Elitism, populism, meritocracy…

Not a day passes without encountering some serious thinker venting his/her angst on this subject.
It could be an editorial or a column in a newspaper, magazine or Web site, or an interpersonal exchange at work or a comment by a friend one is having a drink with.

Let’s quickly run over the vocabulary of this angst-ridden discourse :-

  • ‘Khan Market Gang’ (believed to have been created to describe a group of young members of Parliament from entitled backgrounds who ate at upscale restaurants at Delhi’s Khan Market during their lunch break at Parliament but now applied to anyone from an economically or socially privileged background)
  • ‘Populist’ (to imply that the leader concerned is a supporter of giveaways in cash or in kind to win over a large group of the not-so-privileged)
  • ‘Secularist’ (to describe a person who views the rights of minority religious groups as important)
  • ‘Pseudo-secularist’ (to mean a person who supports positions to win favour with minority religious groups)
  • ‘Meritocrat’ (one who believes in applying merit-based criteria to match people and positions, be it in university admissions or in promotions)
  • ‘Reservationist’ (one who supports applying other-than-merit based criteria to match people and positions).

One does not have to be a scholar to deduce that all these terms are used — if you refer to someone as a Khan Market gang member, you see yourself as being different from that person and, similarly, if you refer to someone as a member of the elite, you see yourself as not being a member of that elite.If you are born in and grew up in a village and attended the local non-English medium school, your chances of making it in life in India are bleak?

Getting a job in one of the entities created by this globalisation mantra has meant meeting its standards of meritocracy, which means entrance tests (CAT, JEE Advanced, GRE… etc) that we believe ensure that young people, irrespective of their social and economic background, get an equal chance to enter our top educational institutions — whether the IIMs, the IITs, the national law schools or the public medical colleges.

We have fervently believed that such entrance processes and such public institutions would ensure that entry to the major professions of our times would be available to children from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds and not just for children whose parents are from elite backgrounds.
Add to this that most entrance processes — whether for one of these prized national educational institutions or for a job — have an interview/group discussion which requires a degree of fluency in English that disadvantages all those who haven’t had an English-medium school education.
In this context, could it be that what looks like a populist wave is really a vote to change a system which, in the name of meritocracy, is essentially fixed to benefit a narrow minority?

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