Blaming the right people for the wrong reasons

That’s what T.K. Arun does in this article while writing about what the Indian middle class must “accept” if it wants to become politically relevant-

In independent India, the middle class restricted its ambition to living the good life. You worked hard as a student, became a doctor, engineer, civil servant or bank officer, married within your caste and community, brought up your kids to become doctors, engineers, etc, and left politics to politicians.


Democracy is about political pluralism, civil liberties, human rights, group rights including minority rights, the due process of the law, distribution of political power across the citizenry and an institutional setup in which the judiciary, the legislature, the executive and the media keep one another in check and collectively pursue the overarching goal of expanding individual liberties while keeping the collective an enabling framework for individual creativity.

The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot be restricted to any strata in society: it must be universally accessible. There is no such thing as social harmony in an unjust society. Considering that India’s democratic project started off with highly unequal distribution of social and economic power, and therefore, of political power, democracy in India must provide for processes that level the field. These processes could be affirmative action, Bharat Nirman, and various strategies of inclusive growth. The middle class must accept this, and live out the imperatives flowing from it.

Economic reform in the sense of freeing up the creative potential of all citizens is an integral part of such democratic project — without structural diversification of the economy breaking the age-old correlation between caste and occupation, urbanisation and fast growth, empowerment of subaltern groups cannot be achieved. Without political agency, subaltern groups cannot realise their creative potential. The middle class must accept this relationship.

Aristotle writes in his “Politics”-

Now it has been said in our first discourses … that man is by nature a political animal; and so even when men have no need of assistance from each other they none the less desire to live together. At the same time they are also brought together by common interest, so far as each achieves a share of the good life. The good life then is the chief aim of society, both collectively for all its members and individually; but they also come together and maintain the political partnership for the sake of life merely, for doubtless there is some element of value contained even in the mere state of being alive, provided that there is not too great an excess on the side of the hardships of life, and it is clear that the mass of mankind cling to life at the cost of enduring much suffering, which shows that life contains some measure of well-being and of sweetness in its essential nature.

“The good life then is the chief aim of society” – this is what society and the State must be about (and this is what Arun disparages). And politics – principled politics – is what should govern society. But what we have in India in the name of democracy is a mixture of mob rule and feudal rule with various special interests trying to pad their own pockets from time to time. The constitution is so loosely written that it protects no one and nothing. The only reason “rule of law” can be said to exist in India is because most people don’t go about murdering and raping their neighbors or stealing their property. It exists by default, not because of any effort from the government.

But these are mere consequences. The main problem is the “basis” of our “democracy.” It is based on egalitarianism and “social justice.” That is why politics is the prerogative of the worst scum in society – a principled man cannot survive in such an environment because a principled man will not promise to grab X’s property and give it to Y. When Bernard Shaw’s quote – “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.” – plays out, politics becomes a game where the Pauls hold the balance of power. And such politics legitimizes theft because the theft does not take place in the form of a pickpocket running away with your purse or wallet, or a robber breaking into your safe, but in the form of rules, regulations and taxation. And this minor difference can fool even the most sophisticated minds unless they really think about it. (When I first realized the way the game was being played, I could not believe it. It took me a while before I got used to it. “Democracy” had blinded me.) Our political system requires politicians to promise that they will steal. Anyone who doesn’t do that won’t win. It is as simple as that.

A simple example. Assume I stand for elections. And that this is my manifesto-

  • Amend the constitution to guarantee the absolute right to life, property and free speech.
  • Scrap all laws currently in force and only keep those related to crimes involving non-consensual physical violence, fraud, and contracts. The laws to be abolished include those relating to taxation, all victim-less crimes, affirmative action, censorship etc etc.
  • Privatize all government undertakings and all property currently owned by no one – most of them by auction, others though homesteading.
  • Only keep the home, law and defense ministry active – close down all other ministries and bureaus and relieve all the employees.
  • Abolish all government control on the economy including through the Reserve Bank.

