The Pope was recently gifted a hammer and sickle with the holy crucifix embedded in it by Bolivian President Evo Morales. Maybe because the Pope pulls no punches regarding his views about a system of growing economic inequality. The BBC actually did a radio show in June titled “Is the Pope a Communist?” US President Barack Obama, too, by speaking often of issues with concentration of wealth, has evoked the spectre of socialism in sections. All these fearsome labels about two celebrated symbols of the West, and those hardly likely to describe themselves as socialists, just follow from the concern they routinely voice about market imperfections and for people on the wrong side of the prosperity divide.
Some of the anxiety voiced by the World Bank, and prominent economists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Thomas Piketty (again not usual suspects) about the centrality of inequality clouding the greatness of “great” nations strikes a chord, simply because concern for those not as prosperous has, in recent times, often been expressed either sporadically or through ideas of charity.
Former IAS officer Harsh Mander presents a vivid account of a highly unequal and often invisible world of Indians, in his new book that is aimed for readers of all kinds. It skillfully weaves in individual lives, their tough struggle for survival with the economic world which is imposing policy choices often completely disregarding them or willfully ignoring them. The author’s inspiration is his deep anxiety about India, politically and socially, over the dominant discourse that either ignores the vast masses of the underprivileged or increasingly makes a case for the acceptance of poverty. His assessment of the middle-class, which he defines as an increasingly affluent section whose rise in wealth is often proportional to its dismissal of any concern for those left behind, is worrying. Their normative justification of inequality, as he puts it, is a consequence of the old Indian ideas of caste, buttressed by notions of British class and finally topped up by a “celebration of conspicuous consumption” that is confused with progress and modernity routinely.
The book focusses on uprooted lives, migrants and children and the big toll that urbanisation and a quest for an (often mistaken) “world-class”, comfortable life takes on those who make it possible. No fan of the governing philosophies — both “market fundamentalism” and “majoritarianism” — of the current government, Mander makes his case on how policies, exacerbated now, but playing out over three decades, have made lives at the bottom of the pile unbearable. The author does well to not go down the road of rubbishing the past entirely, and acknowledges the significant leaps in economic and social terms over decades. But he centres his attack on those who have a voice, yet remain unmindful of the millions who remain under the policy and empathy radar.
Mander discusses economic and social inequality, separately. There are no wonder drugs prescribed, but his solutions, as those familiar with his work at the National Advisory Council would recall, centre around public provisioning of vitals like health and education, not hesitating to cite from some of the more equitable examples found in some countries of the West and in China. The author is confident that to move towards a generally more sustainable and happier episode in the India growth story would necessarily involve the reinstatement of the idea of fraternity and comradeship as a vital social good (and glue).
Mander could be accused of sometimes romanticising the idea of the poor in his account, but this work compels you to share his argument about India’s rapid descent into what political philosopher Michael Sandel calls, not just a market economy but a “market society”.
Looking Away: Inequality, Prejudice and Indifference in New India
Author: Harsh Mander
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books