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Leadership vacuum feeding India’s right-wing politics: Dipankar Gupta

Sociologist Prof. Dipankar Gupta re-conceptualises Indian citizenship, rooting it strongly in equality at a basic level, wider than a political right to vote in a democracy. Cornerstones to this new equality in citizenship, he points out, are access to universal healthcare and education. In this 30-minute interview held during the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), Prof. Gupta evocatively argues for equality "not in terms of ends, but in terms of beginnings’’.

Ahead of the critical general election in 2014, Prof. Gupta points out that public anger and resentment, rather than any popular policy endorsement is feeding the rise of the right-wing in India. Prof. Gupta taught for nearly three decades at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, in the department of Sociology. He has also held various visiting appointments in Europe, Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. He is presently Distinguished Professor at Shiv Nadar University, and Head of the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory. His latest work, ‘Revolution from Above, India’s Future and the Citizen Elite’ , which drew considerable attention at JLF, both upholds and faults the Nehruvian model that built modern India. Excerpts from the interview with M.R. Venkatesh and V.S. Sambandan.

The country is at a political crossroad in the run-up to the 2014 elections, with the possible rise of ultra right-wing, communal forces. Do you think the space for centrist parties in Indian democracy is shrinking? type=box-article;; position=right;; articleid=5630605

Well, I think in India, what is really shrinking is the lack of ideals and vision. The rightist parties don’t have a vision. They have anger that they are capitalising on and resentment with the existing structure. On the other hand, you have opposition movements building up which also have resentment and anger, except that they don’t have any community that they pillorise or criticise or marginalise. Today, in India, what we need more than anything else, is not just being a centrist party – which is to say a good centrist party would be that which runs according to the rules of the game – but we need to set our sights also in a fashion that will open up the areas for civic participation and indeed for the realisation of citizenship potentials. That is yet to come. That’s not happening. The most we can hope for under these circumstances is a clean government and a clean administration, which delivers along the lines already laid out.

But I think we need to go beyond that. The rightist parties that you are thinking of, I think they come up not because of ‘rightism’ so much or right-wing policies so much, but because of the vacuum in leadership. And they are just walking in. I don’t know if those who are going to vote for such right-wing parties also believe in their ideology. In fact, in most cases there is no ideology on both sides. Economic policies are very similar, foreign policies are very similar in many ways, and the only thing that seems to be different is the history of the origin of these parties and their track-record. One history is that which is relatively secular and the other history is non-secular, and this seems to be a memory game. But in practice today on the ground there isn’t much difference, because they are all the same seasoned players, they’ve all made terrible deals with people, on both sides there is a lot of corruption; therefore, if somebody comes up and says we are going to be corruption-free, it is very attractive. But ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ is not the issue right now. I think, the main issue now that can take India forward is a vision and we don’t have a new vision yet; we have anger, we have resentment; people are trying to topple each other by playing political games, but the vision is lacking.

With the overall disenchantment with both the main national parties – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – do you think the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) raises hopes or is it just another romanticised, NGO-form of activity that may just peter out?

Well, it might peter out. You can’t predict what will happen in future. But if you want to understand the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party it is really a reaction to the political class as a whole and their behaviour towards other people. The Aam Aadmi Party or the sentiments behind the Aam Aadmi Party are not really ideological in nature. It is, I think, primarily a movement that wants to curb VIP ways of behaving, the swagger of the political class, the kind of things they have done, the corruption they have engaged in; the AAP is against all of that as a ‘movement element’.

The ‘policy element’ – what they will do in future to take the country forward, how they will handle poverty, education, health and the like is not clear yet. So, the ‘movement element’ is there. To that extent, it has served its purpose already. It has put both the parties [the Congress and the BJP] on alert; and I think, if it can last over a period of time, if it does not make any major errors and there is a groundswell – as I think in different parts of the country – they can be a kind of ‘third force’… it will put the two major parties on alert and make them behave more sensibly.

In due course, AAP may also grow into being a political party in the full sense of the term. What shape it will take then, whether it will be right-wing, left-wing or centrist, what will be its economic, political and gender policies, we don’t know yet. What we know is they are against swagger, against pomp and splendour and they’re against against corruption. These are very good things… But in some ways this is a beginning. This is a movement, so let us see to what extent in the future it can grow. As of now, it has put both parties on alert.

Nobel Laureate Prof. Amartya Sen, at the JLF’s inaugural session, expressed a wish for strengthening a rightist, market-friendly party which is secular. What do you feel about this?

