June 19, 2006

Is democracy incongruent with good governance?

The populist choice | Economist.com
SPECTACULAR success followed by tragic failure. That might seem the verdict of the weekend’s general election in Slovakia, where one of the best-regarded reforming governments in the post-communist world was booted out of office amid big votes for left-wing and populist parties.

Yesterday evening I had an interesting discussion whether democracy inevitably leads to vote-block populism at the expense of good governance, common sense and helping the very weaker sections the populists pretend to protect. Turns out dividing society is a favorite tool of not just democratically elected rulers but also dictators and colonial rulers.

The populists under discussion are the ascending leftists in Indian politics and the secularists (more commonly known as baiters of the mainstream hindu religion) of India's ruling congress party. They start with the widely accepted premise India's age-old caste system has oppressed lower castes and the untouchables -- defined as the scheduled castes and tribes (the SC & ST), comprising about 20% of the population. The SC & ST are fairly well-protected under the Indian constitution and continue to be given preferential treatment in everything under the government's control.

The contemporary divide-and-rule geniuses of India don't stop here. They are now saying the caste system was equally, if not more, oppressive towards Other Backward Classes, the OBCs. The last time OBCs were counted was the 1931 decennial census under the British raj. The proposed revision comes with the lure that roughly two-thirds of India's Hindu population might qualify as OBC! Predictably, the race to be classified as an inferior caste is already in motion, reminiscent of the jockeying a century ago when every caste raced, no pun intended, to be counted as a superior one:

Ghurye, G.S. 1979:278 (first published 1932) "Caste and Race in India. Bombay: Popular Prakashan" observed: Various ambitious castes quickly perceived the chances of raising their status. They invited conferences of their members, and formed councils to take steps to see that their status was recorded in the way they thought was honourable to them. Other castes that could not but resent this "stealthy" procedure to advance, equally eagerly began to controvert their claims. Thus a campaign of mutual recrimination was set afoot.

At stake today is not just preferred access to schools, universities and public sector jobs, but also hiring decisions to be made by every private company operating on the Indian soil.

The electoral calculus is self evident. The historical evidence being cited to justify the divisive policies is highly suspicious but hardly unprecedented.

It takes off on the revisionist history the British undertook in order to convince higher caste Hindus of their superiority by virtue of an alleged racial heritage with invading europeans. The challenge before the communists and the congress party today is to convince two out of every three Hindus of their inferiority by virtue of being oppressed in the past and thus deserving preferential treatment against the remaining 20% Indian population. The tools employed by both dividers are the same: mid-nineteenth century euro-centric history that led to the Aryan Invasion Theory and the scientifically questionable basis in the 1931 census of shades of skin, nasal index, and such wonderful techniques that were in vogue then just as eugenics was in Europe.

The British were desperate to assert their racial superiority over the natives. They did so out of the exigencies of ruling a distant subcontinent by co-opting certain classes, the superior Aryans, as native ruling agents. They played linguistic commonalities of Indo-European languages to the hilt.

The communists and the secularists are desperate to be seen as agents of social equality in order to strenghten democratic control on emerging India. The caste divisions in the 75-year old colonial census come very handy in the quest for new voting blocks. As usual, a vast majority of meek Indian academics is ready to rewrite history.

Together, they will milk the shameful past of caste discriminations while ignoring the more important issues of development of human capital regardless of the family one is born into.


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