Published June 9, 2009
At first sight, Iceland and India have a lot in common. For one thing, they both start with the letter “I”. And while one may be the world’s largest democracy and the other one of the smallest, neither really supports equal rights for its citizens.
In India, the Congress Party is played a major part in the country’s struggle for independence, and has since then been the dominant party in politics. It’s almost as if people are afraid to vote for anyone else, as if that might bring the Brits back. The party itself has been dominated by the same Gandhi family, not actually descended from Mahatma Gandhi but which took his name in his honour. They are currently led by their forth Gandhi, a widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Much the same applied to the Independence Party here, which actually took its name from an older party that had rather more to do with Iceland’s independence. Nevertheless, ever since full Independence in 1944, it has been the dominant party. It took an economic collapse and a peaceful revolution to finally get people to seriously consider other options.
For all of the flaws of India’s democracy, its greatest structural problem is the Caste system. While opposed by Gandhi and the government of independent India, it still remains in place under the surface and ensures that many can never rise above the station they are born to.
How Icelandic of them
In Iceland, corruption is everywhere. This goes beyond the healthy corruption of hiring your own relatives to do jobs they are not qualified for to hiring the relatives of your friends to do jobs they are not qualified for. It even goes beyond to hiring the relatives of people you don’t even know, the rationale being that if they have ancestors who practice a craft, then they themselves must have some talent in that field.
In Iceland, people always start from the supposition that ability is inherited. In any field, take writing for example, the first question you will always encounter is: “Are you the son of…” And if, as it turns out, you are nobody’s son, then you have a long and difficult road ahead.
Corruption is everywhere. It is not only politicians who, say, appoint their offspring as Supreme Court judges or give them fat government contracts. The leading actors in the economic collapse were companies run by father and son, and this goes all the way down to the factory floors. University professors have been known to hire their children as assistant teachers, even if they are studying in a different department. The media plays along, trumpeting every new generation of artists who “have it in their blood,” while ignoring others.
Sons and daughters
In fact, it can be said that everyone benefits from this system in some way. Most Icelanders get their first summer job through their parents or uncles of friends thereof. Of course, what kind of job you get depends on their social standing, rather than your own ability. And so this rigid caste system remains in place. Not only is this system unfair to the individuals who are passed over in favour of young princes, but it also leads to society as a whole being less well run than it should be. We all know the consequences.
Great strides have been made in recent years regarding women’s opportunity to seek employment. But a system where people hire their sons and daughters, rather than just their sons, is a marginal improvement at best.
One of the demands of the January revolution was that competent professionals be instated as ministers as a reflex against the old cronyism. Some were. If the same criteria were applied everywhere, there is little doubt we would have a far better functioning society. But perhaps we need a new revolution for that. Or at least an Icelandic Gandhi.