BY DR KAUSTAV BHATTACHARYYA
Recently I was having a conversation with an old school friend of mine and marveled at this idea of how the notion of ‘grassroots’ was glamourized by an earlier generation of intellectuals and educated classes. We both concurred that this romanticization of the ‘grassroots’ of the egalitarian dreamy-eyed intelligentsia of pre-1990s India was basically proffering of piety and condescension to the less privileged sections of our society. I am reminded of the quip about the French Revolution that ‘the Rich became Poor and the Poor never became Rich’ which succinctly captures this obsession with the poor and disadvantaged without any concrete offering of solutions.
This candid outpouring of mine should be seen in the light of the 30th Anniversary of the Economic Liberalization and Reforms, and wherein we belong to a generation which grew up under the yoke of the old Socialist License-Permit Raj and Marxist doctrines held the sway. In my case I spent my growing up years in West Bengal which happened to the citadel of this kind of Leftist egalitarian Utopian thinking. Although having experienced different cities in India I can safely state the intellectual flavour across most of Metropolitan India was this egalitarian, anti-establishment and activist brand of thinking. Most importantly wealth creation and entrepreneurship was frowned upon and seen with disdain. Over the past three decades this has changed thankfully and new entrepreneurial energies have been unleashed which have catapulted India into the upper echelons of the global economy. At the outset it would be prudent to state that this was not necessarily the professional intellectuals or activists or card-carrying academics but broadly the educated middle class professionals, quite a motley group of professionals who romanced the grassroots. In Bengal there was the traumatic legacy of the radical student movements of the 1970s and many were the relics of that period now well-ensconced in the ‘bourgeoisie’ order yet huffing and puffing at the inequities of life and the world order. If one wanted to come across as educated and erudite one had to be posturing this romance of the ‘grassroots’ even if there was no insight or knowledge about that world and being anti-establishment.
Both of us reminisced as to how during our youthful days we would attend seminars or public talks or even family weddings where the well-heeled, well-paid, articulate, urbane intellectuals and educated middle classes would be fulminating about the ‘burning’ issues of the day, posturing as the voice of the grassroots section of the society and held forth as to how they knew so much about the real authentic India of the masses. We as ‘city kids’ were often ridiculed and rebuked for being unaware and not in touch with the reality of Indian masses. Mind you, our lives were hardly privileged by any stretch of imagination, punctuated by long hours of power cuts, arduous hours spent at examination halls with sweat pouring from our brows, typing away letters in small kiosks for job applications and finally the long and anxious hours securing an opportunity to travel or study ‘abroad’.
I wish to make this very important point having grown up not too far from the grassroots world that most individuals don’t wish to be there in this world and there is nothing fashionable or glamorous about belonging there. Most of them were not offered a choice to be ‘grassroots’ or ‘privileged’ and was mostly an accident of birth and sometimes misfortune. Hence educated and thinking minds should strive to dispense with this ‘chasm’ or ‘divide’ between the top and the grassroots in terms of access to education and life opportunities. We do have glowing instances of Western social welfare states like Nordic states, Canada where the ones who have been born in relatively disadvantaged sections do enjoy the opportunities to better their lives and future. In case we followed through our social programs and our responsibilities towards the masses we would have created an ‘Equal Opportunity Society’ where there would be no real grassroots in the sense of a deprived section leading parallel lives to the affluent and privileged.
One prime example of the empowerment of the grassroots which happened was access to widespread English education which transformed communities and in turn India society. The grassroots-loving intelligentsia in many cases missed the fact that good quality English education is a passport to global high-paying technology jobs. As I scroll through the list of successful entrepreneurs today in India one is heartened to find growing number of success stories emerging from sections which were not blessed with inheritance and fortune. This was made possible due to the opening up of opportunities of global corporate employment due to good quality education. As we are well aware how this wide access to English education was denied as a political ideology in Bengal, thus impairing generations of young people from leveraging global opportunities in IT and other sectors where a good working knowledge of English is a minimum.
The most severe impact of this egalitarian, grassroots poseur intellectual brigade has been on the world of culture, arts and education and this requires a distinct article.
Kaustav Bhattacharyya is an entrepreneur and independent researcher based in Bengaluru, India (the old name being Bangalore). Kaustav pursued a PhD in Management Studies from Cass Business School, London and spent nearly 4 years in the UK. Currently he lives back in India and is a Vice-Chairman of his family water treatment business. He writes columns independently for local publications and has written articles for The Sunday Guardian in India.