Column : The I in Indians

Written by Michael Walton | Michael Walton | Updated: Jun 8 2009, 08:33am hrs
House Hold
One common interpretation of the Indian election was that the electorate had rejected the politics of polarisation in favour of options offering better governance (at least relatively). But issues of group-based identity have clearly not gone away.

A salutary reminder of the persistence of the politics of identity came from the United States last week: President Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. If confirmed, she will be the first Hispanic and only the third woman on a Court that has been dominated by white men. Equally interesting was the reaction: celebration amongst Hispanic groups; attacks from right wing radio hosts who accused Sotomayor of reverse racism, on the basis of a remark that a wise Latina woman, with the richness of her experiences, may have better judgments than a white man.

Identity remains salient after decades of public action in the US. Barack Obamas election did not mark the beginning of a post-racial era. Yes, there is a black middle class, but measures of deprivation are substantially worse for the African-American community. Hispanics are also relatively deprived, and the new waves of migrants are keeping a stronger Hispanic identity than earlier migrant waves.

So what about India The two major planks of direct action around group-based deprivations have been affirmative action through reservations and universal provisioning of public services to all citizens. Affirmative action has had some success in the nascent emergence of a middle class among scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. In 2004/05, 11 percent of all professional and technical workers were from scheduled castes and 4 percent from scheduled tribes. However, there is still evidence of discrimination, of employers preferring graduates from non-SC/ST backgrounds with the same qualifications. And there is a broader downside: reservations, and demands to be categorised as a deprived group, are intimately linked with the state as a mediator of patronage and rents.

Even more problematic is the dismally slow progress in universal provisioning of public goods, education being just one example. Where public goods are not delivered, the most deprived lose out most. And where the state is ineffective, politician promises to improve the quality of public goods are not credible, and the votebank nexus becomes a least-bad alternativepoliticians appeal to their group, and voters vote for them, hoping to get at least some favours. Again the link with patronage is reinforced.

And overall outcomes have not been disappointing. SC and ST professionals account for only 2 percent of their own groups (its almost 5 percent for other groups). Economic well-being relative to the all-India average has remained strikingly unchanged between the early 1980s and the mid-2000sfor scheduled castes and Hindu scheduled tribes, as well as for Muslims (see Table).

So what does this imply First, it dramatically underscores the importance of both reform of the state and of political reform. A more accountable state, operating on the principle of universal citizenship, is central to breaking through systems of rent-seeking, abuse and neglect. The NREGAs partial successes on a right to work, backed by social audits, is a positive step. Improving state schools remains a massive prioritythe flight to private schooling will always leave a core of kids in the state system.

Political competition within partiesnow on the table for Congressis also relevant if it means talented politicians from all groups can advance through competence rather than favours from the party hierarchy: closing down of internal competition in the major parties in the past hurt the advance of scheduled caste politicians, according to political scientist Kanchan Chandra. And public information mattersthere is some evidence that information on politician quality can affect voter choice, consistent with growing sophistication of the electorate.

However, while reservations are often caught in rent-seeking processes, an exclusively group-blind policy is not the answereven if it were politically feasible. Aspirations and discrimination are profoundly shaped by the narratives that people live with, narratives shaped by histories of unequal recognition. Affirmative action is hard to do well, but has to be part of the story of breaking through socially embedded structures of inequality, in schools, work and public life.

Identities are dynamic and socially shaped. They dont just dissolve with economic advance. Engaging with identity-based differences and conflicts is increasingly recognised as a core economic, as well as a societal issuesee for example the recent book by Nobel prize-winning economist George Akerlof and Robert Schiller. Effective engagement with identity-based differences is central to Indias long-term prosperity.

The author is at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Institute of Economic & Social Change and the Centre for Policy Research