Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Politics of Dignity

Of the many perplexing elements that make up India's political landscape, the abnormally high rates of voting amongst the poor, is most peculiar.  Everywhere else in the world the trend is reversed; the rich outvote the poor and have a greater stake in politics.  But not in India.  The poor mobilize, wait in long lines, undertaking significant costs to themselves, gaining very little in return.  

Government spending on social services in poor districts hasn't improved despite higher representations of lower-caste and historically marginalized groups in politics.  The system co-opts these low-caste elites who obsess over further reservations; engaging in unapologetic patronage politics, instead of policies that bring about meaningful social change.      

Why do the poor put up with it?  What makes them, election after election, vote, and still see no material improvement in their condition?  In a word:  Dignity.  In a country where for thousands of years, the lowest of the low, dare not cast even a shadow on their upper caste brethren, being a part of the political process - courted by all castes and classes - is empowering.  The psychological impact of seeing your caste represented within the higher echelons of power cannot be underestimated; explaining the enthusiasm India's poor have with politics.    

But how long will this all last before the poor desire tangible results?  It's doubtful if politics, in India, can ever be the means for social change.  It's been good for stability; better to have the poor vote and engage in politics, rather than riot.  Caste reservations are also a cost-effective strategy; it costs less than spending on education and health and is a significant reason why the poor are still poor, even though India is booming.   

Lower caste mobilization also takes place within the context of an upper class/elite exodus from politics, in stark contrast to India at its inception in 1947.  The founding fathers, Nehru, Gandhi, and a host of others, all came from elite backgrounds; hyper cultured and educated aristocrats.  They inspired a whole generation of middle classes.  The current elite. rather than mobilize, demand better governance, and take active roles in politics, choose instead, to buy their way out.  Gated communities are on the rise;  private school fees are exorbitant; private health care grows all at the expense of public goods.  Those are left to the poor and the poor vote for whomever gives them dignity.    

India turn the prevailing political science theory, that higher incomes leads to a demand for better governance, on its head.

After Mumbai, in November, there was a sense this might change.  There was talk of a party for professionals; the middle classes.  But this momentum has subsided; politics is still mostly a poor person's game.  But issues of governance and security, which effect rich and poor alike, makes many re-think this exclusionist tendency - especially in a democracy.  

In a country of 40% illiteracy, empowered ignorant masses, leads to mob rule.  And this is what India suffers from.  Parliament is a chappal throwing, paan spitting, buffoonery.  There are a handful of cultured and educated politicians.  Everyone else is in it for the money.  Even Maywati, the lower caste Queen, par excellance, has seen her personal fortune multiply 300 percent since being elected.         

All trends on the horizon point to further mobilization of the poor, ignorant, historically oppressed masses and the continued voluntary exclusion of the educated elite.  I can't think of anything more alarming.  An example that serves as a direct contrast is the United States, which always has had it's best and brightest engaged in politics.  Obama is a by-product of this trend, and if you go to any top American University, the idealist and politically ambitious always abound.  

Indians don't like being compared to America.  It's not fair they say.  India is poor, and has too many people and problems.  I agree that the comparison is not always fair.  

How about Egypt then?  There was no place more happening, liberal, enlightened in the Middle East after its independence.  In 1947 Egypt published over 3000 new books.  In 2007, 300.  (Painfully, a small country like Israel publishes 3000 now, explaining it's rise and it's Middle East neighbors demise).  And let's not even get into the high-quality films, and journalism, and women's groups and over-all air of liberty in Egypt at the time.  All lost, mostly during the Sadat years, when the liberal and secular middle classes disengaged from politics, leaving a vacuum filled by religious fundamentalism.  The reasons for middle class disengagement in India may be different, but modernity, in both case, led to apathy.  Egypt is a disaster now, and India may well be - if it doesn't take these political trends seriously.

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