Poverty, politics and posturing: How to build a better, less unequal India

Columnist  | Sudhanshu Ranjan

Opinion, Oped

Rahul Gandhi has announced that if voted to power, his party’s government would give Rs 6,000 per month each to the poorest 20 per cent.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi

India is going to the polls and the issue of poverty has acquired centre-stage. Some parties are promising the moon to the poor. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has announced that if voted to power, his party’s government would give Rs 6,000 per month each to the poorest 20 per cent. This has spawned a national debate not only over poverty but also over how in the past such promises were made to be broken. In a democracy, leaders drink to people’s health, particularly during election time, and the drink is a flurry of announcements. It is understandable since the poor, comprising a large percentage, can dethrone or enthrone anyone. But even during monarchy, the poor rebelled against tyrannical monarchs whose hubris made them impervious to any voice of sanity. Many a time kings took a pounding. So even kings could be indifferent to them at their own risk.

G.M. Trevelyan has written: “The worst horrors of failure, of unemployment and of unprovided old age, were not suffered by the poor in England to the same extent as the continental countries… The regiments of beggars, such as continued to swarm in the streets of Italy, and of France under Louis XIV, were no longer known over here. The scandal and danger of such congregations had alarmed the Tudor and early Stuart governments: The Poor Law was meant to prevent them, and did prevent them by the only practical method, the relief of distress and the provision of work. That is one reason why there was never anything like the French Revolution in our country, and why the quiet and orderly habits of the people, even in times of distress, continued upon the whole as a national characteristic.” The Poor Law involved a long series of experiments and enactments. The local gentry appointed as the Queen’s Justices of the Peace (JPs) enforced it under the strict surveillance of the Privy Council, which gave utmost priority to the interests of the poor, with which the interests of public order were inextricably intertwined. According to Gregory King, approximately one-fifth of the total population, which was then one million, received occasional alms, mostly by way of public relief paid by the parish.

France Antarctique was a French colony in Brazil which existed between 1555 and 1567. The team of discoverers used to name the newfound lands after their own countries and so it was called France. When a French ship returned home in 1562, it brought three indigenous tribal people, also as was the practice in those days. The French people thronged there to see them. At last, a 12-year-old boy also came to see them. The small boy was none else but Charles IX, the King of France. The King talked to them at length and they were made to see the French pomp and culture and the form of a great city. The philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, was also present during the King’s interaction with the tribals and recorded it in his essay, “Of Cannibals” (1580). When asked what they found most to be admired in the new country, they said they were baffled by the way many tall men, wearing beards, strong and well-armed, truckled to a child and they did not rather choose out one from themselves to command. Second, they were struck by the huge inequality. They called men in their own language the half of one another. Thus, no one had any existence without the others. Montaigne writes that “they had observed that there were amongst us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, whilst, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses”. They were vindicated 227 years hence when the French Revolution broke out.

They were befuddled as inequality was outlandish to them. They believed in collectivism, not independent existence. This reminds me of Ubuntu, a term from the Nguni language in South Africa. It means: “I am because we are.” So, it is humanity towards others. Nelson Mandela explained its philosophy that it does not mean one should not make efforts for self-aggrandisement, but should one desire to progress along with others? English anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard, in The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, wrote about the Nuer tribe of north-western Africa that in a Nuer village, nobody will remain hungry unless all are hungry. It means people share with others whatever they have, and no one will be allowed to starve till the last morsel is available in
the village.

Reports about the growing number of billionaires and the yawning gap between the affluent and the indigent have become routine and hardly come as a shocker. However, regurgitating the trite, India has now 131 billionaires — the third highest in the world after China and the United States — according to the Harun Rich List 2018. Oxfam India’s “India Inequality Report 2018: Widening Gaps” rubbishes the trickledown theory of economics, which believes in letting the privileged prance as the profits perforce percolate to the poor. It says that in 2018, the total wealth of India’s billionaires grew by 35 per cent to $440 billion, while the poorest 10 per cent (136 million) remained in debt (worse than destitute) since 2004.

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in his famous “Tryst with Destiny” speech at the midnight of August 14-15, 1947 set the goals for a free India: “The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.” Though the Constitution of India does not explicitly envisage a welfare state, its directive principles of the state policy talk of welfare of the people and removal of inequality in unequivocal words. Article 38 mandates that the State shall strive to secure a social order for the promotion of the welfare of the people, and to minimise the inequalities in income. The eloquent promises and the constitutional mandates have not been actuated. In 1971, Indira Gandhi rustled up the slogan “Garibi hatao” (eradicate poverty) and wheedled the doddered hoi polloi into voting for her party. However, the eradication of poverty remained wishful thinking.

If poverty is to be extirpated and society is to usher in egalitarianism, both the State as well as civil society will have to make honest efforts. Demagogy can wangle votes, but can’t change society. Nor can the State alone effect such momentous changes. It will happen if people, like the tribals of Brazil, consider everyone as half of one another. Mahatma Gandhi too was worried about the unequal distribution of wealth. But instead of abolishing private property or going for a class war, he propounded the concept of trusteeship: A trustee is one who holds property in trust for another/others. He found that the classes and the masses, as he put it, stood side by side and we could not start with a tabula rasa condition and build a just society in the desired manner.