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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Policies towards the poor don’t work: Dipankar Gupta
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Policies towards the poor don’t work: Dipankar Gupta

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta on the idea of a citizen elite and why every democracy needs a dream

Dipankar Gupta makes the case that India can deliver quality services to all its citizens only through the active and forceful intervention of an elite that has the courage to leap over the short-term profit of electoral politics. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)Premium
Dipankar Gupta makes the case that India can deliver quality services to all its citizens only through the active and forceful intervention of an elite that has the courage to leap over the short-term profit of electoral politics. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
(Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

In his new book, Revolution from Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite (Rainlight Rupa, 495), sociologist Dipankar Gupta makes the case that India can deliver quality services to all its citizens only through the active and forceful intervention of an elite that has the courage to leap over the short-term profit of electoral politics.

Gupta, a former member of the faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University, has written and edited 17 books. The most recent was in 2011—Justice before Reconciliation: Negotiating a ‘New Normal’ in Post-riot Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The ideas for Revolution acquired a substantial shape after Gupta was appointed visiting professor at Deusto University in Bilbao, a city in Spain’s Basque region. During a three-month-stay in 2009, he met many Basque nationalists “who took enormous pains to further my understanding of how their part of the country grew out of poverty to prosperity"—the book’s final chapter is titled The Basque in Spain: From a Basket Case to a Model of Development.

In an interview at his home in Delhi’s Palam Marg, Gupta said, “The one thing I heard loud and clear in the Basque country is that the most important things in a democracy take place not because people ask for them, but because the leadership thinks it is good for citizens as a whole, for society as a whole." Edited excerpts:

You describe the citizen elite as persons who do things for society that benefit other citizens universally without discrimination.

In almost every case, members of the citizen elite do not benefit from such measures directly. Leadership, in such cases, obviously plays a determining role. The citizen elite have intervened in many democracies in Europe and Canada and in the US too, which is why those societies moved forward. From universal health, education to minority rights to gender equality and the abolition of child labour, it is the citizen elite that took the lead. In India, Gandhi was a citizen elite in the way he campaigned against untouchability. When Nehru fought against communal forces post-partition and when he campaigned against polygamy among Hindus, he was not responding to the crude call of the popular will.

Is Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi a citizen elite?

Modi is immediately disqualified because he clearly discriminated against Muslims, particularly in the way he climbed to power. A citizen elite thinks universally, for the society as a whole. If, in this process, a certain section is singled out for special protection, it is only to integrate that section with other citizens on an equal footing.

Modi realized early—two years into his chief ministership—that hurt and anger cannot work for too long and take you beyond a point. This is a cynical calculation quite unlike what is typical of the citizen elite. He knew that you could work religious passions to a pitch and have a riot or two, but to be able to keep it going is tough because most of us are not professional Hindus or professional Muslims. We think of jobs, education, food on the table and so on. After capturing the imagination among the Gujarati Hindus as a strong ruler, Modi went on to show his abilities as a developmentalist. But he still does not make the grade as a citizen elite not only because he cannot forsake his pro-Hindu preferences without losing his political clout, but also because he has no policy on universal health and education, nor has he shown any real initiative on improving those human development indices, such as nutrition, health and mortality, where Gujarat fares poorly.

The title of your book refers to revolution from above. What about grass-roots democracy?

In the last 60 years, there has been a kind of regression in terms of democracy—not only in India, but also in the rest of the world. The US has been a trendsetter in the business of merging religion with capitalism and it was not really important any longer if citizen rights were undermined as long as free enterprise was protected. It is not considered to be democratically improper any longer to espouse such views openly. Other countries, including India, have picked up this refrain; if America can do it, then it must be right. After all, is not America exporting democracy?

True democracy is achieved not by votes alone, but by making the people equal at base. The best way to accomplish this would be by providing quality health and education to all so that they can function as equal citizens. At base we must all be equal so that we can be different and unequal later on the basis of our individual accomplishments. The problem is that this is often mistaken with the idea of giving these services only to the poor.

We have focused our welfare programmes towards the poor.

The policies targeted towards the poor do not work. These do not affect people like you and me who, unfortunately, really matter in this world. As they do not address us, we don’t pay attention to them. It is only when programmes are universal in character, that they have a chance of really meeting their objectives. Programmes for the poor are poor programmes and attract corruption. This is true of the public distribution system as well.

A universal policy, say towards healthcare, is not just about giving people a right to healthcare. A right means nothing for you if you land up in a public hospital where nobody looks after you. If we have universal healthcare and education, then all of us are being taxed to provide quality healthcare and education to everybody, which is the European model. In France, if you want to educate your children well, you go to a public school. If you have a major illness, you go to a public hospital. This is how citizenship is realized in democracies. I hope that in India too one day, all of us should be queuing up for the same schools and hospitals.

If a privileged person too gets access to benefits that are meant for the poor, then isn’t he eating into the share of those who actually need it?

There is something called removing poverty. Then there is something called keeping the poor alive. With good intentions perhaps, we are doing the latter. Instead, we must give people, regardless of backgrounds, education, health and housing of the kind that should be available to each of us at quality level, and that is not impossible. If that is on the agenda, the fear you express in your question will be unfounded.

Your book is critical of the food Bill.

The food Bill assumes that we Indians are cereal-starved—that’s a 1940s famine model. We are nutrition-starved. We don’t have access to sanitation and water. And if you think these things only affect the poor, you are wrong. Anyway the public distribution system only serves the interest of the status quo. You are not thinking to change the system. You are not thinking of working on schools and hospitals such that they deliver at quality levels universally. All that requires mobilization, hard work. The government school teachers today, for instance, constitute a vested interest group and are often used for political purposes. Trying to change all of this requires dedication and energy, which is why politicians do not want to get into all of that. Keep the poor alive and not let things spill over on the streets is what concerns them the most. In that case then there is no fuss anywhere.

Can (anti-corruption campaigners) Anna Hazare or Arvind Kejriwal relate to your book?

They led a mass movement that resonated with many of us because they raised issues that hurt us every day. But addressing today’s grievances is a totally different ball game from thinking about policies for tomorrow. You may not like Nehru or Gandhi, but think of the dreams they had. Do you have dreams of a similar kind? No. Economic liberalization and the free market by themselves do not generate dreams that are social, but only ambitions that are sectional. Democracy is a very difficult project that is made to look easy because we play the game of numbers and the politics of the given. When there is no dream to charge democracy, when there is no utopia that drives people to look beyond the given, then public passions such as hurt, anger, primordial values, and prejudices rush in. That is dangerous.

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Published: 19 Jul 2013, 09:09 PM IST
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