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Cronyism not Caste: the reality of entrenched elitism in India

There has been a concerted effort to sell the idea of ‘democracy in danger’ to the global audience ever since the re-election of the BJP government led by Prime Minister Modi in 2019 by a certain ‘intellectual’ class in India. The central narrative being peddled is that Indian democracy is shallow, and that the country remains socially regressive. Mr. Yogendra Yadav, noted ‘social activist’ and failed politician’s article published in the Print online magazine (Hindu upper-caste Indian media is a lot like White-dominated South Africa, published 27th October, 2022) is the latest example of this genre of writing.

Mr. Yadav uses the findings of a survey report by Oxfam titled ‘Who Tells Our Stories Matters: Representation of Marginalized Caste Groups in Indian Media’ to make the case that severe under-representation of OBCs, SC, and ST communities in leadership positions across print and electronic media underlines the seriously flawed socio-economic structure of Indian society and sensationally compares it to the apartheid regime in South Africa, suggesting that such marginalization is in fact institutionalized. Mr. Yadav even suggests that ‘external’ intervention is required to break this dynamic of entrenched inequity and discrimination.What he means by ‘external’ intervention I shall leave to the imagination of the reader.

Mr. Yadav is not just adding to a continued narrative building against the current BJP government in India, and selling the ‘democracy in danger’ storyline to a gullible audience. More subtly, he is trying to create cleavages within the wider Sanatan community through the use of caste because of the cynical belief that breaking the Hindu vote is the only way to defeat the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2024.

Beforegoing further, I would like to state at the very outset that caste discrimination in India is real. Caste related violence, both physical and social continues to cause enormous pain, humiliation and injustice. Great Sanatan reformers through the ages have recognized this and there has been persistent attempts to purge Sanatan society of this evil through the centuries. This article is not an attempt to whitewash the real challenge of caste based violence and discrimination. It is a reminder that Indian society has made significant strides to address this challenge, and the impetus for reform has come from within Sanatan society.

However, the kind of discrimination that Mr. Yadav alludes to is not due to caste. It comes from a much more insidious source-the cronyism and patronage of a powerful clique who want to control the levers of power in this country. And this elite capture and cronyism is not unique to India, thereby again underlining that it is not caste discrimination that drives such exclusion.

Therefore, let us do some fact checking on Mr. Yadav’s bombastic claim equating the lack of OBC/SC/ST representation in the top echelons of Indian media to the comparable situation that exists in those liberal democracies that like to preach to India, especially their extremely ‘progressive and woke’ media establishments whose patronage the likes of Mr. Yadav depend on.

Let us start with the USA, the home of CNN, NBC, WSJ and NYT.  Take a look at the CVs of the top management/anchors/editors of these elite media houses, and you will be taken aback by the fact that most of them come from a handful of colleges and Universities. That these Universities are ‘elite’ are well known. What is perhaps less understood by an Indian audience is that the student population in these institutions are mostly drawn from a largely white upper middle-class demographic representing the top 10% of the US population in terms of income and educational status. Yes, in the last two decades there has been a conscious effort to get some people of color in the more visible roles of anchors, but the management remains largely white as snow. These recent attempts at ‘diversity of the newsroom’ did not happen organically, but were the result of sustained public pressure through the 1980s and 1990s when editorial and newsrooms of US media were almost 99% male, white, and from elite US institutions. The levels of old school tie network elitism and cronyism in the American media is legendary.

This elitism is not restricted to just the media. Do a fact check on the CVs of the partners and sector heads of US investment banks, top law firms and management consultancies, and public relations and advertising agencies and you will observe similar levels of elite dominance that perpetuate racial and economic privilege earned over centuries. In the US case this is particularly nauseating for people of color, especially African Americans, given that these elite institutions received monies earned from exploitation of slaves in the American South, and many prominent upper-white middle class families from these states have slave blood on their hands.

The French bureaucracy famously draws the majority of its cadre from about 5 elite institutions. Needless to say, a vast majority of students who get through to these elite institutions are drawn from the privileged upper middle-classes, and there is an under-representation of minorities. Like in the US, this elitism is also evident on all fields outside of pure science and technology, i.e., finance, management consulting, and media. Just like many in families of US elite historically profited from proceedings of slavery, the fortunes of many elite French institutions and upper-middle class French families are historically linked to colonial exploitation in Africa and South East Asia.

The UK remains famously elitist. Even a quick scan of the top management in major media houses, investment banks and financial institutions, management consultancies, law firms and of course the bureaucracy would reveal the dominance of about 5 universities. Even among these five, Oxford and Cambridge tend to have a disproportionately large presence. Dig a little deeper and even a more elitist malaise emerges. Students from roughly 20 elite schools, i.e., the likes of Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Rugby etc. continue to be massively over-represented in these top positions. These expensive schools remain outside the budgets of most ordinary Britons. This endemic cronyism gave rise to the term ‘old school tie’ network given that graduates of these schools would flaunt their school neckties at social events.

