The Idli Vendor
Gaius Aemilius Priscus
Setting: Brihadeeshwara Temple courtyard, Thanjavur
Subramanian: Ho there, Gaius! *beams* Fancy seeing you here today of all days. Is it not the two thousandth-something anniversary of your beloved city today?
Gaius Aemilius Priscus: Salve, Subbu! *smiles* Yes, it is the 2, 767th anniversary of the Città Eterna…and you know us Romans, we need the benign intercession of any and all willing gods to save our city. I mean, look at us…this is the 65th government since the end of the War, the fourth prime minister in three years, who is also the third non-elected one in succession! Jupiter has clearly washed his hands off us, maybe Siva can help *laughs*
Subramanian: Yes, well…we are not ones to speak on executive effectiveness, as you can see around you.
Gaius: This one man – one vote, I say. Cannot work in a country with such great diversity of material conditions.
Subramanian: Are you talking about India or Rome?
Gaius: India, but the principle holds true anywhere.
Subramanian: Wait…let me get this straight – you don’t believe in universal adult suffrage?! Thambi, this is the 21st century!
Gaius: Fat lot of good your century has done you. You have vote banks, minoritarian pressures, caste politics…what is it they say here, you don’t cast your vote but you vote your caste? This is what happens when you give plebeians the vote. Most have no clue what they are voting for; they only know their own desires and not the cost at which even their needs might be met.
Subramanian: Oh, come on! You think the educated and refined do not have prejudices? Don’t be silly, of course they do! What’s more, they can probably disguise their biases with the clever use of some social theorist of the day or the other.
Gaius: Subbu, education is just one possible criterion. It’s like a cut-off point that we have in exams for passing a student. One could argue it’s arbitrary, but where would we be without some standard of objective discrimination? It is useful even if not perfect…think of it as a heuristic device. Besides, there’s a better argument to be made for education as a criterion. An educated person is more likely to have met people of diverse backgrounds at his school and workplace and is therefore more likely to be aware of alternative views on an issue even if he doesn’t agree with them. Prejudice aside, I am talking about voting.
Subramanian: So am I. Let us imagine that you had a some sort of educational criterion for voting. I assume you’d want this for standing for office too. What’s to stop an educated class from appropriating the state machinery to serve their interests?
Gaius: First of all, you speak like these two groups do not belong to the same society. One cannot really survive without the other – the elite cannot survive without manual labour, and if the elite have an environment in which they can function well, who will be the part-beneficiaries of those extra schools, factories, and offices? It’s the mobility that counts more than the mere existence of strata. This is a symbiotic relationship Subbu, don’t forget that. You want good workers, you want loyal workers…that means you have to take care of them too.
Subramanian: I’m sure that is what all those cotton mill workers were thinking in late 18th and 19th century England *smiles*
Gaius: We have laws now to prevent such exploitation, macha! Besides, those mill workers might have wanted to vote and represent their interests but many of their reforms were introduced by others in the elite. The Reform Acts in England were hardly introduced by plebeians in the House! In fact, the lower classes have steadily increased their rights over time despite not having political representation for most of human existence. I may be biased here with my own, but I daresay Uncle Julius did a lot more for slaves in the Empire than Spartacus ever achieved.
Subramanian: No, I am not getting you started now on the glories of Rome, Gaius! But the laws guarding against exploitation – they can easily be modified…especially if these people have no political weight.
Gaius: Yes, and there are non-political reasons to maintain a dignified amount of labour protections. There is a basic sense of human dignity which I don’t expect people of this era to understand, but there are economic reasons too. Speaking of which, walk with me, I thought I saw a lady selling idli near the entrance.
[Gaius and Subramanian get up and start ambling towards the idli vendor]
Subramanian: *grumbles* What is it with your love affair with idli?! One would think you’re the Dravidian!
Gaius: And you are a fake Dravidian for not liking idli…you prefer tea over kaapi too, infidel!
Subramanian: Anyway, voting is not merely about economics. Since we are talking about India, you have to see the context in which universal adult franchise was made a constitutional right. There were social components to it too.
Gaius: Such as?
