Why is there a gulf between public discourse and private deliberations? Anything that is asserted, cherished, and promoted in the public domain is almost always at variance with what is appreciated, esteemed, and encouraged in private life.
Let’s begin with one of the most important things in the world—money. All of us—save the fortunate few, of course—work for money. Most people spend most of their waking time (and often dreams), effort, and energy on earning money, investing it prudently, or spending it cautiously. In its pursuit, men and women perform heroic, even superhuman feats; they also commit the most heinous crimes. Money consumes us; it makes and breaks relationships. It shapes our viewpoint, attitude, and values. It plays an extremely important role in our life. It is the axis around which the world revolves. It molds out relationships. We forget our poor cousins, and remember wealthy uncles.
Yet, its importance is routinely downplayed. Religions put scorn on money and the moneyed; moralizers warn us about the dangers of mammon worship; movies tell us that the rich are bad and the poor are good (and the poor vanquish the rich); intellectuals often equate money with theft (and do their best to replenish their own coffers).
One word that describes mankind’s duplicity is hypocrisy. Perhaps, America is the only country in the world where wealth is generally seen as a reward for enterprise and endeavor, though there is no dearth of moralizers railing against money even there. America’s success in bridging the gap between public discourse and private deliberations has a great deal to do with its economic might, political clout, technological prowess, and military muscle.
India’s relationship with America has been unique. In an article (November 29, 2009, The Economic Times), Swaminathan Aiyar wrote, “During the Cold War, India’s governmental relations were warm with the USSR and cool with the US. But a million Indians migrated to the US while none went to the USSR.” The question is: why? India is a democracy, so its political class is supposed to reflect the views, feelings, and aspirations of the people. But why was it that while the people of India felt, and feel, at home in Washington, New York, and other US cities (and in the West in general), our leaders found friends in Moscow and Jakarta? (But, typically, even as Indian rulers got friends in Moscow and Jakarta, they preferred the West for medical treatment, their children’s career, etc. Another instance of hypocrisy). India and the US have had strong economic ties (the US is the biggest trade partner), social and cultural relations, but the political ties have often lacked warmth; at times, there was pronounced hostility between the world’s two biggest democracies.
The answer lies in socialism, the ideology that delineated our economic and foreign policies during much of the second half of the twentieth century. It can be called the most overrated ideology the world has ever witnessed; all over the world, intellectuals generally favor it as much as common people detest it. Socialism means controls which lead to shortages; anybody who has live in pre-liberalization India knows it very well because they have suffered it. Socialism means licences, even for radio and television. It means that even if you build your own house with your own hard-earned money, you have to run from pillar to post for cement. It means that when you have a marriage in your family, you have to go to a babu with the invitation card for the release of sugar. It means that you have to wait for years to buy a scooter. It means that essential amenities like gas cylinder and telephone connection, you have either to wait indefinitely or seek favor from a politician or a ‘well-connected’ person. It means that for good things in life, you look askance at imported stuff. Yet, intellectuals love socialism. And, despite the failure of socialism all over world, they preach its virtues.
Unsurprisingly, the public discourse in India is generally against multinational corporations (MNCs) and big industry. Our intellectuals never tire railing against big companies. We are told that these companies exploit their employees, bribe politicians and bureaucrats, break or mold rules and regulations, evade taxes, and don’t care a hoot about the environment. Yet, if you ask any non-intellectual if they would like to work with a big company—or if they want their children to be employed by an MNC—the answer would be a big ‘yes.’ Common people know that big companies pay well, have a better working atmosphere, and are not run by the whims and fancies of small, proprietary firms—at least, at the lower and middle levels. They are happy working with big companies.
But intellectuals claim that they are exploited by corporate tycoons. Oxford Dictionary defines the verb ‘exploit’ as ‘make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand’ or ‘benefit unfairly from the work of (someone).’ In the normal sense of the term, MNC employees are not exploited; this is the reason they work or aspire to work for MNCs and big companies. Intellectuals, however, have nothing to do with the normal or the obvious; they are comfortable with the dogma Karl Marx propounded over a century-and-a-half ago, called the Theory of Surplus Value. No amount of empirical evidence can shake their faith in the discredited Theory. People like MNCs, but these remain ugly in public discourse.
Similarly, most people want to earn their own living. They also want their children to be self-dependent. In all societies, the virtues of endeavor and diligence are cherished. But public discourse in our country is all about shaping the political economy in such a way that more and more people become dependent on state largesse. It a family member or friend suffers huge financial losses or is ruined, we try to help him by increasing his earning rather than paying him regular donations. Lead a man to fish, they say, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for life. Not that there is no altruism. We make sacrifices and take pains to help our buddies, family members, etc. But the idea is to help who needs it rather than make them dependent on us.
But when it comes to public discourse and political debate, everything turns topsy-turvy. Poverty alleviation grabs the attention of policy-makers, politicians, and bureaucrats—which is fine. However, the means employed are the ones opposite to those which we would never employ in our personal capacity. They conceive publicly-funded schemes, establishing postmodern feudalism, with government as a gigantic lord and the poor as permanent dependants. The lord gives and the serf receives, making the latter to perennially look askance at the former. The entitlement mindset is promoted.
Personally, we don’t like our dear ones to be our dependants; politically, we do it all the time. With great aplomb, as if the creation of serfdom were a remarkable feat.
Consider another public-private dichotomy. Politicians of various hues claim to be the champions of vernaculars. They aggressively campaign to change the names of cities to make these echo the local dialect. Bombay becomes Mumbai; Madras, Chennai; Calcutta, Kolkata; Bangalore, Bengaluru. In the name of promoting Indian languages, they bar English from government schools in the primary classes, thus ensuring that the children with humble origins—for it is normally they who attend such schools—are handicapped for life in their career pursuits. It is a well-known fact that English enables a person to get a better job, move faster in any profession, and get better connected with the world. Politicians themselves acknowledge this fact and, therefore, send their own kids to English-medium schools.