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Mitali Saran: What an IDIA, sir-ji

Mitali Saran 

Mitali Saran

The Indian elections currently underway - and, thank god, almost over - feature an idea whose time has come. It's not the same old Congress pledge to fix the economy and empower and defend the poor, nor the same old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pledge to fix the economy and empower and defend a Hindu nation. The idea belongs to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which, regardless of the number of seats it wins, has messed things up for the establishment in important ways.

Of the AAP's several ideas, the most valuable is not the new-but-already-slightly-dog-eared notion of humility (high-ranking official takes metro to work), nor the double-edged sword of activist governance (Chief Minister sleeps on pavement), nor tilting at economic windmills for the sake of making a point (city gets free electricity, water).

The most valuable of its ideas is this: that all citizens are politically and socially equal. It is an idea that should have belonged to the Congress, but doesn't, because despite what the Congress says, in its upper-caste heart of hearts it believes that while everyone should have more money, there's no need to go crazy and have everyone eat at the same table. But just as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate empowers the Hindu right merely by running, regardless of whether he wins, the AAP empowers the idea of political and social equality merely by running - by being a political party that includes rickshaw pullers as well as CEOs, a party of little guys and big guys who rub shoulders in a united effort. That this is possible is already a big deal.

Our hopeless inability to stomach a perceived inferior at the same table is the single greatest drag on Indian society. And we have so many markers of perceived inferiority: religion, caste, economic strata, power, occupation, colour, social capital, gender, age, marital status, spiritual standing. We are a society predicated on exclusion and otherness.

This creaks along if everyone gamely accepts that the cards they are dealt at birth are the hand they will play with all their lives; but modernity is dismantling that notion. Indians have always had talent. Now they have talent, ambition, aspiration and self-belief, and they increasingly chafe against the old boundary walls. The good burghers of the land might save themselves a good sacking by proactively opening the doors of the city and inviting the peasants in. It would be as good for the burghers as for the peasants. It would certainly make for a more just, more creative society.

I was therefore interested to attend, last weekend, the first annual IDIA conference (Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access to Legal Education). It's a programme designed to make elite law schools accessible to the underprivileged and the disabled. First the staff reach out to persuade communities that (a) the law is a useful tool for social change and (b) lawyers aren't all scoundrels. Then they train interested students to improve their English skills and take the Common Law Admission Test (CLAT), the law entrance exam. They work to ensure that institutions like the National Law Schools and National Law Universities fulfil their mandate to take in underprivileged students. And they mentor these students in law school to help them acclimatise academically and socially.

IDIA posits that this simultaneously broadens and enriches classroom discussion in insular elite institutions, and creates lawyers with ties to communities that otherwise have limited access to justice. Some of these lawyers will choose to use their education to benefit their home communities; some will shove off to Manhattan. The programme nudges them towards the former, but does not, so far, insist upon it.

When the son of a domestic worker studies next to the son of a business tycoon, the experience contributes to both their lives. When a law firm takes on a visually challenged intern who can do the job as well as a sighted intern, both parties learn and benefit. When an underprivileged student becomes a lawyer, he or she brings to the profession a treasure of experience and creativity; and to his or her community, a powerful tool for social change.

A mixed social pool can lead to unprecedented social innovation. It's a simple and powerful idea - a no-brainer, really, except in a society like ours, where it is radical. Hearteningly, many top lawyers are supportive of the initiative. What IDIA is attempting should be a mainstream effort across all fields. It requires that islands of privilege acknowledge that they would benefit, not hurt, from opening their doors to people unlike themselves. Getting parents, students, teachers, trainers, sponsors, educators and employers to buy into this idea would change the face of Indian society.

It's currently a modest programme, still finding its feet. But it's certainly, to misquote the TED Talks tag line, an IDIA worth spreading.

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First Published: Fri, May 09 2014. 22:38 IST
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