27 April 2014

Rawlsian Veil, Smithian Impartiality and Indian Elections of 2014

I have decided to come out of my blog hibernation with the  General Election 2014 in India having traversed two-thirds of its path. Six phases of elections are over and another three phases are left and the results would be known to us in another 20 days time by 16 May 2014. 

The immediate reason for my writing is my being at the International Conference on Global Justice and the Global South where I presented a paper on "A Possible Defence of Rawls" where one of the points was to show that Rawls' original position under a veil of ignorance would give the same outcome as that of the Smithian impartial spectator that Amartya Sen invokes. To explain this, I used an old example that I have been discussing in a related context.
There are three candidates contesting to represent the citizens of a democratic polity. The citizens have to elect one person to represent them. Whom should each citizen elect. The details of the three candidates is as follows.
  • X has moved up the political ladder, is with experience and seems to have the support base among some important sections.
  • Y belongs to a family that has sacrificed for the upkeep of democratic values and institutions in the country and has been groomed to be a leader.
  • Z works for the people sincerely and makes genuine efforts to be inclusive and can be identified with an ordinary citizen.
Both the thought experiments take out the personal slant or vested interest associated with it and the conclusion with both the thought experiments will be the same. The three candidates in the above example have an uncanny resemblance to some candidates in the ongoing elections.

X may be identified with the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its alliances. Y seems to resemble a prominent leader from a prominent family of the Indian National Congress (INC). Z could be identified with the leader from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) who was the Chief Minister of Delhi for 49 days. These resemblances, if any, are coincidental as I have been discussing this example in my classes and lectures for at least the last five years and much before AAP was formed or BJP declared its Prime Ministerial candidate. It is true that dynastic politics had already taken roots in India by then, but then, it is not limited to the INC alone.

While discussing with people over the years there are many who have tried to go under a veil or be impartial and they invariably come out with arguments in support of Z. But, now, it is election time and with the blitzkrieg marketing paraphernalia that some parties have at their disposal it is difficult for people to be under a veil or be impartial. It is this that may not augur well for a democracy.

Why should coming out of a veil be a problem in a democracy where citizens ought to vote for themselves. True, citizens should come out of their veil when it comes to information - their decision ought to be an informed choice and being under a veil of ignorance does not prevent that. The veil of ignorance is about caste, class, religion and other such identities that could be detrimental for a democratic polity.

I must say that I have had long discussions on the current elections with many and while most of them think that I am a member of a particular party, I must make it clear that I am not. It is, however, quite possible that my thoughts, arrived at independently under a Rawlsian veil or Smithian impartiality or Gandhiji's Talisman, would be closer to one particular party over the others.

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