05 Nov Imaginings: Where is India Headed?
By Anjum Altaf
I see the future in India being shaped by the intersection of three major tendencies playing out in the context of one major trend, the difference between a tendency and a trend being that the former is reversible and the latter not. And there is one joker in the pack.
The three tendencies are increased empowerment of some of the poor via the democratic process, the recourse by the marginalized to rebellion, and the attraction of the middle classes to soft authoritarianism. The trend is urbanization. And the joker in the pack is economic growth.
Let me speculate on how these forces might make themselves felt over the next decade or so.
We have highlighted the uniqueness of Indian democracy a number of times; it is serving the function that was performed in Europe by the social revolutions that preceded the introduction of democratic governance. Such a social revolution never occurred in India; instead the British left it with the institution of parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage. And the poor are leveraging the power of their votes to wrest some political and economic power for themselves. Not surprisingly, the process is slow, painfully slow for some, especially compared to the leveling that accompanies social revolutions.
Of course, this process only works for those segments of the poor that are in a position to leverage the vote, a process complicated in India by the fracturing of identity along lines of caste and religion. Thus only those identity groups that are numerically large enough and physically contiguous can effectively use the vote to make their numbers and preferences count.
The identity groups amongst the poor that are numerically small, geographically dispersed, or bereft of popular sympathy, are unable to leverage the vote in the same way. Their only recourse to further marginalization is resistance. And such resistance is quite apparent in many districts in the country.
The middle class does not embody any coherent ideology. One can detect a strand of indifference to politics based on the unstated premise that things will somehow continue on their own accord along the trajectory of the recent past. There is a strand that is apprehensive of the long-term implications of democratic empowerment. There is a strand impatient with the democratic process that, in its view, holds back the development of the country. And there is a strand annoyed with the resistance that it believes prevents access to resources vital to fuel the much desired development.
The last three strands come together in various ways in their denigration of politics as usual as a racket manipulated by the unenlightened or the corrupt for their own benefit. They are attracted to some variant of a managerial capitalism that is guided by competent autocrats who can override the constraints that slow down the attainment of the only goal which matters – economic growth.
And this brings in the joker in the pack – economic growth. The scenarios alter significantly with the nature of economic growth. Without economic growth, democracy would have nothing much to deliver. The poor with the vote would be no better off than the poor without the vote and one might expect to see the numbers of those engaged in resistance to swell over time. At the same time, the numbers of the middle class would remain small in relative terms. So the scenario would be one of stagnation, without effective resolution, and a slow progression to the point where a social revolution would appear to be the only route out of the status quo.
With economic growth, which has been the case in India since the 1990s, the scenario looks quite different. Democratic empowerment is yielding slow gains; the marginalized are being exploited more aggressively; and the middle class is growing rapidly in numbers with its attraction to authoritarianism. The questions, difficult to answer at this time, are the following: As inequalities widen, would the slow gains from democratic empowerment be sufficient for the poor to keep faith with democracy? Would the burgeoning middle class attain the critical mass to assert its authoritarian preferences with more vigor? And would the groups in resistance be able to come together or would they be overcome one by one by the increasingly legitimized repression?
These social and political tensions, unleashed by the dynamic of growth, would inevitably feed back on the growth itself. And if growth is negatively affected by the conflicts there could be a switch to the no- or low-growth scenario described earlier. Managing these tensions and the expectations of the various constituencies would be the biggest challenge facing India and Indians in the near future.
It was mentioned at the beginning that all these forces would be unfolding in the context of the major trend of urbanization. In general, urbanization is a positive factor both socially, because it dissolves the differences of identity, and economically, because larger labor markets add to productivity. But once again, India is a special case in many ways. First, India has not invested sufficiently in its rural human capital to enable it to contribute to a modern urban economy in the short run without significant additional investment, an investment that needs at least a decade to yield meaningful results.
Second, India is beset not only with differences along caste that could be expected to dissolve with urbanization but differences along religion that are just as likely to be exacerbated with increased urban competition. Third, Indian cities are by no means prepared to handle the influx of people in terms of housing and social services. And fourth, the autonomy of Indian cities to deal proactively with their issues or to leverage their potential is severely circumscribed by the existing balance of power between the municipalities and the states. All these, without adequate attention, can portend ill-served congested slums and ghettoized communities that are forever on a short fuse to real or contrived conflict. And there is little doubt that the soft authoritarians would from time to time clamor to have them demolished to realize the value of prime real estate while banishing the residents to the ever-receding outskirts of the growing cities.
Once again, economic growth is the joker in the pack. While economic growth in India has been high, it is concentrated in sectors that do not generate significant numbers of jobs of the type that can be filled by rural migrants. This is likely to lead to a mismatch between the supply and demand of labor and a widening gap between the more skilled urbanites and the less skilled rural migrants. How the benefits of the existing economic growth are distributed and what new engines of economic growth are favored, and where, would have a significant bearing on the absorption and uplifting of the new residents of Indian cities. A major investment in employment intensive infrastructure development combined with a spatial urbanization plan would be an obvious contender to consider.
This, by its very nature, is a very speculative exercise. Its objective is to invite responses that would refine the analysis, elaborate the scenarios, offer new ones, and suggest the measures to ensure the inclusive, just, orderly and stable development of India.