From a crisis of selection to a national crisis
The events in Punjab, where a stand-off between a heterodox Sikh sect and the orthodox clergy has led to violence and tension, and in Rajasthan, where a stand-off between two communities has led to a violence and a political crisis should provide a wake-up call for everyone—not least the BJP and the Congress—that the seduction provided by appeals to the darkest emotions of Indian society cause them, and the nation, immense harm.
It’s useful to be blunt about it. The rhetoric of ‘social justice’, ‘reforms with a social face’ and ‘inclusive growth‘ is largely about doling out entitlements based on group identities. The prize—the status of ‘backwardness’, with its attendent benefits in terms of reservations in educational institutions, government jobs, and if the UPA government were to have its way, in the private sector too. The designation of backwardness was subject to electoral promises, not hard-data or economic rationale. Do this long enough and you run into the Gurjjar-Meena clashes in Rajasthan and the Dera Sacha Sauda tensions in Punjab. Continue to persist along this path, and such incidents will be repeated in hundreds of places.
But by taking the initial steps towards polluting the private sector with the politics of entitlement, the UPA government has risked setting in motion an unstoppable political juggernaut that would only result in the evisceration of the Indian economy. [The Acorn, 1st Sep 2004]
That’s the bad news. But if the BJP learns the right lessons from its current predicament, there would still be a silver lining to the current crises. The Congress, at this point, appears to be beyond redemption. For the UPA government cannot escape responsibility for breathing new life into the twin beasts: of competitive intolerance and the culture of entitlement. It might have thought that it could ride these beasts; but as the elections in Uttar Pradesh show, these beasts might well consume the Congress party.
But it’s not a question of the survival of political parties alone. Taken together competitive intolerance and an economy based on entitlements presents the gravest threat to India’s future.
India is facing a crisis of selection. It is clear that the culture of entitlement is pervasive in society and a vote-winner for the political class. But it is also a course that is certain to cause India, yet again, to lose the ticket to prosperity and development that every generation feels is within its grasp yet somehow slips out of its hand. In reality, itâ€™s not slipping out at all. Itâ€™s being snatched out of their hands by a self-serving political class. Written constitutions are designed to help prevent such perversion. In the next few months, Indiaâ€™s will face one of the stiffest challenges yet. [The Acorn, 3rd Jan 2006]
It will be extremely challenging—but not too late—to pull back from the brink. The BJP has a chance to redraw a new national agenda based on a sensible centre-right national agenda. It should know that failure to do so can mean a precipitous collapse on a scale as spectacular as its rise in the 1980s.
Tailpiece: The deployment of the Indian Army to prevent two communities from resorting to violence should be disturbing. While it has once again prevented the crisis from turning violent, situations where the Army is called upon to confront its own countrymen imposes invisible costs. Indeed, its reassuring presence makes politicians reckless about saying and doing things that might cause violent unrest.