Home / Opinion / Columns /  Social harmony must quickly be brought to the centre of politics

Even as India emerges from the pandemic, we are hurtling into a maelstrom of unrest. To arrest this plunge into lawlessness, violence and unmanageable disorder, it is important for everyone (yes, everyone) to prioritize tolerance, moderation, and above all, social harmony.

The call for social harmony is not a liberal progressive platitude aimed at masking real divisions and grievances. I believe social harmony is a good thing in itself, but you don’t have to agree with me on this. Beyond principle, the case for social harmony today is dictated by hard-nosed realism and an interest in our prosperity and well-being.

Why did the Bharatiya Janata Party government have to roll back farm law amendments? Why is the GST complex and hard to fix? Why is it that India is witnessing a violent backlash against Agnipath? These reforms are in the country’s long-term interest and while people may differ on the broad details, there is little doubt that they are necessary. Depending on your politics, you might blame opposition parties. Or you might argue that the government’s approach and communication are at fault: Reforms of this scale need consensus-building and political outreach. “The more you sweat in Parliament," as it is said, “the less you bleed on the streets."

Yet, these explanations merely scratch the surface. The underlying problem is a weakening of generalized social trust. If people prefer the sub-optimal equilibrium of their present condition to the benefits of a promised future, it is because they don’t trust one another.

After rising from 33% in the 1990s to nearly 40% in the early 2000s, the proportion of Indians who trust others fell to 20% in the late 2000s; only 16.7% said that they would trust other people, according to the World Values Survey 2010-14, the latest period for which data is available. I won’t be surprised if it has dropped further since then.

Why is this relevant? Generalized distrust makes reforms extremely hard to do because those who fear being worse off do not believe in the state’s promises. At a micro level, distrust adds friction, costs and deadweight losses to social transactions. For instance, even where procedures have been eased, doing business has not become any easier among firms within the business ecosystem.

Mounting evidence analysed over the past two decades shows that generalized trust positively correlates with per capita income, productivity, R&D expenditure and life satisfaction. Lower trust is associated with more regulation, higher corruption, weak legal systems and greater inequality. Societies that have low levels of trust are poor, badly governed and unhappy. The worst part is that such distrust perpetuates itself. Children pick up the attitude both from parents and the environment. Over a decade ago, I had argued, “Today’s social capital inequality is tomorrow’s internal security inequality." We have been in this vicious cycle for some time.

The absence of adequate social capital across endogamous caste-communities is a reason why India failed to industrialize in the 19th century. As Dietmar Rothermund argues, land prices appreciated 4% from 1860 to 1913, while other prices rose only 1.3%. Surpluses were invested in land and gold, and unlike Meiji Japan, colonial India failed to create efficient financial intermediation at scale. You could blame the British for not being interested in out industrialization, but what about the fact that as recently as 2017, 84% of the credit supply to micro, small and medium enterprises was from informal sources, mostly loans from friends and family? Small businesses that are financed this way cannot grow large. Despite our large population, we are unable to aggregate surpluses and allocate capital required to scale up.

Tagore, Ambedkar and Gandhi had many differences. But each in his own way arrived at the same conclusion. In a letter to an American interlocutor, the poet wrote, “The problem of India therefore does not seem to be that of re-establishing its lost ideals, but rather of reforming its overgrown body... our problem is not spiritual but social—that of reviving, by organizing and adapting to its more complex environment, our fast disintegrating social system. It is our disorganized society which prevents our ideas and activities from being broad, the narrower self from being merged into or sacrificed for the sake of the greater..." A few decades later, Ambedkar questioned how people divided into thousands of castes could claim to be a nation. Denouncing castes as anti-national, he argued that “without fraternity, liberty and equality will be no deeper than coats of paint." Gandhi realized quite early that communal harmony was an essential condition for India’s freedom and progress.

So what can we as citizens do about it? If compassion does not come easily, then let us practise tolerance. If we do not feel a sense of fraternity, then let us at least live-and-let-live until we do. We should demand that politicians, public officials and media-persons rebuild social harmony. Living rooms and board rooms have a certain power in democracies that is quickly felt in the corridors of power.

We have to face the fact that without a political order based on pluralism, India’s diversity will limit its social capital. Growing social distrust will frustrate our vision of a strong and prosperous India. We have to change course—now.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy

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