Effective governance first? Or addressing social inequalities first?
The question becomes even more interesting when one looks at the comparison of social versus political reform, or rather, social reform versus political administration reform. This is the core, big question being debated in India right now.
The recently elected Prime Minister - Mr. Narendra Modi - is dedicated to the agenda of "development", "governance", "efficiency", and administrative reform (especially the idea of a "lean government"). But his communal past haunts him and his critics. Given his rhetoric of administrative reform and his [carefully created] reputation of being a stellar administrator, his mysteriously poor performance during the communal riots in Gujarat is especially troubling. This is not helped by his party - the BJP - having its ideological roots - and quite literally its grassroots - in its right wing fundamentalist allies.
So which should such a ruling party prioritise as a first step in the journey toward better governance? Social change that allows marginalised sections of society to access the fruits of existing "development"? Or development strategies that grow the national economy by first strengthening existing, dominant social groups?
- This begs the question: "Can you have effective or efficient "governance" without tackling communal instability and the [frequently violent] discrimination against minority groups, the extremely disturbing and pervasive gender violence and persistently high rates of women's economic exclusion, and the shocking inequality between the "lower caste" communities and indigenous tribes on the one hand, and everybody else in India on the other?"
- This also begs the question: "Is it not more logical to get the courts, police, and basic government administrative machinery in order first (since at present they work for nobody: neither for the majority nor for the minority, neither for the relatively rich nor for the poor) so that once the institutions are functioning better, we can progress to the next step - access to these better institutions for people from all backgrounds?"
Elections & post election debates on caste and other "identity" issues
The election that was just concluded in India showcased interesting views on the inclusion of caste and religion based identities in election strategies. It was commonly expressed that Mr. Modi's and the BJP's strategy would have deeply negative effects if it continued to focus on incendiary fear-mongering among the religious majority (the Hindus), the target religious minority (namely, the Muslims), and certain caste groups in politically "sensitive" regions.
Strangely enough, post election, the BJP has been keen to get off the subject of specific socio-religious groups and talk about "equality of all" instead. On a televised debate a couple of weeks ago, the BJP representative was attacked by the Congress representative Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, for not assuaging the fears of Muslim communities in the country and for not directly addressing the issue of the Hindu-Muslim riots under Mr. Modi's rule in Gujarat.
The BJP representative stressed that a "communal agenda" was not the BJP's focus, that Muslims had no reason to fear the BJP's rule, and that for the BJP, it was inclusive development that was important, not addressing specific groups exclusively.
- Thus, the BJP representative said, "We believe in equality, not identity based discrimination".
- Mr. Aiyar countered this with (paraphrased): "Identity is important for inclusive development".
I was unable to tell if the BJP representative actually meant the implication of his phrase (the Modi catchphrase that has been both denigrated and celebrated, is: "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas").
- Should this be taken to mean that the BJP is not pro political reservations, or other forms of affirmative action (i.e. identity based positive discrimination)?
- Should this be taken to mean that the BJP is interested in creating an equal playing field rather than discriminating on the basis of identity, and perpetuating existing inequalities?
India's Caste Shame ; Dr. Ambedkar's thoughts on sequencing Political and Social Reform
In the last few weeks, I have been reading a work by the late Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, a Founding Father of the Constitution of the Indian Republic, who is called "The Father of the Indian Constitution" in Indian high school textbooks. A famed political activist, 'freedom fighter', and progressive social thinker, Dr. Ambedkar clashed famously with Gandhi ji, opposing the latter's views on Hinduism, religious reform, and the Hindu caste system; Dr. Ambedkar himself belonged to one of the lowest social castes in India - the Untouchables.
Dr. Ambedkar makes a morally powerful argument for making social reform concurrent with political reform, in this book - Annihilation of Caste. Regardless of on which side of the "which to do first?" debate you stand, you will find it difficult to argue with his logic without deeply questioning your political morals. The book is essentially a speech that Dr. Ambedkar wrote in the early 1930s but which he never delivered on a public platform; the speech was published as text instead.
I leave you with the following excerpts:
"The speech delivered by Mr. W.C. Bonnerjee in 1892 at Allahabad, as president of the eighth session of the Congress....I venture to quote...Mr. Bonnerjee said: "I for one have no patience with those who say we shall not be fit for political reform until we reform our social system. Are we not fit because our widows remain unmarried and our girls are given in marriage earlier than in other countries? because our wives and daughters do not drive about with us visiting our friends? because we do not send our daughters to Oxford and Cambridge?". (Pg. 213).**
**The above speech focuses on the reform of gender-based discriminatory practices. Dr. Ambedkar argues for the concurrence of social and political reform by responding with examples of caste based discrimination, and concluding with the following:
"...let me now state the case for social reform. In doing this, I will follow Mr. Bonnerjee as nearly as I can, and ask the politically minded Hindus, 'Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow a large class of your own countrymen like the Untouchables to use public schools? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public wells? Are you fit for political power even though you do not allow them the use of public streets? ....' I can ask a string of such questions. But these will suffice..... Every Congressman who repeats the dogma of Mill that one country is not fit to rule another country, must admit that one class is not fit to rule another class." (Pg. 218).
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