Subramanian: Well, you mentioned caste earlier. Despite what many urbanites think, caste still plays a major role in India. Haven’t you noticed how in some houses the servants do not sit at the table but on the floor when eating? Or how some houses keep a separate set of utensils for giving food to the servants?
Gaius: But that could also include a less fortunate brahmin…we’re not exactly the moneyed caste, you know!
Subramanian: 1947, da! Yes, there may have been poor brahmins but the majority of the labourers, untouchables, or downtrodden were lower caste people. With little access to opportunity, they were the overwhelming majority of the underprivileged. Why and how this situation came to pass is a topic for another day but for the purposes of universal adult suffrage, the discrimination against these people would not have gone away if they had not been given the vote.
Gaius: [To vendor: Naalu iddliyum chutniyum konduva pattima] Subbu, that is nonsense! You think suffrage can eradicate discrimination?! Do you know how many rich and educated black people sometimes find it difficult to call a taxi in the United States? I agree money ameliorates things, but I think you are putting too much faith in suffrage. Besides, I fundamentally disagree with the implicit argument you are making that only a dalit can speak for dalit interests.
Subramanian: No, but think about it: if India approached democracy the way you seem to be suggesting, the only people who would have got the right to vote would be the educated and rich elite. I seriously doubt that there would have been any social justice agenda in the legislature.
Gaius: While I do enjoy your misanthropy Subbu, I would like to remind you that the Abolitionists were not all black men! Even here, in India, Ambedkar’s sterling role in guiding Dalit politics notwithstanding, you’ll have to agree that there was an outpouring of remorse among the Hindu upper caste elite across the political spectrum. From Namboodiripad to Savarkar. One could make a credible argument that it was the educated upper caste elite which made your Indian version of affirmative action possible.
Subramanian: No, they were not all black men, but how long did it take them to abolish slavery? How much longer to achieve the vote? And how much after that to attain even some semblance of equality?
Gaius: But two points, ma. One, reform movements do start from within; an outside impetus is not always required. As long as we are open to new ideas, we will be fine. Since we are standing in the shadow of the Brihadeeshwara Temple, consider the several reform movements within Hinduism itself. Raja Rammohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Madhavacharya…many have been entirely internal without external influence. As painful as some forms of discrimination may be, we have to remember that reform takes time and works best slowly. Society is, by default, a conservative animal…it cannot handle rapid change well. Just look at the rapid accumulation of wealth in your country…class, culture, or whatever you call it, comes after three generations of good humanistic education.
Also, look at many of the educated, elite brahmins you speak disparagingly of – Savarkar, Namboodiripad…they were all against caste discrimination. I doubt they were exactly the kind to be swayed by the Nehruvian liberal model of social justice!
Two, what do you have to show for extending the vote to all for over six decades? As you said, there is still caste discrimination so that problem has not gone anywhere. In addition, the inability of the majority of the electorate to understand larger issues has lowered the level of public discourse to topi, puppy, and the colour of the kurta! On the one hand you bemoan the lack of discussion on policy yet on the other, you dilute the intellect of the electorate?
Subramanian: It could have been – would have been – a lot worse.
Gaius: But don’t you now have discrimination within the lower castes now? If I remember correctly, the creamy layer of the lower castes are oppressing the even lower layers! How is that helping your case?
These quotas, this suffrage…they are like applying a Band-Aid to a bullet wound. Real democracy must come from within; the constitution is a document reflecting values already inherent in the people. The violence done to tradition by India’s Anglicised elite is incalculable. Not only was India not ready for democracy but the rupture with its own evolution was stupendously obtuse.
Subramanian: *frowns* People are stupid…about the intra-caste discrimination, I mean. But this Indic past…I am not sure Indians can always drag something out of their history to solve today’s problems.
Gaius: [To vendor: Nandri, iddali romba pramadam] *both walk back to their shaded corner in the temple courtyard* It’s not about history, it’s about this blasted modernity that has ruined much. For example, look at the state – the Anglo-Saxons made it into a contractual relationship, like with an outsider, whereas the Greco-Roman ideal has always been a culturally informed state. In China too, for example, Taoism was closely tied to state functions in China, which, obviously, was slowly replaced by Buddhism from the Qing dynasty on. Similarly, Hinduism sees the state and the people as parts of the same organism. After all, what is the state if not an embodiment of the people? The moment you see it that way, this entire notion of rights changes.
