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Archive for the ‘Secularism’ Category

Pranab da mimics Atal ji

 

Paranab RSS

The brouhaha over Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Nagpur, as the chief guest at a valedictory function of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), foregrounds the stunted nature of politics in India.

Politics is about reaching out

First, consider the absurdity of the prevailing schoolboy notion of “team” spirit extending to a ban on supping with one’s political opponents or with those whose ideology is distant from one’s own. This downgrades politicians to being nothing more than groupies of one or the other party – much like football fans.  Amusingly, ever more rigorous behavioural tests of allegiance are demanded, as parties themselves, become ideologically indistinguishable.

The “sameness” of post ideology politics

After all, other than the fuzzy social concept of Hindutva, there is little to distinguish between the BJP and the Congress. Even Hindutva – at least the soft Vajpayee version – is associated with no discrimination across caste or religion. This naturally includes no mollycoddling of Muslims or Christian but also rules out targeted pogroms against them. The constitution makes Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, honorary Hindus, even though, these are distinct religious minorities. The erstwhile Karnataka government proposed this year that Lingayats be listed as a minority religion within the Hindu pantheon.

None of this aligns with the hard Hindutva line of “nationalising” Hinduism to the exclusion of all other religions. Indian Muslims often retain their caste consciousness, as do Sikhs, even though neither religion envisages caste divisions. For Baba sahib Ambedkar, caste and not religion, was the biggest social cleavage. And he was right.

Who, amongst the opposition, is not a Hindu?

opposition

Hard Hindutva remains untested as a political instrument to consolidate Hindu votes. Who amongst the opposition – Mamta Banerjee, Captain Amarinder Singh, Bhen Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rahul Gandhi, Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, K. C. Rao, E.K. Palaniswami or P.Vijayan, is not a Hindu, albeit of the “soft” inclusive, Hindutva kind?

Standing tall, like Atal ji, means leaving the comfort of one’s corner 

Atal ji

Second, it is odd that, on the one hand, the “secular” camp bemoans the absence of “tall” leaders, like Atal ji, who were widely acceptable, aroused respect rather than antagonism and who could be relied upon to do the right thing by the nation. Yet, they take strong exception to Pranab da emulating the Vajpayee brand of inclusiveness, by reaching out to the RSS. Pranab da did not go to Nagpur in the naïve hope of converting the RSS into a peacenik. The purpose was to show to the current lot of political leaders, that it is possible to stand firm, on what one believes, even in the midst of political opponents. After all, our diplomats do this almost daily, when they serve on committees and in nations, where the mood may be inimical to India. By participating, one shows the public, the strength of one’s conviction and the rationale thereof. Opponents may remain opponents. But at the fringe, citizens get the opportunity to rethink role models, possibly resulting in a softening of hard positions, much like a glacier crumbling at the edges, in the face of climate change.

Demonising one’s opponent is unhelpful, listening and participating is better

Third, demonization of opponents is reminiscent of what fundamentalists do. Those who espouse a secular, liberal agenda must surely shun the fundamentalist’s tool kit. Prime Minister Modi was widely criticised by the secular crowd, for not donning a skull-cap, publicly offered to him by a delegation of Muslims in Gujarat. This was an extreme case of political symbolism, marking out Mr Modi, as being different from the average leader, who has no qualms paying lip-service to minority sentiment. The hosting of Iftaar parties, by those, not keeping the fast, is a prime example of superficial secularism.

Owisi

Asaduddin Owaisi, an MP from Hyderabad and President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, claims Pranab da’s Nagpur visit has “finished” the Congress. The implication is that Muslims will no longer feel “protected” by the Congress. This is entirely possible. But it could signal progress of sorts. Minorities voting for parties which advance their modern professional or business identities, rather than feeding-off their traditional identities, would be encouraging. If the Hindu vote is splintered today, why must minority votes remain transferable en-bloc, like pocket boroughs?

May Pranab da’s tribe multiply

We need more leaders like Pranab da, who are unafraid to grow a common ground between the uber Right RSS and mainstream, secular Indians. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) should rethink its arcane electoral arithmetic, based on uniting the Hindus against the rest. The “Hindus” have never been a monolithic group. Caste and regional identities have always mattered more than the fact of being part of a family of Hindu religions. That is why Hinduism, despite all its warts – like the caste system – remains an attractive, forward looking religion, which assimilates rather than divides. Nationalising Hinduism, as the RSS is trying to do, will be as disastrously limiting, as the nationalisation of the private sector by Indira Gandhi, was for India.

