By Gyanendra Pandey New Delhi
Through the President’s address to Parliament on June 9, 2014, the newly elected Indian Government has officially outlined its short and longer-term agenda. The emphasis, as expected, is on faster economic growth. Questions of welfare and security for the poor and disadvantaged are, however, very superficially addressed. This has to be cause for concern if sabka saath, sabka vikas is indeed the aim of the Government’s programme: All the more so, given the brutal violence the country continues to witness against women, religious minorities, and the lowest castes and classes.
The central slogan of the programme is ‘Development through good governance’. Development is an old idea, prescribed in the period after World War II by a triumphant capitalist, imperialist West for the colonised and ex-colonised nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America. A different orthodoxy arose a few decades later, in the form of a strategy of economic liberalisation, encouragement of private investment, trickle-down theories of growth and technocratic solutions for social problems. This turn, too, was initiated in the West, most stridently by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It was adopted wholesale in the early 1990s, by a Congress government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao. And it has been followed by every Indian government since.
A BJP campaign hoarding ahead of the Lok Sabha elections
The BJP Government is set to continue these neo-liberal policies. The difference is that it describes the economic results- the spurt in investments and profits at the top, the growth of a large new consumerist middle class, mass disempowerment, and increasing disparities in wealth and income, security and welfare- as ‘development’.
The other vital term in the Government’s official agenda is ‘governance’. What this means is not so obvious. But any careful reading of the President’s speech, and of earlier statements and documents put out by the leaders of BJP, makes clear that it refers primarily to better coordination between different arms of Government and greater bureaucratic efficiency and speed, both to be realised through new technology as much as anything else. So we now have a promise of: ‘governance’, ‘e-governance’, a ‘Digital India’, a national e-library, a ‘national mission “e-Bhasha” that will develop digital vernacular content and disseminate our classic literature in different languages’, and ‘a National Multiskill Mission (to develop a) Skilled India’. In short, what human endeavour and political struggle have failed to deliver, science and technology are now going to do.
The BJP Government, like other governments across the world that feel they may need the people’s votes again at some point, declares it is dedicated to the poor. Two-thirds of India’s population still lives in rural areas, as the President’s speech notes, and vast numbers remain exceedingly poor. The rash of farmers’ suicides across the country over the last two decades is one indication of this. That half the population still defecates in the open is another. The Government therefore dutifully promises ‘poverty elimination’: a pucca (brick-built) house with water connection, toilet facilities, 24×7 electricity supply for every family, and accessible roads to every hamlet and village in the country.
Yet, it is hard to imagine what the tens of millions of India’s poor, who do not speak English or the language of ‘Hinglish’ television, will make of the Government’s baffling proposals: ‘5T’s: Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology;’ ‘3 Ds: Democracy, Demography and Demand’ (where the second and third terms refer, it seems, to nothing but the needs of consumer capitalism); ‘Rurban’ development; and ‘Micro-irrigation to ensure ‘per drop-more crop’.
To return to a basic point, what the new Government is retailing are exactly the same policies as those of its predecessor, and of every other government since the early 1990s. It is doing so only with a brasher, more decisive voice- which is what the Indian electorate, or large sections of it, seems to have liked-and the use of buzzwords popularised by Western governments and media as the antidote to our current social, economic and political ills.
Development, let me repeat, was a buzzword even in the 1950s and ’60s, especially designed by the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries of North America and western Europe to describe the needs of the ‘backward’ countries of the so-called Third World, although it was adopted by governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America primarily with a view to stave off colonial and neo-colonial pressures. This is something that recent Indian governments, including the present one, seem to be far less concerned with-the shriller nationalist rhetoric notwithstanding.
Now, at the inauguration of a widely heralded new regime . . . we’re being treated to a new buzzword of ‘governance’, borrowed this time from right-wing offerings of the American and European establishment and media. The slogan is accompanied by some notion of an abstract ‘science’ and, more emphatically, ‘technology’ that apparently requires little by way of human intervention to work its miracles.
The Modi Government’s declared mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ is a central tenet of neo-liberal regimes throughout the world. Let us note that the drive for ‘minimum government’ in these regimes is above all else a drive for ‘minimum taxation of the rich’. It has led, in the USA, UK and elsewhere, to the gradual removal of all kinds of welfare policies and support systems- reasonable housing and schooling, public hospitals, affordable public transport, unemployment security- that enabled a half-way decent life for the poor and the aged, the disinherited aand the disabled.
BJP’s additional, nationalist twist, declaring that India’s development will be in conformity with ‘the core values of our great civilisation’, only serves to make the proposition more treacherous. For, the statement suggests that these core values are somehow uniform, uncontested, unchanging, and easily catalogued by a small body of (Hindu right-wing) ‘experts’.
Brashness and arrogance of this kind leaves little room for debate or disagreement, the willingness to listen to different points of view and to arrive at solutions serving the interests of diverse groups in a society. That brasher voice- ‘the core values of our great civilisation’, the ‘truth’ of our religion, the ‘hurt’ of the majority-led to damaging consequences in Gujarat, seen not only in the severe loss of life and property in 2002, but in the arrogance and impunity that attended the actions of the Hindu majority, and the atmosphere of fear and insecurity in which the minorities and the poor have had to live since.
