December 6, 2001


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Ashwin Mahesh

Left, or left out?

For decades now, political parties have sworn unwavering commitment to eradicating our social and economic evils, and just as routinely disregarded their pledges once in office. The abolition of such ills as poverty, illiteracy, and infanticide has consistently appeared on party manifestoes, but in the absence of plans for implementation, the promises have proved hollow. Moreover, as greater integration with the global economy has pushed the nation down new roads, material gain itself has become the measure of our achievements, and even the occasional call to include the considerations of the poor has disappeared.

But why?

The immediately apparent answer is that not enough of us pause to consider the socio-economic effects of our choices, and are quite happy to remain oblivious of the conditions in which the marginalised people exist.

Perhaps, but that is a failing that has attended practically every prosperous society too in the last few decades. That being the case, the large numbers of dispossessed and downtrodden poor in our society cannot be explained away as the consequence of widespread apathy alone. Indifference may be part of the answer, but is certainly not all of it.

The greater blame, in fact, rests with the progressive core that lies beyond the unconcerned masses. The self-anointed intelligentsia that has long professed progressive thinking, whether in university campuses, media houses, or religious institutions, has in recent years simply withered away. In its place stands the shell of people and institutions lacking a fundamental understanding of welfare economics, social organisation or civic duty. Bereft of meaningful compassion and increasingly lacking even an inherent character worth extolling, the Left is no longer a moral anchor to our material lives.

Reality records the extent of this failing. We live in a society that enslaves millions -- there is no alternative term for the bondage in which the rural poor work generations to pay off the tiniest loans. The urban lower-income classes aren't much better; there is little about their professions that reflects the Constitution's exhortation to obtain a living wage for all. Gender justice is limited to the drawing rooms of the elite, and even here liberation is understood to mean little more than the opportunity to flaunt one's sexuality. Our children work in waste-dumps recycling the innards of batteries by hand, and make toxic firecrackers to mark our homage to gods.

And who records these horrors? In a country rapidly adopting media- and advertising-driven paths to economic growth, the mere ability to express oneself in profitable ways has substituted the informed understanding of pressing issues. Much of the media is little more than a shameful assortment of verbal tomfoolery, lacking both the analytical skills to justify the profession or the necessary compassion to provide conscientious examinations of society. Ministers and bureaucrats accused of gross financial misconduct regularly reinvent themselves as high-brow opinion-makers for our leading publications.

We no longer ask why our social decay persists, only how its random manifestations may be tackled. The great debate asks not why Hindus and Muslims are divided, not why gender inequalities persist, and not why millions of our children die without nutrition in a land of alleged food security. Instead we ask only how we can punish individual errant bigots, how vigorously the state must pursue crimes of infanticide, and which private corporations can best access rural markets. The notion of government with purpose has fallen away, not because it is inherently without merit, but because those previously entrusted with this noble charge have proved craven.

Quite simply, progressives have been too slow-footed to respond to rapid change, and this is true of those who have wielded power as well as those benched in the opposition. As the intellectual basis for progressive thinking has eroded, the quest for fairness has been dragged along behind, with most leaders satisfied with simply appearing to be pro-poor, but otherwise inept. Unhinged from the public consciousness, their challenge to the material establishment is easily defeated by the evidence of small wealth created in very specific communities. Has the Left made anyone stronger, better informed, more able to make choices? To whatever degree the answer may have been in the affirmative two decades ago, that little is no longer true.

Even elementary considerations of the working classes, their living and work conditions, their subjugation by mindless rules, are not taken up. Consequently, the laws of the land are monuments to shame, erected without meaningful opposition in a climate of willful neglect of the public interest. By government decree, in the poorest of our villages the personal possessions of marginal farmers and their wives are auctioned away, while the largest debtors in the nation dine with authorities in government. Behind the appearance of order, law, and accountability, a veritable giant of unspeakable shame conducts the nation's business.

The questions progressives need to ask are actually fairly apparent. The Directive Principles of State Policy, contained in Articles 36-51, provide fodder for generations of striving, and espousing any of those principles would serve state and society immeasurably. Yet, few voices demand to know why universal education is not a fundamental right, why hundreds of millions lack a living wage, or why the continuing degradation of the environment is not arrested. Academic entities and civil libertarian groups that challenge government lethargy in these areas are few and far between, and often poorly organised. Indeed, some of them are at war with each other, and totally devoid of the cooperative enterprise needed to save the public interest!

This near-extinction of progressive politics is the single largest price we have paid through the 1990s. In India, as elsewhere in the democratic world, alleged guardians of workers' rights and champions of equality have found self-serving ways to merge their views with those of corporate backers. The major political parties today are not nearly as much opposites as they are alternatives from the same side of the political spectrum. Inane references to the character of Gandhi or Jayaprakash Narayan do not conceal the disgraceful manner in which the essence of their messages has been forgotten.

We have long passed the stage of having sufficiently endured the choke-hold of such social organisation. The failings are plain enough, but the alternatives are hardly in place. A robust intellectual and compassionate alternative to the political spaces now occupied by entrenched parties with vested interests is the need of the hour. The Left, moribund from its own cancerous failings, must be retrieved from the abyss in which it has sunk. Absent as a political platform, the stewardship of this responsibility has fallen upon the shoulders of the little people -- as witnessed by repeated street-level opposition to nearly every government initiative.

Some have argued that progressive idealism has been compromised out of necessity, that pragmatic approaches to nation-building and economic upliftment require that certain considerations be ignored. But there is little evidence that such "pragmatism" has wrought the changes one reaches for! Having accepted the compromises with a few pretences to doing so grudgingly, most leaders thereafter quickly abandoned any reference to the idealism from which the compromise allegedly marked a necessary deviation.

Practically all leftist philosophies now lie vanquished by challenges from individual enterprise. It bears asking, however, if that loss is final -- not because the defeated reasoning was incomplete or inadequate, but because beyond the search for value in social organisation lies a purpose in doing so. The responsibility to reclaim and protect that purpose belongs to each of us in privileged society -- not merely to those whose political aspirations may be in line with it. We, the informed elite, have been empowered beyond any sense of fairness by the institutions of government and the mores of society. But this is no mere passport to privilege.

At root, the consideration of the marginalised is the loftiest intellectual challenge in all social organisation. Ironically, those who are best able to confront this beast are those whose opportunities have raised them above its pale. The progressive's charge has always been to apply privilege towards social gain, in addition to personal advantage, but s/he has grown increasingly unwilling to meet this challenge. By such disinterest, the intelligentsia is seen to be an opportune people, unfaithful to its own stated convictions. The re-affirmation of egalitarian thinking requires a reversal of this apathy, and a vigorous engagement of every sphere of the public interest.

Progress demands the unrelenting participation of the progressive mind and heart.

Ashwin Mahesh

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