Sunday, February 12, 2017

Pure red herring

Purity versus pollution have been part of the Indian way of life for millennia, manifested most perniciously in our caste system, which divides people between the highest, who are ritually the purest, and the lowest who are the most polluted. Ritual purity is the feature of many religions, but nowhere has it had the malign impact that it has in India.
Confined to religious and social practice and scientific practice, the concept now seems to have leapt across social and religious practice into the contemporary political discourse. Speaking to the nation on New Year’s Eve, Prime Minister Narendra Modi weighed in, terming the whole demonetisation exercise as ‘a historic rite of purification’ aimed at ridding the society of the ‘badness’ and ‘evil’ that had crept in in the form of corruption, black money and counterfeit currency.
‘Purity’ is fine as a scientific concept, but applied to religious, political, social and economic categories it is troublesome. We often hear of temples being washed after Dalits have entered them, or Dalits being segregated from upper castes in schools, villages and eating places. The ‘ghar wapsi’ movement calling for the reconversion of those whose ancestors had allegedly converted from the Hindu faith is another manifestation of this, as are movements to dictate dietary choices. Most crippling remain the notions of purity applied to the female body, which are the foundation of the poor status of women in our society.
But what is ‘purity’ when it comes to economic development and growth? Modi’s words suggest that it means a society without corruption and an economy where everyone pays his/her taxes. This is perfectly fine as an ideal for a society, but to term them as a sine qua non (essential condition) for economic growth is both ahistorical and fraught with risk.
A glance back at the growth of capitalism will reveal that the industrial transformation of the West came along with crass exploitation, colonialism, robber barons and genocide. Subsequently these countries have cleaned up their act, though instances of corruption and bribe often pop up in countries like Sweden, Norway or the UK. The Chinese version of growth between 1990-2010, too, came with huge corruption, which Xi Jinping is now trying to fix. But wealth came before the cleanup.
Actually, the closest parallel to emphasising ‘purity’ in a society comes from the failed socialist experiments ranging from the utopians like the Saint-Simon or Robert Owen and the Marxist-Leninists. Indeed, in their zeal, the latter committed even greater crimes in pursuit of that ‘pure’ ideal called communism. There is, of course, our own version of a pure society in Ram Rajya, which is entirely mythical.
With the decline of communism, almost everyone agrees that some form of capitalism is the best means of economic progress. ‘Pragmatism’ in policy is the key word – once a goal is identified, appropriate ways and means are worked out to achieve it without being over-burdened by ideology. We are all agreed that India should become a developed economy, with a special thrust on inclusiveness, given our background of exclusion of large chunks of society. The issue of ‘pure’ versus ‘impure’ means, or ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ of people or society are red herrings.
The essence of modern capitalism is the freedom of choice, constrained by rules and laws to make an otherwise brutal system, humane, efficient and inclusive. Certainly, India need not go through the terrible 19th century experience of capitalism. Fighting corruption and tax-evasion is important, but it cannot be a pre-condition to the growth process, but only part of a more complex process that irons them out over a period of time through appropriate policy.
India’s obsession with purity has cost us dear through history. The opportunity costs of denying social mobility to large segments of the population, especially the Dalits and women cannot even be computed. What we do know is that a society so divided was unable to offer resistance to repeated invasions of the country because purity rules demanded that only certain castes could wield weapons.
It almost seems that Modi is looking to create the New Indian, an uncomfortable echo of Stalin and Mao’s New Socialist. But there is also an echo of his fellow Gujarati, Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that impure means could never deliver pure ends. Our Independence had to be obtained through non-violence, the Mahatma believed, and our economy based on satisfying the minimal needs and a rejection of mass industrialisation. Eventually, Independence came because World War II bankrupted Britain. And, fortunately, Gandhi’s heirs rejected his ideas of a village-based economy which would have been a disaster of epic proportions.
Where will the current drive for a ‘pure’ means of attaining economic growth lead us? No one knows, probably not even Modi.
Times of India January 7, 2017

No comments: