MPs in India

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 28 October 2007

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This article was published on 'The Indian Express' on Sun Oct 28 2007





Article Title:”Class apart,some MPs”

What does globalisation have to do with caste relations in India? How does secularism differ from country to country? Can game theory be used to negotiate stable political coalitions? Read on.

Earlier this month I was one of ten MPs from various political parties who attended a specially designed programme at Yale University. Organised jointly by Yale and FICCI for the India US Forum of Parliamentarians (IUFP), it turned out to be rather different from the junket that some had supposed it to be.

The courses were conducted by some of the best minds in academia from among Yale’s world-renowned faculty in economics, law, political science and even management. But the sessions were not at all classroom-like; instead they were like highly combative seminars: detailed presentations were followed by animated discussions. The best theoretical hypotheses and data were pitted against grassroots experience and practical acumen.

Can loads of data, provocative questions and fresh perspectives make a dent on an Indian politician’s mind? The answer turns out to be yes, but so can practical gut feeling have an impact in better understanding such data and, possibly, new trends. Take globalisation and caste, for example. Fifty years of carefully collected data suggest that there has been no change in caste relations, as measured by inter-caste marriages, either in rural or urban India. No surprise for rural India, but got Mumbai? Isn’t that the cosmopolitan face of India? Nevertheless, the rate of inter-caste marriage there, as in the rest of India, has remained unchanged at less than 5 per cent.

Dig deeper into the data, however, and a stunning figure emerges from the last ten years or so. Among lower-caste women in Mumbai who have had access to an English medium education, the rate of inter-caste marriage shoots up to 35 per cent! Why this sudden spurt in the last decade? After all, English education has been around for a long time; of course more lower-caste students have access to it now, but why has the percentage of inter-caste marriages increased? One possible answer: globalisation has created job opportunities and an environment which requires familiarity with English as an entry barrier, but also breaks down social taboos once people make it inside.

Is this a significant trend? Will more students studying English and working at call centres lead to us gradually becoming a caste-neutral society? Actually, there isn’t enough data to draw that conclusion. This spurt in inter-caste marriages of lower-caste women with an English education has only shown up very recently, that too it has only been studied in one enclave of Mumbai; so no such data exists yet for the rest of India. But it’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it? That access to English and an open economy might do more to end the scourge of caste than the crores spent on statutes and social programmes.

What about secularism, how does our version differ from those in other countries? One fundamental difference is that Indian secularism is about treating all religions equally, whereas the American version, for instance, is about distancing governance from every religion.

Many Indians think secularism is under challenge in our country. That may or may not be so, but it is clear that the American and European models are under some strain. Perhaps this has to do with the millions of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and others that make up the sizeable immigrant communities in Western countries — a phenomenon that practically didn’t exist half a century ago.

That has led to controversies about the very meaning of secularism. Witness the brouhaha about veils, bindis, turbans and the like in many Western democracies. These controversies have led to deviations from the secular model as it existed when the populations of those countries were almost entirely Christian. Just a few days ago, the Transportation Safety Authority of the US took a more India-like approach and decided to make optional the earlier mandatory patting down of Sikh turbans during airport security checks, something unthinkable in the aftermath of 9/11. So perhaps India has more to teach the world than just how to write computer codes or answer telephones.

And what of game theory, that branch of applied mathematics and economics where strategies are devised to maximise returns: can it be utilised to negotiate more stable coalitions? From my experience at Yale, I got the distinct impression that, knowingly or not, it already is. Very few Indian politicians are versed in the theory of it (although there are now several younger MPs who might have covered it when they had their Ivy League education). But, clearly, years of ‘coalition dharma’ has already honed our practical skills.

An optimised win-win deal that is stable in the long run need not be a straightforward apportionment of benefits; neither does it necessarily have to be proportional to what various parties bring to the table. Game theory provides for many alternate strategies, even disproportionate sharing, which can sometimes be more rational in trying to maximise yet balance all parties’ returns. Whether you support the NDA or the UPA, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

The Yale India Parliamentary Leadership Program was the first such India specific programme at the prestigious university, but there have been programmes for others. China has sent thousands of its decision makers — I hesitate to call them politicians — to such international programmes over the last 20 years, from their top ministerial leadership, to mayors of big cities, down to district level administrators.

According to Yale’s distinguished Prof T.N. Srinivasan, a contemporary of and occasional sounding board for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the usual clichés about China’s advantages over India are misleading. It is not simply their non-democratic decisiveness or their by-now formidable infrastructure that has propelled the Chinese economy from being behind India’s — yes, behind India’s — until the 1950s to being on par till the 1980s, to now being thrice as big.

Srinivasan is emphatic that China’s main edge over India is simply its post-Mao commitment to open minds and free markets.