The events in Punjab, where a stand-off between a heterodox sect and the orthodox clergy led to violence and tension, and in Rajasthan, where a stand-off between two communities has led to violence and a political crisis, should provide a wake-up call for everyone—not least the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress—that the seduction provided by appeals to the darkest emotions of Indian society cause them, and the nation, immense harm.
Underlying and shaping these events are three self-reinforcing trends. First is the creation of an entitlement economy—a demand-side version of the licence-permit raj. It’s the quota game again: only this time, the quotas are handed out to households, not firms.
It’s useful to be blunt about it. The rhetoric of “social justice”, “reforms with a social face” and “inclusive growth” is largely about doling out entitlements based on group identities. The prize—the status of “backwardness”, with its attendant benefits in terms of reservations in educational institutions, jobs in government and, if the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government were to have its way, in the private sector, too. The designation of backwardness is subject to electoral promises, not hard data or economic rationale. The absurdity of this can be seen from the fact that the number of “backward” communities has skyrocketed, more communities each year clamour for the exalted status of being designated “backward”. Even heretofore “forward” communities are seeking reservations to secure for themselves a piece of the pie.
Far from creating equality of opportunity, when extended in such a pervasive manner, reservations have ended up creating the exact opposite. But do this long enough and you run into the Gujjar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan and the Dera Sacha Sauda tensions in Punjab. Continue to persist along this path, and such incidents will be repeated in hundreds of places.
It was not UPA government that opened this Pandora’s box. The dubious distinction goes to V.P. Singh’s National Front government of 1989. But it is UPA government which has set in motion an unstoppable political juggernaut that can result not only in the evisceration of the Indian economy but also plunge the nation into chaos.
The entitlement economy thrives on the bald assertion of group identity of the most parochial, most intolerant kind. Which brings us to the second trend—competitive intolerance. Every single government in recent memory has demonstrated a cavalier attitude towards individual freedoms, choosing instead to ban, censor or prosecute artists, authors or film-makers at the slightest hint of perceived offence.
Those laws have created incentives for the intolerant to indulge in an arms race. Flaunting intolerance has become a symbol of demonstrating political clout, because it is so easy to do. Everyone gets into the act and a lot of time, energy and money is wasted in issuing warrants, passing resolutions and, yes, in publishing condemnations.
The state itself—and increasingly under UPA government—has, in addition to caving in to intolerance, indulged in unnecessary conscience-keeping that is at once laughable and abominable.
The political exploitation of ethnic, caste and religious identities would have been bad enough without the third trend—that of rewarding political violence. It’s a matter of deep irony and deeper shame that a nation born out of non-violent struggle should consider it somehow acceptable for rebels, discontents and separatists of various kinds to use violence as a tool to press their demands. Under UPA government, not only has the home ministry demonstrated monumental incompetence in apprehending and punishing perpetrators of political violence, its cheerleaders have explained away criminal behaviour as a legitimate expression of socio-economic deprivation.
The entitlement economy is causing a crisis of selection—it is impossible for India to be competitive globally unless it can put together its best team, regardless of groups the players belong to. Competitive intolerance is beginning to hollow out intellectual and cultural life. And leaving political violence unpunished is not only wrong in principle, but extremely dangerous in practice—not least in the context of caste/community-based entitlements.
This is a course that is certain to cause India, yet again, to lose the ticket to prosperity and development that every generation feels is within its grasp, yet somehow slips out of its hand. In reality, it’s not slipping out at all. It’s being snatched out of our hands by a self-serving political class.
It must rank as a supreme example of groupthink among the political class that not a single party or politician of note has summoned up the courage to offer an alternative narrative. In that unfortunate fact lies the political opportunity of the decade.
The deployment of the Indian Army to prevent the two communities in Rajasthan from resorting to all-out violence should be disturbing. While it has once again prevented the crisis from turning into a bloodbath, situations where the army is called upon to confront its own countrymen imposes invisible costs on its morale and preparedness for its main role—fighting external adversaries. Indeed, its reassuring presence makes politicians that much more reckless about saying and doing things that might cause violent unrest.
Nitin Pai is editor of Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and goverance. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org