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Home / Opinion / Views /  A theory on what possibly saves the rich from the poor

How do the rich survive in a country that is vastly poor? There are several famous reasons. I wish to illuminate a little-known one.

There is a civil war going on among the poor. It is invisible because we do not look at the poor carefully. And this cold war inadvertently saves the rich from a violent end to their luck. At least for now.

We are trained to imagine many things on behalf of the poor. Most of them are wrong, as sociological conjectures often turn out to be. Like the myth that the poor “envy" the rich. The poor do have a grouse against the rich, but grouse is not envy. Just as you don’t envy Mukesh Ambani, the poor don’t envy you. Because envy is among peers. Envy is a consequence of equality. There is another related force that equality exerts, which is derived from the same complex strands of people sharing the same social plane: hatred.

Equals do thrive when they cooperate, but often economic and social equals compete for the same thin band of resources. This is why, outside academic and journalist rhetoric, in real-life situations, the poor seem to hate each other as much or even more than they do the upper classes. As in the case of envy, they may have a theoretical sense that they should hate the “big people" more, but they actually appear to direct this emotion at people who are very much like them.

Let me present what I see every single day in Gurgaon. Housemaids are stopped at the gates and harassed by security guards, who are usually malnourished men in paramilitary costumes from the same social and economic backgrounds as the maids. The guards have no one else to bully. Also, harassing is a form of flirtation. The only threats the maids face during their journey from their impoverished residences to their affluent places of work are from men and women who are a lot like them. Traffic cops are more likely to harass motorcyclists than owners of luxury sedans. All the bribes that the poor pay are to people from their own class or an economic rung not very higher than their own. The violent war between police and Naxals is in reality a war between the poor and the poorer.

The rich do harm the poor in invisible and complex ways, but the most visibly violent and unjust experiences of the nation are within various sections of the poor. This, in turn, has been one of the most under-appreciated reasons why the poor have not stormed the colonies of their masters.

Dalits are among the poor who have the clearest view of the elite as foes. Yet, even they face most of their visible daily injustices from their own. There are about a thousand recognized subcastes within the Dalit community, and the seemingly unavoidable Indian caste hierarchy is followed here. The top echelons of the community, like Vankars and Mahars, do not dine with or marry Valmikis and others who have traditionally been sanitation workers. Dalits thus seem to perpetrate the same injustices that they accuse upper castes of committing. This is inspiring the lowest of the low among Dalits to ask for reservations within the country’s quota for Scheduled Castes.

The poorest Dalit subcastes, which go by different names in different states, have long complained that elite Dalits have more or less cornered that quota. Some communities have prospered over the years because they had major social and economic headstarts, which made them unbeatable in the battle for reserved seats in colleges and reserved government jobs, which deepened the inequality between them and the rest.

Resources are finite, life is hard, and equals are rivals. This could be one of the reasons why in the 2019 general elections, the poor across north India were found to have largely voted for Narendra Modi, or his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Electoral analysts explain that this was because of Modi’s charm and sweeping “nationalism". I don’t find these explanations convincing. It is unusual for upper classes and the poor to have identical views on almost anything except the two big fables of divinity and nationhood; so I feel there must have been a powerful selfish reason why the poor voted for a party that also seems the beloved of billionaires and millionaires. It could be possible that a poor majority had the impression that a minority group that is just as poor, or poorer, being subdued by nationalistic thugs emboldened by the BJP’s rise could reduce competition for jobs.

Violence against migrants and Muslims in India is often couched in a cultural war, but there is enough to suggest that it is about jobs and sharing meagre resources, too.

The rich, on the other hand, create resources. They are the employers of the poor. Yes, there are many aspects of their lives that are visually repulsive to the thinking, philosophical poor, but their view of the rich also includes their reformative roles— conscientious teenaged girls trying to teach the children of their maids and drivers; refined do-gooders trying to make lives better. I have met a man who started a free library in his Mumbai house for poor aspirants to the civil services; and an old lawyer who fought cases without charging a fee; and several doctors who treated the poor for free. These too are the optics of Indian life that the poor see every day. As a cultural bloc, the rich might seem villainous to an unknowable number of the poor, but compared to their own neighbours and equals, and even husbands and in-laws, the rich also appear more decent, nobler, more generous, nicer and safer to them.

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