Looking for repeat orders is better than one-off customers 

The BJP came as a whiff of fresh air in 2014, after a decade of more-of-the- same rule by the United Progressive Alliance. The last four years have seen some economic progress. The BJP should feel confident of citizen support based on results. It clearly overreached whilst setting targets, quite forgetting, that high aggregate targets do not matter to the average voter. Much as in commerce, repeat orders, are an outcome of a rewarding, initial customer experience. Would you buy a Patanjali product the second time, merely because their turnover is increasing rapidly or because the initial customer experience pleased you? Voters are no different. Indivisible security and shared growth remain key touchstones of State credibility. The government must strive to achieve these.

 

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

This is not a glib account of mobilising the rural poor, penned by a peripatetic babu or a drive-in-fly-out development expert. It is, refreshingly, a record of activists, who elected to spend the better part of their working lives making a difference, bottom upwards, and three decades later remain rooted in their karmbhumi — village Devdungri, Rajasthan.

school for democracy

Some came from well-off urban backgrounds and yet stuck it out in the harsh and relentless realities of the rural poor. This testifies to their commitment. But even to attribute high moral incentives to them, betrays the tinted glasses of this urbanised reviewer. The authors do not vent their frustration, voice their regrets or betray even a whiff of resentment against an uncaring world. What shines through instead, is their quiet joy and fulfillment, at doing something useful.

Aruna Roy, for all her careful attempts to disperse the credit, is the central figure. Born into a family of lawyers, she drifted into the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1968 but resigned in 1975 to work with the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Ajmer. Clearly, goaded by the need to be more immediately and directly involved with real people in rural India, she left SWRC in 1983. Nikhil Dey — recently returned after college in the United States, seeking something beyond a comfortable life, became a friend; Shanker Singh, a local village official’s gifted son, adroit puppeteer and communicator extraordinaire, completed the group which bonded and decided to check out the rural empowerment landscape in Jhabhua, Madhya Pradesh. That seed did not flower. But bonds between the three deepened.

They resolved, in 1987, to put down roots in village Devdungri, which today is part of district Rajsamand in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. This was close enough to Shanker’s village, Lotiyana, to give the group an entry into rural life through his local bonds of kinship. Here, in a mud hut, rented from his cousin, the small group lived like the villagers around them and awaited a gradual immersion into the rhythm of village life and hopefully, local social acceptance — their doors and hearts open. Trust and credibility is central to an activist’s effectiveness.

MKSS

Meanwhile, the group refined the credo of their concerns. These coalesced around the need to enable the rural poor and marginalised, to look beyond their sordid reality of traditional social and cultural constraints, to understand and avail of, the constitutional rights available to them, within India’s democratic and institutional architecture. The disastrous drought, blighting the region, presented an opportunity. The standard mechanism for drought relief was to initiate civil
works.

By 1983 the Supreme Court had directed that public works must comply with payment of minimum wages. But this was rarely done. The group resolved that getting workers minimum wages would be their central concern. A related opportunity arose due to the tyrannical ways of a local sarpanch who misappropriated village development schemes for personal benefits and whose benami holdings encroached on village land.

In both cases, empowering the poor meant getting access to the government records of money allocated by the government for different schemes; the amounts spent, on what and when. At that time ordinary citizens could not access these records as a right. Often mistakenly, even a list of Below Poverty Line cardholders was conveniently construed to be secret. Consequently, in any dispute with government entities — around wages or non-inclusion for welfare schemes “the villagers were always the liars”. They had no way to prove their case because the truth was hidden inside the official records, to which only the government had access.

Getting the dispossessed to appreciate that access to information and knowledge is vital, was the easiest part. The awareness that local government intermediaries were swindling them kindled anger, and sometimes outrage among villagers. While the immediate oppressor is visible and becomes vulnerable, the veiled support of those higher up in the hierarchy, maintains the status quo. Getting villagers their rights, means changing the status quo from the top.

The political vehicle used by Aruna and her activist colleagues to generate awareness; the desire for change and an ecosystem for long-term support to deliver rights to the rural poor was the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The artful, determined and collaborative way in which it was constituted, and the strategic depth of its functioning is a delight to read. The ideological roots of the MKSS lie in the life and thoughts of Gandhi ji (non-violent protests against government apathy), Babasaheb Ambedkar (equity and dignity for all) and J.P. Narayan (social and political revolution within constitutional constraints).

