Fellow Voters, Let’s Change Our Approach

Posted on June 21, 2012 in Politics

By Karmanye Thadani:

The NDA Government lost the 2004 general elections because it claimed that India was feeling good. Today, India doesn’t seem to be feeling good at all under this UPA government. In its two terms in power, the UPA has made many mistakes, both politically and even broadly from the governance point of view. This is a charge even the NDA cannot escape, even if ardent BJP supporters don’t feel comfortable conceding the same.

Social change is not a one-time dramatic process, as has been amply demonstrated by revolutions the world over, especially Communist ones which have never given way to a classless and stateless society. Attitudinal shifts in politics signify the direction a democratic nation is heading in. I am neither an ardent leftist nor an ardent rightist, either in the sphere of economics or religion, but a die-hard centrist and my lack of strong ideological bias helps me give more precedence to the issues at the forefront of the national debate than only how not-so-important issues, if not non-issues, are discussed and debated. Likewise, I am neither an uncritical admirer nor an ardent basher of the Congress, the BJP, the Left or any other political faction.

There was a time when caste, religion and charisma ruled the roost in the polity of our country. I am certainly not asserting that this is completely over by any means, but the recent elections in different states and the approach of the central government in terms of the legislations it has enacted show that real issues have started to get at least a little more attention than in the last so many decades since India’s independence and though one doesn’t seem to imagine that we will get to see a cabinet like the one with Nehru, Patel and Maulana Azad or an opposition like the one with C. Rajagopalachari, Jaiprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia, if the media were to show a little more maturity (I do broadly agree with Justice Katju), we can hope for much reform in our polity. The struggle for power is always a dirty game and politicians can never be aboveboard, as eminent social scientists like Dahl and Schumpeter have pointed out, as also Gandhi in his younger days when he wrote Hind Swaraj, but if the output can produce some substantial good for the country, it’s that what we want, and so, in my opinion, labels like “less corrupt” and “more corrupt” for political parties have no meaning altogether and the only thing that matters is their legislative and executive initiatives, which very few people holistically look at. Similarly, looking at parties as “secular” and “communal” or as “pseudo-secular”, making a blanket stereotype doesn’t make sense, for many a time, the Congress has resorted to Hindu appeasement (e.g. Rajiv Gandhi opening the doors of the Babri Masjid to the Hindus, making it a makeshift Hindu temple, just because the VHP stealthily installed idols of Ram, Lakshman and Sita in the mosque, later claiming it to be a miracle having occurred by divine intervention!) and the BJP to Muslim appeasement (e.g. announcing that it will support an ST or Muslim MP for the post of Deputy Speaker — why do we have to talk in these terms?), and it’s necessary that we look at the overall policy framework of a political faction more than anything else, but the fact is that a vast majority of our voters don’t even so much as read the election manifestos.

One sees some hope when the BJP fields Christian candidates in the recent state elections in Goa, all of whom win (as against at least some of its members inciting anti-Christian riots in the Kandhamal district of Orissa two years ago who have fortunately been convicted) or in the recent UP elections, Dalit votes not getting concentrated in the hands of the BSP or even Muslim votes in favour of the Congress in spite of its obstructing Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literary Fest despite his having a lawfully obtained visa or promising a quota for them in education and employment (as if we don’t have enough quotas already and these have done little to empower people at the grassroot level but have helped give undue privileges to the “creamy layer”) or upper caste Hindu votes in favour of the BJP, which in my opinion, committed contempt of court (no, it’s not something that happens only within the courtroom) by declaring to build the Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya when the matter was (as it still is) lying sub judice with the Supreme Court after appeals were filed against the Allahabad High Court verdict. One sees hope when Rahul Gandhi gets arrested in Bhatta Parsaul claiming to be fighting for farmers (the same was done by Gadkari as well) but still fails to get his party candidate to win a seat from there, showing that the politics of arrest will not work.