It seems to me that what Amartya Sen is most worried about is the secular/communal divide. As long as you are secular, he doesn’t seem to worry too much about right-wing or left-wing; and that may also be a function of cynicism; that we have seen right-wing parties, we have seen left-wing parties and neither of these two divisions have really made much sense to the lives of ordinary people. But what really hurts is when the communal elements come to the fore, and then people lose lives, people live endangered lives and that is very, very tragic. So, I think, in a way, Amartya Sen is probably expressing that anguish and it is also perhaps, in a way, a manifestation of his disenchantment with ideological formations on both sides. So, ‘as long as you people are not going to kill each other, and will not use communalism or ethnicity as a bait, I don’t really mind you very much;’ that seems to be his position.

At the same time when he went on to express his views on policies for the poor, subsidies for the poor, he was really saying that we should set our sights right. It’s not as if subsidies are the answer to everything, but the way in which the mass media and the middle class and the literati in India generally behave, is as if any of these subsidies is really a waste of money; and the other kinds of support to the rich and the well-off is not a waste of money. As long as it affects us (the middle and the affluent classes) positively, it is a good thing; if it goes somewhere else we are not interested in, it becomes a bad thing! I would take it further and say that when you have subsidies of this sort, which are targeted and discriminatory in nature, what happens is those who are people like us, who can actually exercise control, supervision and oversight, we tend to walk away and, therefore, these policies are left to others who are not committed, who have no vision; and the only thing they have on their minds is how to make money out of that. And so corruption sets in.

But he [Prof. Sen] mentioned the Swatantra Party in particular…

I think he was being a little...


Not nostalgic, being a bit naughty there. He was trying to sort of provoke us a bit by saying that ‘I don’t even mind the Swatantra Party; at least they were not communal’. I think he wanted to put the right-wing parties today in a spot by saying ‘I am not really against your right-wing policies, we can discuss that. But what I don’t want to discuss is your communal stance.’

In another session, speaking about your latest book, you explained the need for the ‘Citizen Elite,’ for social change. But if anything, technology has alienated the citizens more from the state today than in the past...

Technology has not alienated the people from the state. Technology, in fact, has many advantages; as I was trying to explain in the same talk, that if you want to understand the economic advances that we made through history, most of these advances have happened due to technological breakthroughs and also because of enterprise. And with each technological breakthrough-enterprise, more and more people have been involved in its embrace. So I feel that whenever you try to take technology out of this generous mood and try to close its approach to people and perspectives, you do a lot of harm to technology.

The ‘Citizen Elite’, primarily, is a concept where you are talking about how people of substance – political, economic and intellectual substance – go against their self-interest for the interest of citizenship in general, knowing full well that if citizenship in general prospers, they too will prosper, but that will be a secondary level prosperity, secondary level gratification. The most important thing we would like to see is that citizenship grows.

By citizenship I mean that people are really independent, can make up their minds about things and that you and I are fundamentally equal, so that nobody is a patron and nobody is a client. And you may have the democracy, you may have the vote, but you have seen how in democratic behaviour so far in India, a lot of corruption, patronage, clientelism and things like that exist. in everyday life… somebody in your family is sick you want to go to a hospital, you go to a patron; you want a child to go to school, you again …. So the patron-client is everywhere; your income tax, your water bills, water and electricity connections and all that; so some element of independence of citizens and ability to be the same so that each person can strike at whatever level that person is best equipped for – that is what citizenship is about.

That [citizenship] does not come easily. It comes because of intervention of people; historically, it has happened at different junctures, critical junctures that people have actually fought for citizenship. As I was telling you earlier, this requires vision. So far, we have quarrels between politicians, we have minor rifts on policies, but we don’t have a vision which can answer citizenship. The vision I am looking for today is vision on health, education, urbanisation; these are some of the most important things that need to be answered.

There seems to be a lot of blame on the Nehruvian model now, but a lot, I would think, has been built on Nehruvian foundations. Do you think the country has abandoned the Nehruvian ideology a bit early in the day?

Well, I think the country has abandoned the Nehruvian thinking by not paying attention to it. I don’t think there was any serious attempt to undermine it. By not paying attention to it, it slowly withered away and died. For example, there were three pillars of Nehruvian thinking: socialism, the importance of the public sector and non-alignment. The non-alignment policy only meant we are not communist bloc, not American bloc; we are non-aligned, but we are not unfriendly to either; at the time of the Cold War, nobody understood this; neither Stalin nor the Americans understood it.

The second thing is about self-reliance. It basically meant that we will generate our own industries and we will do what we can to generate them, to put them in place. Now this again is misunderstood. The public sector is not simply banishing the private sector. Having said all this, I think, Nehru made some serious errors. One error was he did not pay enough attention to universal health and universal education. He did not even talk about primary education in a serious way. He was interested in science, technology, but at the upper levels. And this is a failing that continues even now when we talk about science and technology development; we talk about upper levels, but we must have good science and good training at all levels to be able to support those at the top.

