PM Narendra Modi tweeted a photo of him with US president-elect Joe Biden | Twitter
A file photo of PM Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden | Twitter
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A sigh of relief manifested across the world as Joe Biden succeeded to the US presidency, presaging a more predictable and ‘normal’ conduct of domestic and external affairs, under an experienced and professional administration. Biden has promised to heal a deeply divided country, to promote reconciliation and unity and to restore the democratic and liberal credentials of the US as the world’s oldest democracy. However, this promises to be a long haul and unlikely to be achieved during one four-year stint. He would be deemed a success if he at least manages to, as he said, “lower the temperature”.


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The US problem is in India too

The social and political polarisation on display in the US is increasingly manifest in other democracies, including our own. A key causal factor is the rising inequalities of wealth and income that undermines the most powerful appeal of democracy, which is egalitarianism — the equality of opportunity it promises and the fairness with which the State will treat all its citizens. As economies develop, and technology advances, there will inevitably be winners and losers. A democratic State will have to continually ensure that it is able to redistribute rising incomes and wealth in a manner that helps those left behind to retain hope in a better future, if not for themselves then, at least, for their children.

It is not that globalisation in itself has spawned huge inequalities, nor that inequality is inherent in increasingly arcane and specialised technological advancement. The failure lies with public policy that has failed to distribute the benefits of globalisation more evenly. When the number of losers far outstrips the winners and this state of affairs persists and even worsens, democracy is challenged. This is what we witness in the US and in democracies across the world, India included.


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The political oddity

There is an intriguing question however. It is the political Left (in which I broadly include the liberal constituency) that has historically mobilised support among those who are at the lower end of the economic and social scale. In the present case, it is the Right and nativist forces who have captured the imagination of the exploited and deprived. The Left targets the rich and corporate sector; the Right does not pay a price for associating with this privileged minority and profiting from its generous funding. What explains this oddity?

That there is an alliance between the populist and the powerful elements within the corporate sector is more than apparent. But the liberal and the Left have been unable to leverage this to mobilise support among those who are, in fact, at the receiving end of this powerful nexus. The Right has been remarkably successful in co-opting the ranks of the dejected and deprived to buttress its own power. How is this possible?


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Behind the Right’s political success

The Right has been able to exploit the existing social, communal and sectarian fault-lines to deflect attention from its complicity in the disempowerment and the immiserisation of the majority. In the US, it is by deliberately sharpening the racial divide, stoking the fear of immigrants and loss of cultural identity that a figure like Donald Trump was able to continue rewarding the corporate class with large tax cuts at the cost of the very services that could ameliorate the worsening economic status of the less educated White minority.

Recently, historian Rana Dasgupta has drawn attention to a very cynical insight offered by Lyndon B. Johnson, former US President — “If you can convince the lowest White man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. He’ll give him somebody to look down upon and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” Dasgupta points to an ugly truth: Sometimes people can be persuaded to “prize the removal of others’ rights above the preservation of their own.” And this is what is happening in the US. Can Biden change this?

Why is the Left unable to build its constituency in the ranks of the deprived? Precisely because ideologically, it sees its role as transcending the societal fault-lines and uniting around a more inclusive concept of egalitarianism.

We see echoes of what Johnson was alluding to in our own country. Those most affected by demonetisation were the already poor and those eking out a constantly threatened existence as small and medium enterprises and their unorganised workers. But millions were ready to stand in unending queues to get their paltry sums exchanged, their pain dulled by the belief that fat cats and money bags had been deprived of their ill-gotten gains. Except that they had not, and many in fact profited by turning their black money into white.

Or if the lowliest Hindu is made to feel superior to the best among the Muslims in the country, perhaps they will be ready to accept their dire economic situation and forget who may be really responsible for their own deprivation.


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A defensive Left

There was only one brief occasion when the current political dispensation was threatened and that was when the label of “suit-boot ki Sarkar” struck home. But then it was never built up into an alternative political narrative.

