Reclaiming India for democracy

The BJP’s victory in the Lok Sabha election of 2014 was the result of a strategy that concentrated single-mindedly on building up Narendra Modi as a national leader who could salvage India from what the media projected as the mess created by the Congress Party during the previous three or four years. That regime was marred by corruption scandals and a pervasive sense that Manmohan Singh had failed to rein in corrupt ministers and allies. Modi, by contrast, hero of hardline ‘Hindu’ extremists, man with a vision for India’s ‘development’ (and so on), could be packaged and sold to the Indian electorate in all of those multiple guises. And that is exactly what they did, sell Mr. Modi to India, calling on vast resources to fight a campaign made up by a blitzkrieg of mammoth election rallies, huge sums paid to the media for coverage, publicity and news, the strong and visible backing of the country’s best known industrial leaders, and massive grassroots mobilisation by RSS cadre. The message was simple: Congress was corrupt and couldn’t be trusted; in fact, Congress had misruled India for the past sixty-plus years.

Jairus Banaji

If the early nineties were one watershed, one that led eventually to the ‘aspirational’ narrative constructed by the right wing in 2014, Gujarat 2002 was the other one and altogether more sinister. The violence in Gujarat was concentrated ‘in districts or constituencies where the BJP faced the greatest electoral competition’, showing how shockingly calculated the use of mass, communal, violence could become.

A bloc between classes On one internal estimate a third of Mr. Modi’s vote share in the Lok Sabha election of 2014 came from RSS supporters. ‘Out of roughly 31 per cent vote share of BJP, 10 per cent are hardcore RSS supporters’, said K.N. Govindacharya in an interview given to CatchNews in June this year. But if true, this also shows that support was more widely spread than the traditional bastions of Hindutva supporters. Narendra Modi rode the wave of revulsion against what voters were persuaded to believe was a manifestly corrupt and failing government on the back of a social bloc drawn from very different classes of Indian society. Large-scale industrial capital was an early and strong pro-Modi constituency, since it saw in him an extreme and authoritarian version of neo-liberalism. Big business wanted him to scrap the rural resistance to industrial expansion and resolve the squeeze on resources by cutting subsidies to the poor. No less enthused was a sprawling middle class moulded by the consumerism of the nineties. Their nationalism, both strident and vacuous, lay in a different galaxy from the great vision of a struggling India depicted in Rossellini’s documentary of 1959 Matri Bhumi. The post-’90s middle class lacked solidarity with the vast mass of its own people. Just as crucially, it had grown up with a deference to all forms of authority and was easy prey to media manipulation. Also enlisted in Mr. Modi’s ‘bloc’ was the vast army of deracinated jobless youth in villages, towns and cities who looked on the new superman as some messiah of employment, convinced there really was something like a ‘Gujarat model’ that would generate millions of jobs. All of these diverse ‘interests’ melded in the redemptive figure created by the TV anchors of a national hero who had moved beyond the circles of Gujarati chauvinism and beyond his ‘tainted’ past to achieve national stature and perform miracles on a much bigger stage.

End of the wave Of course, the miracles haven’t transpired. There is a growing sense that the centralisation of power in the hands of ‘one man’ and a sheer lack of competence at the level of the PMO have triggered a breakdown in the normal routines of government and caused disaffection in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Political interference in the Reserve Bank’s jealously guarded autonomy even led the Bank’s employees to go on mass leave. PM Modi is beginning to face a crisis of credibility in terms of his much vaunted ability to deliver on either investments or jobs. Manufacturing remains sluggish, there have been no major inflows of foreign capital despite innumerable jaunts to attract investment. The government’s defeat on (its own more aggressively pro-business version of) the Land Acquisition bill has been a major blow to his image in business circles and to his earlier assurances to big industrial groups. Frayed by the looming sense of non-performance, the government’s despair has started to show as even international credit-rating agencies can be lambasted for being ‘anti-national’ because they warn government to stem the growing culture of violence.

Spurred by a lack of capital accumulation and massive resource deficit, the finance minister targets the most vulnerable sections: the budget has slashed expenditures on health, education and welfare schemes for women and children, the employment guarantees under NREGA are being sabotaged by withholding wages, and empowerment schemes for women are slated for termination. Inflation is rampant in essential commodities, including major protein sources for the mass of the population. Energy prices have soared in cities like Bombay. The banks are struggling with a gargantuan backwash of bad loans. And crude prices have come down by over 50 per cent, but none of that has been or will be passed on to the public in social sector spending.

A programme of mass welfare PM Modi’s defeat in Bihar reflected a confluence of all these factors, apart from any conscious rejection of hate politics. It was a master stroke for Nitish Kumar to appropriate the slogan of ‘development’ and abruptly terminate the BJP’s rhetorical monopoly over it. But if the Bihar result is going to be translatable into the return of a genuinely democratic, more strongly secular regime at the Centre in 2019, not only will a coalition have to be built in conditions fraught with traditional rivalries between the potential allies of such a coalition, but a unified Opposition will absolutely have to reach out to the electorate with a programme that boldly commits itself to sweeping reforms like universal health care and breaks decisively with the stagnation of real wages that has characterised the past two decades.

In U.P. where the main contenders may well be the BJP and BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), the realignment has to comprise a broad pro-poor alliance that includes not only Dalits and Muslims, but the mass of impoverished groups among the OBCs, those who have gained the least from the Mandal quotas. Ms Mayawati can, like Mr. Kumar, attract the women’s vote across caste lines. She can make education a pivotal issue, promising to reclaim publicly funded education, not least for the lakhs of school girls across the state.

At an all-India level, a pro-poor secular alliance ought to make mass welfare, equality, and an expanding culture of democracy the central planks of its vision for India. That also means much wider union coverage and stronger union rights. India’s integration into world economy cannot be construed as justifying policies that shift the burden of national survival to the poor in the form of further squeezes on consumption, low wages, appalling conditions of life, hostility to unions, environmental catastrophe, and so on.

As long as future governments in India are beholden to big business, the best one can hope for is to have an industrial policy geared to encouraging only those large enterprises that can exploit global economies of scale, even as they are forced to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and required by law to allow for strong worker organisation at plant and company level. At other scales of enterprise, governments committed to boosting the home market should encourage the growth of state, private and worker-managed enterprises that integrate job creation with the building of a green economy geared to social needs, taking its cue from the ‘massive expansion of rural public works programmes’ that followed the introduction of NREGA in 2006.

India needs huge public investment in health, housing, agriculture and renewable energy, and this can only be funded by taxing the rich (widening the tax net to include agriculture and the ‘informal sector’) and rebalancing spending priorities. Malnutrition remains widespread, the state of education is appalling, child labour continues unabated, and the state machinery is a bastion of unfettered violence against the most vulnerable groups in India. And no new government committed to a stronger democracy can postpone key legislation that still hangs fire, notably the Women’s Reservation Bill and the Communal Violence Bill. The opposition parties will need to start thinking about all this from now so that as 2019 approaches they have a solid programme.

(Jairus Banaji is a historian and Research Professor at SOAS, University of London.)

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Printable version | May 27, 2022 1:46:06 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/reclaiming-india-for-democracy/article7937731.ece