The Anatomy Of Social Tension

December 26, 2005

So, what did I learn in the past year? Other than the fact that the problem of traffic in any given city is inversely proportional to the quality of shopping in that city; or that the MPs seem to work on a cost plus basis to price their questions, rather than on a perceived value basis - hopefully!

I learnt yet again, that India changes so insidiously that you can never see the change that you are watching out for, until it comes and bites you in the butt in some other form. Over the years, whenever I have shown the income distribution and income growth pattern of post-1992 to foreigners, they invariably ask, "so will there be a lot of social tension, as some get more visibly prosperous than others"?

I have always dismissed this idea as a typical, materialistic "western mind" conceptualisation of life, that says everyone must agitate to get a share of everything that everyone else has. But somewhere I wondered about the fall- out of the increasingly visible, outside the home displays of wealth, enabled the death of socialism as we knew it. Were we, in due course of time, really going to prove the world's scepticism true, about our peaceful co-existence?

I wondered, especially at times like when I went to a free public concert in Hyderabad organised by a soft drink company, where the audience had a large chunk of gaping SEC D and E men (rickshaw drivers for example) and the performers were women in sensational outfits, exhorting the audience of beautiful people in the first few rows to shake a leg. I also wondered at times when there is the insistent and angry knock on the raised car window by the beggar, trying to be heard through the air conditioning, the music and the mobile phone.

I always particularly looked for signs of social tension through the only lens I have - the consumer insight work that I see. Are poor and modest income people saying more and more "bhala uska kameez mere kameez se safed kyon"? Not really. Their themes seem to be relative not comparative. They say "earlier I had this, now I have this, so I am better off" or "earlier I could afford this, now I cannot, things have become expensive" or "I cannot give my children things they ask for and they ask for more things now". Yes I also heard them say "aap to paise waale hain, aapke liye sab kuch chalta hai". But it never really was a lot of "I don't have this, how dare you" or "he has all this, at the expense of my blood and toil".

But if we look at the vast negotiating platform we have become as a country, especially at the mother of all battles that is going on between the Socialist/ Left versus market capitalism schools, and at all the institutions at logger heads with each other, there is no doubt that we have social tension that is in full swing.

The good news is that it is low social tension at the level of individuals, which is perhaps the sign we were looking out for; but there is definitely social tension, played out through various institutions that represent the interests of various classes, each not letting the other get away without a tough fight.

May be that's what is meant by the fact that democracy de-risks us, even if it appears, at times, to derail our path to progress. The apex bodies of the judiciary and the legislature are at definite odds with each other. After what the Supreme Court had to say about Bihar, I heard the chief justice on national television the other day speak at a conference and tick off the government (in the presence of the law minister) for delays in appointing judges.

The Left and the non-Left are at loggerheads with each other, and it is a fact that both sides have data, and very good data, to prove their case. The development sector and the private sector are at logger heads with each other as they aim to uplift the same bottom of the pyramid, with different theories, both, ironically based on the same book!

Premier educational institutions are being pulled up by the government and high courts for fees that they charge, for wanting to go overseas in the name of competing globally, rather than to the backward areas of India in the name of social equity.

The reservation issue has come up again, very strongly, with all backward classes included. And the reservation for jobs in manufacturing is being debated and struggled for with the same fervour as the lobby that wants the labour laws to be reformed. The rural versus urban fight is on, with Bangalore as the epicentre.

The argument that it is not "this or that" and that being pro someone is not being anti someone, does not work. Because we have limited resources, that all factions of society are fighting for, with no one wanting to wait their turn for trickle-down theories to work.

I think Arun Maira's piece last Monday in ET gives us the navigational principle for how to deal with this social tension. It reminded me of something I needed to be reminded of: that it is indeed everybody's India, and all views are as important; that some of us cannot say that there is only one way, and that's our way.

There are many balancing acts to be done, and we need to build and use our dialoguing capability and exploit our famed Indian, innovative solution-finding skills to find a way to fix our problems. So let us begin the New Year recognising that social tension, the fall-out of our national journey to superpowerness, is here and has to be dealt with, as best as we can.

(The author is an independent market strategy consultant)