And the same will apply at the level of the state and the city. Now what are the chances that I will be elected? Anyone who works for the government won’t vote for me. Anyone who gets contracts from various government agencies won’t vote for me. Anyone who benefits in any way from the present system won’t vote for me. Some won’t vote for me because they have no idea why my manifesto talks about the things it does – they will either say he’s crazy, or that he’s an “idealist” who is “impractical.” And others won’t vote for me because I didn’t offer rice at 3 rupees a kg, or didn’t control the price of petrol and onions, or didn’t build toilets in some area, or a temple at Ayodhya. That is how things stand at present.

The Gopinaths and Sarabhais and Sanyals standing for MP on an anti-corruption platform cannot do anything to change the “nature” of our polity. “Corruption” is not a problem, it is a symptom. A symptom primarily of the State’s lack of respect for life and private property, and then of procedural red tape and lack of transparency. The second reason is why corruption exists even in some of the biggest private sector companies particularly when it comes to the purchase department (hardly comparable to the government though). And this is something Arun misses when he blames the middle class for bribing people to get their job done.

All in all, “inequality” cannot be used as an excuse to impose involuntary servitude, or disrespect property rights. And unless the very nature of politics in the country changes, all efforts will be in vain. I do recognize that such change will not come overnight or even in a few decades. In fact, I think that it is foolish to expect that a bunch of people thrown together by “chance” with the only characteristic they share being their ethnicity (am talking purely in physical, not cultural, terms) – that is what a nation basically is – will ever agree on a particular issue. Progress requires the coming together of like minds, and only a society that voluntarily comes together for the purpose of “the good life” will succeed. That is what happened to some extent when America was formed, and that is what will need to happen if liberty is to be achieved. Given this view of mine, anyone who believes that any country in the world, be it India or America, will somehow wake up one day and embrace liberty is probably being outrageously optimistic.

People need to give up the “do something” mentality – a reactive and destructive mentality – and spend more time on “proper” principles and ideologies. You don’t build buildings without blueprints; how do you expect to build a truly just society without one?

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  • you12  On April 11, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Wonderful Post. Although..

    “The Gopinaths and Sarabhais and Sanyals standing for MP on an anti-corruption platform cannot do anything to change the “nature” of our polity.”

    Neither you nor the original article recognize that this trend of becoming a politician out of a misplaced sense of responsibility or at the whim of an emotional response is ultimately dangerous. Such people if elected, will fail eventually as their emotional outcry will be dropped at the first sign of trouble and then they will be left with nothing.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 11, 2009 at 3:31 pm

      I recognize that I am prone to mixing up unrelated things and going away at tangents, but I think I covered that in the end, not specifically, but in general terms- “People need to give up the ‘do something’ mentality – a reactive and destructive mentality – and spend more time on ‘proper’ principles and ideologies…”

  • Vipin  On April 11, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Thanks Aristotle. great post

    liked ““Corruption” is not a problem, it is a symptom”

  • Varuna  On April 11, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I think you’ve captured the essence of the problem in India. The trend nowadays to ‘shut up and vote’ or ‘shut up and stand for elections at least’ has made even otherwise intelligent, liberal individuals believe it’s the right and proper thing to do. Everyone is so desperate to change things that nobody wants to take a principled stand anymore. Just do it, is the mantra.

    I agree that ‘People need to give up the “do something” mentality – a reactive and destructive mentality – and spend more time on “proper” principles and ideologies.’

    But if ‘Progress requires the coming together of like minds’, I’m afraid we’re never going to progress beyond the present in India. How can we when the very idea of like minds among such a vast number of diverse people is laughable?

    • Aristotle The Geek  On April 11, 2009 at 4:03 pm

      # “But if ‘Progress requires the coming together of like minds’, I’m afraid we’re never going to progress beyond the present in India.”
      I have thought about this for a while, have made many concessions to the opposition on this blog – on free speech, the economy, culture – assumed the role of a “moderate.” But increasingly, I am of the opinion that the system is broken beyond repair. Convincing a billion people to leave you alone is an impossible task. Leaving them alone and finding a new place – if possible (don’t want to fantasize here) – is the only way forward.

      Its something like your circle of friends or acquaintances on the internet – you can communicate and be friends with like-minded people; minor differences of opinion may exist, but friendships cannot survive major ones. In present society, we don’t have a “minor difference of opinion.” There is nothing here that I even remotely sanction. And that is the whole problem.

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