The movement for access to political and social rights, formally started in 1987, expanded organically over time from the village level to the state level by the mid-1990s and finally to the national level by 2005, when the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament. Parivartan, the Delhi-based NGO, headed at the time by Arvind Kejriwal, evolved its strategy of “direct democracy” from the MKSS methodology — a mix of rootedness in organising the poor from within; high moral, ethical and personal values; imaginative use of local folklore and theatre like the Ghotala Rath to lampoon corrupt politicians; careful research to unearth government information to pinpoint negligence, fraud or corruption using the vehicle of Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

Less successfully the MKSS also branched into directly managing kirana (provisions) stores in villages as a competitive force to make local traders less rapacious and reduce their profit margins. While useful as a temporary local intervention to break a trader cartel in a small village market, this model proved difficult to scale up. The MKSS also dabbled in village-level elections to get some of its well-intentioned members, elected and collaborate with like-minded parties. But it is far from transmuting into a political party.

Aruna and the team

Aruna, 41 years of age in 1987, is 72 today, Shanker is 64 and “young” Nikhil is 55. During the last three decades of their struggle, the Right to Information has been embedded into the accountability structure of the State, bringing the much-needed transparency. But making the State accountable to the people, in real time, is a broader unfinished task — top-down accountability and bottom-up participation, both need deepening. The good news is that the indefatigable trio is upbeat about conquering this frontier too.

This book is a must read for cynics, who want their optimism restored; those eager to share the pain and the joy of activism; organisational behavior “experts” and budding activists looking for pathways to India’s development.

Adapted from the author’s book review in The Asian Age, April 22, 2019 http://www.asianage.com/books/220418/read-it-to-know-the-pain-and-joy-of-activism.html

Three constitutional safeguards against Theocracy

Hindu

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh “foot soldiers”- ostensibly till now a cultural “Hindu” organisation. Saffron is their colour. 

Utopian secularists are in convulsions at a “yogi” becoming chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Of course, they have cause to worry. It does not help that Adityanath Yogi, as he now calls himself, has a history of political activism. Can he change his spots and rule equitably? Only time will tell.

The fear factor prevails 

Muslim

Secular Hindus – a minority themselves, and the religious minorities – particularly the Muslims- rightly fear even an implicitly theocratic state. The constitution specifies a secular State via an amendment in 1976. But there are no specific safeguards.

But all those who don’t subscribe to the Hindutva theology are bound to be fearful. And mere hope is not sufficient reassurance. The real question is why do we not have institutional safeguards to avoid an adverse outcome? Why are constraints on theocracy not specifically provided for by our Constitution and enshrined into workable instruments in our laws?

We kicked the communal “football” down the road in 1947

First cabinet

Pandit Nehru’s first cabinet had two Muslims and a Sikh as lip service to pluralism. But raw decision making power – in finance or in internal security, has never been out of Hindu hands – quite naturally, since close to 80 percent of India is Hindu.  

We should have known better. We have reached the natural culmination of where we have been headed since the formal adoption of a democratic architecture.  There have been early signs. But these were ignored because they largely never affected the elite. That one-fifth of Indians remain wretchedly poor shows that democracy has managed inclusion very badly. The status of women is another example where democracy has failed to translate into equity.

But the good news is that, in both cases, we have learnt and gradually built in safeguards to ensure inclusiveness. The political representation of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes has helped. Assured political representation for women in legislatures is an ongoing exercise.

Oddly, the Yogi, as CM, is a step forward towards reconciliation 

Odd as it may seem, we should welcome that the BJP has chosen pick Adityanath, the practising head of a mutt in Gorakhpur, as its chief minister. It would have been strategically better for the BJP to fudge and appoint a backward caste leader and continued to play the “game” of “political correctness”. That the BJP chose not to do so serves to highlight the existing yawning legislative gap between principle and practice. After all, the problems of Indian democracy can never be resolved unless we all speak and act from the heart, within the limits of the law.

