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India’s ethnic quotas are a cautionary tale

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Here are five words no politician in India dares utter: Quotas are a terrible idea. Seven decades after the country first embraced caste-based quotas in education and government jobs, they have become permanent entitlements that cement social divisions, encourage mediocrity and poison political discourse. It’s a cautionary tale of identity politics run amok.

Independent India’s founders saw quotas as a remedy for historical injustices, in particular for tribals and Dalits, once known as “untouchables,” who are outside Hindu society’s fourfold caste system. Instead they have expanded over time to cover more castes. Today they reflect political clout more than a history of oppression. As private-sector job growth falters, the clamor for quotas builds.

Earlier this month the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party—with the support of most other parties—enacted a constitutional amendment to breach a 50% cap on quotas set by the Supreme Court of India in 1992. Unless the courts strike it down, a new 10% quota for “economically weaker sections” among the so-called upper castes and religious minorities will reduce to 40% the share of federal jobs and university slots subject to open competition.

This article is available to Wall Street Journal subscribers here. It will be posted in full to on Monday, January 28.


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