It is ironical that even as the Chinese have embarked on an ambitious plan to create 100 world-class universities, Arjun Singh is beginning to dismantle the IITs, IIMs, and AIIMS, India's symbols of excellence recognised all over the world, by means of caste-based quotas.
It is too easy to call Arjun Singh incompetent, as many have judged him. More likely, it is the case of cynical old men acting on cold political arithmetic. But such actions have unintended consequences.
The Indian political system has for many years worked in a state of peculiar pathology, where the response to real problems is to buy time by announcing reservations that distract attention away from real issues. But quotas for one thing or the other have been in the news for years, and the power to distract may be overrated.
The admission process to India's elite professional schools is based on competency examination. If the complaint is that the admission examination is not entirely fair and favours the urban student who prepared for it at an expensive cram school -- and this complaint has some merit -- then the admission procedure should be changed. If the complaint is that some communities are grossly underrepresented in the student-body, then there is reason to establish excellent high schools in areas that are poorly served now.
Indians from all communities want to send their children to professional colleges, which is great since such desire seems to be less strong in Western countries that have open admission in universities. But we don't have enough colleges, especially those at the higher end of the spectrum. We also need to upgrade our secondary and primary schools.
Arjun Singh should be working on generating more resources for education, and, given the enormity of the task, finding ways to partner with the private sector to not only maintain the integrity of Indian universities, but be able to match the Chinese challenge with a plan to create our own 100 world class universities.
Instead, just the other day students for five elite medical colleges in Delhi were teargassed because they wished to speak to him to roll back the reservations. Medical students find it especially galling that pro-reservation politicians have it both ways. V P Singh, the reservation messiah, can go to London for routine medical care on taxpayer's expense, so he has no stake in ensuring that the integrity of India's medical schools is not compromised.
It is possible that this process of increased reservations is similar to the increased nationalisation of industry by the government that took place before the bottom fell out of the corrupt license-raj system by the late 80s. If that is the case, the political reaction to Arjun Singh's quotas might eventually lead to the freeing of higher education from the stranglehold of the government.
Should the campaign against caste reservations that has been announced by student leaders spread across the country, it might very well lead to a realignment of political forces, and fundamental change in public policy.
On the other hand, if things remain much the same, people will adjust to the new system. Those who can afford it will send their children to colleges in Singapore, Europe, and the United States. The quota idea will be pushed in new forms: based on religion, in private industry.
There is an interesting difference between Greek and Indian tragedy. In Greek tragedy, the hero's hubris causes his downfall, but events unfold rather rapidly, and there is catharsis at the social level. Indian tragedy, on the other hand, is a long-drawn affair, driven not as much by hubris as personal greed.