Saturday, June 05, 2010

Private Affluence, Public Squalor

Recently on Karan Thapar’s program on television, a ‘stylish left wing’ commentator (SLW for short, a useful acronym that I owe to Saubhik Chakrabarti) said with a straight face that our troubles with the Maoists originated in our neo-liberal economic model and our post-1991obsession with growth. She then went on to lecture us about the callousness of the new middle class whose chief passion is vulgar consumption, and there is growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

Karan Thapar, sensing a juicy moment of controversy, smacked his lips and looked intently at me, asking me to respond. I explained patiently to my distinguished SLW panellist that growth is a necessary condition for lifting the poor everywhere, including in the tribal areas. It is not a sufficient condition, however, for people also need functioning schools and primary health centres, honest policemen and forest officers. The real problem, I said, is not with our economic model, but with poor governance. As a result we have public squalor amidst private affluence. So, don’t blame growth, blame the state’s inability to deliver public services, especially in remote tribal areas, where the police and forest officers tend to be rapacious.

Private success and public failure is an old debate between the defenders of capitalism and its critics, but it has revived again after the global financial crisis of 2008. Hence the historian, Tony Judt, laments like my SLW panellist, in his new book, Ill Fares the Land: ‘Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of collective purpose.”

For a hundred years, public life in liberal Western societies has been conducted in the shadow of the Left-Right divide and it has provided a peg to understand public affairs. In the 1960s, politics infected the young who thought they knew how to fix the world. In the 1970s, there was a backlash to their unmerited arrogance. The Right triumphed intellectually in the 1970s and politically in the 1980s with success of Thatcher and Reagan. The Left grew defensive, especially after the collapse of communism. By 2000, the Washington consensus was the ruling wisdom in the world as country after country deregulated, lowered taxes and privatised enthusiastically. Today, after the crash of 2008, there is an awakening, and the Leftish rhetoric of Obama in America resonates with voters.

We have a somewhat different Left-Right divide in India. Most of us who call ourselves liberals in India are tolerant of dissenting attitudes and oppose interference in the affairs of others, but we do not generally oppose state intervention on ideological grounds. We do have a deep commitment to religious and political tolerance, but most of us would be called ‘social democrats’ in Europe. Although we do not generally oppose state intervention on behalf of the poor, we do feel badly let down by the incapacity, incompetence, and corruption of the Indian state. The inefficiency of the public sector is an issue everywhere, but in India it diminishes us daily. We do not oppose the public sector for threatening our liberty, as Americans do. We oppose it for its inefficiency. Our problem is not of the ‘what’ but of the ‘how’.
Meanwhile, the world has also changed. Despite the crash of 2008, hardly anyone really wants to replace capitalism. People mostly want to reform the financial sector. It was different when I was in college. We believed that a state-run economy was the best way to promote growth. Today nobody does, except perhaps in North Korea. Policy makers everywhere, especially those under the age of fifty, have a free-market orientation. There may be differences of emphasis, but they are all oriented toward markets. One reason is that capitalism has produced the highest standard of living in history. Since 1991, it has lifted millions of people in China, India, and Brazil out of poverty.
Ideology thus seems to have had its day. Marxism is no longer attractive to the young. No one defends the public sector on the grounds of collective interest. There are, of course, many models capitalism in the world. The countries of Scandinavia are more egalitarian; those on the European continent have a much greater commitment to public health and welfare; the English speaking countries, especially the UK and America, have the greatest commitment to the market and are the most suspicious of excessive regulation. They also suffer from the greatest inequality.

The future of India and China is mercifully no longer dependent on ideology. The race between the two hangs on the more practical question if India can fix its governance before China fixes its politics. Because the state has failed to deliver in India our policy makers increasingly seek pragmatic public-private partnerships. But this is a slow process for people are still suspicious of the market. They may not seek moral perfection in public life but they tend to impute good motives to government officials. They think businessmen make money for their own good and markets loot the unfortunate. They have trouble in seeing that the pursuit of profits can lift the general standard of living of the whole population. The idea is too counterintuitive. Hence, SLW commentators are always popular on TV.

Like Max Weber, the Mahabharata, would have approved of ideology’s decline in our times. The epic is unique in engaging with the world of politics and suspicious of public figures who seek moral perfection. When King Yudhishthira feels guilty after the war for ‘having killed those who ought not to be killed’, he decides to renounce the throne. To avert a political crisis, the dying Bhishma tries to dissuade him, teaching him that the dharma of a political leader is pragmatic and prudent, what Edmund Burke called the ‘god of this lower world.’ A political leader must eschew the ‘ethic of ultimate ends’ and follow the ‘ethic of responsibility’, as Weber put it. Our experience with the last UPA government taught us that when ideology becomes the driving force of politics then room for compromise is diminished and this makes for a dangerous world. The answer to Maoism in our tribal areas is to reform public institutions—the police, bureaucracy, and the judiciary--and not get distracted by futile, SLV discussions of economic models.
Gurcharan Das is the author of ‘The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma’


adarshs said...

