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Hungry for the rich

Till elitism plagues our democracy, ‘inclusive growth’ will remain an administrative formula that will breed newer extreme forms of discontent, writes Sagarika Ghose.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2009 22:33 IST
Sagarika Ghose

Two seemingly unconnected events point to our most urgent contemporary dilemma: how should the rich behave in a country of the poor? A week after Corporate Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid asked CEOs not to take ‘vulgar’ salaries, Naxals beheaded police officer Francis Induvar in Jharkhand and around 200 Naxals attacked a police station in Gadchiroli. Four Indian CEOs recently made it to the Forbes list of 10 wealthiest CEOs in the world, yet almost half of India lives on less than a dollar a day.

Today, many rich Indians are indeed vulgar and arrogant and the poor are no more content with their ‘god given’ lowliness and have taken up the gun. India and Bharat are on a collision course as never before. The government’s response of a crackdown on Naxals is only a treatment of the symptom rather than the disease. If Naxalism is defined as a violent response against perceived inequality, then it’s not just occurring in the Red Corridor. There are versions of it going on all over India.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram has made a number of valid arguments as he embarks on his fight-to-the-finish with the Naxals.

Abjure violence, let the administration function and, above all, join the democratic process. Maybe Naxal support is only growing because Naxals pay village youth a stipend to join their army, as reports say they do. Maybe they are foreign-funded. But the fact that Naxalism exists and attacks are becoming fiercer should become a reason for introspection.

The fact is, an insidious elitism is growing in both our politics and our economy. Elitism, which can be described as a closing down of the avenues of upward mobility; elitism that is based on money power rather than on talent. Some of our gigantic development projects are creating a class of neo-zamindars. Often crony capitalism between government and corporates results in parceling out land between themselves without first engaging in respectful negotiations with those who are its original owners. Policymaking is becoming a condescendingly elitist exercise where policymakers sit in air-conditioned cocoons, swapping jargon-laden solutions for ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘counter-insurgency strategy’. But what they forget is that it is human beings who will have to bear the brunt of their policies.

Policymakers shun public debates. Public consultations at the grassroots are often ignored in the haste to push through forward projects. In fact, our development process is still not creating a sense of individual empowerment down the line.

Chidambaram has advised Naxals to shun violence and participate in democracy. But is competitive politics anymore open to the poorest of the poor as it once was? Has the iron grip of dynastic succession and the rising need for big money destroyed the one legacy handed to us by the dreamers of 1947 — namely making it possible for any John, Jaani or Janardhan to become a leader, provided he had the skill? Sushilkumar Shinde, for example, from Maharashtra was a court constable who has risen to become a high Congress grandee. What a tragedy that instead of safeguarding party politics, as that unique method of upward mobility as it has always been, he has now perpetuated his own dynasty by ensuring his own daughter Pranati Shinde contests from Sholapur seat in the Maharashtra assembly polls.

Soon politics will be the monopoly of 400 families and in order to find political space, aspiring politicians might well be forced to become Naxals or take to violence to get their voices heard. Can the netajis hear the faint creaking of a door? It is the sound of the doors of democracy closing on the poor.

Elitism is not just growing within the political democracy, our economic structure is equally lopsided. Industry reacted with outrage to Khurshid’s statement on vulgar salaries. Yet, is there elitism in the way industry is cutting its costs in this recession? Corporate governance may be working in some companies. But in many companies across India the so-called independent directors are cronies of promoter-CEOs who hand themselves huge pay packets that often end up impoverishing the company. No doubt salaries are determined by demand and supply and must keep pace in a highly competitive job market. But surely there is an element of irrationality in maintaining many top level salaries, even as the salaries and work conditions of blue-collared company staff are pushed into the abyss.

We cannot allow our social future to be one of gated communities, private gunmen and fortified buildings. ‘Inclusive growth’ is a great idea but still too much of an administrative formula. The government hasn’t been able to push it forward in innovative ways. One magnificent old man knew about inclusion. If he had been alive, he would have walked to Gadchiroli
in his loincloth and sat on a fast for peace and justice for both Naxal and cops.

But, alas, the great reconcilers are gone and we are left with a polarised debate. Naxalism should become a spur to make our systems more open than they are and to start massive initiatives of social, cultural and economic outreach.

Interestingly, perhaps the one politician talking the language of bridging the India-Bharat divide is Rahul Gandhi. But is the party and the government he is ‘born to lead’ ready to take the message forward? The farce enacted on October 2 when Congressmen snoozed in Dalit homes armed with ACs, coolers and private meals was only a cringe-worthy demonstration of the same elitism they were supposedly trying to overcome. It’s an elitism that could end up destroying the very idea of India.

Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor, CNN-IBN

The views expressed by the author are personal