If there is one feature that unites regimes based on right-wing ideology across the world, it is their relentless and near-daily focus on emotive issues like nationalism, religious identity, terrorism, national security, and so on. While the effect of this in terms of heightened hate and violence against “anti-national” minorities is by now well-documented, what is less commented upon is how this discourse of nationalism and national security catastrophically pushes under the carpet the most vital issues of development: health, education and the environment.
The 2019 general elections were the most apt illustration of this. According to the ruling party, Pulwama, Balakot and Pakistan (and not unemployment, farmers’ distress, or economic slowdown) were to be the election priorities of the world’s largest democracy, and its supporters and large sections of the media duly propagated the same.
Contrast this with the federal elections in Australia and Canada in 2019. According to a survey of 1.4 million voters in each country, the top election issue was climate change, and the second was the economy. The other top issues were inequality, pensions, health care, taxes and employment. Immigration, which could be a potentially divisive issue, and a hot topic for the far right in both the nations, was not in the top five.
Even after the Lok Sabha elections, the discourse on national security has only hardened with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Kashmir (note: not the plight of Kashmiris), Article 370, and Pakistan (still) dominating the news space. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s campaign in Haryana, a State with among the highest unemployment rates in the country, and Maharashtra, a State that is facing severe farmers’ distress, was on issues like Kashmir and Bharat Ratna for Savarkar?
The Pakistan obsession
An analysis done by political satirist Ramit Verma showed that of the 202 popular prime-time news debates across four major Hindi channels till October 19, at least 79 were about attacking Pakistan; 66 about attacking the Opposition; 36 about praising the Prime Minister and the ruling party; and 14 about Ram Mandir. There was not a single debate on economy, unemployment, education, health, gender, farmers or the environment. This is simply staggering by any measure.
Therefore, unsurprisingly, the annual Global Hunger Index (GHI) reports come and go without any debate or outrage. But for a ruling establishment obsessed with Pakistan, the latest report should have rung the bells. If in 2015, India was ranked 80th (out of 104 countries) and well ahead of Pakistan, every year since then, the gap has closed, with Pakistan finally overtaking India in 2019, and being eight ranks ahead.
The costs of obsessing with and competing with Pakistan, an economy eight-and-half times smaller than India, are also that you begin to mimic its politics and Human Development Indicators. The GHI 2019 notes that India’s child wasting rate is at 20.8%, “the highest wasting rate of any country” for which data is available. Its child stunting rate, at 37.9%, is also categorised as “very high”. The government, rather than taking up these issues on a war footing, dismissed the GHI as an inadequate representation of India’s data in 2017. True, hunger, and its manifold dimensions, are not a creation of the present regime. But the brazen and wilful negation, or deflection of human development issues by national security is its unique contribution. The contrast within the neighbouring nations is itself telling. The GHI report talks about the “significant advances” in nutrition and “remarkable reduction” in child stunting made by Bangladesh and Nepal. Unsurprisingly, they are 14 and 29 ranks ahead of India respectively.
Misplaced emphasis on terror
But the national security paradigm will persist, with prime-time television news almost every day warning us of the impending setting up of base by the Islamic State in India. This is not atypical — the U.S. under President Donald Trump is a classic example of scaremongering and blanket travel bans on entire (Muslim) nations to eliminate terror threats.
Such vastly disproportionate response to terrorism has been exposed by research as misplaced. Between 1970 and 2007, the chances of being killed by a terrorist in the U.S. were 1 in 3.5 million (that is including on 9/11). During the 2008-2015 period, the risk of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist on U.S. soil was one in 104 million. Compare this with the chances of dying from choking on food: 1 in 4,404, or in a car accident, 1 in 272.
Against the conventional wisdom that it is because of the huge amount of resources spent on counterterrorism that the risk is so minimal, scholars John Mueller and Mark Stewart argued earlier in this decade that cumbersome security protocols in airports had led to more people travelling by road, leading to around 500 extra road fatalities every year. They also contended that if the money spent on saving people from terrorism attacks had been diverted to countering other dangers with extremely high risks, that could have “saved 1,000 times more lives.”
Despite the severe challenges that India faces in terms of terrorism, the numbers have to be similarly seen with perspective. In 2018, terrorism/militancy killed 400 civilians and security personnel. Compare this to the fact that 1,02,677 children (under five) died from easily preventable diarrhoeal diseases in 2017, or that 8,75,659 children (under five) were killed by communicable, neonatal and nutritional diseases. Or consider that while the number of terrorism/militancy-related deaths have come down substantially to around 500 from 2011 onwards, the burden of deaths from diseases like cardiovascular ones has drastically increased from about 13 lakh in 1990 to 26.32 lakh in 2017.
An IndiaSpend report based on a global study showed that Indians work for just six-and-a-half years at peak productivity. This compared poorly to the corresponding figures for the Chinese and the Brazilians — 20 hours and 16 hours. The report also said that India has the unhealthiest work force in South Asia, and its human capital rank was 158th out of 195 countries (with only a marginal improvement from 162 in 1990). India’s public spending on health and education has been abysmal (despite superficial programmes with meagre actual funding ke Ayushman Bharat and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao), the prime cause for its poor human capital. While the national security paradigm will talk about economics in terms of GDP or ease of doing business, it curiously refuses to see the link between human capital and economic productivity.
The current dystopian visions emanating from New Delhi’s unprecedented climate emergency are the singular example of the apathy fostered, ironically, by the ruling party’s brute, hyper-nationalist parliamentary majority. This is when latest studies indicate that life expectancy in North India will likely reduce by seven years because of air pollution. Even if prime-time nationalist television is forced to come out of its perpetual “state of high alert” on terror and acknowledge “mundane” issues like air pollution, it will be back to normal soon.
Human development and ecology have always been given the short shrift in India. But what has changed under the nationalist conjuncture is that these issues are not even talked about. A nation that is in a state of suspended animation looking out for both external and internal enemies cannot afford to talk about the state of its citizens.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada