A Democracy Fraying @ 75

Just last year, I had written on the occasion of the start of India’s 75th year of independence, about the long, Sisyphean journey our country had taken to reach where we are today. And about the challenges that remain. I had written it also from the point of view of our own personal experiences as a family – my aged parents and I – and how I have had responsibilities towards them and my grannies that I haven’t been able to fulfill. Sadly, I lost my mother in October last year and now it’s just my father and I in Goa.

What a difference a year makes. Not the only difference that matters to me as an Indian citizen, however. In last year’s piece, I had articulated the key challenges that face our economy, and how we need to take development to India’s hinterland through greater investment in education and healthcare, encourage and strengthen India’s MSMEs, and make the bulk of Indian industry more globally competitive, if we are to make any progress as a democratic country.

Sadly, the past year has been consumed in a series of bad decisions and social and communal unrest of various kinds. By bad decisions, I mean the rollback of the agricultural reforms – which were themselves ill-conceived – as well as the labour reforms which, to the best of my knowledge, have not yet been notified at a national level. Just as well. Then we had the decision recently regarding recruitment in the Indian armed forces, Agnipath, which literally set the entire country on fire. On the last one, I had seen a tweet regarding the defence payouts to their personnel, especially pensions, and I commented that if true, this seems to suggest that India is in serious need of pension reforms, because the pension costs are unsustainable, especially if you consider pensions across other government services as well.

It was being repeatedly said in media that India’s youth is angry. In a predominantly young country, with more than half the country not at work, what do you expect? Unfortunately, anger and rage do no good; there have to be better ways to channel Indian youth’s knowledge, skills and positive energy. Instead, we were fighting over uniforms for Muslim schoolgirls in Karnataka, street hawkers and vendors from the Muslim community not being allowed to operate near temples, bulldozing homes and other structures again mostly belonging to Muslims, and finally the ruling party’s national spokesperson being suspended for making derogatory remarks about the prophet. Media people being arrested arbitrarily, and worse, to have India’s apex court order that a longtime campaigner for the victims of the Gujarat riots be arrested for having made false allegations.

This does not suggest a country progressing towards greater equality and economic growth and progress for everyone. Hard to believe so much destruction of India’s fabled cultural diversity and of the institutions of democratic government took place in less than a year.

Economically, India is slowing down, with unemployment and inflation soaring, capital outflows, weakening rupee, wide fiscal and current account deficits. Small and medium sized businesses are being destroyed. And on the social, cultural and political fronts, we are faced with growing communal and regional disharmony. I do not agree with a recent article in The Economist which said India could be poised for great growth, but that Modi’s nationalist and religious politics could blow it. I agree more with an older article of theirs which said Modi was not an economic reformer. And that was after the disastrous demonetization of 2016-17.

Now, it seems almost as if the government and their media cronies are willing The Economist’s forecast to come true. In fact, it appears that many government policies are actually being made on the advice of misguided elements in the corporate world, such as certain unprofessional PR and advertising agencies, I had the misfortune to work for, decades ago. These organisations are unfit to be in the corporate world, circuses that they have proven themselves to be, and I am determined to see their exit from the industry since they cannot leave me alone.    

On the other hand, I see large newspaper adverts in Times of India Goa edition and also in The Economic Times Mumbai-Goa edition almost every third day or so, announcing some new social welfare scheme or the other, all under the 75th Aazadi Amrit Mahotsav (75th Independence Anniversary Festival) banner. I don’t bother to read most of these adverts since they are quite awful and have nothing much to say anyway. The point is that the government is rather proud of its achievements and wants people to know just how proud they are.

On a more serious note, though, I am very concerned about the ease with which the government resorts to spending on social schemes, considering it to be welfarism. The BJP first tasted the success of this pro-poor pivot in the 2017 UP elections and haven’t looked back since. They have made economic sops a centre-piece of their electioneering and governing mechanism, because they have found it the best way to appease the poor, and attract people of lower castes and other religions to their fold.

Combining this form of welfare spending with extreme nationalist and religious ideology is a deadly cocktail. Our democratic, social and secular fabric is already fraying. Going further down this road could lead to ruin. Economic ruin, at the very least. Because there is no way India can keep cutting taxes, not grow the formal economy, not create jobs, and still afford such largesse.

Like I said earlier, the government’s pension expenses alone make pension reforms an economic imperative. If this continues, we need to construct a public finance system for the long term that is capable of supporting an adult population, more than half of which is not at work. When the more pressing need is to ensure that more of India gets back to work, and to good quality jobs.

Instead, we are tolerating a country that is mostly not at work, and are encouraging growing dependence on freebies and state support that the state can ill-afford. And all this, only so the ruling party can go from electoral gain to electoral gain. While the country squanders its demographic dividend and is constantly at war with itself.

If only India can summon the same political and economic will that it did in tackling the coronavirus during two years of the pandemic – despite the disastrous and sudden announcement of the national lockdown which led to millions of migrant workers being stranded. If only we could demonstrate similar commitment in other areas where India needs genuine reforms and investment, we would be worthy of calling ourselves a great and growing democracy in the true sense of the word. For a large country such as India with a 1.4 billion population, we did manage the pandemic crisis rather well, especially the vaccination drive, even though there were excess deaths due to lack of adequate hospital beds and oxygen supply shortages.

However, with the pandemic not yet in our rear-view mirror, the government is returning to its old ways. Back to stifling dissent and suppressing free expression of views, using ED and CBI as instruments of oppression, intimidating minority communities and the like. And using all this as distractions from the more important issues that face the country, such as economic growth, creating good jobs, investing in better education and healthcare at the primary levels, and reducing poverty and inequality. All the aspects that make a good and vibrant democracy.   

I had initially planned to write and share this piece next month, when we actually complete 75 years of independence. But seeing all that is going on around me, I decided this couldn’t wait.    

The animated owl gif that forms the featured image and title of the Owleye column is by animatedimages.org and I am thankful to them.  

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