The Left in India has failed precisely because it has become defensive about its core beliefs and started flirting with the narrow inclinations of the Right, for example, by doing its own religious rituals and spouting nationalist slogans. Nor is there stomach to shine the spotlight on the politician-bureaucracy nexus and big businesses that have come to dominate governments in democracies across the world.

There are parallels between the oldest and the largest democracies in the world. Both are at critical junctures in their evolution as enlightened democracies envisaged by their respective Constitutions. But I believe that the future of democracy as a political ideal may likely be determined by the trajectory that India takes in the coming years rather than the US, especially when the Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism seems to be winning admirers across the world.

Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow CPR. Views are personal.

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13 Comments Share Your Views

13 COMMENTS

  1. I think world should move away from the Left as the panacea for all the ills and and for its ability to building an egalitarian society. No doubt Left stands for the weak in the society but then they don’t do anything about them because as soon as these weaker sections grow, they turn right and Left loses its weight. As i heard someone say about Left- Poverty is my birth right and i will ensure you have it. It is wrong to consider that right and their support for the corporate is anti weaker sections of the society. The Europe , America, Australia’s of today are a result of the private enterprise in large measure. We need anew narrative and research how right is capable of succeeding where left failed

  2. Chinese model is sought to be praised, but then, it is all based on what indices are put out by them. The same for all countries. Let us not get carried away

  3. Shyam Saran is a learned person and has ability to speak on both side of debate eloquently. He likes himself to be considered part of liberal constituency ( Concern for poor people). I hope he can comment on the current issue of fam reforms.
    What is the recommendation of Montel Singh Ahulawali recommendations to Punjab Govt under Amrinder Singh? Why people like him , Gandhi family, MMS are keeping quite on these recommendations.? We have Kapil Sibal, RG speaking in favor of similar steps .
    We respect your knowledge but stp this sycophancy of your old masters.
    Stop hierocracy .

  4. This can be true for the communists all over the world,but especially in india.
    लाल झंडा पकड़े नेता ने कॉमरेडों से कहा -✍️👇
    अगर तुम्हारे पास बीस-बीघा खेत है तो क्या तुम उसका आधा दस बीघा गरीबों को दे दोगे??
    सारे कामरेड एक साथ बोले – हाँ दे देंगे।।

    नेता ने फिर कहा -👇
    अगर तुम्हारे पास दो घर हैं तो क्या तुम एक घर गरीबों को दे दोगे??
    सारे कामरेड एक साथ बोले – हाँ दे देंगे।।

    नेता ने फिर कहा -👇
    अगर तुम्हारे पास दो कार हैं तो क्या तुम एक कार ग़रीब को दे दोगे??
    सारे कामरेड एक साथ बोले – हाँ दे देंगे।।

    नेता ने फिर पूछा -👇
    अगर तुम्हारे पास चार गधे हैं तो क्या उनमें से दो तुम गरीबों को दे दोगे?
    सारे कामरेड एक साथ बोले – नहीं, गधे तो बिल्कुल नहीं देंगे।।

    नेता बहुत चकित हुए और उन्होंने पूछा -👇
    तुम गरीबों को अपना खेत दे दोगे, घर दे दोगे, कार दे दोगे मगर अपने गधे क्यों नहीं दोगे? इतना बड़ा-बड़ा बलिदान कर सकते हो और गधे पर अटक गए? आख़िर क्यों??

    सारे कॉमरेड बोले -👇
    ऐसा है कि हमारे पास न तो खेत हैं, न घर है और ना ही कार है। हमारे पास सिर्फ गधे हैं।।

    यही कम्युनिज्म का मूल स्वभाव होता है,
    कम्युनिस्ट आपको हर वो चीज देने का वादा करता है जो उसके पास होती नहीं और न ही वो उसे अर्जित कर सकता है।।

    कम्युनिस्ट आपको ये सारी चीजें किसी और से छीनकर देने का वादा करता है।।

  5. ford once famously said “people can have any color of their choice (for the vehicle) as long as what they want is white”.
    similarly author is saying india can have all the democracy it wants as long as it is what the left liberals want.
    wow.

