WATERLOO (ONTARIO): Months ago, the field of presidential nominees for the Democratic Party narrowed to Barack Obama, an African-American, and Hillary Clinton, a woman.

Both are highly qualified, having graduated from the world's most prestigious colleges and universities and then worked their way up through the world's toughest and most competitive political system.

Both are US senators. Neither became credible presidential candidate through quota politics. Now, finally, Obama has defeated Clinton to assume the mantle of party leader and presidential standard-bearer for the Democrats.

The most important point of policy relevance for India lies in the significance for our growing burden of quota politics that pose a threat to merit, initiative and national integration.

When a group like the Gujjars - and they are not the first and nor shall they be the last - launches mass protests demanding to be inscribed on the list of "disadvantaged" groups, it is clear that, the reality of historical grievances notwithstanding, membership of these groups brings significant advantages in modern India.

Not only do the lists of scheduled castes and tribes still exist. Their membership has continually expanded since 1950, the scope of public and private activities that they regulate - such as preferences in college admissions, job placements and promotions - has periodically been extended, and the benefits intended to offset inherited group disadvantages have been increasingly captured by the powerful and the wealthy creamy layers instead.

All this is testimony to the biggest public policy failure since our Constitution came into being.

Indians today are more conscious of their different caste identity than at independence. Caste is as salient a determinant of life choices based on public policy in modern India as it was in ancient India based on religious
and social reality.

And it threatens long-term economic prosperity, social cohesion and political unity alike. Obama is the embodiment of the American dream that anyone with talent, aptitude and the work ethic can aspire to the highest office in the land and the most powerful position in the world.

By contrast, quotas mean that merit and hard work can be and repeatedly are trumped by sectarian identity. This has a doubly pernicious consequence.

On the one side, it reinforces the sense of victimhood and group entitlement for initial entry and subsequent advancement.

I fail because of historical discrimination, not owing to any personal shortcomings. I deserve this job and upward career mobility as a Dalit or a tribal, and it is your duty to give me these.

I see no point to improving my qualifications, skills or productivity, as these are irrelevant to professional advancement and rewards.

On the other side, it has a terribly demoralising and disincentivising effect on those who lose out because they are a member of the historically forward but modern disadvantaged groups.

What do we think the effect is on a poor, studious, bright and hard-working Brahmin child who sees scholarships awarded to a less intellectually able, less diligent, son or daughter of a "backward" IAS officer or cabinet minister?

The sense of disenchantment, alienation and disaffection ripples outwards. Even if admissions and jobs were to be awarded competitively, owing to scarcity, for every successful candidate, hundreds would be disappointed.

Thus for every successful candidate in a quota-based system, there would only be one replacement successful candidate in an open merit-based system.

The hundreds of unsuccessful candidates would fault their own inadequacies in an open system but end up nursing grievances against the system and the polity in a quota-based system.

The pool of the resentful is thus hugely bigger. The resentments, grievances and national divisions would not be growing and multiplying if the preferences were based on household income whereby the genuinely needy could indeed be helped without antagonising the able and the meritorious.

But of course this would not help the lucrative careers of the professional caste politicians whose leadership skills are limited to mobilising caste vote banks.

Nor would it provide convenient alibis for failures of public policy to politicians of all stripes and states. If we had full employment, if the public and private sectors were competing to recruit and retain the best talent in a thriving economy, and if multiple educational institutions of genuinely world-class faculty, facilities and curricula were also competing to attract the best students, then quotas would be obsolete.

Obama's success (and of others like Bobby Jindal) will provide unmatched incentives to people of all colours and races in America to apply themselves to improving their lot in life through quality education, hard work and high ambitions.

It will help to attenuate the suspicions and hostility of blacks towards whites, for Obama could not have succeeded without millions of whites voting for him.

The twin Obama-Clinton achievements mean that the double glass ceiling has been well and truly broken. Future generations can experience the shards of glass cascading over their shoulders as they look to and aim for the sky.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.