Lets shed false pretences and bare our souls

sahibs

Much of the angst against Adityanath is drawn from the colonial “brown sahib” culture of political correctness. This culture privileges convention and process versus the outcomes of law. Examples abound. Brown sahibs believe that due process must be adhered to. Never mind that, in doing so, a poor applicant or litigant can get beggared into giving up the fight.  In the Brown Sahib’s logic, principles are not iron-clad concepts which produce and are validated by outcomes. They merely prescribe and often justify the process – rarely the outcome. Consider how shallow is our application of the principle of “right to be heard” in our law or the right to vote or the right to property.

Our constitution relies on good intentions, not iron clad safeguards

Our democratic architecture is inadequately developed to factor in the reality of India, with its multiple cleavages. If implicitly elitist rule has been possible over the last 70 years, it should not surprise us, if tomorrow brings implicitly theocratic rule. So for those of you who are uncomfortable with a Hindu yogi, a Muslim maulvi, a Sikh granthi or a Christian priest in a CM’s chair, here are three changes we need to introduce in our political architecture.

Mandate plurality in the cabinet

First, it is the privilege of the winning party or coalition to select any member of the legislature as CM. Can we not simply legislate that a religious head should never be selected as CM? Possibly not, because this would be a violation of the fundamental right to representation of a religious group. More practically, there is no watertight way of defining who is a “religious head”. Consider that Sadhvi Uma Bharti led the BJP to a three-fourths majority in 2003 in Madhya Pradesh and became CM. Unfortunately, she had to resign soon after, because an arrest warrant was issued against her on a 10-year old charge of inciting a riot. This setback also robbed analysts of a case study on how religious activists wield political power. The outcomes may well have surprised cynics. But it is best to explicitly provide for safeguards to curtail the potential for even an “implicitly” theocratic State.

One option, applicable at the national level and in large heterogenous states (not Sikkim or in the Northeast), would be to prescribe that the CM, the home minister and the finance minister can never be from the same religion or caste.  These are the three core positions in the Cabinet. This would automatically require political parties to create a rainbow leadership and not a narrow gender, caste or religion-based party cadre. Of course, it will still be possible to co-opt “nominal” members of the appropriate profile. So we need to do more than just introduce end-of-the-pipe restrictions post-election.

Second, the Cabinet must reflect the gender, caste and religious profile of the relevant jurisdiction. This is necessary for adequate plural representation at the decision-making level.

Mandate plurality in candidates nominated for elected office by political parties

Third, we must change the basis on which parties fight and win elections. Registered political parties must be required — by law — to nominate a rainbow of candidates, reflecting the gender, caste and religious demographics at three levels of government — local bodies, state or nation. This is necessary to ensure that the election rhetoric itself changes; votes are not sought on narrow or sectarian grounds and parties develop a pluralist voter base.

Three constitutional amendments to ensure political plurality

All three changes require specific changes to the Constitution so that “plurality” gets embedded in Parliament and in the executive.

It is over-the-top to believe that India or Uttar Pradesh can become a “theocratic” state just by having a “religious head” as its chief executive. As long as the Constitution remains liberal and non-discriminatory; the law is derived from the Constitution and the judiciary remains empowered, plurality and inclusiveness will remain enshrined in law. But additional safeguards are necessary to deliver inclusive policies and action on the ground. The BJP juggernaut is best placed, by using its massive majority, to display good faith by initiating these constitutional changes well before 2019.

nationalist muslims

Adapted from the author’s article in the Asian Age, March 22, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/220317/are-safeguards-possible-to-prevent-theocracy.html

 

 

 

Bleeding heart liberals are social hypocrites

hypocricy 2

Graphic credit: chloesimonevaldary.com

Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage — playing in Mumbai and Delhi — makes us laugh at ourselves by stripping bare the self-serving hypocrisy underlying socially acceptable roles. Bleeding-heart Indian social liberals would do well to see themselves in the mirror via this play.

Admittedly, we humans must get beyond our basically brutish nature. But the first step to doing this is not to be in denial about the brute within us. Narendra Modi baiters are particularly delusional about themselves.

For them Mr Modi is forever damned because of the Gujarat riots in 2002 and because he refuses to atone at the altar of “secularism” that Indira Gandhi embedded in the Constitution in 1976 along with the subsidiary altar of “socialism”.

We have, since 1990, correctly turned a Nelson’s eye to the latter as has the rest of the world. But liberals fear that both the right (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party) and the left (communists), are so committed to their own political “ideology” that they aim to substitute liberal democracy with state authoritarianism.

