Sunday, 26 June, 2022
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Them versus them

India's prominent governing elites and ruling elites have so little common ground, but live within the same territorial frontiers.

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The idea that there are two Indias is not new. For intellectual convenience, one is called India, the other Bharat. One is shining, the other declining. One lives in cities, the other in villages. One is generally upper caste Hindu, the other is Scheduled or backward caste, tribal or Muslim. One is white collar, the other in agriculture.

But our thinking has become so numbed by these established notions that we are missing another division in India, in fact, in Shining India. Or, the rise of two Shining Indias, in conflict with each other on the streets, as we saw in the protests against the gangrape now, and during the Anna mobilisation earlier.

Let us call one the India of ruling elites, and the other of governing elites. Governing elites are the political and bureaucratic classes, the judiciary, the conventional or rather institutional intelligentsia and media, and, of course, the police and the armed forces. The ruling elites, on the other hand, are the economically “arrived” Indians outside of the sarkari system. The businessmen, new professionals, particularly from IT and banking, the EMI-powered, young, double-income community and, of course, the conventional old rich, and offspring of the earlier generations of governing elites, NRI returnees and the modern foreign foundation-fuelled activists.

These ruling elites and our traditional governing elites now have so little in common, so little shared ground, that they have begun to look like two sovereign, alien and hostile republics. Except, they live within the same territorial frontiers. That is why one finds it natural to blame the other for whatever it thinks is going wrong.

The governing class blames the ruling elite for insensitivity typical of the rich, inability to understand “real” India and for making unreasonable upper crust “give them cake”-type demands each time they come out protesting. The ruling elites, of course, have the deep belief that all of India’s governors are corrupt, inefficient, unskilled, illiterate, insensitive, out of tune with the times and out of touch with the new aspirational India, undeserving of holding the jobs and exercising the powers that they do. And therefore the “system” must change.

Also read: Is anybody out there?

We have looked at two related phenomena in the past. And these, in some ways, may have been the precursors to the complex situation now. One was the way Mumbai and Delhi functioned like two entirely different, and distant politico-socio-economic entities. You made money from enterprise in Mumbai and bought power with it. You earned power through votes in Delhi, and acquired wealth with it. So Mumbai and Delhi become a metaphor for entrepreneurial and political India.

The other phenomenon was of our biggest cities — Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and so on (with the exception of Delhi) — becoming “colonies” of the states to which they belonged. Take Mumbai, for example, the political class that rules it does so by getting votes in the Maharashtrian countryside. So the phenomenon, get the votes in the village and use that power to rule and plunder the cities, can be seen in all of our big cities.

This political marginalisation of metropolitan India was hastened by the rise in inward migration and slummification as the hinterland moved in, as the same politicians’ vote banks, pushing the upwardly mobile India further to the political margins. These two disparate phenomena have now expanded to make the divide complete.

Today, the ruling classes have nothing to share with their governing counterparts except contempt and anger. Their children pass their plus-two at the best schools, which are now factories that mass-produce fat fee paying Indian students for foreign undergraduate colleges. That is one of the reasons presidents of so many American universities now routinely float in India. They come looking for customers, not scholarship.

Our government has created this market by assuring under-supply of quality college education. The children return from college, more or less alien to their country and its “system”, and join their parents’ expanding world of non-governmental power elites. Their social and professional circles are mostly PLU, where almost every other Indian they come across, security guards, drivers, cooks and domestic servants, taxi-men, even policemen, are all “bhaiyyas”. I say policeman with particular emphasis as he is usually their first point of contact with governance: to get a driving licence, a passport renewal verification, a traffic ticket, or a breathalyser test on a nightly drive. And this bhaiyya is usually sorted out with some cash. As the rest of the government must be. Then they compare the rotten governance with what they experience overseas.

The richer families now routinely employ a full-time fixer whose only job is to solve their “little” problems with the government, represented mainly by the police, excise, income tax and the various municipal departments, all of which are equally “corrupt and purchasable”.

Of course, nobody in these ruling classes, with the clout of cash and connections at the higher levels, and the force of idealism and impatience among the professionals in the aspirational EMI stage of life, wants to venture across the divide.

They do not compete for all-India services. Check the facts with the UPSC on the socio-economic profile of the IAS officer recruits every year. The competition is too tough, too messy, and in any case, what do civil servants get paid, “unless they become corrupt”. These classes also shun politics. Particularly, again, because it is too dirty, but also because of the entry barriers. And the armed forces, forget it. Who will lead that life, and that too for so little money? Better leave soldiering for the children of India’s kisans.

Maybe Shastri figured it out when he said Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan in 1965. The British royal family, which sends its boys to active military service, is no inspiration to these new royals of India. They want to have nothing to do with the government. They only want to fight it.

Also read: Mumbye

And what about the governing elites? They have internalised the belief that all their problems, all the ills they are blamed for, are nothing but the imagination of these greedy, unreasonable, illiberal new Indians, whom they dismiss as the non-voting class. But when these non-voters arrive at Jantar Mantar, Rajpath, or Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, they don’t know how to deal with them. They are like an unusually well-dressed people’s army that comes in tow with a marauding cavalry, in the shape of the OB vans and camera cranes.

You say these are small crowds, and that political crowds used to come in lakhs, but there is a qualitative difference. In the past, when lakhs of poorer Indians came protesting, you could gas, thrash and shoot them. The detained, injured and even killed were mere statistics on day two. This is no longer true with these smaller, niftier, smarter crowds of protesters. When an 18-year-old college student in jeans climbs a pole on Rajpath carrying a placard, she gets millions more eyeballs than a dying patient abandoned in the compound of a Hazaribagh hospital. Just as somebody on a 24-hour crash diet at Jantar Mantar would attract millions more eyeballs than Irom Sharmila in Imphal.

Each one of these protesters is more articulate than any police officer. Indian ruling elites are now media savvy and camera trained. Each TV anchor, in turn, is more articulate than any of your party spokesmen. And so many of our activists are smarter, cleverer and better communicators than all of these. This is a larger reality the governing classes cannot wish away. Whatever their judgemental view, they have to learn to live with it, find a modus vivendi.

In fact, they need to reach out to this other Shining India, embrace it and co-opt it. They have to take a leaf out of Indira Gandhi’s book and bring in some of the more talented professionals from the corporate world and liberal-global academia laterally into government. Professional India has to be given a better institutionalised role in governance.

This will mean bringing in more of these successful professional classes into politics. Just one Nandan Nilekani is not enough. And yet you can see how he can solve problems, sell innovative new ideas and processes that conventional politicians and bureaucrats never could.

This applies to all major political parties, not just the Congress. Even the bureaucracy and judiciary have to find ways to bring this ruling elite into the tent. Why do all the positions of regulators, from telecom to RBI, SEBI, insurance, competition and information commissions and so on, have to go only to retiring civil servants? The National Security Council set-up? Why not fish in a larger pond?

Over the past decade, the governing classes have become a fortress. The ruling elites, conscious of their new power now, are determined to breach it, by smashing its gates preferably. It is for the former now to throw open the gates, instead, and hug the new reality. Or condemn itself to a permanent siege. And history will tell them, there is only one way sieges usually end.

Also read: Liberate our cities


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