Class prejudice, competence, and the spirit of democracy

Personal attacks are the staple diet of electoral politics, worldwide. India is hardly an exception. Yet some recent comments by leading Congressmen against Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of BJP, are quite remarkable. Mani Shankar Aiyar, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, set the ball rolling with a statement that Modi can sell tea at the Congress office – a disdainful reference to the humble beginnings of Modi. This was followed up by finance minister P Chidambaram, who said that  Modi’s knowledge of economics can be written on the back of a stamp.

The comments are telling evidence of the class prejudices that are entrenched in the Indian psyche and permeate the society. With many of the negatives in contemporary India, it is possible to trace to the Maha Bharatha the attitude underlying the statements of Aiyar and Chidambaram. At the display by the Pandavas and Kauravas on completion of their training in military skills, their guru, Drona, dared any person in the assembly to challenge Arjuna. When Karna rose to do so, Drona insulted and humiliated him about his lowly social position as the son of a chariot-driver and questioned how he could dare challenge a prince. Of course, in doing so, Drona brushed aside the main issue – namely, the skills of the contestants. Betraying deep-seated rank prejudices, he taunted Karna about his social position. It is a different story that Duryodhana, who had his own agenda to put the Pandavas down, stepped in and made Karna the prince of a small state, so he could compete with Arjuna ‘on par.’

The backgrounds of Mani Shankar Aiyar and Chidambaram, who made the condescending references to Modi, are worth noting. Aiyar graduated from two elite institutions, the Doon School and St Stephen’s College, New Delhi. He later passed the highly-competitive public service examination and entered the Indian Foreign Service. Incidentally, the friendship Aiyar formed with late Rajiv Gandhi at Doon School was instrumental in his entry into politics. Chidambaram, a scion of a well-known and extremely wealthy south Indian Chettiar family, studied at Harvard.

 Another interesting feature is that Chidambaram made his remarks about Modi’s knowledge of economics in Davos, a forum where the economic elite of the world gathers. Persons with a privileged upbringing tend to make use of their advantage. Particularly in India, a country defined by its hierarchical caste system, the tendency to flaunt superiority in the face of lesser mortals is quite prominent.

The comment of Chidambaram about economic expertise is particularly ironical. It raises questions about the management of national economies by technocrats. Admittedly for the last ten years under the current prime minister, India has been managed by a set of experts in economics. As the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in eating. Seemingly uncontrollable fiscal and current account deficits, consequent fall in the rupee’s exchange value, runaway rise in the prices of essential commodities, an explosion in corruption at all levels, and lack of progress on the infrastructure front – these are verifiable facts, not merely matters of opinion.

Lack of essential traits

The present conditions, at the end of ten years of rule by a set of experts, indicate the limitations of leaving things to experts, in particular those from purely academic or bureaucratic backgrounds. These individuals quite often lack sufficient grasp of practical issues and the common sense that generally informs a ‘lowly’ entrepreneur running a small-town, street-corner grocery store. With their relative sense of economic security and bookish approach, a technocratic class of leadership will probably be inclined to preserve status quo, however deficient or unsustainable it might be. They might lack courage and vision – two essential traits of leaders – needed for setting the direction for the medium and long term.

To be fair, it was Manmohan Singh who introduced economic liberalisation. It had a strong bias in favour of attracting foreign capital. This was in 1991 – a time when India was in a perilous external balances situation and there was realisation in New Delhi (as there had been in Moscow and Beijing) that highly-controlled, centrally-planned, inward-looking economies were unviable and unsustainable. The reforms of 1991 were essentially a firefighting exercise to improve India’s external balances position, and Singh fought quite well by targeting foreign capital inflows.

But a complex and diverse country like India needs more than just foreign capital. It is a fact that governments exercise significant control over national economies and political leadership plays a vital role in defining the direction. Considering the record of the current team running India, remarks such as those Chidambaram made in Davos can perhaps be a reminder that practical common sense and integrity are at least as important as any claims to technocratic expertise.

In any event, it is a positive feature that in the present democratic India humble origins are not a total barrier. This can inspire energetic persons who look to politics as a means of public service and expression of civic virtue. As a reasonably efficient democracy with universal suffrage, India has brought into the political process large sections of its population who were historically excluded from political institutions. Indeed in India, with its vast number of poor, having a humble background can be an electoral advantage – a thing which Deve Gowda attempted when he was prime minister. Now Lallu Prasad has joined the ‘humbler-than-thou’ race with a claim that he was once a tea seller too.

(The writer is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, Canada)

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