Subramanian: Sure, in monarchies in Europe, China, and India…maybe elsewhere too. I don’t think those structures can hold in a democracy like ours.
Gaius: Well, don’t forget that Rome was a republic for almost five centuries before it became an empire. We had a constitutionally defined position as dictator and it worked quite well…until entropy kicked in!
Subramanian: *laughs* The eternal struggle between the classes, yes…Marx, you old plagiarer!
Gaius: How did we decide on who gets to vote back in the day? We allowed those with a stake in society – landowners, businessmen, and so on. Now these people were full citizens and they had a duty to fight in the army if necessary. In fact, service was part of the citizen’s deal – he paid taxes, fought in the army if necessary, served in civilian posts, and he got to have a say in how the society was run. That was what the cursus honorum was all about.
The lower classes had their tribunes and the upper classes their senators. Obviously, it was never so smooth, but it never is. Systems are approximate, you must realise that. Besides, the system would not work today in many of its aspects – imagine 600 million people joining military service in India, or imagine the millions willing to renounce citizenship to avoid paying taxes! The tiered system has some benefits, nonetheless.
Subramanian: So citizenship was conferred upon participation, upon contribution? So basically if I were a Numidian in the 4th century BCE, I could move to Rome, start a business, pay taxes, and vote?
Gaius: Of course not, don’t be silly! You have to be conferred citizenship, it was an honour, not a right. With this honour came new privileges and heavier burdens. These honours were not given to anyone – depending upon when during our glorious rule, only Romans were citizens, then Latins, and then Italians. It was right at the fevered end that citizenship was extended to everyone in the Empire.
Citizenship reflected the relationship between the individual and his society. Was he willing to contribute to making it a better place? Bleed for it? Sweat for it? And even then, there were always ties of blood. What role would you give your neighbour, for example, in advising you about your marital discord? He may be a friend, but he is an outsider and all decisions are yours and your wife’s.
Subramanian: But surely there is a case to be made that anyone who resided in Rome and contributed to its well-being via investments, taxation, and law-abiding conduct was an asset to the Empire? In the modern context, what if an NRI wanted to vote?
Gaius: No, there is no case. Suffrage is not bought, it is not an open club; it is a right bestowed upon some – well, nowadays all – that are of the community. Modern India’s experimentation with multicultural citizenship has weakened this sense of identity. Nothing wrong in multiculturalism but giving minorities special privileges was not the Roman way…and no one can deny that Rome was vibrantly multicultural. But you need an anchor.
As for NRIs, they are citizens and have a vote as I understand it. At least now they do…and as much as it would please me to have absentee ballots from abroad, that is not exactly a major issue as some pretend. When you pay your phone bill or taxes, you go to the government don’t you? Similarly, if you want to vote, come to your constituency! Absentee ballots are more of a requirement for people with highly transferable jobs like the military, honestly.
Subramanian: And I am beginning to think that PIOs have no voting privileges under your system…
Gaius: It’s not my system, it’s the law! Why should foreigners vote? These people left India – and they may have had very good reasons – and acquired a foreign citizenship. What makes them think they have any rights remaining in India? Even if they come back, until they do not re-acquire Indian citizenship, I see no reason to allow them voting privileges. They left for personal profit and they’re back for personal profit…without renouncing their foreign citizenship. I suppose it could be argued that they have an option not to live with the consequences of the vote unlike other Indians and so it is not fair to allow them to vote. But I personally favour the civilisational argument.
From the perspective of a contractual state, a case may be made for them to vote if certain criteria are met but from the perspective of a civilisational state, they have left the fold. Europe has transformed from civilisational states to contractual states. Why and when takes us far afield from our topic today but the question is, for you Indians, what kind of state do you want?
Subramanian: And are we not already living in a contractual state?
Gaius: Here, I disagree and go against the common perception. There is this lovely book I was reading the other day by a chap called Chris Bayly in which he argued that we see the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution as a overpowering, unitary discourse. Which, of course, it was not. There is always a great deal of plurality in the ‘now-ness’ that is erased by meta-narratives, Subbu. Bayly says that because of this, we are surprised by the resurgence of religion in politics at the end of the Cold War when in fact it had always been there and we had not noticed.
