclusion from the beginning. The development of habitus, critical to one’s success, is determined in a particular individual in great measure by forces beyond his/her control. A discourse built around equality of conditions will consider these extra individual factors responsible for the formation of individual merit and make this very idea of merit a democratizing force.

  The supreme court of India in one of the Judgement, giving constitutional validity to OBC quotas in NEET on January 20, 2022, pushes for a more comprehensive and broader understanding of merit. The court says that” The rhetoric surrounding merit obscures the way family, schooling, fortune and a gift of talents that the society currently values aids in one’s advancement. Thus, the exclusionary standards of merit serve to denigrate the dignity of those who face barriers in their advancement which are not of their own making". The judgment points to the fact that merit is not one’s own making. The court further said the "the idea of merit" based on scores in examination requires "deeper scrutiny". Thus, the judgment of the court asks us to revisit the myth around merit. The words and phrases like “self-made entrepreneur”, “Deserving” and “if you think you can do it” shall be seen in with a more critical bent of mind beyond our one-dimensional notion of merit.

Mandal and Market

The peak of the Mandal movement coincided with the opening of the market in India. The operating principles of reservations and the market are opposite to each other. While reservations believe in retracing the past of the social groups and communities and supports making reparations for the discrimination and exclusion that these groups have faced in the past, the free market believes in the present of the individual who is free to use the opportunities available to him/her as a citizen to bring the best out of him/her. This myopic lens through which the market tries to understand the complex nature of human society is the biggest threat to the constitutional promise of justice, equality and democracy. The opening of markets also led to the growth of an education system that limited the scope of humanities and liberal social sciences and commercial market-based subjects were accepted with utmost urgency. It produced a world where technology-driven mass consumption became an end in itself. The race for consumption rather than the quest for egalitarianism became the guiding force in such a society.

  Uncritical acceptance of the present has become the norm of the day. Herbert Marcuse argues that uncritical thinking derives its beliefs, norms, and values from existing thought and social practices, while critical thought seeks alternative modes of thought and behavior from which it creates a standpoint of critique. Such a critical standpoint requires what Marcuse calls "Negative Thinking" which "Negates" existing forms of thought and reality from the perspective of higher possibilities. Critical thinking thus comes with another realm of ideas, images, and imagination that serves as a potential guide for a social transformation. The politics of social justice and strong social movement in support of it provided a fertile ground for the negation of market-driven justice. The Mandal movement motivated a generation with a new set of beliefs and search for an alternative mode of thought and behavior that would set the path for the liberation of the oppressed. The idea of affirmative action was at the core of that alternative path. The Mandal movement questioned the limitation of a society based exclusively on merit and therefore prepared the oppressed and marginalized for a democratic engagement with such a system by positing the ideals of justice and equality. However, the mass ignorance at the bottom informed by the doctrine of karma so central to the Brahmanic philosophy, as argued by B.R Ambedkar, made the internalization of exclusion and inequality look very natural to the lower castes and Dalits. The market-driven belief in the supremacy of the individual over the social followed by an education system that perpetuates the foundational tenets of a technological society has made impossible the possibilities of any alternative to the present notion of merit based on equality of opportunity.

 Thus, there is an urgent need to search for a system that aims to achieve the equality of conditions. The search for a common education system by reducing the huge gap between elite international schools and government schools may be a way forward in this regard. The histories of groups and communities and their abilities and vulnerabilities need to be situated in the present context to work seriously for their social inclusion to strengthen our democracy. The possibilities of affirmative action must be explored beyond the restricted and ever-narrowing territory of the public sector and must be applied to the widening and ever-expanding private sector. Some researches show that efficiency hasn’t been compromised in any way while following the idea of positive discrimination. The efficiency has to be looked beyond its economic dimension to a greater world of the social and cultural life of a nation. However, we need to go ahead and reject the tyrannical side of merit if it restricts itself to merely a machine producing efficient individuals in place of a society based on justice, equality, and liberty which are the fundamental values to be realized by any society committed to democracy.

* (Author: Gyan Prakash is a Ph.D.Candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi | Email: gyan.prakash.2295[at] )


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