The NDA had put its entire premium on economic growth, but not given adequate thrust to distribution of resources. Investments pumped into the country and we saw fabulous highways, which is indeed laudable, but farmers were committing suicide finding it difficult to pay off their loans (we saw a repeat of suicides by farmers in the present regime as well). Also, the inhuman carnage in Gujarat in 2002 tarnished the image of the BJP in the eyes of many, particularly after the supposedly relatively moderate Vajpayee made anti-Muslim remarks in Goa in the same period. The NDA defeat has made it clear that Hindutva politics won’t work, nor would only a design of economic growth without striving for distribution. The approach in dealing with foreign policy and secessionist movements is also a part of the bigger equation, and in that connection, attention would have to be drawn to the fact that UPA-I had come very close to resolving the Kashmir issue with the Pakistanis before 26/11 and under this very UPA regime, we are seeing a change of attitude in the Kashmiris themselves, the most recent symptom- there being no takers for the Hurriyat protest at Lal Chowk in Srinagar recently (this, however, should not mislead us into thinking that Kashmiri Muslims, by and large, have become very patriotic Indians but it’s just that they now want to move on and are happy about the recent economic boost by way of relative normalcy and tourism; the UPA has taken the pragmatic approach of declaring the demilitarization of Kashmir and the abrogation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act as its objectives neither of which were possible under the NDA).

Looking at the failure of the NDA in terms of taking steps in the sphere of distribution of economic resources, the UPA decided that it would try to redress grievances by introducing legislations and welfare schemes. So, we had the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) guaranteeing hundred days of work to every rural household, the Forest Rights Act giving tribals and forest-dwellers the traditional rights over forest land and forest produce they had been deprived of for decades together since independence (shamefully, our British colonial masters and in Goa, our Portuguese colonial masters had done a better job at this till before the passing of this very landmark statute) and the Right to Education Act which follows from a constitutional amendment making free and compulsory education for every child from the ages of six to fourteen a fundamental right i.e. one which can be enforced in a court of law. At the instance of the civil society, and with much reluctance from the government, we also saw the revolutionary Right to Information (RTI) Act, which needs no further elucidation. As an intern in the Central Information Commission, I’ve had first-hand experience of how this Act was doing wonders to help our people cut across all sections of our society, in no small measure thanks to honest and committed Commissioners implementing the same. The same civil society may also help us get a stronger law against corruption and has already helped to ensure that we will have a law prohibiting manual scavenging. We also have in the pipeline a legislation ensuring the right to food and another one regulating street vendors and yet another one to check communal violence.

There has also been an initiative of introducing a central legislation governing the National Midday Meal Scheme (I was a part of a research centre to which the government had allotted the task of preparing a draft of the same), which helps meet nutritional needs and also incentivize education, and doing away with the provisions in the Land Acquisition Act allowing the government to acquire land of private individuals (say, farmers) for private companies and the private companies would have to negotiate directly with the farmers and buy their land at a rate acceptable to them if they are willing to sell them off. While these legislations/proposed legislations address concerns that were very much relevant even during the NDA tenure, such as Naxalism owing to deprivation of tribal rights, a lack of fulfillment of the Directive Principle in the constitution making education a fundamental right or mass rural unemployment or even the issue of hunger (which can perhaps in the short term be addressed simply addressed by preventing food grains from rotting in godowns than a legislation making access to food a right per se), that coalition didn’t do enough to address these issues and was busy selling a story of an economic growth rate which was actually rather unbalanced and about India becoming a nuclear power, the credit for which entirely goes to our scientists, with our earliest nuclear tests having been conducted during Indira Gandhi’s tenure. If capitalism was the mantra of the NDA, they should have introduced liberalization even for street vendors and rickshaw-pullers who are harassed owing to the license-permit raj, too, and this holds good for the UPA government as well. The poor cannot benefit from liberalization because it hasn’t been introduced at their level, and this school of thought needs to replace the outmoded leftist idea that liberalization is perennially the real enemy of inclusive economic development, but the usual economic right-wingers seldom talk of liberalization at the level of the poor and exhibit what leftists justifiably call the bourgeoisie mentality.

