Thursday, June 27, 2013

Look, there’s a new caste in the cauldron

Look, there’s a new caste in the cauldron
M.J. Akbar

Byelections are far more dangerous for political parties than elections. An election can merely kill you. A byelection can disorient you. On any rational day, comatose is a better option than frenzy. There is always a chance that some prophet will turn up one day to resurrect a corpse, but to restore balance to a destabilised organization requires many preconditions, including recognition that there is indeed a problem. Political leaders very rarely admit a mistake. Instead, they blame circumstance, and justify any downward spiral of error with self-defeating logic.

Hence, the last people to recognize change are those who should be leading it. The immediate is so overpowering that it fogs perspective. What is obvious to the child is never evident to the emperor. India has changed more in the dozen odd years of the 21st century than the last quarter of the 20th, but prescriptions still seem stuck in that age when today’s new voter was not even both. A dab of lipstick here, or a pinprick of botox there, does not make politics modern. Traditional categories of sectarian difference are reassembling into a new dynamic, as far as the young are concerned. Economic aspiration is crystallizing from the caterpillar of government-serviced caste and creed to the butterfly of non-denominational upward mobility. You cannot even sell Mandal’s preferential promise with the vigour that it engendered in the 1990s.

There was a very good reason why Indian democracy opted, in the 1950s, for demographic difference instead of class conflict as the basis for identity mobilisation. Class conflict would have justified Marxist theory and encouraged a natural gravitation by the poor towards Communism and its tendencies towards dictatorship. This trade-off was welcomed by a country that clung to religion and social inheritance as its distinctive profile. Even our independence movement favoured the metaphors of faith to slogans against colonization; we wanted India to remain Indian, and if the British had become Anglo-Indians instead of insisting on ‘home leave’, British rule might have hung around longer; or metamorphosed into Indian rule.

The downside was that economic development in independent India flowed towards the political bisects or trisects of sectarian democracy, rather than responding to the gravitational pull of poverty, wherever it might exist. And so vast deserts of the poor, whether tribal or Dalit or within the principal minority community, remained arid because they were not able to convert their political clout into economic reward. Their vote belonged to identity, not poverty. After more than six decades of such democracy, each section of the dispossessed has acquired a different history. The Dalits eventually learnt assertion, through leaders like Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. The tribals, desperate, have sought some form of an answer in Maoist desperation.

Muslims have been the most static, although there is evidence emerging that some groups have begun to recognize that their real problem is the politics of fear, with prejudice possibly a parallel but subsidiary fact. Fear drove them repeatedly into the false comfort of the Congress embrace. Congress was delighted; if fear was sufficient to deliver the vote, there was no reason why Congress should waste jobs on Muslims. In the last nine years, using the platform provided by the Sachar commission, Congress has repeatedly promised Muslims job reservations, once even raising the threshold to a fantastic 18%. In line with previous experience, not a single per cent has become reality. Marginal handouts, heavily advertised, are used to bluff the community, while fear plays on at orchestra strength in the background. Fear, rather than economic benefit, has become the template of secularism. Instead of doing their own thinking, some smaller parties have decided to imitate Congress.

So what is new?

The skies in which the powerful reside may still be clouded by false illusion, but ground reality has shifted. The people have, with good reason, lost faith in the government’s ability to lead economic change or provide the exhilaration of opportunity. They know that only the private sector can do so. The successful chief minister is no longer someone who promises to expand the public sector job base, but one who can open the private sector job market.

Bihar’s Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, rattled by defeat in the Maharajganj byelection, thanks to a rising mismatch between hope and delivery, has returned to an antique formula on the assumption that Bihar is still stuck in the 1960s culture of sectarian competition and notional appeasement. His answer should have been economic aggression; he chose political regression. Bihar’s economy may not have evolved as much as we would all wish, but Biharis have. The young are beginning to abandon the quagmire in Patna and Muzaffarpur as much as anywhere else in India.

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