Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening team with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be.
Last week I chanced on an interview of Anna Hazare in which he talked “about the inspiration behind his social activism, his philosophy and his vision for India”. The interview was from last year, a few weeks before AAP’s spectacular debut in Delhi. It had a quote that caught my eye. It was Anna’s response to the question, “In your opinion, what is the root cause of corruption?”
“The root cause of corruption is selfishness; the selfish nature of human beings”, Anna said. “They go to any lengths to pursue their self-interest…Second, there is no deep thinking about the purpose of life. And since there is no purpose to life, we want to fill that void with commodities, things. You become an MLA and an MP and in a short period of two or three years, you become a billionaire. How? Do you really need so much? Since you keep increasing your needs, corruption increases.”
RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan explains it lucidly…Excerpts from a recent speech (emphasis added):
*** Excerpts Begin ***
“….Even as our democracy and our economy have become more vibrant, an important issue in the recent election was whether we had substituted the crony socialism of the past with crony capitalism, where the rich and the influential are alleged to have received land, natural resources and spectrum in return for payoffs to venal politicians.
By killing transparency and competition, crony capitalism is harmful to free enterprise, opportunity, and economic growth. And by substituting special interests for the public interest, it is harmful to democratic expression. If there is some truth to these perceptions of crony capitalism, a natural question is why people tolerate it. Why do they vote for the venal politician who perpetuates it?
One widely held hypothesis is that our country suffers from want of a “few good men” in politics. This view is unfair to the many upstanding people in politics. But even assuming it is true, every so often we see the emergence of a group, usually upper middle class professionals, who want to clean up politics. But when these “good” people stand for election, they tend to lose their deposits. Does the electorate really not want squeaky clean government?
Apart from the conceit that high morals lie only with the upper middle class, the error in this hypothesis may be in believing that problems stem from individual ethics rather than the system we have.
In a speech I made before the Bombay Chamber of Commerce in 2008, I argued that the tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access. This may be why he survives.
Let me explain. Our provision of public goods is unfortunately biased against access by the poor. In a number of states, ration shops do not supply what is due, even if one has a ration card – and too many amongst the poor do not have a ration card or a BPL card; Teachers do not show up at schools to teach; The police do not register crimes, or encroachments, especially if committed by the rich and powerful; Public hospitals are not adequately staffed and ostensibly free medicines are not available at the dispensary; …I can go on, but you know the all-too-familiar picture.
This is where the crooked but savvy politician fits in. While the poor do not have the money to “purchase” public services that are their right, they have a vote that the politician wants. The politician does a little bit to make life a little more tolerable for his poor constituents – a government job here, an FIR registered there, a land right honoured somewhere else. For this, he gets the gratitude of his voters, and more important, their vote. Of course, there are many politicians who are honest and genuinely want to improve the lot of their voters. But perhaps the system tolerates corruption because the street smart politician is better at making the wheels of the bureaucracy creak, however slowly, in favour of his constituents. And such a system is self-sustaining. An idealist who is unwilling to “work” the system can promise to reform it, but the voters know there is little one person can do. Moreover, who will provide the patronage while the idealist is fighting the system? So why not stay with the fixer you know even if it means the reformist loses his deposit?
So the circle is complete. The poor and the under-privileged need the politician to help them get jobs and public services. The crooked politician needs the businessman to provide the funds that allow him to supply patronage to the poor and fight elections. The corrupt businessman needs the crooked politician to get public resources and contracts cheaply. And the politician needs the votes of the poor and the underprivileged.
Every constituency is tied to the other in a cycle of dependence, which ensures that the status quo prevails. Well-meaning political leaders and governments have tried, and are trying, to break this vicious cycle. How do we get more politicians to move from “fixing” the system to reforming the system? The obvious answer is to either improve the quality of public services or reduce the public’s dependence on them.