We are witnessing today an economic slump in terms of a declining growth rate and whether this is primarily a product of a larger global phenomenon or mainly owing to our own economic policies may be a matter of debate. Yet, what is necessary to note is that we have never seen such an important phase in our legislative history since the last few decades. These laws/proposed laws may have many defects, which have been topics of debate. Does the NREGA do more harm than good by ruining urban labour markets and is the provision mandating the stoppage of a flow of funds to an area in case of corruption punishing the victims rather than perpetrators appropriate? Does the Right to Education Act adopt a correct approach by demanding so many recognition norms that would compel many low budget private schools, which many poor parents still prefer over government schools with no fees and a midday meal owing to the superior quality of the former, to shut down? Does the Forest Rights Act do justice to tribals and forest-dwellers by fixing a hectare limit for them within forest zones rather than only prohibiting their access to critical wildlife habitats? Does the Communal Violence Bill, by defining communal violence as violence only against the religious minorities in a certain state, make any sense?

Each of these questions deserves an answer from the votaries of these legislations or proposed legislations, and I, for one, find each of these questions legitimate, which is why I say that the UPA is heading in the right direction but employing a wrong route, except the aspect about the NREGA ruining urban labour markets, for development of rural infrastructure as public goods eliciting the cooperation of private individuals, and preventing an excessive push movement from the villages, is only desirable in my opinion. But, at least, for the first time, we are seeing debates crop up on real issues, though it is unfortunate that even the majority of our educated elite who claim to be very concerned for the country are hardly aware of or bother about any of these questions. This is true in the executive sphere as well. Fortunately, our civil society has helped ensure the availability of drinking water in Government schools across the entire country. To talk of the issue of the lack of food security in the coming decades, should we allow genetically modified food crops in India with a huge debate as to their impact on human health and environment (with different scientists in India itself and abroad giving differing views with those supporting GM crops allegedly being financed by GM companies and those opposing them allegedly financed by fertilizer companies), besides the complexities of intellectual property regulation and the possibility of large multinational companies having a monopoly over our food security (or can we overcome these by coming up with proper legislations and strengthening our own R&D in agriculture)? These debates on legislative and executive issues deserve more attention in our media so that our voters are enlightened enough to have rigorous defining policy opinions and if these become the basis of elections, what more can be asked for?

Yes, how these legislative and executive measures are implemented also deserves attention, and this is particularly important in the context of the NREGA, the implementation of which has been rather poor in many areas such as parts of West Bengal and Rajasthan (my mother visited a village in Rajasthan where those supposedly availing of the scheme signed ‘in and ‘out’ in the registers doing no work, collecting some money from the middle-men and actually working as employees of bigger farmers), though its relatively much better implementation in other areas including parts of UP has done a lot of good to the rural poor in those regions, which means a lot more to the poor than a decline in the GDP growth rate caused partially as a result of the damage inflicted on the urban labour market by this very scheme. As the noted Indian journalist Manu Joseph has written with reference to the NREGA in a column in the New York Times —

“A government program that guarantees employment in public works projects to every rural adult has transformed families. But entrepreneurs, especially small manufacturers, say the program has made the labor force expensive and unpredictable, because the workers are no longer desperate to hold on to their private-sector jobs.”

In the same column, he writes that the government “does not want to infuriate what might be termed the Greeks among the Indians – the rural voters. Unlike the actual Greeks, whose fiscal ways have exasperated some of their European Union partners, they cannot be kicked out of the union. In a way, they are the union.”

Moving on, I would say that the funds given to MPs and MLAs for constituency development should be scrapped, as working for the local issues of the constituency should concern the panchayat or municipality and MPs and MLAs should be busy delving into what our laws and policies should entail and how they should be implemented.

