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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The old priviligentsia and the new vulgarians

At a boarding gate in Delhi’s chaotic Terminal 1, an Armani-clad young man bristling with the accoutrements of wealth: flashy phone, big watch, designer sunglasses, tried to push past me. “Excuse me, we’re all going to board the same aircraft; it will not leave without you,” I admonished him. He stared back uncomprehendingly, insolently. It was not language that was his problem; what he didn’t understand was why I was not letting him through. The civility of queuing up seemed to be completely beyond his experience.

This young man is a representative of the newly emergent middle class that the early decades of 21st-century India have thrown up: crass, belligerent and reckless. This new middle class is the polar opposite of the privileged class that presided over socialist India: snobbish, full of intrigue and cautious. There’s not much to choose between the two. The new one is vile; the other was servile. The new middle class is just as hideous as the privilegentsia. I call them the vulgarians.

The privilegentsia was bred on elitism: the right connections, the right schools and Oxbridge. The vulgarian instinct is to push and shove; and when push comes to shove, to buy their way out. Similarly, while mouthing homilies about the rule of law, privilegentsia held themselves above the law. They never waited their turn for anything and without the slightest bit of embarrassment bent rules, flouted regulations and scorned the law. The new vulgarians make no such pretence: they seem to believe everything has a price: schools, colleges, hospitals, and more worryingly: bureaucrats, policemen and judges.

During privilegentsia raj, India had to reckon with parasitic elites who drained state coffers, extorted usurious taxes and provided almost no public goods or services in return. Under their dispensation, ordinary citizens were cruelly ignored: no power, water, public transport, or roads, no airports, telephones, jobs, no primary education, housing, public healthcare and sanitation.
The minuscule unprivileged middle class was targeted by privilegentsia policies and in many cases, driven into exile in the United States, Canada and Britain. Those who couldn’t emigrate witnessed rapidly declining conditions: famines, civil disturbances, war, scarcity, suspension of civil rights under the Emergency proclamation of 1975 and finally total national bankruptcy, which forced the government to fly out the country’s gold reserves in secret and mortgage them to the Bank of England.

Forced to free the shackled economy, the government scrapped industrial licensing and numerous other controls. In the process, it unleashed the long-suppressed entrepreneurial spirit of the people which has transformed the economy. From being pitied as a ‘basket case’, India quickly gained admiration as an emerging world power with a dynamic economy. With the annual GDP growth rate doubling to 7-9 percent, millions were lifted out of poverty. From being an apostrophe in the demographic profile, the middle class burgeoned and global business rushed in to cater to it while local businesses shaped up to provide quality goods and responsive service.

Sadly, post-independence India’s long neglected education system inhibited the transformation; it has achieved less than what it should have. Under privilegentsia raj, primary education was neglected and higher education became a screening process to weed out “people like them”. Thus, the ordained ones went on to Ivy leagues and Oxbridge to return to exalted positions within the privilegentsia. The others, who had no connections in the elite segment, either went abroad to seek their fortunes or struggled through an irrelevant higher education system to become rabble-rousers for political parties.

On the other hand, the IITs and IIMs produced engineers and managers whose skills were far too advanced to be accommodated in the makeshift Ambassador car economy. Consequently, these heavily subsidised elite institutions became feeders to the global economy. All the Indian success stories in global business trumpeted in the pink papers are outcomes of the privilegentsia’s misbegotten priorities.

In sum, free India offered three types of ‘education’. The first was the classic Oxbridge type whose quality didn’t matter because you came back to an exalted place in the elite establishment. The other was technical training where you had no place in India but found a perch in multinational corporations, universities or other institutes of higher learning in the West. Now you have the third variety: of trained personnel focused on specific cog-in-the-wheel jobs. Undergirding this is a vast pool of illiterates, the cannon fodder of India’s increasingly confrontational politics.

This unfortunate outcome is the result of continuing neglect of primary education, politicisation of secondary education, and usurpation of higher education by a technical and managerial aspirational class. At a time of an existential challenge to the very idea of India, the need is for a growing mass of the population to be schooled in the liberal arts. Illiterates, semi-literates and technocrats are simply not up to the challenge of nation-building.

(This article appeared in Education World, November 8, 2016)