Soon after Prime Minister Trudeau announced a $ 221 million fund to provide financing to businesses owned by black Canadians, I was in a discussion about it on Twitter. I voiced my opinion that I am against any eligibility criteria for business financing that are based on race. One person responded to this with the comment that in view of a history of denying of financing to black-owned businesses, the policy measure that PM Trudeau had announced was welcome. She supported this argument with a link to an article that provided data from the US.
In reply, I asked her why data from the US should inform Canadian policy. She quote-tweeted my reply with the comment that this question of mine was the reason why South Asians are often accused of being complicit – without specifying exactly what I was being complicit in. That ambiguity aside, I found it intriguing that in her view, my membership of one minority group (South Asian) required me to uncritically acquiesce to a policy that benefits another minority group (in this case, black Canadians).
The meaning I took from this was that many Canadians club all the minority groups together as one tribe that is in direct opposition to the other tribe, viz. white Canadians. In their mind-set, questioning a policy that benefits one’s tribe amounts to disloyalty. I thought this was worth exploring.
A GOVERNMENT OF THE (INSERT NAME OF TRIBE) PEOPLE
When Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963, the people who had fought for its independence formed a political party called Kenya African National Union (KANU). As is to be expected, this party formed the first government of independent Kenya, headed by a prominent freedom fighter, Jomo Kenyatta. The following year, President Nkrumah of Ghana outlawed all political parties except the one that he led. I was told by my Kenyan friends that he pioneered the concept of a ‘single-party democracy’, a term that sounded like an oxymoron to me. Leaders of the newly-independent African countries loved the idea. Kenya had also been a ‘single-party democracy’ for a long while when I reached there.
Of course, the people of the country wanted real democracy, and so on the 7th of July, 1990, there were large-scale demonstrations demanding that Kenya become a ‘multi-party democracy’. In Swahili, the word for ‘seven’ is ‘saba’, so the eruption of political dissent on the 7th of July came to be known a ‘saba saba’. Over the next couple of years, the movement grew – and also splintered, mostly along tribal lines. The law prohibiting the formation of political parties other than KANU had been repealed, and many prominent politicians started their own parties. These were joined mostly by their fellow-tribesmen.
There was a spirited public debate about which tribe would ‘contribute’ the next president. I found the term interesting, and asked my colleague Benson what he made of it. Benson was a former footballer, and had represented Kenya in the African Cup tournament, which Kenya had won. At 6’5”, he was a gentle giant, but his gaze was still very penetrating. Using the Swahili word for ‘sir’, he said, “Bwana, it only means whose turn it is to eat.” He made a hand gesture of putting a morsel of food in his mouth. His meaning was clear – by ‘eat’, he meant ‘plunder public finances’.
The first president, Jomo Kenyatta, was from the Kikuyu tribe. He was succeeded, after a 15-year tenure, by Daniel Moi who was from the Kalenjin tribe. There was a perception that these two tribes had benefited financially as a result. The discussion about which tribe would ‘contribute’ the next president was an expression of pent-up resentment.
Kenya’s first multi-party election took place in 1992. KANU based its campaign on the message that it was the only party that was of and for all the people of Kenya. It won the election. President Moi continued in office.
During my study of accounting, I once audited a major branch of the largest bank in India. I came across a large number of accounts that had all been given loans of 1,000 Rupees each, with zero repayments coming in. In accounting jargon, these were ‘non-performing assets’. The most curious part of these loans was that all the loanees had the last name ‘Datania’. I asked the officer what was happening there.
‘Loan mela’, he replied with a sigh.
At various times during her tenure as the Prime Minister of India, Mrs. Indira Gandhi played a gimmick of providing ‘loans’ to unqualified people, often as election ploys. She had already nationalized all the major banks in the country, so getting them to implement her policies was easy. It was understood that these ‘loans’ were never meant to be repaid, so people soon started calling them ‘loan mela (festival)’.
A mandatory last name is a relatively new thing in India. By the time this particular loan mela arrived in their shantytown, most of the people there didn’t have a last name. All of them belonged to a caste that was historically on the fringes of society, doing odd jobs. One of their occupations was harvesting and selling tender shoots from the branches of a very thorny tree (Vachellia nilotica, commonly known as ‘Gum Arabica‘). These are traditionally used to brush teeth. The name for this traditional toothbrush is ‘datan’ in Gujarati, so everyone declared their last name as ‘Datania’.
I asked the officer what the bank planned to do with these delinquent loans. “We will carry them on our books,” he replied with a shrug, “until the Head Office instructs us to write them off.” I asked him how long he thought it would take for the HO to make this decision.
“Whenever Mrs. Gandhi tells them to” he replied.
As the movement for multi-party democracy was gaining momentum in Kenya, one of the only two TV channels that existed in Kenya aired an interview with the president of the neighboring country of Uganada, Yoweri Museveni. The interviewer asked him his views on the issue of multi-party democracy. He replied that as a model, multi-party democracy was more suited for a society like that of Europe and other western countries, where populations were largely homogeneous, and political divisions were along ideological lines rather than tribal ones. This distinction, he said, had a profound impact on the policies of a government. In western democracies, he said, government policies were made based on what was perceived to be the in common interest of all the citizens, whereas in an African society, each party was prone to be merely a political arm of a particular tribe, and hence policies would be made to benefit only a segment of the population, at the expense of others. He was, therefore, against the formation of multiple political parties until such time as the African society matured to overcome tribal divisions. He concluded by saying something that had been the motivating force behind President Nkrumah’s idea of a ‘single-party democracy’: tribal-based parties cause division, because they are, whether openly or tacitly, meant to advance the interests of one group at the expense of others. In Africa, that amounts to giving an invitation to civil war.
More than a quarter century after President Museveni expressed a vote of confidence in the maturity of the polity of western democracies, we are witnessing in Canada government policies that are specifically aimed at benefiting particular groups within the Canadian population. What is worse, these policies are often not backed by data that show the need for such policies. In theory, it is possible that black Canadians do not have as much access to business financing as other groups. But in the absence of any demonstrated justification for the policy, it is bound to generate resentment among non-black Canadians. This would almost certainly be a divisive factor. Further, if there are any genuine impediments in this regard, the correct way to remove them is by addressing the factors that bring these impediments into play. In other words, when or if the need is to level the playing field for some, we have sought to remedy that by making it more uneven for others.
Another major consequence of this policy is that it requires lenders to deny access to a particular product to some customers based on a criterion that has nothing to do with any factor attached to that piece of business. This is the very opposite of what we have strived to achieve, and achieved as well, over a long period of time. The policy institutionalizes the idea that access to a product – any product – can be made conditional to any immutable characteristic of a customer.
ROAD TO HELL
As we know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Misguided policies will either have the effect of achieving results that will be contrary to what was intended, or result in erosion of the cohesion of Canadian society. “We don’t serve you kind here” is a phrase associated with a past that we look down upon. But unless we are careful, it may yet become commonplace in the not-too-distant future.