Political power is an invariable asset that accrues to the winner in democracy. A power that the people bestow upon a leader to help guide them under the aegis of an agreed upon rulebook such as the constitution. How responsibly the leader handles this power is a testament to where their convictions lie, whether in serving the broader interests of the people or in catering to the narrower concerns of a select few. In the Indian context, time and again, we have seen how successive politicians of different hues have squandered the responsible power that they were given in a democratic system that took birth under the visionary leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru and conceptualised in the Constitution by its architect Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar.
In a tryst with destiny, a widely disparate conglomerate of regions was broadly painted together as India. The guiding principles of equality, freedom and justice adopted by this new nation were structurally inimical to the thousands of years of caste-ridden Vedic ‘civilization’ that thrived on this land and survived the onslaught of a variety of forces. Hence, even after starting off with lofty ideals, the nation never quite got out of its feudal mould. Rights enshrined in the constitution remained just talking points while lives continued to get crushed under the time-tested juggernauts of caste hegemony and feudalism. Thus, with no sincere attempt at redistribution of wealth, India was never meant to be an egalitarian state and constitution was never meant to be really followed in its letter and spirit.
Nevertheless, some painfully slow progress did take place over the years. Much of this again paradoxically made possible only because of certain far-reaching investments made early on in the public sector and measures such as reservations that for the first time created a semblance of equality in the government job sector for hitherto unrepresented sections that were banished as the crud of Indian society. As these half-hearted measures implemented by mostly right-of-the-center governments dawdled on, the embrace of global capitalism by the duo of P.V.Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh threatened the very fabric of public welfare and eventually diminished the real impact of reservations in the ever-shrinking government sector.
The irreversible processes set in motion by the dubiously labelled ‘liberalisation’ only helped worsen the already deplorable wealth gap watering down whatever little Nehruvian socialism aimed to achieve courtesy the love for capitalism that reached a feverish pitch in the last decade regardless of the guard at the center. Amidst all this, a renewed emphasis on rights had taken shape in the United Progressive Alliance Rule between 2004-2014. For example, acts such as Right to Education, Food Security Act, Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Land Acquisition Act were steps in the right direction taken to counteract the unchecked power of neo-capitalist forces. Even though they were merely an eye-wash in the big picture, the intent to enshrine such legislations into the rule book showed their responsibility towards the masses.
Enamoured by the promise of acche din amidst the din of corruption created by the nebulous media and ‘civil’ society and aided by the spineless Congress leadership that lacked the conviction, blatantly majoritarian Narendra Modi rode to power in 2014. With the decisive strength that his dispensation obtained in Lok Sabha in 2014 with 31% vote-share, a paradigm shift has taken place in governance.
Focus has shifted completely from a rights-based governance to a dictatorial regime. Key elements of the Land Acquisition Act were tinkered with rendering the steam out of it. The Prime Minister himself had gone on record on the floor of the Parliament terming the rural employment guarantee scheme a living monument of failure of the previous regime. Food security was thrown to the wind while hoarding essential commodities such as pulses went unchecked. Food choices of marginalised communities were made emotive issues as the government remained a mute spectator to street terror unleashed on vulnerable Dalits and Muslims be it in Dadri or Una or Amalapuram.
University students were driven to death for standing up for their fellow oppressed sections while some others were charged with sedition for raising their voices against oppression. Tribals agitating for their forest rights ruthlessly shut down with no recourse to justice. Any dissent quelled with vitriol spewed not only by the government but by the loyal sheep in the public that seem to be unaware of where their shepherd is leading them. A rights-based governance seems a Utopian dream in this era where public display of a certain form of Patriotism has been decreed mandatory by the immensely clever judiciary of the land. Nationalism seems to be defined by a narrow love for the aggressive military measures endorsed by the ruling forces and not by the love for people that make up the geographic breadth of the land.
Perhaps the culmination of this utterly fascist style of governance came last month in the form of demonetisation i.e. dehumanisation of the financial freedom of millions of working classes. The abrupt handing down of a ‘fatwa’ rendering 86% of circulating cash value-less overnight smacks of the very definition of authoritarianism. Hiding behind the seemingly noble intentions of rooting out ill-gotten wealth, the move only did quite the opposite – it ensured that the poor and needy suffered the most while the rich and resourceful remained unperturbed. As reports now indicate that almost all of the circulating demonetized ₹1000 and ₹500 made it back to the banks, the PM himself has to answer how he intends to bring to book the fat hoarders of loads and loads of physical cash that he and his bhakt brigade think exist.
While the country continues to fail to safeguard the lives and aspirations of the most vulnerable with more than a hundred people dead already as a direct result of demonetisation, the leader of the nation seems too anxious to ask “can’t you do this much for the country?” He seems to be thinking he can pull off a JFK “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But alas, millions of our fellow citizens live, work and die for this country already while their country is unable to promise them dignity of work, security of life and now even their right to spend their money as they wish.
In continuation of this dictatorial trend, the government now wants to enforce a cashless economy. Even the prototype capitalist country such as USA does not enforce a cashless economy, rather cash is always an accepted mode of payment. The very idea that a cashless economy is somehow a panacea to all ills is inherently faulty. Such an assumption comes from an utter disregard to street vendors, small-scale businesses, labourers and scores of other people that form the bulk of the working classes. In one stroke, the globe-trotting PM wants to decimate these lives and transfer their business to glitzy shops and malls owned by MNCs that gleefully accept cashless payments.
If and when the electorate gets their next chance, assuming a full-scale fascist crackdown on the body polity of India is not forthcoming, they will do a lot good to themselves by recognising the need for a rights-based governance. If the bloody history of this land is any example, rights have to be fought for, they will never be handed down. Until then, we will remain “reduced to our immediate identity, to a thing, a number, a vote”.