Jayprakash Narayan (MLA: Kukatpally, AP) recently toured America and spoke to Indian communities in various cities about the contemporary socio-political situation in India and the work of his party, Lok Satta. While the articulate Mr. Narayan made many excellent observations and points during his discussions, one set of statements stood out. He recalled a conversation with a lady social scientist from America who was doing her research at the American Studies Research Center at Osmania University.
She identified three critical flaws in Indian society,
1) Birth as an accepted determinant of status and destiny
2) Very low levels of trust across society
3) The lack of belief in a collective fate
This blog has touched on these themes repeatedly, particularly on the acceptance of birth as a determinant of destiny and the collective failures of Indian society, especially the middle class. Is ‘being blind’ to caste an effective antidote to the first flaw ? Can a unity based on ‘cricket’ and ‘Bollywood’ give rise to the belief in a collective destiny ?
Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States. nothing struck me more than the general equality of conditions.
The ‘equality of conditions’ that Tocqueville refers to is not material equality, America was quite unequal materially in 1835 when his monumental work was published. Rather, it reflects the general social equality he found in people’s day to day interactions. Inside their estates, the big landowners might have been lords and aristocrats but outside they were citizens just like anyone else. This ‘equality of conditions’ was wired into the genus of American civilization through the first line of the American Constitution. As such, the very opposite notion is wired into the genus of Indian civilization. And as I have noted earlier, the Indian Constitution has to not only declare a change in this genus but also has to take on the society to uproot inequality, a formidable task.
It would seem that based on the results of the last 60 years, the Indian Constitution is lacking the firepower to neutralize India’s ‘inequality of conditions’. The Indian state’s personnel seem to be indifferent or even hostile to the Constitution’s vision. It is evident that steps need to be taken to enforce people’s control over the personnel of the Indian state and ensure their ideological commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution. The Right to Information was such a step, and pressure has to be exerted on the government to take more such steps and not just build roads and power plants. The spread of Constitutional values is also important. The document is hardly part of the urban, ‘educated’ Indian’s lexicon. This generation has to work hard to place the Constitution and its values firmly in the natural discourse of India’s middle classes.
I will address the third point before the second. Collective fate. Why can BP not get away with an oil spill in Lousiana like Dow/Union Carbide seems to be doing with Bhopal ? The reason is simple, people in Texas, Seattle and Maine do not treat such national calamities with the indifference that even ‘new Bhopal’ shows towards ‘old Bhopal’. Americans are too fused to let BP get away. Obama knows that California and Nebraska will not forigve him if he lets Louisiana down. But South Mumbai has not cared about the Maharashtra government letting down Dharavi for decades, forget Bhopal !
How can this be overcome ? Today being cynical and not giving a damn are accepted social behaviour as is breaking the law. Waving away Bhopal, breaking the law or being cynical about voting has to be socially unacceptable, not by threats or guilt but by clear indications that this is undesirable, unappreciated and ultimately counter productive to one’s own well being. Just think about how we react to a foreigner speaking his mind about our ‘culture’. The same reaction needs to arise when someone who calls him/herself an Indian waves away the plight of the wretched people of India in his/her indifference and cynicism.
Finally we have the issue of trust. Narayan in the video above notes that in India, trust within the family, clan or caste is almost absolute. While outside of this, there is almost zero trust in any person or institution. Again, the critical role of the state come to the fore. With low trust in most societal institutions due to their legacy of oppression and discrimination, the state should have been a neutral arbiter between Indians of all classes and backgrounds. Instead, our society seems to have eaten up the state and reduced it to being the spoils of an electoral caste war. Middle class folks like me have responded by abandoning all faith in the state and seeking solutions in the corporate world or migrating.
The middle class must understand that Tata and Infosys can make and sell lots of goods and services but they cannot provide justice. ‘Fortune 500’ companies cannot provide relief during natural calamities and they cannot guard borders from terrorists. Reliance can and will make thousands of ads invoking freedom and patriotism but it cannot and will not take on Khap Panchayats. A moral, credible and competent state is an absolutely irreplaceable component of a nation in which people can feel at home and thrive.
Simply put, the three great flaws of Indian society can only be defeated by a state forced to function competently and abide by the Constitution that is the basis of its moral authority. No amount of impotent rage or charity can do that job.