New threats to India's social and economic order

A great social churning is going on in India, some of it publicly and some of it underground. Apart from the much talked about the factor of religion, there are other undercurrents in the social order.

1. Meritocratic hubris due to the increasing middle class: Standard economic and political theories suggest that as the size of the middle class grows in a country, it leads to increase in tax collection, more focus on public goods, and political maturity that focuses less on identity politics.

There's a downside to it too. The increasing size of the middle class leads to meritocratic hubris.  Michael Sandel describes meritocratic hubris as the belief of "I came to this better position in life because of my hard work alone. It is me and only me that made it possible." The implication being, those who are poor are in that state because they are not hard working.

This line of reasoning ignores the huge role of socio-economic constraints in people's lives. It emphasises merit over other social factors. Hence, there will be increasing pressure to reduce spending on social welfare programmes, as such programmes are seen as a waste of money spent on lazy people who are just living off the government. Any social welfare programme is now seen with contempt. The middle class thus delegitimizes the social welfare architecture. It attacks the fundamental morality of redistribution.

Added to this, the Indian middle class has found its own solutions for education, health and security in the private sector. They thus don't make any efforts to improve the public services in these sectors, which are the only available option for the poor.

If this delegitimization of morality of social welfare programmes and neglect of the public sector in critical areas like education, health etc. is seen along with the jobless growth and rising inequality, it's hard to say that it's not dangerous for India.

2. The proliferation of "tech-education" leading to insensitivity on social issues: India witnessed an IT revolution in the 1990s and 2000s. It resulted in a proliferation of engineering colleges and an increased emphasis on technical education.

We now have a large section of youth, graduates in technology, with no exposure to social sciences. Their worldview is simplistic and technocratic with no sensitivity and appreciation of social issues, and social factors that play a role in one's life. Any discussion on social injustices is met with scorn.  It is amplified by the fact that this tech zombies are the early adopters and often the influencers in social media, shaping the discourse.

A large section of population insensitive to the social context leads to a situation where even the deep-rooted social problems are not even recognized, much less addressed. When left unaddressed, the discontentment can explode in unpredictable ways.

The rising desire for authoritarianism as reported by several surveys and the emerging anti-reservation undercurrent are a manifestation of the simplistic and technocratic view of the tech zombies.

3.  The assertion of the upper castes against the so-called lower castes: The agrarian distress weakened the economic situation of the traditional upper caste feudal landlords giving them a sense of loss of power and identity. This, along with the economic progress of the so-called lower castes, might lead to a form of violent assertion of their traditional power, over the rest. 

4. Politics no more an avenue to assert equality: The typical urban elite has contempt for caste politics. They see it as a disease to be cured.

Such a view discounts the underlying reasons for the emergence of such politics. In a hierarchical society with deep social inequalities, where an individual is not seen as a social equal, the oppressed perceive politics as an arena to assert their equality. A person of their caste in a position of power gives them a sense of pride and confidence, to push back against the daily inequalities they face in the society. It is a strive for dignity.

However, two things happened in the past few decades.

One, caste politics have turned into caste-ist politics. Leaders used the issue of caste only for transactional purposes, the purpose of elections, leading to loss of their legitimacy.

Two, the emergence of the middle class, the tech zombies, and a narrative of "growth as the only purpose of politics", is deemphasizing the role of identity and more broadly the sociological role of politics. Politics is drifting away from being an avenue to seek refuge from the humiliation in social life. Politics is assuming a mere technocratic role.

When the sociological role of politics is diminished, with the social inequalities and daily humiliation intact, it removes an important avenue to vent out the steam of anger. The simmering anger can burst out in any form.

Ideas for solutions to these requires another post but some pointers below:

1. Social science-liberal arts education to make people more sensitive to the Indian social context so as to preserve the morality of redistribution and affirmative action.

2. Improving the policing and service delivery - the two important avenues where citizens face the most humiliation. This reduces the burden on politics to assume a sociological role.

3. Improving the quality of education and health. It must be emphasized that apart from improving the quality of education in schools and universities, university education should be made affordable. I explained it in a previous post here on the need to expand the definition of "basic education" from school education to university education.

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