Do Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Medha Patkar represent the future of Indian politics? Only yesterday, the three appeared to be no more than a blip on the political radar. Today, they have a template for political success, one that is destructive, of course.
On the surface, the politics of the trio seems to be very different. Mayawati is challenging Congress chief Sonia Gandhi for greater space in national politics. Banerjee wants to occupy the Writers Building in Kolkata in double quick time. Patkar has dreams of a rural idyll where industrial policy is the domain of village elders.
But these are small differences, for their politics is broadly similar. It’s also detrimental to India’s success and prosperity. To begin with, it’s geared to rural India at a time when the country is urbanizing at breakneck speed. That’s where the problem lies: How can political ideas that are no longer relevant meet the needs of India’s future? At the recent Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Singapore, a former prime minister of that country, Lee Kuan Yew, pointed out that India could not achieve its full potential until it took the path of urbanization and commercialization of agriculture seriously. The politics espoused by the three militates against any notion of urbanization and modernization.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
This, however, is just the surface of the problem. More ominous is the foundation of their politics: the ignorance of a large swathe of citizens. By making the problem seem like the solution, the three have executed a neat political trick that will take a lot of effort to be undone. In Mayawati’s case, she’s made caste mobilization look like a solution to the problem of backwardness, when in fact it was the root problem. In Patkar’s case, by saying that farmers’ land should not be taken for industrial development, she wants them to continue living in villages, the fount of rural misery. Banerjee’s tactics are similar in spirit.
More than 50 years ago, the economist Tibor Scitovsky pointed out that consumer ignorance was a major source of oligopoly power. In India, citizens’ ignorance is the fountainhead of political power. There appears to be no way to break this mould, something that will prove to be very costly in the times to come. In politics, as in other aspects of life, it’s ideas that matter even if the personalities behind them fade away. Like the three Furies—the vengeful deities of Greek mythology—the influence of the three is pervasive, but pernicious.
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