Sunday, October 15, 2006

A Left Turn

There were many moments at IIT Madras that made me think; some of which actually changed my life. Technical discourses from the likes of V Ramachandran (the neuro-whiz from UCSD) and Roberk Resnick rank quite high, for one. But a talk by journalist P. Sainath really changed my life.

Sainath is one of those guys who makes people uncomfortable. And he does so with fact rather than rhetoric. The tirade he launched against the BJP for having the temerity to suggest that India was actually shining when the poorest of the poor were going through their toughest time ever opened my eyes, and almost everyone else's in the audience. IITians are a cynical audience, by and large. Nobody, not even T.N Seshan got a standing ovation. But Sainath did.

His analysis was spot on; the subsequent election results showed the free-market-capitalist BJP and the CEO of AP, Naidu, receive a historic drubbing by the wary masses. The family of the farmer who committed suicide would certainly have thought the India Shining campaign insensitive, to say the least. And proposals to build a F1 racetrack in Hyderabad when farmers were dying would have been the salt on the wound. Democracy spoke out; the left leaning congress party came to power (after some political theatrics).

Another moment that changed my life was the following. I was at an aunt's place in India (the details of the location shall be with-held, for I don't want to be accused of slander and be responsible for the subsequent rift in the family). She said the following:

"The poorer people are animals. The rickshaw-wallas, the shop-keepers. They beat their wives at home and get drunk all the time. Just don't think of them as human. Treat them as low-lives."

I was enraged at that time; and still am. But now, I realize that almost every rich person and business in India thinks this way - by just don't say it in so many words. Let me elaborate.

The poor are omnipresent in India. Look through any window from home (unless you are in one of those expensive Metro neighbourhoods); from trains, from anywhere. You will see the poor live in their ill constructed slums facing the vagaries of nature (extreme heat, extreme cold and heavy rain). With this poverty everywhere one tends to take this poverty for granted. There are so many poor people in the country that the average rich Indian just takes them for granted. Servant maids are upbraided for missing a spot on the ground; auto drivers are shouted at and fought with.

Life in the US has been such a contrast. Labour is dignified; carpenters and chauffeurs (often among the poorest in India) live with a standard of living comparable to while collar workers in India - often with that of executives. This country is so insulated from human suffering that any little suffering is given a lot of importance. The US is a way more compassionate country for that very reason.

It is obvious that the lot of the poor Indian is unlikely to stage an overnight recovery. The only way out , of course, is sustainable development - and perhaps laws that make it difficult for corporations to continue making positive economic profits (by monopoly) off the poorest of the poor. Dr. Singh's tag line "Reforms with a Human Face" makes a lot of sense at first hear. But is it really practical? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, the fate of poor India hangs in the balance.

I can see that the only sensible Ideology an Indian/ a sensitive global citizen can follow is an Indian-style leftist ideology (not the ridiculous ideology of Michael Moore et. al. Back in the third world, we've got more important things to worry about than the right to surf porn annonymously on the internet.). For the poor are people too, my aunt's words of wisdom notwithstanding.


Radha said...

Very well written!! I could feel the conviction and passion between the lines...

bhupinder said...

Welcome to the fraternity !

Akhilesh said...

I am not a leftist, per se. I am all for capitalism, but capitalism within limits.

I believe private enterprise is the way to go; but it MUST be regulated. Government policy must protect the poor (like it does in the US). Monopolies (especially the monopolies that screw the poor) should not be allowed to form.

I am for a welfare state. A Scandinavian type welfare state. I don't like government ownership of large companies - capitalism teaches us that governments are usually incompetent in these matters.

In a nutshell, I would love an India where people work sincerely (a tenet of capitalism)and the poorest of incomes and sustain a small family.

I'm not an economist, but I don't think I'm trying to have the cake and eat it too.

I hope I'll enjoy my stay in the fraternity. I hope it isn't an Orwellian "brotherhood". And I sure as hell hope you aren't O'brien.

Arunn said...

It is hard to be a self-conscious man of conscience and live in India without having a "left leaning" for long...else, you should lead a life with your senses closed.