The reasons for why some of our best institutions slowly become flaccid – in fact some of them decay – is because they are not regenerative from time to time from below, with fresh ideas, fresh talent from the country itself. And that is where, I think, Nehru failed. I am really surprised at this, because Nehru was very close to many Europeans. I would have therefore assumed that he would have talked to them and have a positive relationship with ideas of this kind. But I don’t know why this didn’t come about. Maybe because in that time of nationalism and independence, certain things were uppermost [for Nehru]; America and Russia were both fighting and where do we stand? Our capitalism was very weak then and we needed the public sector to come in. We have to be self-sufficient, we have to have our own policies so that we do not have to depend upon the external world; so that we do not go back to the stage of colonialism; maybe these things were uppermost in his mind; but today we have no such excuse and I think, we should now think more seriously about those aspects of Nehruvian thinking which Nehru did not think about, or should have thought about.

Around the same time, post World War-II, there was the Beveridge Committee in the UK to provide for a universal healthcare system, and India also made some similar attempts. Do you think it just dropped off along the way?

I don’t think India really thought about universal healthcare. What it did think about was things like the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, set up for higher science in Medicine. It was a good thing. It was supposed to be a referral hospital. But universal healthcare, where everybody got the same kind of treatment. That was not there. You just set up some public hospitals. But public hospitals were not geared to delivering at quality levels and nor were they sufficiently present across the country.

Universal healthcare is when everybody, across the board – regardless of caste, class, background – have the same access to health delivery services. That was not there in Nehruvian times and it had not yet come up. People somehow don’t think about it. I don’t know why. So, this is a problem, I feel, we have to tackle head-on.

At your session you had mentioned that let there be a basic level of equality, and after that let there be inequality. What are the defining factors of that equality?

Yes, in my view, ‘citizenship’ makes all of us equal at one level; so that you and I, when we meet each other in a public place, we treat each other with respect even though we may not know one another. I don’t know you, or where you come from. But you are a human being and, therefore, I must give you respect and you must give me respect at a certain level. We may not go out to have coffee or dinner together, but that respect has to be there. That we do not have in our country, because our standards are so different, our lives are so different. We don’t have that at all. How do you get that? I think the best way of getting that level of respect from one another is that everybody is given universal healthcare and education so that nobody is dependent on anyone in the critical areas of our life. So, if that is given, we become equal in some significant way.

Now if you have health and you have education, then it is up to you to make whatever you want to make of yourself. Then you can be different. Some of them may be lawyers, some professors, someone can be a very successful lawyer, someone may not be a successful lawyer, some may even choose to drop out, but nobody can say that these people did what they did because they got better access to education or worse access to education, better health or less health, or better energy supply levels like electricity, water, housing, drainage; so that is what I meant that there should be a common base that all of us have as a given fundamental and on that base, well, let us be different. So, it should not be equality in terms of ends, it should be equality in terms of beginnings. You know, the beginning should be equal.

Doesn’t that also point to a larger global dialogue and call for universal social floor, which India has knowingly avoided or been unable to do?

In India, there are two reasons why we don’t want to do it; one is, that it requires a fair amount of political commitment and mobilisation. You just can’t announce that we are putting in so much money and that’s the end of it. Number two, we don’t do it also because we find this very convenient excuse that we do not have the money, it is very expensive.

But you mentioned about Beveridge. There have been other people in other parts of the world who have brought about, who have actually worked very hard to bring about health and education. And in almost all cases – not in every case – these were done when those countries were poor. So, you don’t have to start up by saying, only when I am rich you do these things; in fact you do these things so that you become rich!

Investments in human resource development has been very low in India. Do you think, as a sociologist, there are social factors that go into it, like the vested interests of the caste institutions?

Not caste institutions so much I would say; caste probably plays a role, but one of the things that really comes in the way is the differences in the standards of living, differences in ambitions, expectations… all these things, you know, are very difficult to overcome. Now listen. Most of us have people working in our house as domestics; and they live with us practically 24 hours a day and yet they are not like us. We separate ourselves from them on a hundred levels. What makes them laugh or cry, we don’t know. Fundamentally, we are aliens to each other. But that is a problem. So, how can I think of them, because I don’t know what they think. I can think about myself. I can say let us have a health system for the poor people. But what do the poor people want? We don’t know. Or education. We think give the poor people something, they will be happy. But they are not happy that way. They also have aspirations.

One of the biggest problems is that the division between the rich and the poor is very wide, striking. While I agree, as I mentioned earlier, inequalities of some kind will always be there, but you must have the floor which allows people to achieve what they want to achieve, and be not nipped in the bud as it were.

