India an Aspirational Society? Not yet…

Visitors to India are struck by the existence of 2 Indias – that inhabited by the middle and upper classes, who have probably received a western education and are fluent in English and 2-3 local languages; and the vast majority of those that “…also serve, who only stand and wait…” The first are the type you would come across at any American campus – a class of the privileged imbued with a sense of entitlement, who will clean their apartments, drive carefully and work hard when abroad; but employ at least one or more ‘servants’ when at home to wash, clean, cook, sort their garbage, and run errands for them.

These are the ‘citizens’ of the world’s largest democracy, with all the benefits that citizenship implies: participation in the sovereignty of the state, and driven by a moral and ethical purpose. The laws of the land flow from citizens’ response to a situation, which are validated by government to become the law of the land, conferring rights and imposing limits on all citizens. Citizenship strengthens, empowers and enables. This is what the world perceives as the ‘civil society’ in India.

The vast majority of Indians, however, are imbued with a sense of fatalism and are merely the ‘public’ or populations which are a creation of government: they are identifiable, classifiable, and describable by empirical or behavioural criteria, and are amenable to statistical techniques like censuses and sample surveys. (Labels like ‘backward’ castes, Project-Affected Persons, Small and Marginal farmers, Landless Labourers, rag-pickers, scavengers, street hawkers, physically and mentally handicapped persons, actually occur in various laws and government schemes!)

Membership of a population diminishes, disempowers and disenfranchises. This is not ‘civil society’ in the accepted sense, and it took the eminent writer Partha Chatterjee to give them a name. He called them Political Society, in his book the Politics of the Governed (2004).

According to Chatterjee, the marginalized sections of society first seek legitimacy by declaring themselves as a group or community, and then negotiate directly with the ruling political class based on their numbers and ability to swing elections. In fact they function as ‘vote banks’ – a particularly pejorative term in middle class discourse in India.

The dynamics of demanding accountability at both these levels is very interesting. While civil society is more comfortable dealing with the permanent professional bureaucracy (People Like Us); political society prefers to deal directly with its elected representatives. Once approached, it is up to the elected representatives to instruct the bureaucracy to take up the issue, mostly through arrangements outside of legality. And it is these paralegal arrangements, which prevent tighter regulation of informal businesses; procure that coveted contract; or halt the demolition of an illegal slum.

So civil society and political society have long coexisted in Independent India in the mould of the centuries-old caste system (with modern class overtones) – interdependent, yet independent.

However, since 1991 and the economic reforms which pinned India to the global economy, the lines of this social divide have began to blur for several reasons:

Politics of Coalition Governments: Following the State of Emergency declared in 1975, there was a splintering of political parties across the ideological spectrum, and the emergence of regional parties, which meant that clear majorities at the Centre and State elections were a distant memory, and coalitions forced together strange bedfellows from either side of this social divide – the most notable being the coalition between the comfortably middle class BJP and the street savvy Shiv Sena in Maharashtra in 1995.

Affirmative Action: Reservations for the disadvantaged in higher education and government jobs for over 40 years, have also helped move millions across the social divide.

Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization have created new career paths and speeded up the mobility in society.

Peri-urbanization or the growth of cities into the hinterland has created a class of the new rich, whose hitherto unproductive lands have shot up manifold in value, once they become part of a city.

NGO-CBO Collaboration: In a post-internet global community, Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) have had the means and the willingness to set up Community-based Organizations or CBOs (often at the insistence of international donor agencies) and this collaboration has increasingly built bridges across the social divide.

Formal-Informal Interactions: The opening up of the Indian economy has allowed private investments (both foreign and domestic) in everything from infrastructure, to financial services, to e-retail, and this means that the formal sectors are hugely dependent on the informal sector somewhere along their supply chains. This has brought in a new set of interdependencies into the civil-political society equation.

Commercialization of Higher Education: Post-1991, there has been a boom in private institutions of higher education and it is possible to ‘buy’ a seat in every type of institution – IT, Medicine, Engineering. This has enabled expatriate workers and the new rich to educate their children, and examples of a rickshaw driver’s son or daughter holding a prestigious post in a scientific institution, are now commonplace.

This blurring of lines between the governed and those who govern, has given rise to a new generation who have the same aspirations as their contemporaries around the world. And coming of age, they have been a key factor in the 2014 election.

The question is can India now be termed an aspirational society? I think not yet…

Writing in The Washington Times on September 8, 2014, Richard W. Rahn argues that:

“Hong Kong, like Singapore, South Korea, Chile and Switzerland are aspirational societies, rather than societies consumed with envy, like France. Work, saving and investment are not punished in aspirational societies, and there tend to be less social conflict and a higher level of civility. The United States used to be an aspirational society, but has increasingly become an envious society.”

Recent events in USA (with the Police forces accused of racism) and France (with its banlieue ghettoization of immigrants) contrasted with the peaceful protests in Hong Kong; do vindicate Rahn’s point of civility and unity of purpose being key to a society becoming an aspirational society. One may also add lower economic and social disparity to this mix. Chile from the above list of aspirational societies, has perhaps the most egalitarian society among comparable countries.

The seeds of an aspirational society are there in India in this ‘bridge’ generation. The question is can the government rein in its extremist fringe which thrives on divisiveness, and can all political parties come together on a common purpose and action plan. And can a party that came to power on promises of development, also make this development inclusive

Only time will tell…


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