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An affordable future

July 27, 2004

So, are we all in agreement about caste? :-) Not likely, judging from the last round on the bulletin board. My thanks to all of you who contributed to the discussion; it really livens up the conversation in ways that are only possible online. If this style of engagement works well, we'll do more of the same. But first let's take a lesson away from that discussion, and to put that in context, I want to offer a semi-political theory.

All other things being equal, there's a simple thumb rule to determine how powerful a particular political or socio-economic agenda is, and to predict the outcome of elections fought over it. Count the number of people who would regard the agenda as 'unaffordable' to them personally, and if that number is big enough, you'll be able to identify the losers. The winners are bit more difficult to determine, but largely, they too must pass an affordability test to get widespread endorsement from voters.

The recent elections were predictable on such simple terms. A little more than a year ago, in indhe Hindutva inge selladhu, I pointed to this, saying that whatever its merits or demerits, Hindutva would ultimately not pass the threshold of affordability for hundreds of millions of Indians, because it is simply not adequately inclusive of them.

Quote: 'To say that Hindutva is the political philosophy of privileged Hindu castes in tradition-bound communities of the Indo-European linguistic group would not be wholly accurate, but the more distinct from that combination one gets, the lesser one feels its force.' Since then, the political muscle of the BJP and its allies has clearly retreated into those areas where Hindutva is affordable to many -- Rajasthan, MP, Gujarat and UP. Elsewhere their fortunes have been sharply eroded.

My assertion that Hindutva is unaffordable to many wasn't intended as a prediction of political fortunes; back then it was still possible to imagine that Vajpayee would scrape back into power. That he didn't -- and in particular because of the wipe out the NDA suffered in the three largest subnationalist domains of the country -- Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, which together control a fifth of Parliament -- suggests that there is an element of truth to this way of anticipating the future. Of course there are other explanations, notably the disastrous Naidunomics of the past few years in Andhra, and I don't discount those. Nonetheless, the contours of unaffordability surrounding the political philosophy of the BJP were fairly identifiable, and borne out.

Now, we can return to the ongoing discussions of the past three columns, especially to responses from those of you who disagreed greatly with what I've said about market economics (which I think is a lot of hoax and a little bit of sense), free trade (even more hoax and even less sense), the evils of Soviet Communism (it's amazing how much those who hate something have dwell on it) and in the case of my last essay, caste equations (yeah, my dentist really did learn to pull teeth with a pliers, sitting in his reserved seat).

Your criticisms are fair enough, as part of the discourse. Notwithstanding the strong characterisation by some posters, I know it's the sort of the thing that would happen if our roles were reversed. But let me now pose the 'affordability' question, which really was the point of the last column: how many underprivileged people can afford a system of providing opportunities in a caste-neutral way? If hundreds of millions of people have their whole lives ordered in a particular way because of their castes, can we really expect that they would embrace an alternative to caste-based reservations? Or is it more likely that they would perceive anything different as an attempt to take away hard-won gains?

Modern capitalist democracy is the sum of many affordable sub-cultures. The more people that can buy into a particular idea of the future, the more likely it is to actually turn out that way. Too often, political discussions in comfortable living rooms -- both in the real world and in parallel online spaces that are largely populated by upper income groups -- completely ignore this math. Instead, the conversation focuses nearly exclusively on what is 'right' and 'fair' and 'sensible' and other such adjectives. All these have a role to play, and I do not mean to discount them completely. But what prevails, more often than not, is what is 'affordable' to the great majority.

I could expand on that, but it is (as admitted above) only a semi-political theory, and could benefit from being tested on some cultural and political fronts. So, I'll leave you with two threads that recently caught my attention.

The first is from the Economic Times: in a news article dated July 16 Lopamudra Ghatak reported on live-in relationships among those employed in the BPO industry. While the article itself focuses on a particular segment of white collar workers, it raises questions that are appropriate for everyone. How should we respond to the increasing breakdown of traditional constraints around relationships and sex? What is the degree of control that traditional attitudes can exercise over individuals who have the ability to vote with their feet and wallets in the face of opposition to their choices? Can we expect, from such an increase in the breadth of lifestyles choices, that this is the way the future will be?

The second thread is from the political/business world, this time from rediff's own pages. What did you think of Swapan Dasgupta's column, In India, government is the problem? It's the sort of exported Reaganomics that will find many sympathisers in any country will terrible bureaucratic systems, long after America itself has moved past his slogans. So, are we going to see the government take a stronger hand socio-economic policies in the coming years, or is the government likely to withdraw into core areas, leaving the private sector to provide some of the services traditionally reserved to itself? And, to the point of our discussion here, which of these paths will seem more affordable to the great majority of Indians?

My short answers: get used to the sexual revolution and the wholesale rewriting of traditional bounds for relationships. And while business will continue to press for withdrawal of government from areas where it can smell a profit (and will even be successful in obtaining some of these), we are eons away from a government that will cede important domains to the private sector. On both counts, rightly so.

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Ashwin Mahesh

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