The left has made itself redundant in India, so the real threat to liberalism is from the Modi government. The examples used to illustrate the increasingly “heavy hand” of the state are the clamp down on NGOs — Teesta Setalvad and Greenpeace; the attempt by the executive to reclaim the power to appoint higher judiciary; and current administrative practices like the “gag order” by home minister Rajnath Singh on officials hobnobbing with the press.

Are, then, Prime Minister Modi’s intentions subversive?

First, let’s consider the alleged attempt to misuse official authority to muzzle NGO critics.

Misuse of authority can only be assessed in two ways — either via the judicial process or via loss of public support, as happened resoundingly in 1977. Indira Gandhi was damned by the judicial process before being damned by the electorate post-Emergency.

In Mr Modi’s case, no adverse judicial outcome taints him. His significant popular mandate is likely to be re-endorsed in the Bihar state elections later this year. The Opposition has a majority in the Rajya Sabha and the judiciary remains generously tolerant towards public interest litigants. Both checks are working well. With respect to the “gag order”, post the RTI legislation, access to public information is institutionalised. Yes, news hounds can no longer get “breaking news” easily, but that is no great loss.

Second, when was India ever a social, liberal democracy? Mahatma Gandhi was a social liberal, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but the tactics he used show that the country was not. That is why he mobilised the majority via religious means — bhajans and kirtans.

By preferring Nehru as the de facto Congress leader to Jinnah (who was never much of a hard-core Muslim), the Mahatma bowed to his political assessment that the Hindu majority would not accept anyone except a co-religionist as their leader. This was good realpolitik and has been the broad political trend since Independence.

After Independence, none of the national parties — the Congress, the Janata Dal, leave alone the BJP — have ever had anyone other than a Hindu as their supreme political leader. The only recent exception is Sonia Gandhi of the Congress. But even her links into politics are exceptionally pucca, upper caste Hindu. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is meant to be areligious, has had only one non-Hindu — a Sikh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet — as its general secretary from 1992 to 2005.

Indians feel comfortable being led by those who are from their own social group. For national issues religion and caste are the bonding factors. For state level elections, caste is the major factor; at the village level it is sub-caste or clan. This is hardly a characteristic of a liberal democracy.

The liberal political elite do a great disservice by spinning the myth of a liberal India. A more honest assessment would be of India as a seething cauldron of competing social groups held in balance by quasi-colonial state power. Recognising oneself, as I said earlier, is the first step to reconciliation and reform.

In a democracy, numbers count. To protect itself, minorities either have to increase their numbers, as the Hispanics and blacks are doing in the US, or they have to stay below the radar while aligning broadly with the majority goals. The US, a land of immigrants, has no qualms about requiring everyone to be American — in language and in culture, such as it is. France is even less tolerant of cultural or linguistic deviance. In comparison, India adjusts to linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. But till the Hindu population is in a majority they shall dictate the music to be played, as they have done since 1947.

India has remained an “administered” democracy of the colonial style — the spirit is scarce but bells and whistles abound — albeit better administered than it was pre-Independence. Prime Minister Modi’s moves are merely a muscular rendition of what all directly elected Prime Ministers did prior to 1989. Thereafter, coalition governments diminished the stature of the Prime Minister, who, in terms of formal powers, is more powerful than the American President. Those who have been socialised only during the last two decades of “coalition dharma”, when listless governance was the norm, need not be alarmed at the vigorous use of the available constitutional powers.

Any real democracy merely reflects the norms and aspirations of the people. This is the central conundrum of the Arab Spring that ended up fanning radical Islam instead of modernising North Africa and West Asia.

Urban folks worry too much about the seeming frailty of Indian democracy. They also exaggerate the role played by the media, civil society and intelligentsia as the bulwarks against its demise. The real custodians of democracy are the enormous variety of vertically and horizontally arrayed social groups, each negotiating to safeguard its own special interests and societal norms. By their very presence they illustrate that there is a competitive market for political power in India. Unsurprisingly, as in any market, bargaining power in a democracy is with the majority. But every market has to be regulated to be efficient and equitable. That is what Parliament and the judiciary are expected to do in our system. If democracy ever dies, it is these two institutions which will be responsible, not the executive or the people of India.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age July 29, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/hypocrisy-socialist-liberals-635

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