There’s a price of citizenship. Not in the patriotic/xenophobic sense, but the obligation arising from belonging someplace, of access and rights to its resources. This obligation is casually interpreted as the need to stay within the legal peripheries as defined by the state, of paying taxes etc. However, the minimum bar requires us to take an active interest in the governance of our country, to ensure that our representatives do represent us, that the collective where it exists is greater than the mere sum of its parts. India, despite being the largest democracy in the world, has a rudimentary democratic system. The predominant cause (and also its effect) is the generalized political apathy in the Indian populace. While we may upbraid the disinterested, it is important to understand the social factors leading to the status-quo. This discussion is largely confined to the middle-class since they are most likely to be politically active (for change) in any country. Political apathy can be traced to six main sources.
- Overwhelming competition for resources: In a poor country of 1.2 B, our resources and access points to those resources are always scarce. Quality of our education varies widely, and the “quality” institutions are so few and far between, that the odds of admission are ridiculously low (e.g., 2% for the IITs). On the work front, the number of people entering the workforce every year consistently outstrips job creation. Moreover, opportunities are disproportionately clustered in roughly ten Tier 1 cities, creating an artificial scarcity of additional resources (land, water, infrastructure). The oppressive competition results in two behaviors: one, everyone becomes a wannabe. The cost of missing an opportunity is so high that everyone hunkers down to maximize behavior that ensures “success” thus developing blinkers for the society at large. Second, it encourages conventionality and risk averse behavior since the cost of dropping out of the system is inordinately high. Conformity lends itself well to centralized evaluation; non-conformity is a red-flag.
- Little to no liberal arts education: Recently one of the most emailed articles on the NY Times was a discourse on liberal arts education and its (potential lack of) justification in a tough job market. In India, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. Post independence, the Indian government set up a bunch of science schools. The idea was to promote indigenous professionals to advance the country. However, we neglected social sciences. James O. Freedman (retired president of Dartmouth) says, ”Liberal education opens our eyes to what life is principally about […] it’s about understanding yourself and having some resources to deal with everything life throws at you. It’s about developing a moral compass and some understanding of how society works, how democracies work“. The fall-out of our neglect is evidenced in the appalling lack of critical thought in our country. By concentrating our intelligence in few avenues (streamlined, scientific (where mass replicability is a pre-req), we have developed legions of conformists. Moreover, school level education continues to be crappy. Our text is outdated, non inclusive of differential ways of thinking, and even the best private schools in metropolitan cities are staffed with teachers who are essentially housewives who travel in school buses (the job of choice for many conventional women since it limits interaction with the opposite sex, hours are great and vacation days abound). In addition, the absence of critical thought at the individual level has resulted in centralized centers of opinion makers. Both print and electronic media are replete with pseudo-experts who opine on everything from entertainment to the news. And it stands to reason that those reposed in power will encourage status quo, and hence dissuade political upheaval.
- Political status-quo: Politics in India is opaque, nepotistic and highly centralized. Entire political parties are identified by their leader (this encourages coalition politics, making the vote “transferable” with the leader and not the party’s ideology). The top-down corruption and bureaucracy is so entrenched that political action seems too daunting, and often futile. For instance, to start a company in India, one needs multiple permissions from various departments. Each of these permissions will require onerous procedures, and the absence/delay of any can stall the entire company. Given the enormous investment required to start a company, how many people are likely to take on the “babu” who wants a bribe for an approval despite all the correct paperwork? Government bureaucracy and corruption has spawned an entire industry in the intermediaries between the state and citizen. Hidden in their lumpsum fees are the many “greased palms”.
- Domestic social structure: India propagates itself on the family structure. Gender inequality, lack of opportunities, and absent state safety nets necessitates that one person financially support multiple people. This is most easily enforced via the family unit. Family is hence actively cultivated, and conformity zealously enforced – as soon as the middle-class individual starts work, the parental units declare progeny marriageable. Further imposition of caste and class ensures propagation of common ideals. This domestic structure limits the ability to take risk, both in terms of agitation against the status quo and as the opportunity cost of time/money that will have to be spent in political activity.
- Nascent policy-level discourse: India has an appalling lack of think-tanks, and policy discussion (the many different ways to tackle a problem) is absent both within the government and outside. For instance, there is unanimous agreement on the need to eradicate poverty, improve access to education and health resources; however, there is little to no discussion/research on the different ways to do so. The government unilaterally announces populist policies and puts into execution. The absence of discussion thus leaves no space for involvement at the citizen level.
- Parallel (non-intersecting) sectors: The political, social, corporate and academic sector may occasionally meet but there are little to no connecting hallways (some exceptions in the academic/social sector). Politics is not seriously taken as a way to earn a livelihood for the average Indian, and hence most Indians select early to ignore politics.
- Reverse exodus: In the three decades or so before liberalization, a lot of our smart kids left after a heavily state-subsidized education. However, in the 2000s, India posted the second highest growth rate in the world (after China), fueling a reverse brain drain with many well-placed Indians returning to cash in on the boom. In the ensuing friction of culture shock, some repatriates are attempting to change the status quo as much as they are adjusting their own behaviors to fit. The inward migration is both accelerating cultural change and creating a politically aware and interested class.
- Coming of age of Gen-Y: The twenty somethings of India have mostly been reared in the newly affluent India, and are completely at ease with the new technological advancements that help decentralize power and information. The middle-class Indian is also better traveled now, and with widespread migration and the decreasing influence of parental units is slowly incorporating social engagement as a facet of self-identity.
- Access to democratizing tools: Never before in history has it been so easy to opine and publicize. The progressive penetration of the internet has made communication virtually free, and with the advent of social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut, it is now remarkably easy to connect with people with similar interests. Obama made social networking sites a cornerstone of his campaign, and similar (albeit smaller) examples abound across the globe. Young Egyptians used Facebook to organize a protest march in Cairo hours after Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip in December last year. In India, the Pink Chaddi campaign was conducted almost entirely online through a free blog site and Facebook group. Post Mumbai terrorist attacks, groups proliferated along several themes (citizen action, memorial, bashing Barkha Dutt).
- Proliferation of news media: Most of what passes for news in India is senseless crap. However, the round-the-clock coverage through multiple channels has a couple of beneficial side effects: one, the time lapse between event and its relay to the citizen has shrunk dramatically. Second, the incessant mass coverage often allows concerned citizens groups to respond to events and use mass media to generate additional publicity and support.
Substantive (political) change in India can only come with an active and engaged citizenry. While we are seeing the emergence of discrete pockets here and there, we cannot rely merely on organic growth resulting from changing environmental factors. Any initiative or idea, however great, will necessarily need to mobilize the Indian populace first, before it can move forward.