Both approaches are necessary. But then how does one improve the quality of public services? The typical answer has been to increase the resources devoted to the service, and to change how it is managed. A number of worthwhile efforts are underway to improve the quality of public education and healthcare. But if resources leak or public servants are not motivated, which is likely in the worst governed states, these interventions are not very effective.
Some have argued that making a public service a right can change delivery. It is hard to imagine that simply legislating rights and creating a public expectation of delivery will, in fact, ensure delivery. After all, is there not an expectation that a ration card holder will get decent grain from the fair price shop, yet all too frequently grain is not available or is of poor quality. Information decentralization can help. Knowing how many medicines the local public dispensary received, or how much money the local school is getting for mid-day meals, can help the public monitor delivery and alert higher-ups when the benefits are not delivered. But the public delivery system is usually most apathetic where the public is poorly educated, of low social status, and disorganized, so monitoring by the poor is also unlikely to be effective.
Some argue that this is why the middle class should enjoy public benefits along with the poor, so that the former can protest against poor delivery, which will ensure high quality for all. But making benefits universal is costly, and may still lead to indifferent delivery for the poor. The middle class may live in different areas from the poor. Indeed, even when located in the same area, the poor may not even patronize facilities frequented by the middle class because they feel out of place. And even when all patronize the same facility, providers may be able to discriminate between the voluble middle class and the uncomplaining poor. So if more resources or better management are inadequate answers, what might work?
The answer may partly lie in reducing the public’s dependence on government-provided jobs or public services. A good private sector job, for example, may give a household the money to get private healthcare, education, and supplies, and reduce their need for public services. Income could increase an individual’s status and increase the respect they are accorded by the teacher, the policeman or the bureaucrat. But how does a poor man get a good job if he has not benefited from good healthcare and education in the first place? In this modern world where good skills are critical to a good job, the unskilled have little recourse but to take a poorly-paying job or to look for the patronage that will get them a good job. So do we not arrive at a contradiction: the good delivery of public services is essential to escape the dependence on bad public services?
…There is a way out of this contradiction, developing the idea that money liberates. Could we not give poor households cash instead of promising them public services? A poor household with cash can patronize whomsoever it wants, and not just the monopolistic government provider. Because the poor can pay for their medicines or their food, they will command respect from the private provider. Not only will a corrupt fair price shop owner not be able to divert the grain he gets since he has to sell at market price, but because he has to compete with the shop across the street, he cannot afford to be surly or lazy.
The government can add to the effects of empowering the poor by instilling a genuine cost to being uncompetitive – by shutting down parts of the public delivery systems that do not generate enough custom. Much of what we need to do is already possible. The government intends to announce a scheme for full financial inclusion on Independence Day. It includes identifying the poor, creating unique biometric identifiers for them, opening linked bank accounts, and making government transfers into those accounts. When fully rolled out, I believe it will give the poor the choice and respect as well as the services they had to beg for in the past. It can break a link between poor public service, patronage, and corruption that is growing more worrisome over time.
On facebook last week a reader, in response to my recent series on the Taj, asked, “Kyun Gadhe Murde Ukhadane main time waste kar rahe ho…?”. That comment set me thinking. The phrase “Gadhe Murde” had hit the nail on the head. It summarised the way most Indians feel about history. “History is boring; It merely digs up the past; It is unnecessary; It serves little purpose”. No wonder, few Indians have a strong sense of history. And the more “educated” you are, the less acquainted you are likely to be, not just with history but also the rich traditions of the past. One of the most common refrain in my discussions with youngsters is, “We are not interested in what happened in the past. We want to focus on the future!”. Unsurprisingly, History is one of the least popular subject in our colleges and universities. Anyone who claims to have a genuine interest in history is seen as pretentious and boring; sometimes both.
Does history really matter? It apparently has little relevance in our daily life. You may struggle in the real-world if you have not studied elementary maths but a lack of awareness about history is unlikely to hold you back in most careers. But matter it does. A lot actually. It matters because of the glimpses it offers of a heritage and a culture. It matters because it helps us understand the evolution of societies, of communities and nations. It matters because it helps us realise the mistakes – and learn from them. It matters because it helps us prepare for the future.
