Piercing the Veil of Illusion

The Economic Times - April 30, 2012

It is time to let social scientists take the floor to understand the many maladies afflicting India

India has a deeply entrenched knowledge caste system. 'Science' is superior to 'arts', 'quantitative' better than 'qualitative'; oncology and computer science will benefit the country more than sociology or psychology. Economics is superior to other 'arts' because it is quantitative. Consequently even the most pressing problems of national character and society and polity are sought to be solved by technofixes or higher GDP growth rate or understood by some set of quantitative indicators like vote shares or infrastructure outlay or poverty statistics using different measures.

Seriously addressing such problems, however, requires rising above the caste system and getting social science disciplines to urgently work on them, or else they will rot the foundations of the country. We need them to urgently put into the public discourse a deep understanding of the real nature of social problems our country is facing, their inter-linkages, seriousness, and possible solution spaces. Citizens need to think about these from their respective vantage points.

Social scientists already working on them must be given wider platforms that will amplify their messages. As one prominent business media person said reflectively at a function of the Bombay School of Sociology, "I have had several socialites and socialists on our channel but never really had a sociologist on it".

A few worrisome things are happening. The "if I have a hammer, everything is a nail" school of problem-solving must stop. The techno brigade believes that it can end poverty, identity politics and corruption with one technofix. The innovation brigade feel that they can solve unemployment, income inequality, and promote an economic powerhouse with support to commercialise innovation; and the corporate brigade feel that they can solve everything with market friendly economic reform, stimulating the consumption-investment cycle. As a housewife once said in a group discussion on health, "I know where to go if I have a problem with my heart or bones or stomach. But I really don't know where to go when I am just not feeling well." Who do we turn to when our country is just not feeling well?

Perhaps it is the changes in values that drive our thought and action which need to be understood, perhaps different institutions we have are working with different dominant logic and hence pulling in different directions, perhaps we are looking through the economy lens rather than through the lenses of society, people or national character at all our social problems and hence are not being able to solve them. We need to urgently seek out those who can discuss these issues in a conceptually sound, intellectually disciplined and broad based way and tell us what ails us as a people, a nation, a society, in our hearts and minds and lives. This is not a job that can be done by journalists, many of whom bring brilliant abilities to synthesise but limited conceptual depth to such issues or by business leaders with unidimensional perspectives.

This isn't even a job that can be done any more by our politicians at the Centre who are typically 'one constituency as stock option' members of the family firm, and not people who have had a whole lot of grassroots experience and therefore, a well developed understanding and ability to read what aam janta is thinking and feeling. Elections for them are about mergers and alliances and about SMS messages and use of social media.

More worrisome is the veil of maya or illusion that is making a lot of things appear misleadingly different. It appears that we have a strong watchdog media that improves governance in politics and business.

But is it well governed itself and not above partisan behaviour for certain considerations? This has never been studied and merits further and fuller debate not of ferocity but of depth.

Another forgiveable illusion is that we have made progress from the days when our society was poor, unscientific and riddled with socially backward practices. However we need to investigate, in a conceptually rigorous fashion, whether this is true. The human sacrifice to appease Gods has given way to new forms of human sacrifices to appease media and the public - high profile jailing of bureaucrats or ministers, matter closed. Village panchayats are designed for balance, with various voices having to be represented, but not many modern institutions practice this. Having regulators is another illusion of progress. Do they serve their political masters or customers? How are they appointed and held accountable?

A board majority for independent directors is another maya. Many of them have not explicitly examined their role and position on trading off misdemeanours by management against superior profit delivery.

The kangaroo courts of the Maoists do have to be viewed and understood in terms of their similarity or difference with the lynch mob mentality of the media. Cronyism and patronage are back with a bang, but now cloaked in the veil of ‘performance’ but without parameters of what performance entitles one to what rewards.

Minority appeasement is back, but in an ad hoc way without the visible systemic rules that governed it earlier.

We need to understand ourselves a lot better and deeper, our crisis of values perhaps, our morphing national character. We need to understand society, aspirations, anger, our ticking time bombs. And we need to give the floor to our social scientists ASAP.