There is a lot that the UPA can pride itself in, but fails to highlight. Veerappa Moily as the Law Minister had chalked out a brilliant roadmap for reducing the backlog of cases, and some of his suggestions have even been incorporated by the Delhi High Court, such as putting many pending cases on fast track (though unfortunately, his seemingly more sophisticated successor from the same party, Salman Khurshid, is busy demanding a quota for Muslims in education and employment, implying that they should get preference over more competent Hindus deepening the communal divide, but is not so bothered about legal reforms). We now have educational institutions training our youth in entrepreneurial skills and even giving them soft loans to start their ventures. And yes, the UPA has not put a halt to developing a good transport network, which was initiated by the NDA. Besides, it has done a good job of cleansing history textbooks of anti-Muslim prejudices that the BJP had introduced to further its own political agenda (but surprisingly, the very same Arjun Singh who took this step as HRD Minister tried to subtly impose Vande Mataram on Muslims and Christians, generating an unhealthy and unwarranted controversy), though these saffronized textbooks introduced by the BJP come nowhere in comparison in terms of bias and distortion to history textbooks in Pakistan that have been use since the Zia-ul-Haq regime, but the Pakistanis are certainly not our role models! In any case, two wrongs never make a right and Indian Muslims aren’t responsible for the content of history textbooks in Pakistan, and in the spirit of objectivity, it is important to note that even in Pakistan, the textbooks weren’t so biased before the Zia regime and there is no dearth even today of liberal Pakistani Muslims demanding changes in the textbooks.

Coming back to our Indian political scenario, if the UPA has not taken the initiative to make public policy the focal point or premise of political debate in spite of taking some laudable steps which it is failing to cash on by doing so, the agitation led by Team Anna for a stronger Lokpal has at least generated a debate on whether we need a stronger law to deal with corruption, though the BJP back-stabbed Team Anna by first shouting from its rooftop assertions of solidarity and then at the last moment, refusing to make Lokayuktas constitutional bodies, stating the same to be a threat to our federal structure deliberately misinterpreting Article 253 of our constitution. Triggered by a series of scams exposed in recent years (corruption is certainly not being a Congress monopoly with Kodas and Kushwahas hanging around in our political circles, not to forget the expose by the Tehelka hidden camera of former BJP president taking a bribe compromising on national security), the issue of what an anti-corruption legislation should entail became mainstream, though I do concede that a vast majority were only swept away by emotional appeals. However, if one is to go by what noted columnist Swaminathan Iyer has to say, the agitation has had a serious impact. To quote him — “The supposed economic liberalization of the last two decades freed only a few sectors. In other sectors, controls galore continue. Businessmen say it has steadily become impossible to do business honestly in many sectors. But it has been possible to do business with pay-offs. That, say businessmen, has constituted an unwritten ‘social contract’ between politics and business.

But no more. Public anger at corruption has exploded, upsetting old equations. The comptroller and auditor general has become a public hero. Anna Hazare’s stature as an anti-corruption crusader may have been diminished, but the anger he once represented remains great. The DMK spent unprecedented sums in the Tamil Nadu state election but was decimated because of its association with the 2G scam.

Suddenly politicians are running scared. In New Delhi, no minister wants to take the responsibility for a decision, and forwards every proposal to an empowered Group of Ministers (a Cabinet committee). Even honest ministers fear accusations will bring them down. Instead of demanding money for favorable decisions, crooked ministers would rather take no decision at all.

This has killed the old social contract. Earlier, you could not do business honestly, but could do it dishonestly. Now you cannot even do it dishonestly. Industrial growth in a miracle economy should be in double digits. But in 2011-12, it fell to an annual rate of 3.4%, and in the last quarter was a wretched 1.7%. Manufacturing actually fell 0.3% in the last quarter, against growth of 7.3% in the first quarter.

This cannot be blamed just on Eurozone woes or a slowing global economy. Nor it can be blamed just on high inflation, fiscal deficits and interest rates – all three were high in 2009-10 and 2010-11, which were boom years. One new factor has been the uproar over corruption. The uproar has not ended corruption. But it has ended the social contract.

While this has led to an industrial slowdown, it is nevertheless a welcome development. We can hope for a substantial reduction of corruption and crony capitalism. This will benefit the economy as well as honest businessmen at the expense of crooks.”

Thus, we see that if if debates around laws and executive actions become the basis of our looking at our polity rather than feel-good factors we derive from certain politicians based on their charisma or caste or communal identities or even blind biases for a certain political party, then Indian democracy will surely, to a great extent, live up to the expectations of the founding fathers of the Indian constitution and all those who fought for our independence.

The author is a freelance writer based in New Delhi and has co-authored two short books, namely ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: A Socio-Legal Perspective’. He is currently working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society, a reputed Delhi-based public policy think-tank. The views expressed in this particular article are entirely personal.