  6. India’s future is not tied to left doctrine. India is and India was always capitalist country. Leftist policies will ruin India. People of India simply will not accept it. India has experienced more than 60 years of left government. They miserably failed to make life better for almost all population except government employees and politicians. It brought corruption to the highest level in the World. Work done by government employees wither providing service or manufactured products were such poor quality with so high price that India will never progress and stay poor and divided forever. It is wrong model and India does not need it.

  7. Career paper pushing has its advantages, it enriches your colonial hangover and urge to explain left right in Indian context thus leading to false equivalence.

    This career paper pusher would do well to understand the lowest strata of society has become aware of the forces which until now have deprived them of equality, true secularism and fruits of liberal democracy.

    Be it be peace, social justice, development, harmony the majority community since 47 has been asked to do more and more. But at the same time by doing more each time they were deprived of fundamental dignity, rights, social and communal justice.

    While advancing his career pushing papers, you failed to notice the biggest volte face by a liberal democracy overturning shah bano verdict.

    When WAQF board was given extra judicial constitutional might to usurp someone land and giving them unconstitutional power to direct executive in land grabbing, career paper pusher like you were silent and cheering to jonnie walker in a Delhi club.

    Career paper pusher like are the reason common people are seeing through your devious agenda and overall harm it has done to society in general in all aspects of social justice, liberalism, constitutional rights, social justice and basic human dignity.

    Your idea of social justice in recommending sacchar committee for policing, administration, judiciary of mawali maskin community is highly communal and slap to secularism. Yet you and your ilk are torch bearers of secularism without know it’s true definition, in letter and spirit.

    Career paper pusher like you, in judiciary, government, state machinery, police and all walks of life will be called out in this platform.

    No more hyperboles, but time to answer and explain to general public how by self serve you & career paper pusher like you, have damaged the idea of liberal secular democratic India.

    • The same old RSS propaganda machine machine working overtime. Can’t come up with a point by point rebuttal, hence resort to name calling.

  8. “Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism”.

    Duh. Laughing my ass off.
    Why is the author shy to say it:
    Single party communist dictatorship.
    China, Vietnam, Cuba, North Korea. The latter two have not embraced the markets….and hence continue to remain abysmally poor.

    Typical Lutyens tosh. God knows what diplomacy this guy was doing while holding office.

  9. “insight offered by Lyndon B. Johnson, former US President — “If you can convince the lowest White man he’s better than the best coloured man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. He’ll give him somebody to look down upon and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” We see echoes of what Johnson was alluding to in our own country. Those most affected by demonetisation were the already poor and those eking out a constantly threatened existence as small and medium enterprises and their unorganised workers. But millions were ready to stand in unending queues to get their paltry sums exchanged, their pain dulled by the belief that fat cats and money bags had been deprived of their ill-gotten gains. Except that they had not, and many in fact profited by turning their black money into white.” A superb and excellent analogy. Wonder why so many missed observing it in India. Good work author and a very good article Print.

  10. Surprised to see Shyam Saran quoting “suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe. Let us not forget that the land acquisition reform was needed and is still needed. The problem with the Left is it doesn’t believe in free markets and free choice and freedom. Not commenting on the right wing. The Left’s singular focus on identity of either being a woman, lgbt, black, sc/st etc was its undoing. It’s nobody’s case that the remedial measures like affirmative actions are to be taken away, but when you keep on flogging the same thing, it is bound to run its course politically. Also its constant undermining of freemarkets and derogatory attitude towards entrepreneurs is a big NO. You can’t talk about egalitarianism without economic growth. Otherwise the equality you will achieve is not equality of well-being but equality of poverty and suffering for all. Something which India did till 1991.

    And I also object to including liberals under the left camp. I am a liberal and i don’t identify with the left. I think there in lies your problem. Liberals are sensible. Left liberals are not.

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