By Anjum Altaf
It would be hard to find citizens in Pakistan or India who believe their governments really care for the people.
The Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen, has repeatedly termed India a disaster zone in which pockets of California exist amidst a sea of sub-Saharan Africa; where millions of lives are crushed by lack of food, health, education and justice. Sen wants India to “hang its head in shame” contrasting its performance with China where massive investments in health and education in the 1970s laid the foundation for sustained economic growth.
Sen points out that even within South Asia, barring Pakistan, India is at the bottom in terms of social indicators. Bangladesh is doing better with half the per capita income of India.
This juxtaposition of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China allows some myths to be laid to rest in explaining this outrageous neglect of people.
First, Pakistan’s social problems are not due to the bogey of over-population. Bangladesh has a similar sized population and China’s is over five times larger.
Second, Pakistan’s problems are not due to its interrupted democracy. India, with uninterrupted democracy since 1947, is socially speaking an embarrassment of colossal proportions with some of the worst human development indicators in the world.
Third, China’s success is not just due to its authoritarianism. Decades of authoritarianism in Pakistan made things worse not better.
Fourth, Pakistan’s problems do not stem from a lack of money. Bangladesh has forged ahead with fewer resources.
What then is the answer and where is the source of optimism for a better future?
Sen believes India suffers from the absence of vision and the political will to implement it. He puts his faith in the middle class and wants to shame it into shedding its indifference to the wretchedness of its fellow citizens. Pointing to the response to the recent rape in Delhi, he believes the middle class can be moved and once it is positive political action would follow.
Many in Pakistan subscribe to the same perspective but this begs a number of questions.
First, how does one explain the lack of vision? Why does China, or Bangladesh for that matter, have a better vision than India and Pakistan? Sen himself expresses befuddlement as to how governments and the middle classes can’t see the economic and ethical costs of not investing in people.
Second, what is the basis for reposing faith in the middle class? Sure, there will always be members of the middle class who would align themselves with the people in the struggle for rights. But would the middle class really be a part of the political vanguard?
The evidence is not convincing by any means. Arundhati Roy seems more on the mark when she observes that the upper and middle classes are seceding from the rest of the country. Her characterization of this secession as vertical and not lateral is particularly evocative – “They’re fighting for the right to merge with the world’s elite somewhere up there in the stratosphere.”
This trenchant observation ties in quite seamlessly with Sen’s characterization of India as pockets of California amid a sea of sub-Saharan Africa. The middle class wants more pockets of California – without load-shedding and low pressure gas supply, with clean water and secure perimeters – and it doesn’t really mind if that comes at the expense of the people. If the latter’s habitats need to be razed for development, so be it.
History seems to validate Arundhati Roy and not Amartya Sen on this count. People have never been given their rights by a benevolent and visionary upper or middle class. On the contrary, people have extracted their rights through protracted struggle with the assistance of committed members of the upper and middle class.
Whether one looks at the French Revolution, where extended dissemination of ideas about human equality, liberty and fraternity paved the way to an end to the rule of privilege, or Brazil today, where citizens are in the streets demanding better services, the lesson is the same – people have to mobilize for effective political action.
It is that kind of a mass movement which changes the orientation of society, realigning it from a vertical patron-client axis to a horizontal one, in which all citizens are politically equal. In fact, it is that kind of movement that transforms a subject into a citizen which could well be considered amongst the most profound transformations in human history.
Only on that foundation of political equality can be built the edifice of representative governance in which representatives are accountable to citizens. Without that equality, governments would revert, in one way or another, into caricatures of the monarchies that they never outgrew.
The transformation from subject to citizen has yet to occur in India and Pakistan where the old privileged elites remain in dynastic control. To some degree, and with all its peculiarities, it has transpired in China with the People’s Revolution and in other countries in East Asia that were forced to undertake extensive land reforms to forestall the threats of popular insurrection.
Sen concedes this reality. In his latest book, An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, the last chapter is poignantly titled ‘The Need for Impatience.’ And there is a telling quote in the book: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”
It is said that the only photograph in Sen’s study in Cambridge is that of Rabindranath Tagore who named him Amartya. But now, towards the end of his incredible intellectual journey marked by an exemplary gentility, he expresses a grudging admiration for Kazi Nazrul Islam.
Tagore was too patient, he says; Nazrul Islam urged action.
The author is indebted for anecdotes and quotes to Madeleine Bunting’s review of An Uncertain Glory in the Guardian.
Sen and Dreze have held these positions for a considerable length of time. See the reference here to California and sub-Saharan Africa in Ramachandra Guha’s 2007 book.
Anjum Altaf is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. This op-ed appeared in Dawn on July 30, 2013 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.