On ‘Merit’, Middle Class, and Rahul Gandhi

Pappu talks of fighting against RSS/BJP, but never talks of fighting terrorists and countries supporting terrorism. He hardly talks of taking actions against the Maoists… (sic)”

He thinks he owns India which BJP is trying to snatch away from his dynasty. What an quite essential duffer (sic).”

The above are among some stock comments from the Facebook page of the Times of India under a post on Rahul Gandhi’s resignation as Congress party president.

So much antipathy is levelled against Rahul Gandhi as a politician, especially from the English-speaking urban middle class. Most of them are anchored along two major strands; the first being that he is a dynast, and the second that he is a good-for-nothing wannabe – just another “pappu”.

Taken together, it means that they believe an undeserving person is trying to usurp power and prestige, solely on the basis of the family in which he was born into.

Both these strands are discursively underlined by the favourite trope of the upper caste middle class elite – ‘merit’.

The well-crafted campaign against the former Congress president by his detractors along these lines all play to the gallery populated by those schooled in the idea that merit is a standalone, objective, individualistic and de-contextualised criterion that needs to be adhered to strictly. This discourse conveniently forgets the fact that context and social conditioning play a major role in refining and polishing an individual’s potential. It also subtly hides within it an ideology that advocates that only the fittest shall survive.

According to middle class elites, merit needs to be reinstated as affirmative action through reservations for the historically oppressed castes and communities have seemingly proved to be a shortcut for the undeserving to reap special privileges from the state – especially in jobs and admissions to institutions of higher learning.

And this, they believe, is at the cost of deserving general category candidates who are apparently claiming the opportunity on the basis of their individual merit alone and not in the name of their caste.

Also read: Debate: Dear Rahul Gandhi, This is Not the Congress that Nehru Envisioned

The narrative is contradictory, as the real benefactors of hereditary privileges are those upper castes who inherit all the cultural and economic capital that goes with their elite caste identity and surroundings. Whereas, those born in underprivileged communities have to fight a much bigger battle with both – lesser resources and the baggage of historical social stigma – to attain upward mobility.

Anthropologist Carol Upadhya in an article published in the Economic & Political Weekly (2007) argues, “It hardly needs to be pointed out that the merit argument ignores the social and economic factors that produce “meritorious” candidates in the first place, especially the continuing monopoly over a certain kind of cultural capital that is enjoyed by the middle class – which is composed mainly of upper castes – due to their greater access to the best educational institutions and other processes of social closure.”

The present obsession with the ideology of merit, as the single most important criterion for jobs, promotions and admissions to institutions of higher learning is also the result of erstwhile lower caste communities making their presence felt in the corridors of power that were previously populated exclusively by the traditional elite. Today, ‘merit’ has also emerged as a euphemism for the drive towards reinstatement and protection of upper caste privileges, from any sort of encroachment by the lower castes.

Contrary to what is being bandied around in public discourses, merit emanates from the attempts at protecting traditional caste privilege. Hindu nationalism represents, majorly, the aspirations of the upper caste middle-class of the country. Merit is being deployed to whip-up public sentiments against affirmative actions and, thus, restrict the lower castes from claiming their fair share of power. Its proponents seek to install merit as the hegemonic discourse.

The allegations of dynastic politics being raised against Rahul Gandhi stem discursively from the idea of merit as the sacred test by fire that ensures only the fittest survive or achieve upward mobility. In the earlier instance, if it was the upward mobility of the lower castes that was sought to be restricted through the deployment of merit, in this case, it was to stop the Congress and its allies from defeating Hindu nationalist forces.

In both these instances, merit has been used instrumentally by the upper caste middle-class elites to protect their interests.

The well-planned campaign, especially by online Hindutva activists, to discredit and caricaturise Rahul through branding him “pappu” added credence to the calls for merit. It was not just the Hindu nationalists, but also other parties who had a beef with Congress, like the Communists, who latched on to calls of “pappu”, thus indirectly legitimising the former’s campaign strategy.

Of course, Rahul Gandhi also inherited massive privileges through his surname. However, allegations of dynastic politics were selectively aimed at Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, while condoning it in other parties including BJP. Such accusations also turned a blind eye to the fact that most of the mainstream political parties in India today are dominated by upper castes (similar to most other coveted fields of human endeavour in the country), who have made quick currency out of their traditional privileges.

Suffice to say that even if dynastic politics should be a problem, it is one for another day as today we have far more pressing concerns.

Featured image credit: Reuters