Does merit count in India?

D. Dhurandhar

By Dhananjay Dhurandhar

Jairam Ramesh, everyone’s favourite equal-opportunity offender, has declared with characteristically little substantiation that the IITs and IIMs – and particularly their faculty – are not “world-class”. The yowls of outrage and hisses of agreement have been deafening.

The phrase “world-class” resonates oddly for us Indians. Unlike most references to India’s attitude to the outside world – which I like to think of as alternately touchy and fawning, like a half-tame puppy – “world-class” says less about what we think of the world, or what we hope they think of us, than of what we know of ourselves. And that is, by and large, that so much in India is hopelessly mediocre.

Dismiss the usual silly explanations in favour of a false Indian exceptionalism. No, it is not because Indians are genetically or culturally predisposed to cut corners that no corner in this country is left uncut. No, it is not because it’s hot in the afternoons, so we never have time to build a work ethic across a working day. Nor does it have anything to do with Hinduism, caste, Oriental fatalism, the emasculating legacy of colonialism, or a rice-heavy diet.

After all, it isn’t regular things that we worry about. We said we wanted Delhi to become world-class, not anywhere else. And we meant flyovers, not slums – since we already have world-class slums. What we suffer from is a national anxiety that our best is never very good. Our best colleges are mediocre. Our best films are laughable. Our best songs are copied, and our best attempts at sport involve beating seven other countries.

And we know why that is. It’s immediately evident to anyone who has been to a South Delhi party or gone to the “right” boarding school, and it’s increasingly visible to the rest of us, too. India’s best don’t scrap and climb their way to the top. They glide. They have it handed to them as if by right. They are schoolfriends, children, cousins, and neighbours of each other.

In the past six weeks, I have seen the following things: a major magazine with a cover story on artwork done by the editors’ friends, and a review of a play featuring the editors’ flatmate; a book contract handed out to an old school chum at a school reunion; a book review half-dictated by the author to an acquaintance; newspaper op-eds suggested and accepted in a business-class lounge; the first choice for a job being someone who someone else sort of knew in college.

And because a lot of these people will, in the end, do a halfway-conscientious job, we think they’ve earned whatever plaudits come later. They certainly do. In the process, we pervert the very meaning of the word “merit”. In a land that inverts meritocracy, where the smooth slip to the top and the creative but unconnected drop out or leave, it isn’t any wonder that mediocrity rules in India.

10 Responses to Does merit count in India?

  1. SM says:

    more recently, I have seen an anonymous contributor’s blog on the website of a book-writer, whose book had been reviewed in a newspaper by the man behind the anonymous contributor’s blog. was it a quid pro quo?

  2. Natasha Sher-Khan says:

    Entertaining, articulate, and so remarkably clued-in for an old man with a predilection for tweed headgear. I agree with those in the comments section who think these examples of nepotism only apply to the rarefied world of journalism and publishing (woefully co-terminus these days). But I think that even within this tiny self-absorbed world, the author could have pegged his largely convincing arguments on less petty cases of cozy networks furthering mutual self-interest. He seems well placed to know of them.

  3. Vijay Kumar says:

    In India, the only time we hear about loss of merit etc is when disadvantaged sections like dalits are given an opportunity (in any walk of life like education, jobs, entrepreneurship etc which they were hitherto denied). However, it is supposed to be just fine, to recommend or pay bribe or by seats/positions on behalf of an acquaintance from social circle (loosely defined as ppl that can inter-marry, meet often on intimate social occasions etc).

  4. T.B. says:

    The examples of nepotism mentioned in this piece, are in the high world of English journalism and English literature in India. The inhabitants of this world form part of a small group of the outward-looking cultural elite who endlessly strive to be recognized by the standards set by other societies and cultures. For the most part though, current “world-class” standards, be it economical or cultural, are defined by terms completely alien to most other Indians.
    Why this obsession with seeking after the so-called “world-class” when we haven’t even begun to define what we consider to be real achievements within our own country, expressed in our own languages, using our own rich and numerous cultures? In my opinion, the rest of India, encouraged by the elite and by other powerful external forces, is trying desperately to skip a crucial step in wanting to be “world-class”. This step, I believe, involves a certain necessary period of self discovery that will help in the defining of ones own standards – first and foremost – before trying to become “world-class”. It is vastly unrealistic to expect the “creative but unconnected” to ever be given a chance if the imposed systems of merit (supported by the opinions of the elite, both external and internal) itself idealizes “world class” without knowing first what it is capable of being and creating, on its own.
    We have to be realistic, for whatever “world class” may be, we must not forget that a huge percentage of our people have less than nothing and if we are even going to think about competing on this “world-class” stage, we have to ensure than no one is starving first.

  5. neha says:

    ” Jaan pehchaan”- Connections ,are considered the biggest resource for you to do something and succeed today… we dont get ruled by the best politicians, we dont get taught and assesed by the best teachers, we dont get to applaud the best talent…. and that, is such a pity!!

  6. bonnie says:

    very true…one example that comes to mind is our medical colleges…all they want is big donation…merit seat number is very less compared to the seats that these college put out for selling….and person who has the biggest donation to offer gets the seat…..This sends a message to ppl like me…either be extra ordinarily brilliant (to come in 1st 300) or have a rich dad…..other wise don’t dream to becm a doctor…

  7. Jaba Kusum Devi says:

    This is at best a partial urban explanation. The vast under-achieving hinterland, the dull, below average masses willing to tolerate chalta hai, the daily triumph of mediocrity in most government agencies around the country, cannot all be explained away by the old boy network. Such networks exist in all countries, including the very well off ones thriving on excellence. A possible explanation if one may dare offer, is the guilt associated with our caste system, which seemed to have implied that excellence was limited in our society. Our quotas and reservations have thrived with an unstated, but guilt expiating belief, that all men in India are created equal in all ways and thus perform equally well. Thus, below average becomes acceptable and the merely acceptable, good. A culture of merit, on the other hand is brutally demanding and willing to call a spade a spade unequivocally. In such cultures all people are equal before law, but that’s about it.

  8. Suren says:

    This is not untrue. The people themselves think they are very clever if they gain from being so connected, even when they are mediocre fools.

  9. Vivek says:

    Brilliant, and spot-on.

  10. Prakash says:

    “The phrase “world-class” resonates oddly for us Indians. Unlike most references to India’s attitude to the outside world – which I like to think of as alternately touchy and fawning, like a half-tame puppy – “world-class” says less about what we think of the world, or what we hope they think of us, than of what we know of ourselves. And that is, by and large, that so much in India is hopelessly mediocre.”

    Well said, Sir.

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