To get to the point, no…I do not see India as a state but a nation-state. While the state may be the contractual skeleton, the nation lends the sinews. Why should you care about India and not any other place that has similar or better contractual terms? To reduce the world to this utilitarian abstraction is nonsensical though many individualists do make this leap. But psychology shows us that we function best as communities, not individuals.
Okay, all this talking has made me thirsty…come, let’s get some kaapi from that idli vendor *stands up, stretches, and starts walking towards the temple gate again*
Subramanian: Amma, these bleddy firangs and their kaapi fetish! Well, you are right that we are straying way off course on this debate about state, contracts, and citizenship though I do see the connect with voting rights…or privileges as you may understand them. But let us get back to the narrower topic of Indians voting, particularly the disadvantaged.
You must admit Gaius, that in India, laws and reform movements have their limits. Laws can barely be implemented in cities, let alone penetrate the rural heartlands. In a situation where the untouchables would not have franchise, this could result in the continued propagation of this atrocious practice; their political mobilisation is important.
Erm…ah yes: you mentioned Namboodiripad and such, and yes, they were anti-caste discrimination. But what guarantees can there be that the entire administrative machinery will suddenly transcend their parochialism and turn reformist? You mention Hindu reformers, dear Gaius…so many reformers and yet so much untouchability?
Gaius: Haha! I could flip that around Subbu, and ask, so much political representation and yet so much untouchability? But seriously, what makes you think that political representation changes untouchability? Would education not affect that more as qualified people move to big cities in India and abroad? There is a far stronger argument – which I am sympathetic to, by the way – to be made for improving access to schools and universities. This benefits all Indians without discrimination. The real disenfranchisement, Subbu, comes from poverty. Look at the stratification within the dalits – it’s monetary, not caste based.
[To vendor: Ondu kaapi kodtheera, amma?]
Subramanian: Eh, foreigner! At least get the language right…this is the proper Dravida desam! [To vendor: Kaapi thaanga amma]
Gaius: In the words of the great Chris Tucker, “all of y’all look alike!” *laughs* Anway…this brings me to another point I wanted to make: to represent my view on adult franchise as an all or nothing system does it disservice. I’d argue that a tiered voting system is perhaps more suited. In all probability, even an illiterate farmer in Therekalputhoor or Rajakkamangalam knows more about his coconut groves than some babu in Dilli but the same farmer is unlikely to understand the nuances of India’s relations with Iran or France. In a more federal system, if the Union list and State list allowed states autonomy over their local administration – in the full sense of the word – that farmer would have a say in the policies that affect him directly but not in affairs that concern him only indirectly.
States can lobby the Centre for foreign policy initiatives – I’m sure you have a lot of thoughts on Lanka but less on, say, the Maldives. You might even have a third tier at the local level for local affairs, I don’t know…I am hardly creating a political document here, just voicing some thoughts. The educated – let’s say baccalaureate, first class, for now – can vote in national elections. I know news consumption is at an all-time low, that most allegedly educated people prefer to surf the internet for the latest skimpily clad starlet rather than reactor fuel assembly lattices, and this benchmark is problematic, but think of it as filtering out the riffraff rather than creating the perfect electorate!
Subramanian: Well, as long as you concede that the educated need not know anything, really, about the issues they might be voting on…
Gaius: Yes but the probability of them knowing more is higher than a village bumpkin…or an urban urchin.
Subramanian: And tell me, even if I agreed with you, how do you intend to implement this elaborate scheme in a country like India where they have difficulty maintaining even a regular electoral list?
Gaius: On that, I must concede defeat! But if the principles are sound, at least we can steer towards the general direction. There is no need to adopt ideas like sovereignty or franchise wholesale without any heed to applicability.
Subramanian: Then this is a good time for me to leave. While you’ve scoffed down idli and kaapi, my tummy is rumbling for its ragi! I’ll see you in the evening at the temple Echampati Gayathri concert this evening. Bye!
Gaius: Yes, I am getting dark in this blasted tropical sun too…ciao, paisan!