Indians are affably argumentative (Amartya Sen, 2005). Less likably, the Indian State is intensely hypocritical. It remains very medieval despite its veneer of modernism.
Examples of medievalism abound. We value Indian lives very low. No minister has ever resigned because citizens, in their charge, starved to death or died due to lack of emergency medical aid or if large numbers of students fail to pass in public schools. Corruption is a leitmotif of even the simplest public transaction like lodging a First Information Report at a police station (this is something which should even be possible by email or sms or whatsapp); avoiding getting arrested for drunk driving; getting a copy of case records from the lower courts or seeking protection from physical harassment and assault.
The best illustration of lingering medievalism and nascent modernism is the conscious use of hypocrisy by the State, to keep alive the hope of change without disturbing the status quo. There are many such State hypocrisies but five major ones stand out.
The biggest hypocrisy is the Constitutional provision that religion does not matter for State policy formulation and execution. Everything points to a different truth. The Shah Bano episode (1986) is the best example of how religion and politics have been inseparable. In this case the Supreme Court granted maintenance to a divorced Muslim woman (as is the right of any Indian woman) but the government rescinded this progressive judgment through a perverse, new law to appease orthodox Muslim sentiment. Meanwhile, to placate orthodox Hindu sentiment, which was being fanned by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a Hindu rights outfit), it also opened the gates of the disputed site of the Babri Masjid which had been locked by the government since 1885 to preserve the status quo on counter claims to possession rights by Muslims and Hindus. Incidentally 1885 is also the year the Indian National Congress was founded. By 1986 (a century later) the Congress was not averse to play the communal card with an eye to the 1989 elections.
Other more visible “red flags” of regressive religious politics are the low pan-Indian representation of Muslims in government; the increasing ghettoization of Muslims even in new urban areas; blatantly pro-Muslim or Hindu political parties and decreasing levels of productive social interaction between the two major communities since 1947. Let’s face it. The religious cleavage exists in an antagonistic form and is increasing. It is only once we accept this that we can get to talk about how to bridge it.
The second big hypocrisy is that all Indians are created equal. Democracy and the positive affirmation (reservations) policy have solidified caste much more than the dilution effect from urbanization. If Pandit Nehru saw Sardar Patel as a biased Hindu he would be shocked at the manner in which political leaders today pander to narrow interests of backward caste and Dalit vote banks. After religion, caste is the next most significant political identity of Indians. The majority of Indians wed within their caste and vote for caste candidates. Indians are not born equal. They struggle to overcome the inherited, rigid social and economic barriers of caste and very few succeed, despite the Constitution and a range of laws prohibiting caste based biases.
The third big hypocrisy (which we share with much of the World) is that women are treated equal to men. They are not and never have been. The good news here is that since this is an international problem, the state of play is fairly advanced. Policy, law and programs are working to empower women economically in the hope that social change will follow; to measure their levels of satisfaction; to assess results and to provide special protection to them in the transition period.
The fourth big hypocrisy is that poverty is reducing at a satisfactory rate. This is far from true. Even worse, asserting this statistically, as the government does, lulls us into believing that following the current path and simply doing more of what we do already, will get us to a poverty free India. It cannot.
Average per capita income needs to triple in real terms and inequality to reduce significantly before we can even claim to have found the correct direction. Some measurable indicators are a consistent growth above 8% per year; a more equal sharing between the rich and 70% of the rest, of the benefits of incremental growth (we don’t monitor this periodically) and the rate of job creation in the formal economy.
The fifth hypocrisy is that the existing governance architecture of Parliamentary Democracy is suitable for India. It is not. Both Parliament and Cabinet have ceased to play their intended role as checks on personal aggrandizement and protecting minority interests. This has been true for State Governments over the last three decades but over the past decade even the GOI Cabinet has become the poodle of Party bosses. The sanctity and effectiveness of Parliament is eroded by the behavior of lumpen elements, more familiar with brute force than reasoned argument or moral persuasion. Corruption vitiates executive decision making to the extent that the judiciary becomes the aam admi’s “de-facto government” for seeking redress.
How can this familiar tale of woe be altered?
First what is not measured and recorded cannot be dealt with. Enumerate caste/tribe and religion in the census so we know the numbers; the spatial distribution and their wellbeing. Map caste and religion data on a publicly available GIS down to the village and urban ward level so that government interventions can be calibrated to local social norms and results assessed by third parties. Assess poverty levels bi-annually using mobile based rapid data collection instruments to better relate schemes (like the Right to Food or the Right to Work) to poverty reduction outcomes.
Second review the existing incentive structures for diluting religion, caste, gender inequality, poverty and improving the functioning of the executive, parliament and judiciary.
Caste based affirmative action (reservations) clearly perpetuates an “us versus them” psychology. Diluting it by adding poverty criterion, requires more data and monitoring, but can lead to the dominance of more modern pressure groups like professional affiliations (farmers, business owners, employees), locational interests (Biharis or Mumbaikars) or ideological solidarity (environmentalists, big or small government advocates, gay rights advocates).
All government programs and projects should be evaluated for their poverty reduction potential before approval by the government and income enhancement targets fixed. Achievement against targets must be monitored by third parties with the results made public. This will reduce pork (roads to nowhere) and gold plating (capital heavy projects which do nothing for jobs-why not let private business do these?).
The Constitution should be revised to completely separate the Executive from Parliament. The PM and her deputy to be directly elected with minimum vote shares prescribed in each constituency to ensure inclusion. The ministerial executive team to be nominated by the PM and endorsed by the Parliament. The internal emergency provisions should similarly require the endorsement of parliament to protect state government autonomy from an aggressive PM. The 2014 elections are being fought in any case on the basis of “US President like” identities.
This simple change can ensure that the PM is popularly elected and is not just a “shoo-in”. It can also improve the quality of MPs by getting rid of those who contest for Parliament seats (often by paying for them) only as an avenue for eventually getting into lucrative executive positions. Legislative ability requires skills in law and social sciences apart from a feel for the local interests an MP represents. Executive ability requires specialization and narrow experience. The system must present separate choices to the electorate and to those desiring to enter politics.
The bottom line is to transit from being an affable but hypocritical India to a more results oriented and honest India. In the modern world time is money and the long route to poverty reduction whilst changing incrementally is costly. Social stability is a merit good in the Indian plural context. But the price for social stability must be paid by the rich and not the poor or the marginalized.