Sir, but isnt the problem deeply rooted in our "multi-party" democratic system. We have seen time and again how "coalition partners" stall good policy initiatives, be it UPA or NDA. How, with the current system, can we expect the problem to be solved?

Anonymous said...

Another great thought provoking article Mr. Das. I was looking forward to hearing from you after all the Maoist troubles recently.

Prats said...

Very well said sir.

@$#u+0$# said...

Well Said!
These times call for new ideologies and courage for change.
Which somehow the human condition doesn't allow with ease.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on HOW we can improve governance of the 3 areas that you spoke about.
Moreover, what can lakhs of middle class white collar workers, do to change the same?

knight27 said...

Sir....feeling please to pen down an article on most debated point....I am completely agree with your view on capitalism and its implication which are more positive than negative....but still there is lack of complete freedom on making decision.....I want to make another point on following all tried and tested formulas to gain vote i.e in quota system(now Muslim quota is also available in AP), in cast ism unlike in westerns and unless we get out of this we can not expect any so called "Inclusive" growth....

Anonymous said...

I do not agree to any of the views:

First of all, I don't see how Mahabharata can be equated to the current situation. That war was for "dharma", a goal far loftier than basic survival. The current turmoil in India is mainly the result of local communities trying to survive and retain their cultural identity. Some of them have reached the extreme stage of violence/revenge.
@We do NOT follow capitalism.

When India started its journey, the economy was mostly rural and not mechanized. Thus more people were traditionally employed within their community.

Mechanization meant fewer people could do more work, and earn more. This meant job loss for the rest (especially with traditional skills, which were no longer relevant).

Industrial growth also needs massive land acquisition from poor farmers. But they are NOT allowed to strike their own deal with the entrepreneurs on their own terms, and ensure a bright future for themselves. They are simply dispossessed at an artificially low rate and a promise of a low-pay job. Is this capitalism?

People who know the project's plan in advance (politicians and babus) quietly purchase the land adjacent to mega-projects in advance. They reap the benefits later when the project starts.

Thus, to the poorest masses, "growth" means a few people get richer UNFAIRLY, while a vast number of poor lose jobs, land and homes through force.

No wonder the public sees the projects cynically.
@planning to benefit the downtrodden:

Our netas openly shower development projects on their own constituencies at the cost of other underdeveloped areas.

@benefits to outsiders:
Modern industries can only employ the qualified people. All those jobs must be filled within a short time. But these skills are neither available locally, nor can be created in such a short time. As a result, skilled people from other regions of the country are recruited. By the time locals realize that their area is developed, they also see that it is completely "overrun by outsiders".

Thus the locals feel that alien cultures are displacing them, taking away all the riches and leaving only the lowest jobs to them.

No wonder many regions of India resent the "outsiders". They want a right on the local riches and employment. They also want the local culture/language to prevail. This creates stress within segments of our country.

Unfortunately, like Eastern Europe, our states are based on ethnicity and languages. This makes it too easy for small fringe groups to take to violence against the "outsiders", or for a separate statehood for a more equitable share of the revenue.

Note that the above are NOT the same as what the SLWs describe as "vulgar consumerism in the face of deprivation".

SLWs have also demanded that the poor in the far-flung areas be sustained fully by the State, without any idea as to who will pay for that undertaking (or its sustainability).
This is far beyond the scope of honest police and forest officers. Although they weaken an already weak system, their effect not so crucial as the planners.

menon nn said...

A well thought out article. I agree with the major thrust of your arguments. Ideology can be defined as "yesterday's thought which has lost the dynamism to respond to today's reality". Marx would have been more willing than his followers to take a re look at his own ideas. Ideology certainly has a role because it focuses on core issues. But we forget that for the original thinker who evolved the ideology the conclusions he arrived at were part of his quest for understanding reality. But if we adopt his conclusions as a substitute for thinking we will fail in understanding the ever changing reality.

As you say, improving the functioning of police, bureaucracy and the judiciary will go a long way towards solving some of our basic problems.But how? Can you throw some light? Of course, initiatives at the individual level can contribute to the growth of integrity. But how to make it wide spread so that the impact will be strong enough to make a difference? How were people like Gandhiji able to do that? Can we initiate a debate on these issues?

Narayanan Menon

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