It has been over two months that the sixth season of Kaun Banega Crorepati came to an end. Its tagline ‘Sirf Gyan Hi Aapko Aapka Hak Dilata Hai’ became very popular and is interesting in itself. This motto is built on the concept of promoting perseverance and struggle despite all odds, in the hope that - in the end ‘knowledge’ will give everyone their deserved worth. Perhaps one must recognise here that knowledge can never create a level-playing field for all. When access to knowledge is unequal, how can it in itself become an equalising force?
Just to be clear, Kaun Banega Crorepati is a not just a quiz show. It has come to be associated with an unparalleled aspiration across the country. Every season, lakhs of people make repeated attempts to cross the different levels of qualification to be on the show. Other motivations aside (like that of meeting Amitabh Bachhan), the show offers the unique opportunity to make the kind of money in a day, that most would probably not manage to make even with a lifetime’s work. The show itself harnessed on the emotional appeal of the aspiration to be a participant and has in the last couple of seasons, introduced video footage documenting the participants’ journey to the hot seat, akin to reality shows.
This idea epitomises the philosophy of reality TV and perhaps of the entire American nation – Smile or Die. It is typified by the story of the American underdog who perseveres his way through life’s struggles to emerge as a winner. He does not whine and smiles through all his troubles because, as if it were a Hollywood movie, the end is bound to be well. Romanticism can be found in abundance in the Indian popular understanding of success as well. It can be found in different shades and degrees in the Slumdog Millionaire and in Chulbul Pandey.
To talk of inequalities or difficult circumstances then is a kind of taboo or worse, a sign of cowardice. Opposing the idea that - persevering and gaining knowledge will by default lead to success - is equated with resisting hard work or co-opting out.
The idea plays out contentiously in the debate on the issue of reservation or positive discrimination in the country, in the fields of education and job opportunities. Opponents of the reservation system hold that such a system creates a society with diluted merit. They argue for the creation of a meritocracy – where knowledge enables everyone to climb the ladder on the basis of their own perseverance. By this logic then, those who snooze then must, and probably deserve to lose.
Meritocracy is a mythical concept and is as unreal as KBC’s claim of rewarding the truly meritorious. It is well known that access to education and job opportunities occurs along the axis of social capital – the people you know, the references, the donations. Having this social capital allows most of us to seek our aspirations. Many socially disadvantaged do not have access to these tools. On the one hand the vague idea of meritocracy talks about withdrawing positive discrimination for the disadvantaged, but on the other, it does not address the well-accepted convention of paid-seats in educational institutes and nepotism in hiring policies.
Going back to the original example of KBC, its qualification process entails one to have - firstly access to a phone or an internet connection, and then to be able to answer all the questions correctly, at all the different qualifying levels. Even after that, you are expected to overcome the randomised shortlisting that is done to narrow down the huge numbers. The levels are tedious, the spots limited and the contenders numerous. Several ‘very deserving’ candidates are bound to fall through the gaps.
So are we arguing for reservations in quiz shows, the opponents of the system may ask. These opponents hold that by adjusting qualification criteria, reservation dilutes merit – and thus by some inane logic, leads to those benefitting from the system to become bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad engineers and probably bad quiz show contestants!
Any competition is not a linear race or a vertical ladder-climb, even though it appears to be. Quantified exam scores or test results create the myth that judgement of merit can actually be a simple exercise of calculation. Further, the myth is made even more solid by the constant harking to this evasive and idealised conception of a meritorious society -an exercise in unworthy self-congratulation. It derives logic from the repeated assertion that we have the solution, we are just not able to implement it as yet.
We do not actually have a solution, because inequality is not a problem to be ‘solved’. Inequalities in education and opportunity are often seen as simplified Rubik’s Cube-like situations. It is said that an understanding of the steps to the solution and practice will help you solve the Rubik’s puzzle, no matter who you are and where you come from.
Inequalities historically perpetuated in society however cannot be addressed by a solution strategy of flattening of competition criteria. They pose a number of physical, social, economic hindrances to access to education for those marginalised in different ways. The most important hindrances caused by societal inequalities are however psychological. The assertion of inferiority or fixed caste/gender roles (in case of the marginalisation of lower caste groups and women) leads many to adjust their aspirations. So, while positive discrimination policies are in place, many are not able to seek full advantage of them because of an acceptance of low self-worth and capability.
Even by some miracle, if we were able to ‘equalise’ everyone’s access to education, the knowledge or self-confidence gathered from the process will remain very subjective and context-specific. Perhaps there are many out there, who despite KBC’s very optimistic motto, never consider themselves as being capable enough to even compete to become a participant on KBC. These are the people who fall through the gaps of merit evaluation. They are the people who the evasive idea of meritocracy and its claim of the equalising nature of knowledge, conveniently forget.