Thursday, January 06, 2005

Wrong, Lord Desai & Prof Sen

Lord Meghnad Desai thinks India is a collection of nationalities. These, he says, find political articulation through regional or caste-based parties that together detract from India’s potential for growth through exclusive focus on distribution.

He therefore advocates a grand coalition of the Congress and the BJP, both with a unitary vision of the Indian nation and therefore capable of focusing energies on stepping up the rate of economic growth, which will solve the problems that the smaller parties seek to solve through distribution.

Lord Desai aired his opinion at a dialogue with Prof Amartya Sen, organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry at the Capital earlier this week.

Prof Sen disputed his friend's vision of Indian nationhood and commended a change in policy priorities to improve public health and education as the key to faster growth. Both the labour lord and the Nobel laureate are mistaken.

The strategy of industrialisation led by state ownership and machines that make machines, Desai argued, stunted economic growth but pandered to the incumbent elite.

The decision to leave traditional society alone was based on the presumption that growth and industrialisation would perform the job of modernisation in due course.

Aborted growth led the subaltern ‘nationalities' to use the space offered by universal adult franchise to form their own political parties. In this fragmented polity, the Congress or the BJP can form a government only with the help of these parties, the primordial loyalty of whose members is to a caste/region/language/ethnic identity and not to India, unlike in the case of the major national parties.

This dependence on ‘distribution-first' parties leads to a drain of national resources away from production enhancing investment. Therefore, the two parties with a unitary vision of Indian nationhood should come together at least for five years, to kick-start accelerated growth.

This Desai thesis has many holes in it. Desai tends to conflate all group identities with nationalities. As Sudipto Mundle pointed out, significant drain of public resources is effected by groups such as farmers and exporters, who cannot be identified as nations by any stretch of the imagination.

Besides, castes can even be defined only in terms the larger collective, India, and in relation to other castes. Brahmins, for example, are a pan-Indian group who would lose their specific identity if there were no hierarchy of other castes to dominate in ritual authority.

Similarly, Dalits would not be Dalits if there were no caste hierarchy to be at the bottom of. Now, nations define themselves of themselves, not in relation to one another.

Leaders like Lalu Yadav or Mayawati do not even represent all Yadavs or all Dalits. To be consistent with his definition of any group represented by a Third Front party as a nation, Desai would have to call the Yadavs of Bihar one nation, and the Yadavs of Uttar Pradesh, another, and recognise the Dalits represented by Paswan as a nation distinct from the nation of Dalits represented by Mayawati.

Nor are regional parties like the DMK or the AIADMK distribution-first profligates. Under their dispensation, Tamil Nadu has emerged as one of the best-governed, fastest growing states of the country.

Desai's biggest fallacy is the notion that BJP's idea of nationhood is pro-growth. Hindutva condemns minority religious communities to second class status, and is prepared to reinforce that subordination, if necessary, through state-sponsored violence as in Gujarat.

The distribution of political power, financial and communication channels and dispersal of potentially destructive technology in the modern world together offer the targets of such attempted subjugation assorted means of violent resistance. Hindutva is a prescription for schism, not prosperity.

If Desai is wrong, it does not mean that the ‘tossed salad' view of Indian nationhood is right. The good thing about this dish is that each individual element retains its separate identity while yielding a collective taste distinct from the individual flavours.

But it's a poor metaphor for the collective of multiple identities that constitute India, because India's multiple identities are dispersed in a hierarchy of power. The Thakur and the Dalit do not quite bond the way cucumber does with cabbage.

Prof Sen conceded this, even while harping on the ancient lineage of the idea of India as a union of diversities. However, his stress on health and education as the antidote to this inequality of power abstracts away the reality of oppression faced by the Dalits.

Such brahminism, too, impedes growth and welfare by blacking out another part of the remedy: empowerment of the subaltern through organisation and political representation. Political agency armed Keralites to acquire literacy, not benign enlightenment.

Source: The Economic Times, January 06, 2005


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