• February 23, 2024

A word to the gatekeepers

They say divine providence granted a man two wishes as a reward for an act of selfless heroism. He wished for a tour of paradise, a wish that was instantly granted. He took the tour and spent time there to his heart’s content. When it ended, he was asked to make his second wish. Mortals being curious he wished that he could also visit hell in the same fashion, without being singed or harmed in any way of course. When he reached there, he learned that the place’s huge population was divided according to regional identities. These groups were interned in different hell holes. Atop each one was a solid-looking sewage cover accompanied by an alert guard. If a captive managed to escape the trapdoor or the dungeon cover, the guard would ensure that they were caught and returned to the dungeon in no time. This was invariably the case with each region or identity except one. Only one hole had neither a cover nor a guard. When our pilgrim inquired about the missing precautions he was told that they were wholly unnecessary as this dungeon housed South Asians. If one tried to escape, the others would drag him down.

Have you ever wondered despite such impressive economic indicators over decades why has India not been able to substantially reduce poverty within the country? Have you ever thought about why we don’t come across any inspiring rags to riches stories in Pakistan? Why is it that the few zero-to-hero stories we hear lack transparency, are devoid of key components and usually are adjacent to power of sorts? Then there are the other kinds of success stories. The ones that got away. People from the South Asian countries who managed to excel in foreign lands. Why couldn’t they do that in their native lands? Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google. But in his native Chennai, he had seen some tough times.

It then appears that there is something fundamentally and structurally wrong with the South Asian societies that actively discourage upward mobility. If you manage to somehow gain access to power, you may find the elevator that can take you to the next floor. But since in their true essence all public offices and institutions of power are inert, any value addition to anyone’s economic status through them is essentially corrupt. Such distortions exist in every society. Where would Bezos and Musk be if the Obama administration’s policies did not facilitate their rise? But in post-colonial South Asia, this distortion is the rule. Ask a billionaire hotelier how much rent he pays to the government of Pakistan for the state-owned land on which his lavish hotels are built. Ask a certain property tycoon how he managed to name his business after an armed force of the country and why there was no serious pushback.

We don’t know how accurate coffee-swilling Balzac was about French society when he claimed that behind every big fortune there was a crime. But in South Asia, this seems as certain as a law of physics. Even so, this could have been tolerated if there was at least some room for upward mobility. But there is none. The club of the privileged actively ensures that it remains exclusive and as few people enter it as possible. That means that only talent and skills are not enough, and your pedigree will also be a matter of consideration. Why pedigree by the way? Because in South Asia it matters a lot where and when you were born. In India because of ineffable casteism. Consider a member of the lowest castes. Even if they rise to the top of the economic food chain, they may not be able to escape the prison of societal isolation. That despite no fault of their own. Also, know any famous Indian ex-pats? Google their name and the first thing you will come across in the search histories is the query about their caste. And you will be surprised that most of them belong to the upper caste.

In Pakistan where casteism doesn’t play a religious role, it is replaced by familial or clan loyalties, and regional, provincial, ethnic, lingual even sectarian prejudices. And atop all this is the ivory castle of the haves where gatekeepers sit to keep the riff-raff out. Sadly, in India and Pakistan the anti-status-quo insurgent parties (BJP in India, PTI in Pakistan) are so steeped in the right-wing religious-cultural orthodoxies that instead of dismantling the traditional privileges only end up institutionalising and bolstering them.

But here is the problem. Every group, project and class need fresh blood. You cannot shut the doors to this ascent and pretend that things will remain hunky dory. It must have worked in the monarchical, feudal, and colonial times when exclusivity would be seen as an active threat to the status quo. But now these countries claim to be democratic, capitalist societies. In democracies with the adult franchise, and universal suffrage you will need to create additional distortions to keep these privileges intact.

But I am here to tell you that this cannot go on. Times are changing. Automation is on the rise. These huge bureaucracies through which these countries manufacture consent will be replaced by toaster ovens and washing machines. The state machinery will be the first one to go. These elites being built up by this machinery will become the most vehement enemies of these states. Private corporations that face no such compulsion to replace their human resource will take these states apart brick by brick and throw them away.

If you believe that in South Asia where five thousand years of history could not produce one decent revolution, suddenly there is going to be a French or Bolshevik revolution you are sorely mistaken. Instead, what you are going to witness is the most gruesome form of institutional corrosion, decay, and degeneracy. And it will inevitably hurt the very institutions that work overtime as the gatekeepers of privilege and manufacturers of consent. Once this pattern sets in it will be irreversible.

So, here is the word to the wise, dear gatekeepers. Stop filtering out and muting your citizens. Reforms are long overdue. If elite formation in the society continues to be exclusive, arbitrary and the common man lives his life as a player in the snakes and ladders game the whole project is doomed. What is the point of being a gatekeeper if there is no gate to keep or the Valhalla behind to protect? Shape up or ship out. The time for change has come.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 6th, 2022.

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