Unfamiliarity with history can lead to not just ignorance but a deeply flawed and embarrassing view of the past, often marked by self-loathing. It can also manifest in a scornful disdain of traditions and heritage. The utter devaluation of an age-old language Sanskrit – a language that was almost chosen to be the national language, but lost by a single vote – is symptomatic of this disdain of the past and of history. An immensely valuable link to our past, the language of the Itihas-s and Purana-s, is no longer easily accessible, thanks to a deep distrust of the past. The effects of utter lack of understanding of the historical past & the scornful disdain it induces, can be debilitating – especially when they manifest themselves in our leaders. India’s first Prime Minister is a case in point. As the redoubtable Arun Shourie wrote, “Pandit Nehru is the most vivid example of the type. He was the truest of nationalists. His sacrifices for our independence compare with those of anyone else. But he had little acquaintance with our tradition – his descriptions of it, even when they seek to laud it, do not go deeper than the superficial cliche: one has only to read his account of even a relatively straightforward text such as the Gita alongside that of Sri Aurobindo or Gandhiji or Vinoba to see the chasm”.
History matters. More than you think. And while historical narratives can be distorted to imbibe a sense of false pride among people (remember the false narrative of “Aryans” and the misappropriation of the Swastika by the Nazis in the 20th century?), they can equally be twisted to make a community feel wretched & worthless. As amateur historian Dr Prodosh Aich has written in his book, “Lies with Long Legs”, “We are, what we know. And we only know what we have been told“.
History matters because it is evocative. It can inspire powerful emotions and trigger events that can have profound and lasting impact. Both the “World Wars” had their roots in history. The most dreaded terrorist group in the world today, the Islamic State draws its inspiration from history. Numerous geo-political flashpoints in the world have their seeds in history. History shapes our world-view and how we interpret and react to contemporary events. No wonder the “teaching of history” is often a subject of controversy.
History can be a powerful nourishment to help establish the identity – of a community, a society and a nation. Indeed, a deep understanding and awareness of history, is key to maintaining a sense of identity. Without such a collective memory, a society is “..as rootless and adrift as an individual with amnesia“. This sense of “being adrift” is beautifully captured by VS Naipaul in this haunting passage:
At dinner that evening, high up in one of those towers, a journalist touched the subject of identity. “Indian” was a word that was now without meaning, he said. He himself, he was in his thirties, of the post-Independence generation, no longer knew who he was. He no longer knew the Hindu gods. His grandmother, visiting Khajuraho or some other famous temple, would immediately be in tune with what she saw; she wouldn’t need to be told about the significance of the carvings. He was like a tourist; he saw only an architectural monument. He had lost the key to a whole world of belief and feeling, and was cut off from his past.
The past matters. History matters. “Gadhe Murde” matter. It is important to resurrect these ghosts. Remember Santayana? “A country without a memory is a country of madmen“.
* The image is that of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque that was built from parts taken by destroying 27 Hindu and Jain temples that stood in the complex.
and finally an interesting nugget:
The New Yorker piece is peppered with anecdotes on Samir Jain narrated by media professionals and Times staffers.
# Namita Gokhale recounts sitting next to Samir Jain at a dinner. Jain tells Gokhale, ‘I think history doesn’t exist and if I were Prime Minister I would ban the study of history.’ When Gokhale responds that she would give him two tight slaps and a kick and if he didn’t remember, she would agree there was no history, Samir slips away and ignores her the rest of the evening. [source]
Honoured to be one of the Keynote Speakers at the Meeting on J&K and Plight of Kashmiri Pandits organised by IEKF at House of Commons in London earlier today…
Here is the link to some of the slides I shared: http://j.mp/1CukK66 (embedded below). जय हिंद, जय भारत! – शांतनु