I read Niranjan Rajadhyaksha’s column in Wednesday’s Mint about the relationship between the hard-nosed idea called capitalism and more fuzzy notions such as social capital and trust, and thought I would do a follow-on piece.
My wife Swati and I lived overseas for several years, before returning in 1998. The regular non-resident Indian gatherings would have the usual conversations about what ailed India. And we had all the “answers”. “The problem with India is…” was how most sentences would begin. Magic wands being swished around, thousands of miles away, safe. On our visits to India, we would grumble about the airports and the garbage and the traffic.
Pretty soon though, these pontifications started feeling stale. One particular experience was telling. We had just moved home to a new town in Connecticut, sometime in the early 1990s. There was a flyer in the mailbox — “Cleaning the park this Saturday. Beer after.” The mailbox would invariably be stuffed with messages like this, which we would promptly trash. Who had the time, and weren’t these the responsibility of government anyway? But we had just moved in, and wanted to meet the neighbours. So, for purely selfish reasons, we went.
On Monday morning, when I reached the station to take the 6.35 commuter train to Manhattan, I saw — in a suit, reading The Wall Street Journal — the group leader of our park clean-up operation. We talked. Turned out he was a banker like me. Volunteering for the local community was something he took very seriously. There were others — in the school board, on the city budget committee, and so on. These small acts of local engagement were related to larger complicated ideas of democracy and government. I thought about my life in India — I had never lifted my finger to volunteer for anything. Not that I didn’t want to, just that I didn’t think it was expected of me.
Swati and I realized that — like many middle-class Indians—we knew very little about democracy and politics and government, besides the convenient cardboard caricatures we carried around with us. Democracy in India was like cricket — a spectator sport. We began to glimpse the massive shift required in our minds to make democracy truly work in India. We felt the gnawing urge to learn about all this, to return to India and actually make a difference.
Since returning to India, our work has been a turbocharged daily lesson in democracy and public change. While my experiences have increased the respect I have for politicians, they have also reinforced the belief that we cannot solve our country’s challenges without significant citizen participation, in ways that supplement and strengthen the system of government.
There are many educated Indians who wonder why this is necessary. I was once asked by a friend: “Shouldn’t the system work properly on its own, so that I can devote all my energies to myself: being an effective person, running my company efficiently and creatively?” She went on to say, “Each of us could do this, isn’t it? Focus on our own priorities: family, profession, skills, etc.” The question goes to the root of what we mean by democracy and society, and whether the “system” is something independent of citizens. In this increasingly complex world, we believe that we already have enough responsibilities to manage; that our contribution to society happens through the taxes we pay and the “honest citizen” lives we live.
The relationship between individuals in a society and our government is an unwritten social contract — we exchange some of our personal independence for a common good in which each of us benefits. Among the political scientists who have written about this social contract, Jean Jacques Rousseau is arguably the most significant.
In the past decade, the spirit of community has become a hot topic of research, under the label “social capital”. In a famous but contentious book called Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam suggested that these community forces representing social capital were at the root of larger political and economic phenomena: The greater the social capital, the healthier that society is. As Rajadhyaksha observed in his column, social capital is also considered essential for markets to work efficiently.
One aspect of an unwritten social contract is enforceability — a lot of people are “free riders”: not fulfilling their role, but not being noticed. A healthy society is not some magic carpet that allows us to fly off in the pursuit of our personal dreams, but rather a complex tapestry where each of us has a strand to weave. At some tipping point, the weight of the free riders overwhelms the contract and begins to tear the fabric. I believe that urban India faces this risk.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at email@example.com