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The madness within us

By Ashwin Mahesh
October 06, 2003 12:46 IST
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Even a quick survey of international institutions is enough to realise that the deck is deeply stacked against developing and poor nations; the mechanics of debating global issues and deciding the roles that each nation should play are corrupted at their very core.

Referring to this in my last column I argued that the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the IMF: these are simply vehicles by which the privilege of few is maintained, and any expectation of a better deal from these institutions must challenge the organising principles of their establishment.

This understanding is popular with Indians. By every measure, be it fairness to all peoples, importance in economic and military terms, or the freedoms our citizens enjoy, we should belong on the world stage.

At the same time, we have also grown accustomed to the incredible rhetoric of the global powers -- Jacques Chirac recently joined a long list of 'supporters' of our quest for permanent membership in the UN Security Council -- and once the news impact of such rhetoric wears off, we return to bitterness at our continuing marginalisation. The world, we are sure, treats us unfairly.

Yes. But this is an observation made largely by our comfortable classes, and is absent from the concerns of the working poor. On High Street, the meagre global standing of our country appears frustrating to a people eager to chase after greater heights.

But elsewhere, this is irrelevant. The great majority of Indians who have no expectation of attaining anything like western middle-class living standards do not see their lives stifled by Washington or Geneva.

They place the blame far more locally, upon institutions and social structures maintained by Indians themselves; institutions that separate our own people into a privileged few and the ignored millions.

It is not surprising that the disenfranchised masses within our borders should come to the same conclusion vis-a-vis domestic affairs that the upper class has drawn about international relations -- namely, that the institutional framework of policy, governance, and justice is stacked against them. The parallels are fairly striking.

Privileged India believes that veto power in the Security Council stacks the deck against other nations; unprivileged India sees great universities established at enormous cost, while its children cannot find affordable primary education.

Privileged India complains that global institutions, through complex trade regimes, immigration controls, manipulation of multilateral lenders, etc., systematically defeat all claims to promoting universal democracy and opportunity.

Unprivileged India sees similar violations of its constitutional guarantees, as rights to public health, non-usurious lending, indigenous livelihoods, etc. routinely run into unenforced laws and unaccountable governance.

Some measure of hypocrisy is wired into all societies. And finer details lurk at each level -- comfortably well-off Indians protest the world order and the advantages it confers on western nations, educated Tamils are wary of a national culture based on Hindi, a few rich Vanniars want to uplift 'their own' caste through separate administration or local autonomy.

The discourse around each issue is dominated by those best able to access the public domain, and for both good and bad this leaves out the great many who bear the worst deprivations.

The irony, then, is that public policy for the common good must be articulated and administered by people whose relative privilege is an important reason for the roles they occupy. Politicians like Juan Peron, the Argentine who tried to turn social experiences themselves into sufficient bases for political participation, are relatively few. More typically, civil society's best champions themselves live well outside its social and economic prisons.

That sounds uncomfortably similar to the 'white-man's-burden' theories advanced by European colonizers. To suggest that the wealthy, the upper castes, or the highly educated must see public policy as 'their' realm -- even if not exclusively -- is a great risk, for many among these groups already wield public policy to their personal advantage and would gladly seize the chance to even further undermine the good society.

But there are no 'right' people by whose vision we must seek progress; indeed any honest measure of development should ensure that such a class is neither created nor maintained. The challenge, therefore, is to accept the responsibilities of privilege without meandering into presumption and classification.

The status quo must change, for it carries a serious risk. In a system of apparent disparities, especially one that privileges a select few by flouting agreed standards of fairness rather that by establishing unfair rules in the first place, the disenfranchised are tempted to abrogate the whole setup.

An unfair system can be attacked on that basis, but a grievous one masquerading as fair closes even that option. Fairness, however, requires a great measure of personal and social honesty. If millions of Indians are voicing demands for separation, for autonomy, for smaller states, for recognition of sub-national cultures, for protection of faith, etc., we must be willing to ask why.

Many voices have little invested in the idea of India, partly because they have never felt sufficiently included within it. Political independence has granted each of them the notional right to seek an equal destiny with other Indians, but the evidence of millions of lives would suggest that India has wronged them too -- by its continuing traditions of social, economic, and other privilege.

How can this change? It is futile to expect that the hypocrisy that marks various claims will be shed anytime soon; the various grievances that support each faction will have to be addressed by the usual long processes of political and other negotiation.

For now, rather than seek sainthood in our leaders, therefore, we may seek a small measure of statesmanship. This does not require any political faction to abandon the cries of grievance it now embraces. Instead, it requires only that those factions also begin to address some of the grievances they themselves perpetuate.

This was the profound expectation of Mr Vajpayee's government when it took office. We needed the prime minister to excise the fiends that threatened to overrun our democratic institutions from outside -- which the Congress and others had long turned blind to.

But just as importantly we needed him to tame the wolves in his own den. His immediate predecessors had raised vilifying the opposition to art form, even as their own follies had accumulated to considerable degree; it was hoped that Mr Vajpayee would steer a different course.

Elections in more than a dozen states since then suggest this hasn't happened. Supporters of the government maintain that the party's positions -- a tough line on terrorism, nationalistic defense of culture and tradition, support for privatization and the free market, etc. -- are necessary elements of progress.

That view would be far more defensible if alongside such exertions the government also reined in its own worst elements. This means rounding up the religious bigots, yes, but just as importantly it also requires cracking down on the private armies of landlords, tackling usury in lending, prosecuting bonded labour employers, freeing women from various patriarchal horrors, etc.

Such attention would do more than excoriate the demons within; it would considerably add to our expectation of higher global influence. It would belie those who now dismiss India as 'not ready for the big stage', pointing to internal violence, Kashmir, the government's opposition to greater scrutiny of caste issues, etc.

That they point to these only so as to quickly and conveniently deflect our claims may be true enough, but their ability to do so stems from our own blindness to these realities. When we censure the strongholds of our own standing for their deviant behaviour, we acquire a moral force to augment our economic and military strengths.

The difference between nationalism and patriotism reduces to such straightforward considerations. The former is an often popular assault on outside forces that limit us; the latter is a citizen's duty to challenge our own madnesses. One will glorify India, the other will uplift Indians.

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Ashwin Mahesh