Government policy must protect the poor (like it does in the US) (taken from your comment above)

can you explain what you mean by this? Because. as such I have a different view.

...where people work sincerely (a tenet of capitalism)...

again, is there an explicit tenet of capitalism that believes in this? OR is there in other 'isms' some explicit denial of this "working sincerely"? For instance, even in communism, "working sincerely" is presumed for it (communism) to be successfull...

would you mind explaining your thoughts on this...

...the poorest of incomes and sustain a small family...

for this to happen, i don't think "working sincerely" is necessary. Earning a living insincerely and remaining poor or poverty in general are different issues I guess.

Ramjee said...

Right on target.. thats what i would say. If only we learn to be compassionate of the "so called" (i don't call them poor, i prefer to use monetarily challenged) poor people.

Cam across your blog by accident, and feel good about it :).

Akhilesh said...

Hi Arunn:

When I said "like it does in the US", I probably overdid it.
The poor in this country do have a much larger safety net - but that could be due to the inherent abundance of resources of this country rather than anything else.

When I said "working hard" is a tenet of capitalism, I meant the following:

A critique of the Indian government job has always been that a person who just shows up to work between 9 to 5 and does not work at all gets paid. And often he does not even need to show up. Politics will see to it that he gets paid. Such people are an unwelcome burden on the already strained resources of a socialist society.
A private company, on the other hand will make them work a lot. Perhaps even go to the level of exploiting them. I believe the government should not patronise the big companies (like Naidu et. al), but should encourage private enterprise. Policies must ban exploitation, not discourage productivity.

The US government does this really well. With the $7 per hour minimum wage and at 40 hours a week, the poorest of the poor can live a life better than the average graduate student ;) This wage might not be possible in India .. but that is the only way to go, I believe.

When I said "working sincerely", I meant "working productively". The thing is, if people are not productive, the society will decline.

I believe the free market is the most efficient way to progress. It has many inequitising effects, which must be countered by a welfare state policy. Policy must penalize unproductive slacking and unproductivity rather than incompetence. For incompetence is something a human being cannot help. Slacking is something a human being does intentionally. The US has managed this well.

To be fair, it was easy for the US to manage this ... it started out much richer. It will be a challenge for India to do this. But India should not fall into the rut of mediocrity that communist nations are. The most promising communist nation - China has gone free market and done so in a big way.

I think Manmohan Singh has the right idea.. He faces and uphill task.


Thanks for the encouraging comments!

Anonymous said...

you are really pompous & pontificating... wasted time reading your arrogant/pretentious views .One word describes you .. HYPOCRITE!!!

Akhilesh said...

Dear Anon.

I am not a hypocrite. You just don’t get the ABCs of economics, that’s it.

Yes, I lean towards the left. But I have enough common sense to see that Marxism is a disaster. Socialism is a disaster. Why? Look at USSR. Dead as a door-nail. Look at China – Lassiez-faire to the core (more or less). And look at Cuba – a poor, repressive dictatorship. A great poster child for your ideology?

Capitalism is the way to go. Not the ruthless free market capitalism that the big business houses would like to inflict on the nation; not the Chandrababu-Naidu-esque criminal neglect of the farming class.

The free market means efficiency in distribution of resources. Socialism means utter unproductivity. Would any nation want the latter? Alas, socialists, you miss the point completely.

India’s main problem is not just mindless neo-liberalism. It is corruption. For corruption introduces a bias towards the rich. Mindless neo-liberalism is to blame too, of course. Naidu deserved to lose. But we have democracy to take care of that.

Compassionate free-marketism: that’s the way to go. Give people some incentive to work. Punish the slacker; don’t punish the incompetent though. For human ambition and ego are the keys to happiness: not unsustainable state largesse. Ever heard of hyperinflation?

Use free markets as a tool. But make compassionate welfare-state policy.

I wish you had the guts to not remain anonymous. Or are you worried that I will go through your blog and expose incoherence in your ideas and prove that your ideology is a relic of a by-gone era? Are you worried that I will prove to you that whatever you believe in politically is a load of pure B.S?