Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Listening to people not like us

For India to progress faster to fulfil the needs of its citizens, Indians must discover the highest common factors in their multiple perspectives and aspirations, and listen to each other deeply to understand who 'we' are, and to shape 'our' future together

Many “People Like Us", a global elite, are troubled that some core ideas we adopted to shape the world seem to be crumbling. We believed that globalization and free trade would lift all boats. We believed that technology will make the world better for everyone. Innovation, along with globalization and technology, became a buzzword among us, and we limited the concept of innovation to the use of more technology. Some of us even believed that social media would make us all friends.

Thomas Friedman celebrated these trends in his book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, published in 2005. It sold millions of copies. He was a celebrity at the World Economic Forum in Davos. This was shortly before the global financial crisis, when innovations in financial instruments, enabled by technology, shook up the world. And before the power in social media, in the wrong hands, to spew hatred and divide people became obvious. The 21st century Friedman predicted turned out to be very brief indeed.

Friedman launched his book in India because it was inspired, he said, by a revelation he had while playing golf in Bangalore (now Bengaluru) with a founder of Infosys Technologies Ltd (now Infosys Ltd), the globally admired Indian IT company. He said he saw hoardings of global brands around Bangalore, such as Sony and Microsoft. And he could call his wife in the US from Bangalore on his mobile phone. People in Bangalore were connected with people everywhere in the world, Friedman said. Ergo, the world is flat. Except that, as Mani Shankar Aiyar, who was India’s minister of panchayati raj, pointed out sarcastically at the launch of Friedman’s book in Delhi, People Like Us in Bangalore knew what was happening in New York, London, and Tokyo, but did not know what was happening in villages just a few kilometres outside our cities.

We have not been listening to the people outside our physically, as well as intellectually gated communities. Yet, they have been speaking to us in many ways. In the US, there was the Occupy Wall Street movement. Then came Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, rallying the people against the political and corporate establishment. Thousands of people have been arriving in boats on the shores of Europe. They are saying something about the state of the world. People Like Us were dismayed when, in June this year, a majority in Britain said they wanted to get out of the European Union. A few days later in India, many thousands of people defied the government and the police in Kashmir to mourn at the funeral of a young militant.

These dissonances are “reflections of, and expression of, the real protest about the deep inequalities of the world-system that are so politically central to our times", says Immanuel Wallerstein in World-Systems Analysis. They have shocked People Like Us who thought that the history of systems of governance had ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the victory of (US-dominated) ideas of democracy and free markets.

Along with the globalization and financialization of economies, inequality has been increasing in the “Flat World". Combined with inequality is a smoldering sense of unfairness, and an impression that those who have do not even care about those left behind; and that the “haves" even believe they have obtained their wealth and power because they merit it and that those who are left behind are culturally inferior. There seem to be a million mutinies now, with perceptions of deep-rooted unfairness in established economic and political systems fuelling protests in many parts of the world, some peaceful and many violent.

The people are speaking. Are we listening? It is high time we listen to people not like us and examine concepts that have become embedded in our minds about governance of societies and economies.

Citizens in electoral democracies are given the right to vote and to choose their governments. Not enough, they are saying now. They say they are being shut out of the processes by which big decisions are being taken that govern their lives. They have governments “of the people". They want government “by the people" too.

The Constitution of India, promulgated after India’s independence from British rule 69 years ago, granted universal franchise to all citizens, men and women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate. India’s founding fathers believed that, regardless of their circumstances, all human beings have equal rights to determine how they shall be governed. In the Indian Constitution, the illiterate farmer who never travels beyond his district, and I, and other People Like Us who travel the world, are equal.

The Davos version of corporate capitalism chafed at the boundaries created by nations. It railed against the rules created by national governments to protect the interests of their citizens. Economists calculated the costs to gross domestic product (GDP) growth created by these rules. Some, taking a long view of history, declared that the idea of countries with sovereign governments had become an anachronism. The drive for GDP growth and advances of communication technologies would break down national barriers, they hoped.

However, other deep forces of history are creating the need for stronger and better national governments. One is accountable governments, as mentioned before. People want to choose their own government and make it accountable to them. Therefore, there is a trend towards more localization of governments—from Europe to countries in Europe (as in Brexit), and within European countries also (Scotland?). In India too, the trend is towards empowering governments in the states and in the cities.

The second trend is an increasing consciousness of “identities" and national histories. In a rootless world of global economics, people seek psychological stability and continuity of their history. They reach out for tribal camaraderie within their own people. Thus, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke up into countries that formed around earlier histories. When people feel the established system is unfair to them, they will unite with others like them to fight for their rights, as the blacks seem to be yet again in the US.

