Poverty, Inequality, and Politics: Are we missing the link?


Actors, in any society, who share similar interests, bond together and after holding considerable representation, power and wealth, mobilize less advantaged groups. Representation drives politics and mobilization of the less privileged translated into welfare schemes. Over time, we have seen, politics starts getting influenced very distinctively by both these two extremes. The rich pool in money to political parties for their own benefits and the underprivileged (not necessarily poor) act like pressure groups. This might sound odd, but barely have the rich ever been able to exert themselves as a pressure group for a particular cause. This favors the poor, because, inherently, the power supports and perpetuates power. Often this is the general explanation given to the close nexus that exists between the politicians, industrialists, and elites. The only way, for the poor to gain any real power, is to connect and gauge the attention of the middle class (apart from the politicians) to their problems. As we talk about the two ends of the spectrum – the rich and the poor; we must also mention about the difference (or gap) that exists between the two ends. Today, we hear both these terms in the same sentence. However, this was not always the case. Historically, theorists wrote about poverty and inequality as two disparate subjects, rather than being concomitant. Why has that been the case? Convenience, maybe; Political construct, definitely. Poverty, more than an abstract idea, is a reality. It is something the privileged one’s study about, whilst others live it every day. Either way, one thing that remains common is the acceptance of the lucid precepts of a class-based society. Our friends, education, how the government responds to our demands; all are driven by the class norms. The divide between the classes, predominantly, is about money. The government drives (promotes, influences and regulates) the economy. If ‘money’ is the common denominator, it becomes necessary to ask the key question – Does the Govt. envisage an ecosystem where everyone has their basic’s covered? Does the Govt. genuinely work towards eradicating poverty? Do poverty and inequality benefit the political classes? Liberal free trade philosophy, as advocated by Adam Smith, tried investigating the same questions. Free Market philosophy depicted class rev Would the situation and life of the people who are at the bottom of the pyramid improve, if this 1 % of the people decided to give away their wealth? Why I am bringing this question, is to bring to light, a perspective, which I often feel is missed out while we read about these subjects. Do we just only want to push people out from ‘poverty’ or do we also, along the way, do something about the pertinent difference that exists between the highest and the bottom-most pyramids in the structure? The first idea, only speaks about ending poverty, whilst the latter goes one step ahead, thinking beyond distributing mere doles to this big chunk of the population. Because eventually, this understanding is crucial to design policies to tackle these pressing problems. Many theorists have written about poverty. The literature is laden with various notions, ideas (both theoretical and philosophical) about how poverty affects an individual. But, inequality, somehow, is still an abstract concept. Primarily, because not everyone looks at it as a problem but more as a consequence. I think, there are two ways of looking at it. One is all about the rich. And the other is just about the poor. And we, often, start from the rich. That is where we fall out. The narrative builds a story where a few rich individuals dominate and command the wealth, which most of us can’t even dream of. Subtly, or rather openly, it is portrayed as a consequence of the abuse or exploitation of the poor. Basically, how many development sector professionals, policy groups, civil society, NGO’s put it. But this is not really the problem. The problem is this widening ‘Gap’. The seesaw, they believe was always tilted, but of late, is becoming more and more skewed. Both the ends of the seesaw are quite distant from each other, so they are never really in a position to feel anything more than mere indifference. For the poor, the indifference is coupled with anger, for obvious reasons. The ones like me, who write about it, are actually the ones who are not affected by it at all. The rich, at least take the blame and pretend to be the ‘bad ones’ in the story. Now, when we recognize the problem and do understand the gravity of it, what do we do? We decide to find a means to reduce this gap. Not in India, though. We are still trying to deal and find ways to tackle poverty. I am not sure if we have reached a place, where we don’t say ‘alarming poverty levels’. Our country, being a welfare state, relies on taxes to reach out to the needy ones. It is actually quite consistent with what is prescribed in the theory as a panacea to the problem. Wherever poverty rates are high, and the government needs funds, they end up increasing the taxes on the rich to redirect it to the poor. This, however, pushes the businesses to find ways to evade taxes. It is not because the rich don’t want to help the government reach out to the poor, but because they know, it is a never-ending cycle. The government, since ages, has only been focusing on providing means and resources to the poor (subsidies, doles, etc.) instead of designing policies and bringing programs to promote selfdependence. The question is when the welfare state itself is not serious about reducing ‘inequality’, then why would the rich bother anyway? And, it is definitely not a mere coincidence that the governments have always spoken about poverty minus inequality. Poverty is such an abstract idea, which is difficult to measure. You can always project that you are doing something about it. Whatever that ‘something’ is. Political parties avoid speaking about inequality, in the public discourse and their manifesto’s because one can clearly measure it in numbers. Taking this forward, I move to the next question. Do these people who exist on either side of the seesaw, are positioned individually or placed in groups? Does their positioning depend upon the ‘group’ they belong to? Do religion, caste and gender have a much bigger role to play in this arrangement than the occupation and education itself? If the answers to these questions are a ‘yes’, then can we conveniently connect the dots as to why the governments (read political parties) would ideally never want these problems to be solved? It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that political parties end up taking care of their own group’s – one for the wealth and other for the votes. We need to look around us and maybe ask ourselves tough questions. We believe (or are made to believe) that inequality will always exist, and rightly so. But we don’t really know why. The current debate on the subject is weak because the ones arguing are also the ones sitting right in the middle of the seesaw.

Sanyukta Sharma
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Sanyukta works on Public Policy & Communication Strategy with Chief Minister's Office, Government of Haryana. Earlier she was a research associate with IIM Ahmedabad, Chief Minister's Good Governance Associate and Project Associate - Health and Social Policy, Harvard Project for Asian & International Relations.

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