The return of paternalism

The steps taken towards social democracy are being reversed. What we have now are social insurance policies from above. This subverts the entire project of giving voice to the voiceless. India has paid a heavy price for failing to institutionalise social democracy

March 12, 2016 01:54 am | Updated December 05, 2021 09:07 am IST

"The agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not been precisely distinguished by concern for the poor."

"The agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not been precisely distinguished by concern for the poor."

It is generally agreed that theories of >social democracy , in comparison to theories of formal political democracy, take cognisance of background inequalities that hamper the realisation of basic rights, prioritise neutralisation of social infirmities through redistributive justice, and concentrate on the recovery of dignity which is the due of human beings. The ultimate objective is to ensure that each citizen participates in the multiple transactions of society with confidence, and with the assurance that her ‘voice’ carries as much weight as her neighbour’s. That is, the transition from subject to agent can only be achieved if people are liberated from debilitating poverty and grinding illiteracy, malnutrition, hunger and homelessness. This is the essential precondition of citizen participation in democratic life. Once upon a time the leaders of India’s freedom struggle had some vision of what democracy was supposed to achieve: freedom, equality, dignity and justice. Over time political imaginations have withered, millions eke out a wretched and cheerless life, and our leaders focus on manufactured non-issues, such as >anti-nationalism .

Neera Chandhoke

It wasn’t always so

Compare this lack of imagination to the prescience of the first generation leaders of the freedom struggle. In 1928, Pandit Motilal Nehru, the chairperson of a committee to draw up a draft constitution, observed, “We cannot believe that a future responsible government can ignore the claims of mass education, or the uplift of the submerged classes, or the social or economic reconstruction of village life in India.” Political power, he went on to remark, can be justified only by the institutionalisation of a comprehensive scheme of rights, including social and economic rights. The constitutional draft thereon incorporated a list of social rights in fundamental rights, for example the right to free elementary education. The draft obliged a future Parliament of independent India to enact laws for the maintenance of health and fitness of all citizens, secure a living wage, protect people against the economic consequences of old age, infirmity, and unemployment, ensure fair rent, and guarantee fixity and permanence of tenure for agricultural tenants.

The leadership had presciently gauged the pressing needs of Indian society in the early decades of the twentieth century. But when the time came to draft a Constitution it decided to drop social and economic entitlements, even though social and economic ill-being continued to wrack the lives of millions in 1947. In the Constituent Assembly rights that form the core of social democracy were demoted to the ‘Directive Principles of State Policy’.

Record in social policy It was only in 2001 that a number of civil society organisations mobilised and began to demand that some of the Directive Principles be upgraded to legally enforceable rights. Backed by a supportive Supreme Court, the new political agenda gained traction. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition under the leadership of the Congress Party initiated in Parliament legislation on a number of social rights. The slew of social legislation prompted many scholars to ask whether social democracy had finally found its way to the country. We were not in the middle of a social revolution; many of the rights fell short of civil society demands, and in other cases goods to which citizens had rights were not provided by the government. But at least political attention shifted to zones of ill-being, where lives of our own people are blighted by multiple deprivations.

Matters changed dramatically with the >2014 general election . The agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has not been precisely distinguished by concern for the poor. Politics is however unpredictable; and the party realised that it had underestimated the hold of entitlements on the popular psyche. Under attack by a parliamentary Opposition, and charged with being anti-poor, the government moved to repair its image as pro-rich. It declared the establishment of a social security regime and introduced some measures towards that end.

These schemes have aroused deep scepticism. For even as it encouraged the opening of bank accounts in order to benefit from insurance schemes, the government slashed expenditure on centrally sponsored social welfare schemes. Education, health, agriculture, livelihood security, food security, local self-government institutions, drinking water, and Scheduled Castes and Tribes sub-plans have been sorely affected by cutbacks in funds. According to the Central government, the onus falls upon the State governments who now receive an increased share of tax revenues. The record of State governments in social policy has, however, been uneven and untrustworthy.

A step backward More worryingly, the government dismisses the rights-based discourse in development emphasised by civil society activists during the time of UPA-I and -II. Now we see the enactment of some sort of social policy ‘from above’.

The approach that governed welfare legislation in post-Second World War Europe, particularly Scandinavia, recognised the significance of a rights-based approach, because it grants status to citizens. The belief that citizens had intrinsic and inalienable rights to social goods, and that these rights placed an obligation on governments to provide access to these goods, ruled out paternalistic states and charity. The BJP government has decided to adopt the vocabulary of social security as part of governance and inclusiveness, in consonance with the East Asian experience. The move is a step backward, not forward, because what has been subverted is the standing of citizens as people who matter, and who should matter. They have now been turned into consumers of goods mandated by a paternalistic state.

Notably, >social security schemes that the government proposes to implement demand investment not from a social democratic state, but from proposed beneficiaries. Contributory social insurance schemes are an accepted mode of welfare policies. The assumptions of this mode of policy are that (a) people need to be protected against unanticipated disasters, and (b) the existence of low to moderate poverty levels. These are hardly relevant to a country where over 300 million live in absolute poverty. The presumption that the poor should contribute to the betterment of their lives, or of that of their families after death, is both implausible and cynical. They have to be protected against the exigencies of daily life, and not only against unforeseen hazards or disasters. But it is precisely protection that is denied to the people of India by the present dispensation. Whatever remained of the social democratic imaginary has been firmly put to rest.

Above all, the present moment is marked by the marginalisation of civil society. The BJP government has neither any use for civil society activism, nor for the politics of dissent. This poses a problem for unlike Scandinavian countries, in India civil society activism filled in a gap created by the inability of trade unions to represent the interests of casual workers, poor peasants and landless labour. In the first decade of the 21st century, India generated a new model of social democracy, one propelled by civil society organisations.

Paying a price The efficacy of civil society activism, however, depends on freedom and space. Ultimately the precondition of a civil society that strives to shape political agendas is a democratic state that welcomes the shaping and reshaping, the expansion and the deepening of the social democratic project. But this government is unlikely to abandon its open dislike of civil society. And the space of civil society has shrunk dramatically since the BJP came to power. The party prefers to legislate security schemes ‘from above’ rather than consult civil society activists, so we have rights but we do not have any assurance of what the status of the bearer of rights is, or will be. What we have by way of a nod to the basic inclinations of social democracy are social insurance policies from above. This subverts the entire project of social democracy: that of giving voice to the voiceless, or of enabling the transition from subject to agent. India has paid a heavy price for failing to institutionalise social democracy.

(Neera Chandoke is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University.)

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