The third trend is the use of violence by disaffected people to terrorize the system. Modern technologies can enable “anyone, from anywhere, to strike anywhere", as Donald Rumsfeld, the then US defence secretary said after 9/11. Citizens have become fearful and are demanding that their governments provide them security against such random violence. Therefore, governments are strengthening their systems of surveillance, and use the same technologies that empower citizens to snoop on them. Though people complain that their government is becoming like Big Brother, invading citizens’ privacies, they also want a stronger and better government of their country for their own security.

When the Berlin Wall was pulled down three decades ago, some believed the history of ideological conflicts had ended. That illusion continued very briefly until the end of the millennium. Then history returned with a vengeance. The economics of globalization had failed to flatten the primal forces of tribalism, nativism and cultural identities. Civilizations clashed. A war was declared against terrorism. Geopolitics has returned with the resurgence of Russian nationalism and the rise of China.

National boundaries, and national governments may be a problem for smooth global economics. But the people need national governments to meet their fundamental needs of self-determination and security.

India is often described as an “incredible" country on account of its diversity—of religions, races, languages and geographies within it; as well as the many histories that have coursed through it, and inter-mingled in it, over thousands of years. This incredible complexity would make it difficult for anyone to define a singular idea of India. Incredible in its diversity, India has huge challenges before it, of creating good livelihoods and jobs for millions of people, improving their health and education, and lifting them sustainably out of poverty. Systems function well when their components are aligned. They become dysfunctional when coordination among the components breaks down. For India to progress faster to fulfil the needs of its citizens, Indians must overcome many internal differences. They must collaborate to shape their collective future.

India’s energetic democracy is often blamed for the Indian state’s inability to get things done faster. Some even say that India would have grown much faster if dictatorship had preceded democracy. Though dictatorships have not always produced well-run states: and whereas efficient institutions of the state are functioning in many Western democracies. The insight of political scientists, such as Francis Fukuyama (Political Order and Political Decay) and Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty), is that, whether produced by democracy or dictatorship, strong state institutions are necessary for sustainable growth.

Political scientists, including Fukuyama and James Cook (Ancient Religions, Modern Politics), point out that the formation of strong states has often been enabled by the forging of a strong national identity, which has frequently been based on ethnicity or religion. Germany, Japan, Korea, Singapore, France after the revolution, and even Israel, are some examples. Therefore, it is tempting to conclude that Indians must be rallied around a shared national identity to enable the building of a strong state that can impose order and get things done. However, a special challenge that India has if it follows this route, as Cook explains, is that there is no ethnicity or religion that can rally all Indians into one nation.

Aryan culture cannot be India’s identity. Dravidians in the south have made it clear that they were settled on India’s land before the Aryans came, and they are proud of their ancient, well evolved culture and languages. To the east, other ethnic groups resent being treated as second-class Indian citizens. Nor can religion unify all Indians. India proudly has almost all the religions in the world. The religion of the majority, Hinduism, with its caste system, has been unable to contain everyone equally even within itself. Moreover, the beauty of Hinduism is that it accepts that people can have many beliefs and many ways to their Gods. The imposition of any singular version of Hinduism may even divide Hindus rather than unite the whole country. India’s history is a composition of many histories. Any attempt to impose a single vision of India’s history is a fool’s game. It will create divisions within people, which recent efforts to re-write Indian history are creating.

A shared, aspirational vision of what India must become is necessary to align the energies of all Indians in shaping their future. A foundational element of this vision of India has to be, because it is a fact, that India is a conglomeration of many diverse people with different histories. They must respect other Indians as being as Indian as themselves. Ultimately, the idea of India must be what a billion Indians think it is. All of them will not see India in the same way. Their lenses are shaped by their personal histories.

While all Indians cannot have the same lenses, they must acknowledge that other Indians also have a right to their perspectives of India. Even though citizens of India have different lenses, there must be something common in their views of India, for it to become their collective vision of “Our" India. A strong Indian state must be formed around a vision of the future and not around a religion or a selective history of the past. Indians must discover the highest common factors in their multiple perspectives and aspirations. Therefore, whatever be India’s past, those within India’s present borders must listen to each other deeply to understand who “we" are, and to shape “our" future together.

The question, “What sort of world are we leaving for our grandchildren?" has become a cliché. We cannot continue to live as we are, and leave it to our children to produce a more inclusive, more just, more harmonious, and more sustainable world for our grandchildren.

We must change, and we must collaborate with others to shape our collective future. Let us listen to our own aspirations. We must listen also to the aspirations of people not like us for the better world they want to leave for their grandchildren.

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