It has been famously observed that getting Americans to fight a class war is an extremely difficult, bordering on the impossible. This has been ascribed to the fact that almost all Americans, regardless of their material circumstances, place themselves among the middle-class. While this is no doubt true, I believe that a more precise explanation can be found in the difference between two feelings that I label envious anger and righteous anger respectively, and what Americans feel the two varieties of anger over.
An American, when he encounters a rich person, does feel anger, but this anger is tinged with envy – that is, he wishes that he, instead of the other guy, was rich. A businessman who has been bested at the game by his competitor does feel anger, but a large part of this anger is directed inwards – he gets angry at himself for not playing the game well. The anger that you feel when you lose a fair game is different from the anger you feel when you believe that the other guy has broken the rules, or when you believe that the rules have been rigged in favour of the opponent. That is the point at which you feel righteous anger, and when you do, you do not wish to replace the object of your anger. You consider the other person to be a lesser human being because he is violating fundamental norms.
Now, two caveats must be put in place here. First, human beings are complex beings. It is not always possible to clearly distinguish the two forms of anger. A person who has lost a fair fight may try to whip up righteous anger by alleging wrongdoing. Second, the two forms of anger are as much social and cultural phenomena as they are human emotions. The two kinds of anger exist in every human being and in every society, but just what we feel angry over is socially and culturally determined.
And this brings us to India. Let’s start with a commonplace observation about Indians – that we are loath to stand in queues. In queue-loving western societies, people stand in queues even when there is no obvious queue to stand in and even when there is no one to enforce the norm that one must wait one’s turn. When these norms are violated, people react with righteous anger.
In India, queues rarely happen unless there is external enforcement, and even then people continually find ways to get to the head of the queue. Others in the queue may object to those who cut to the front of the line, but these objections are laced with envious anger rather than righteous anger. They are reacting to the queue-cutting in the same way that a businessman reacts to a competitor’s moves. It is important to show some anger, because if they don’t, their objections won’t be effective, but there is also no point getting into a righteous rage about it, because in slightly different circumstances, they would have done the same thing.
As must be obvious, queue-cutting is only a particular instance of a general attitude towards rule-breaking. And rule-breaking, in turn is associated with a desire for status. Indian attitude towards people of high social status is very similar to American attitude towards wealth.
Beyond a point, Americans will not tolerate soak-the-rich policies, because deep down, they believe that the rich deserve their wealth. More importantly, they empathize with the rich, and hope that they or their children can be rich one day.
Indians, likewise, believe that a state of status inequality is the right way to order society. This does not mean that they believe that the social hierarchy is rigid and unchanging for all time. In particular, this does not mean that Indians accept their place low down in the hierarchy any more than the fact that poor Americans accept wealth inequality as a given means that they accept their low income. Indians accept hierarchy as a given, and they want to improve their place in the hierarchy. Because it is only natural that rules do not apply to those high up in the hierarchy, the best way to assert your high status is to break the rules yourself. As everyone wants to move up the hierarchy in India, everyone breaks rules when he can, and uses rules to put down others when he can.
Every so often, Indians get into some sort of outrage over the treatment of one of their high-status people at foreign airports or some such. These high-status people have to pay lip service to the fact that we are ostensibly a democracy that has nominally adopted equality before the law, so they come up with explanations for why they deserve special treatment. The usual tack to take is to claim that they are not demanding special treatment, but that they are only feeling the pain of the common people: “If this is the treatment we get, imagine what a common person will go through” is the usual justification.
The other, closely related line of attack is to argue that not providing special treatment to the individual high-status person is actually an attack on the entire identity group the person represents. The surprising thing is not that the high-status person makes these arguments. The interesting thing is that Indians actually agree with their leaders who make these arguments, but only when the leader’s identity groups match their own. So when a Shahrukh Khan or an A P J Abdul Kalam gets frisked at a foreign airport, Indians’ identity as Indians takes over, and they treat the frisking as an insult to all Indians. Within India, when a Mayawati is given special treatment, Dalits stand behind her, while everyone else pretends to be outraged at the special treatment.
These arguments over special treatment do not represent a fundamental fight for equality. They just happen to be status competition by other means. Competition for status happens not only between individuals, but also between identity groups – caste, religion, language, nationality, etc. The excesses of our leaders, the instances of rule-breaking and self-aggrandisement, are actually public goods that they are providing to their followers. Indians do feel genuine pride when leaders they identify with indulge in the same status seeking rule breaking behaviours as their competing group’s leaders.
So, this is the first in my seven-post series on WWWIG – What’s Wrong With India’s Governance. What I have just described is the first and most basic reason for why India’s governance has been difficult to fix. In five subsequent posts, I will speak of five more reasons and in the last post, I will sum up. The next posts will be titled:
WWWIG-2: India’s Model of Democracy
WWWIG-3: The Jagirdari System
WWWIG-4: Downward vs. Upward Accountability
WWWIG-5: The Legal Irrelevance Theorem
WWWIG-6: The Eternal Adolescence of India’s Mind
WWWIG-7: Summing Up
Now, for some necessary disclaimers.
Obviously, many of these blanket statements I’ve made in this posts and will make in subsequent posts are generalizations. Generalizations do not have to be true in every single instance, but they have to be valid enough to support the point I am making. Not every Indian has the attitude I described, but enough do to have an impact on Governance.
Yes, much of what I am describing is changing, and hopefully much will have changed for the better in 10 years. What I am describing is the baseline from which to measure change. Also, how much of the change is real? How much of the current anti-corruption struggle represents a genuine cultural change and how much of it is simply power-struggle played out by the same fundamental rules? How do we know the difference?
Do not point to me instances where members of the American upper class act as if they are above the law, or instances where they actually get away with such behaviour. I am aware of them. They do not invalidate my argument. My argument is that American society as a whole is not comfortable with letting them get away with such behaviour. Likewise, do not point me to data that proves that American income and wealth mobility is not as much as the average American believes it to be. For purposes of cultural attitudes, what matters is the beliefs, not what actually happens.