Given some of the policies being advocated now, there is a real danger that the tendencies of Gujarat could be more widely replicated, even if not always in the same brutal manner. In Jammu & Kashmir and the North-east, for example, BJP has been far too quick to take sides against religious minorities (both Muslim and Christian) and to question the importance of constitutional guarantees such as Article 370, part of the original agreement that allowed Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to the Indian federation. A different kind of fallout has already been felt in other parts of the country in increased hooliganism and assaults on freedom of expression, on the ground of preserving ‘the core values of our civilisation’.
There have been legal challenges to academic publications and physical attacks on artistic exhibitions that allegedly denigrate Hindu sensibilities, threats against leading public figures and intellectuals who criticised Prime Minister Modi in the course of the election campaign (what are election campaigns for, if they do not include a free and open discussion of the merits and foibles of different policies and politicians?), and increased targeting of sexual minorities and their practices-again declared to be anti-national imports from the West. To say nothing about the continued rape and, recently, lynching of lowercaste girls and women accused of transgressing established social norms.
Talk of democracy and development will remain meaningless until the justice and dignity that Dr B.R. Ambedkar described as the essence of democracy begin to be made available to the poor; until women and lower castes and religious minorities are provided security against sexual and communal violence, poverty and disease; and until India’s ruling groups develop some respect for the ‘masses’. Such respect needs to be displayed in continuous, painstaking work and persevering effort on the ground, more than in the propaganda that the electors get in such huge doses every time they are called on to exercise their vote in provincial or national elections.
Given the absolute majority it has won in Parliament, the BJP Government can surely be bolder and more inclusive in its aims than it is in the agenda it has outlined. In that context, here is a more condensed, six-point agenda that the Government could consider:
Urbanise, but with caution Go ahead, if you must, with breakneck urbanisation, industrialisation and digitalisation-which have so signally failed to bring economic benefits or sense of community to the vast majority of people throughout the world, West or East. But do ensure that there is an attempt to balance the interests and concerns of different sections of the population (when it comes to the development of bauxite mining, huge dams, or gas pipelines, for instance, at the expense of poor people’s lands, habitations and communities).’ 100 world class cities’ (point 32 in the Government’s agenda) is also a prescription for a thousand ‘world class’ slums, unless the interests-and representatives-of the labouring poor, the poorly employed and the unemployed are made central to the discussion and planning from the beginning.
Ring in rural change with land reform Land reform, which does not appear anywhere in the 50-point programme of the government, is a long forgotten but critical element of any project to end feudal power and feudal behaviour-towards the poor, towards lower castes, and towards women. Note that at times of social or political conflict in the villages, one of the first manifestations of so-called social boycott by landowning castes is to prevent lower castes and classes from defecating in ‘their’ fields. It is good to hear the BJP leadership speaking of ‘toilets, not temples’. But the provision of houses and toilets and employment to all of the poor and marginalised is not possible without meaningful land reform and a fairer distribution of local economic resources.
Institute universal and free education As another part of the project to end feudal power and oppression, and move towards a more modern, democratic and prosperous India, there is need for a renewed campaign of universal education, free at the primary and secondary levels, with special safeguards and support for women, sexual minorities, religious minorities, and the lower castes and classes. This entails the maintenance and development of traditional schools, libraries, and a free press (academic and journalistic), as well as digital resources, to promote a culture of learning, criticism, experiment and innovation. It also requires a distancing from the all too easy and premature claims about the denigration of ‘our’ national culture and heritage, the most eloquent expression of which over the centuries has been found precisely in its plurality and recognition of human fallibility. It would help greatly if Muslims were recognised as a minority, and-given the poverty and deprivation in which the majority of Muslims live-if reservations were extended to them.
Zero tolerance for violence As another measure to prevent the reassertion of feudal and patriarchal authority, and protect sexual and religious minorities, the Government needs to act on the legislative front. ‘Zero tolerance for violence against women’ is an important and welcome statement. But it needs to be followed up quickly with comprehensive laws, and strict directives on implementation.
These laws should incorporate in full the recommendations of the committee headed by Justice Verma, which identified an important spectrum of women’s rights and sexuality rights. A ‘development’ regime in the 21st century must recognise marital rape as rape. It needs to speak out against the Delhi High Court’s overturning of an earlier interpretation of Article 377, regarding the freedom of choice and expression by sexual minorities, and even more strongly against the homophobic comments made by several senior religious and political leaders associated with BJP. And it needs to amend security laws in what are called ‘conflict’ zones, to enable prosecution of armed forces personnel for rape and other acts of violence against the civilian population in these regions.
End border conflicts It is time to put an end to the pointless arms race and border conflict with Pakistan (and with China, though the latter may seem more peripheral, and may take longer). An end to these conflicts and the selfserving politics that has perpetuated them would immediately save precious national resources, promote regional trade and people-to-people understanding, and help bring about more acceptable political arrangements for the long-suffering people of Jammu & Kashmir, as well as other border regions.
Protect the environment Finally, the Government must move urgently to protect the environment, through stricter control of industrial production and waste, and raising public awareness of the catastrophe we have brought upon ourselves. A once-renowned Garden City is now commonly described as Garbage City. Plastic waste is poisoning the remaining open spaces-along rivers, railways, through slums and in forests. Air pollution is said to be responsible for over half a million deaths a year in India, not to mention indirect and long-term costs. In the end, we still have to ask if such unfettered ‘development’ and unadulterated profit-seeking is good for any one.
Gyanendra Pandey is the author, most recently of A History of Prejudice: Race, Caste and Difference in India and the United States.
Reprinted with author’s permission
Mirrored from India Today
Related video added by Juan Cole