It is needless to state that most upper and upper-middle class white Britons have a colonial history. A vast majority of them gained directly or indirectly from colonial exploitation across the world, most notably India. These elite schools produced a large number of those officials who went on to literally rule India. These schools, and in turn Oxbridge, perpetuate a sickening tradition of privilege and cronyism that would put even their American and French peers to shame.  The fact that a few Indian and other colored minorities, by the dint of their abilities and hard-earned wealth have broken through the glass ceiling recently underline the exception, and is definitely not the rule. Recent events around Mr. Rishi Sunak’s rise to Prime Minister has exposed how even a super wealthy, Winchester and Oxford graduate is still less acceptable because he is colored and a Hindu.

Nehruvian India, and let us not forget that Nehru himself was a Harrow and Cambridge graduate, replicated this elite cronyism that the country’s wealthy, powerful and connected learned from their British masters. This elitism was particularly robust in the bureaucracy and the national English language media based out of Delhi. Given unique trajectories of development of Indian business and financial eco-systems, this elitism was less pronounced in India’s private sector. Four decades after independence in the late 1980s, 10 to 15% of senior IAS and IFS officers were old boys/girls of just one college in Delhi University. This in a country the size and diversity of India!

Scan the CVs of the most important decision makers and leaders in the English language media in India and you would see that about a dozen colleges from India’s 6 main metros dominate leadership positions. That is a reflection of merit you say? Then are we saying that in a country of a billion plus people we are so abjectly poor in merit that it is restricted to these dozen ‘islands of excellence’? That is a ridiculous argument.

But there is something more insidious you will not find in the CVs of these ‘super-meritorious’ elite, but happens to be an open secret. A large number of these ‘talented’ individuals are sons/daughters/niece/nephew of powerful bureaucrats, media persons, military officers or academics.  This is endemic cronyism of the Briton variety. The empire never left, it just changed color and form in many aspects of our lives.

It is important to recognize that while this upper-class dominance of business, profession, and bureaucracy is not unique to India, what is unique is the country’s commitment to affirmative action through the decades under all political dispensations, including and especially under the BJP.  This long-commitment to affirmative action and social reform is having an impact on the composition of the bureaucracy where public policy has had the maximum impact. Gone are the days when one Delhi University college dominated the IAS/IFS cadres. Small towners from lower middle-class backgrounds, many of whom are OBC or SC/ST, are in leadership positions across India’s bureaucracy. A similar change is coming in the technology and new economy sectors. The impact of this silent change in the private sector would be felt in about adecade as new entrants from humble backgrounds climb to top management positions in the corporate world.

Far from being accused of apartheid like conditions, India’s overall commitment to affirmative action has been substantive. While caste-based discrimination in India and racial discrimination in the US are completely different from each other, one can still compare the commitment of these two democracies in being able to deal with serious socio-economic inequities. In that context, Indian commitment to affirmative action started right after independence. Compare that with the US, where segregation was legal till massive social upheaval led to change as late as the 1960s.

To those who point that in actual practice of caste-based discrimination is alive in many rural or semi-urban pockets of UP, Bihar, and some other regions, they have apparently never travelled in small-town USA in states like West Virginia, Alabama, Tennessee or South Carolina where racial discrimination is visibly alive despite decades of affirmative policies on race.

When it comes to this cronyism and elitism in the English language media, whether print or electronic, the real culprit was and is the so called ‘Khan market gang’, the cabal that controlled access to power and power-brokers in Delhi. Media became a hand-maiden of influence, lobbying and corruption and eminent media persons became power-brokers. In fact, this government and especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi must be credited for calling out the crass cronyism and elite capture of this group and making them irrelevant to a large extent. Articles like the one penned by Mr. Yadav are a form of revenge by members of this gang against the Modi government.

I am sure that Mr. Yadav, being part of the academia and media eco-system in the country, especially Delhi, is well aware of the social dynamic of cronyism and elite capture in our national media, especially of the English language variety. And I refuse to believe that being an experienced socio-economist he does not understand how this plays out. He is being disingenuous and completely unethical in signaling that India has something close to apartheid or worse when it comes to caste, where in reality it is just mundane elite capture and unethical use of old school tie networks.

Again, I am not suggesting caste is not a factor, or that there is no caste discrimination in India. I am only suggesting that India has made an enormous effort to address this problem, and the changes are apparent in our bureaucracy over the last decade, and are becoming apparent in our corporate world and would show tangible change in a decade or so in our corporate offices and boardrooms. If our media and the professions like law are lagging behind, it is the ‘gang’ mentality that is to blame, and Mr. Yadav happens to be a card-carrying member of that ‘Gang’.

In fact,this crony elite is really scared of the social transformation taking place in India. As sons and daughters of humble parents from smaller towns challenge the hierarchy and knock down the walls of privilege in the bureaucracy, academia, and corporate world,this old elite is feeling insecure. Gone are the days when the proper English accent, or belonging to the right college or club would be all that mattered. A young, hungry and socially confident cohort is claiming their rightful place under the sun, and changing India for the better.

The writer is Senior Research Fellow, SPMRF. Views expressed are his own