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A warning against privileged lot for the great Indian republic

Obama will search for parallels between India and the US. He will find the phenomenon of the ‘inheritance of privilege’ is one of them, writes Manu Joseph.

columns Updated: Jan 26, 2015 18:39 IST
US President Barack Obama,President Pranab Mukherjee,narendra Modi

This winter morning in Delhi, for no fault of his, US President Barack Obama will endure folk dances, and the parade of military equipment that would seem obsolete to him. He will endure speeches, and have a conversation with President Pranab Mukherjee in English. As his only picnic has been cancelled, he will not go to Uttar Pradesh to see an ancient building that every head of state is required to find romantic.

'Ah, must remember to bury Michelle this way’.

In the time that he is in India he would try to deliver compliments to the nation. It is inevitable that he would search for parallels between India and the United States, and find it in the force of democracy. Yet, there is something else, but not as cheerful.

It is a phenomenon that the US is grappling with now but is an old foe of India and in the very heart of the nation’s despairs — the inheritance of privilege. It is not merely the transfer of material estates that are creating deep inequalities in the American and Indian societies, but the inheritance of something more powerful and more liquid — class. It inevitably bequeaths a level of education and health, attitudes, mannerisms and social contacts, which are increasingly crucial in the modern economy, and leads the lucky few to a place that is unattainable to a majority.

Three days before his visit to India, Obama said in his State of the Union address, “America thrived in the 20th century because we made high school free, sent a generation of GIs to college, and trained the best workforce in the world. But in a 21st century economy that rewards knowledge like never before, we need to do more. By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future. That’s why I am sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”

Even though it was not “smart” for India’s future, an unfair advantage was for long available to a section of the Indian population and their progeny, and they thrived. Unlike the inheritance of mere wealth, the inheritance of class bears the masquerades of true merit. The class progeny are often clever, hardworking, ambitious, even talented. It is easy to shroud their headstarts in the moral argument that they are meritorious. As we have heard many times from India’s forward castes, “The only thing that should matter is merit”. But then where exactly does merit reside — in an exam’s answer sheet, or in a fortunate home where two highly educated responsible parents groom their children in ways that are impossible for parents who are not so enriched?

Whole economies within India are accessible only to Indians who have skills, which include behaviour, English accent, and the tricks of networking that do not flow from the brain but from social backgrounds. Amusing then that India’s upper classes should have such contempt for Rahul Gandhi for the lottery of his birth. Almost the entire Indian elite is filled with Rahul Gandhis.

In another time, our perception of the US, shaped by Hollywood, television serials and literature, was of a strange society where a young person of means may choose not to go to college. Many times we have seen, in a movie or a serial, a young man, who is attired in jackets, jeans and shoes that were unattainable to us, say, “I am going to college.” His father continues to repair his car, mother continues to cook. Or one of them would ask, in a disenchanted way, “who is going to pay for it?” As a boy raised in the middle-class Brahmin colonies of Madras I had assumed that everybody who had enough to eat went to college after school, or his entire family would consume rat poison.

Also, it appeared to us that the American youth often did not live with their parents even when they lived in the same city. It appeared that parents did not fund the lives of the youth. In return the youth had a great degree of independence.

In contemporary America, a college degree is increasingly a pre-requisite for a well-paying job, the way it has been for long in India. And, the cost of higher education or the repayment of loans is increasingly forcing America’s young to live with their parents, as is common in India. A family that funds its young also exerts a degree of control over them — that is the bare fact of what is couched as the great Indian familial bonding. Will that happen to Americans too?

In a society where the tools of success are inherited, the new elite, as India has demonstrated, would be filled with identical beneficiaries who would be able to hide their mediocrity in the trappings of scholarship, and they would collect more of their own. The losers in this rigged game would seek release in extreme electoral politics or violence or corruption.

On this winter tour, Obama might want to take a close look at the great Indian republic and see the many warnings in plain sight.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel

The Illicit Happiness of Other People

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 26, 2015 01:37 IST