governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for March, 2016

Owning India

Javed Akhtar’s response to the “Bharat Mata ki Jai” controversy stoked by Asaduddin Owaisi — the member of Parliament from Hyderabad — was just what was needed to pour oil on the dangerously choppy course our politics has taken. And there is no joy to be had in justifying this trend by pointing to the US, where politics has become similarly divisive, courtesy Donald Trump, who wears both his heart and his head on his sleeve.

The right to own India

Javed Akhtar

Glamour and Guts: Shabana Azmi & Javed Akhtar. photo credit: saveondish.com

Javed Akhtar was, till last week, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. In his farewell speech on March 16, he put the controversy to rest by simply stating that it is irrelevant to figure out whether or not it is constitutionally mandated to shout “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. He views this as his right not his obligation.

What exactly may he have meant by that? The uncharitable would say that it is not unusual for those ending their term in Parliament to curry favour with the incumbent government in the hope of re-engagement or promotion to a higher office. Whilst anything is possible, what Mr Akhtar said is so aligned with his frequently espoused idea of a syncretic India, that it being merely a self-seeking posture is unlikely.

But, even if Mr Akhtar’s intention was partly self-serving, it would not be a bad idea to have Mr Akhtar and his vivacious spouse — actor and activist Shabana Azmi — occupy a high-profile sarkari position which requires balance, a mindset uncluttered by bias and international stature.

Mr Akhtar and Ms Azmi fill this criterion to the brim. What could be better than having them in the Rashtrapati Bhavan — which has languished for many years as a resting place for politicians — save for a brief period during the tenure of the unforgettable A.P.J. Abdul Kalam?

More importantly, Mr Akhtar brought to the fore, in his characteristic and effortlessly chaste Hindustani, an issue that troubles many. What is “Bharat” and “Bharatiyata” (Indian-ness) all about? And, as a corollary, who owns India?

A new top down Idea of India

Tomes have been written on the “idea of India” and the dilution of consensus around its “syncretic” nature.. But it does not help to merely point a finger at majoritarian reflux against vote bank-based pandering to minority interests as the key factor disrupting an ancient tradition. If a muscular version of Hindutva is being fanned, there is also a reciprocal fundamentalism in the type of Islam being advocated. It is akin to the Khalistan movement during the late 1980s.

The notion that the “idea of India” is something which we have inherited from the distant past is ludicrous because colonialism ensured it never took root. The freedom fighters and members of the Constituent Assembly, amongst whom Jawaharlal Nehru remained the key executive fulcrum for over a decade, first created the idea of a new India. Thereafter, we have struggled to give a permanent and concrete form to the social and economic transformation, which underpins the idea of owning India. The continued dominance of traditional identities, including religion and caste, as a defining classification for people is a significant barrier to evolving consensus over what being Indian means to people.

The best option for resolving this vexed issue is, if traditional identities themselves evolve and become more inclusive — like an open access class structure. Growth, prosperity and education were expected to dilute traditional identities as a social consequence of enhanced economic equality. But this hope is fading. As we see in the US, traditional identity — in their case race — is the trump card politicians play when times are hard. The Indian state needs to do more, albeit in a soft-handed manner, to foster the ownership of India.

The notion that Indian-ness can be induced from above is not fanciful because of the long arms of the state in India. A complete divorce between religion and the state seems unachievable in a deeply religious country like India. But meticulously even handed treatment across all religions is a reasonable option for rationalising our affirmative action policy, reservations, for public sector jobs; access to publicly-funded education and bank finance. For this purpose, adding economic eligibility criteria to the existing framework built around traditional identities, makes fiscal sense given the need to target subsidies tightly.

Creating Bharatiyata requires even handed sacrifices by all citizens

But unless “Bharatiyata” is based on equitable sacrifices by all Indians and offers equal stakes to all, this objective will be stillborn. The biggest real divide today is not religious. It is the one between the poor, irrespective of religion and caste and others who have used the available opportunities to improve their living standards. An efficient and effective policy of positive affirmations has to be dynamic and must evolve to target those who are left behind because the composition of the have-nots has changed. Whilst this is a social and indeed a moral obligation, it also serves a societies self-interest well to intervene with targeted social protection and human development measures. After all, aggregate domestic demand can only increase if incomes grow across the spectrum. Economies, where wealth is unduly concentrated at the top – as are some dictatorships with very high GDP date (think Russia)- are neither happy (unlike Bhutan which is), nor prosperous (unlike Scandinavia which is)  and definitely not sustainable (unlike the US which is).

Reform the political architecture

Reforms to our political architecture are key. Ensuring that election tickets for political office are given to nominees in a manner matching the religious and caste profile of the relevant political entity (national, state or local) is a powerful and somewhat obvious tool. It is not for nothing that Justin Trudeau, the rockstar Canadian Prime Minister, remarked recently, “There are more Sikhs in my Cabinet than in Modi’s”.

Other key advances in representational democracy would be making 50 per cent-plus-one of the votes cast as the threshold for being elected instead of the first-past-the-post system we follow. This single change can drive inclusive politics given the new imperative it will create — to gather a larger critical mass of voters to get elected. Introducing minimum educational qualifications for members of all elected bodies is another very important instrument to encourage more nuanced debate and legislative action. Mandating a minimum 50 per cent representation for women in the legislature and in the civil service is another game changer.

It is commonly understood that growing the divisible pie enhances the value derived from ownership. It is illustrative that roots of the current political disarray and lumpenisation of political debate in the US and in parts of Europe are attributed to the tapering-off of the good times they enjoyed since World War II ended in 1945. In contrast, the value of being Indian has grown significantly post 1994, when the benefits from economic reforms, liberalisation and globalisation started kicking in.

Young india

President APJ Abdul Kalam- science buff and mentor, inspired the young to dream big and act resolutely. photo credit: thehindu.com

What we lack is a critical mass of meritocratic, Indian elite who put the nation first. But a new elite is growing – based on education and opportunity; charged with the spirit of entrepreneurship and unhindered by chips on their shoulders, left over from colonialism or faux  socialism. Also an increasingly demanding electorate may yet be the catalyst for change in political accountability. The next 50 years present India an even better opportunity for economic growth led domestic, social and economic convergence in owning India. The opportunity is only ours to lose.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age March 22, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/owning-india-331

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