When the economic reforms started, one of the justifications was, to take the classic Smithian concept, generating investment surpluses which can go into basic human needs. But that seems to have been very elusive.

Well that is elusive because if you have investment surpluses, the ones who are investing will have the surplus to be used in their area. You see, why should I give my surplus to you? These are things that should be done by the state. The state should decide where and what kind of resources it has and where those resources are going to be put.

It’s a very simple thing and there is no need to make it complicated. If you have a certain salary, then you decide how much you are going to spend for the children and how much you are going to spend for a vacation. Likewise, the state will decide how much it will spend for education and health, and how much for other things. There are so many other things. So, it is all a question of making up your mind and taking a decision and standing by it, and not saying ‘we don’t have the money’.

For example, you might get Rs.5,000 a day and you may still say I don’t have the money to go in to Monaco or something like that... or I have a lot of money, and I’ve spent it all in going to Monaco, so I can’t teach my children anymore. That also happens.

So, we have to think of our society as one, where all our lives are inter-connected in some ways. The programme that started in Sweden in 1933, as the social choice programme, which later on grew to the model programme, is that “people are our home”. The Folkhemmet Programme. So, once you think of social insurance in that fashion, you find that it is not very different really from the way you allocate domestic expenditures.

Coming back to your ‘Citizen Elite’, do you think this kind of social change led from above calls for a qualitatively different politicial leadership? In the Nehruvian era for instance, the Left-Liberal-Socialist of a particular standing had a vision for India.

Yes. I think you need to have a leadership with vision. As I told you, Nehru had a vision, Gandhi had a vision and that vision did a lot of good for us. For example, if today, the fact that today we are one country and Jharkhand, or Uttarakhand is created, nobody says India is disintegrating. It is a great achievement, you know. Fifty years back, you couldn’t have done it. There were problems of various kinds. Of course, we have been able to do several things. We have scientists, we have educationists and we have done things in the field of industry and enterprise. Yes. All that is true.

But that basic division you are talking about, that has not been bridged. Citizenship has not been properly achieved. That is very, very important. Our middle class has grown, but it is still a very small percentage of the population. So, you do need people with vision who will say, ‘I am not going to maximise what is given that anybody can do. I want to change the nature of the given, I will open up new doors, windows, where new things can be seen, felt and visualised’.

From the policy perspective, do you see any move towards this coming to fruition. For instance, the Right to Education Act, but its flawed…

No, No. ‘Right to Education (RTE)’ is something I have serious misgivings about; because the RTE does not tell you about the quality of education and today we are talking about it. But to be able to give quality education, you must be able to make the education system, like the health system, something that everybody would like to be committed to. Right now, you don’t have that. You can put up a school somewhere saying use the RTE to go to that school. If the school is not delivering the goods, is of no use, then what is the point of the RTE or a Right to Health for that matter? So, the use of the word ‘Right’ has been overdone. I think we should stop using the word ‘Right’, which is a very UN [United Nations] kind of language; because UN has no responsibility. It is a universal bureaucracy. But if you want to be responsible, you should not talk in terms of the RTE or a Right to Health; you must rather say, ‘policies in education, policies in health’. So, when you have policies of this kind, you can then target people who don’t deliver on those policies. Now, if you find a child not going to school, who are you going to penalise? The Principal, the District Magistrate, the father, mother, you don’t know. But if you have a policy, then if the child is not going to school, you can pin down who is responsible for this aspect. So, you have policies in place. Policies on health, and policies on education are much more meaningful than right to health or right to education.

So, you would call for restructuring present policies?

Precisely for this reason. You should not see these policies are for the poor. It should be seen as ‘social’. As I was trying to explain earlier, one of the best ways of serving the poor is to forget about them and think about society. Only then will the poor be actually served well on an enduring basis.

Would that mean, as some would logically think, that education and healthcare should be nationalised to meet this end?

Yes. First of all, we have to provide universal health and education by the state; at such a level when private players come in, they face competition. Right now, any private player can walk in and they face no competition and deliver sub-standard health. In fact, some of the very expensive medical institutions, barring a few, don’t actually give you good health services, though they charge a lot of money for that. So you are fooled into believing that you are getting good health services, but you are not. There is no medical protocol, there is no accountability that at the end if something goes wrong, you don’t know what to do or what to say.

It is not that public health will kill private healthcare. Public health will raise the standards for the private players. I would like that to happen. I don’t think that private health or private education institutions should be abolished. But let them face some competition.

( M.R.Venkatesh is Chief Political Coordinator, The Hindu Centre and V.S.Sambandan is Chief Administrative Officer, The Hindu Centre)

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