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Monday, November 30, 2020

The invisible man

One finds little discussion on the place or role of citizens, who are depicted mostly as passive recipients of state intervention on the economy. The various flashbacks principally serve to underline the merits of the current administration, using contrast as a tool of comparison.

Written by Gilles Verniers | Updated: April 20, 2019 12:15:21 am
The invisible man Keeping the citizenry in line: People queue up outside a bank, following demonetisation (Express Photo: Gajendra Yadav)

EVERY ELECTION SEASON expectedly brings its share of books dwelling on the past, the current state and the future of India’s democracy. Citizen Raj is Surjit Bhalla’s contribution to the discussion, one that contrasts with the usual celebratory tone of such publications.

The book has a welcome title since it announces a focus on citizens rather than parties or other institutional actors. One craves such focus as the landscape of public discourse remains largely dominated by partisan concerns about leaders, electoral strategies or general forecasts, rather than ground-level socio-economic issues or the transformational impacts of politics. However, one finds little discussion on the place or role of citizens, who are depicted mostly as passive recipients of state intervention on the economy. The various flashbacks principally serve to underline the merits of the current administration, using contrast as a tool of comparison.

Beginning with the constitutional origins of India’s electoral democracy, the book embarks in successive chapters on the examination of a number of themes, including Nehru’s role in India’s developmental experiment, the role of the 1991 economic reforms in displacing the cursor of electoral politics from caste to economic voting, and that of economic reformers in deepening economic transformations.

Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019 Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019

Citizen Raj: Indian Elections 1952-2019
Surjit S Bhalla
264 pages; 499

Chapter Six combines Sonia Gandhi and the RSS, while Chapter Seven offers a critique of polling. Chapter Eight returns to the 2019 election and the role of the Opposition, and their alleged association with the fake news industry. The author then goes on to reflect on the role of elites, contrasting the old with the new, reversing the conventional binary of progressives-conservatives in Indian politics.

The last five chapters review various aspects of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s performance, underlining failures and missteps such as the ill-fated cow politics or achievements in the domain of economic reforms. The book ends on expectations for the future, risks a forecast — in a direction that may surprise regular readers of the author’s column.

The book’s main arguments deal mostly with economic policy. Going back to the Nehruvian years, the author underscores how the accent on developing political freedoms was not matched by expanding citizens’ economic liberties, owing to the Congress Party and Nehru’s elite bias and other shortcomings. Nehru’s focus on building elite institutions at the cost of universal or even basic education  would indeed have long-term negative consequences.

A second argument is that the importance of economic voting is usually underestimated. The author uses economic data to assess the performance of successive governments and finds that it is movements in economic data (such as income variations) that affect electoral behaviour, rather than specific levels of data. A third argument is that post-1991 reformers have succeeded when their actions and policies were not stymied by their own parties, specifically through the interference of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

A fourth argument concerns the influence of Sonia Gandhi and the RSS on their respective “parent” political parties and policy. Looking at party performance and citing the poor impact of redistributive schemes and the antiquated character of the RSS’ economic thinking, Bhalla argues that their influence over electoral performance and policy effectiveness is greatly over-estimated in both cases.

Across chapters, one is struck by a number of glaring inaccuracies. Contrary to the author’s claim, the Congress is not leading a mahagathbandan of opposition parties against the BJP; it is trailing behind an alliance in Uttar Pradesh, contesting with a few traditional allies in a couple of states, and remains sidelined by a sempiternally non-aligned group of regional parties in parts of the south and the east. Muslims are not the only community in India that allows the cow to be “touched” (read, killed). The current prime minister was certainly not the first major political figure to denounce the practice of female foeticide. Manmohan Singh addressed the issue in a national meeting on ‘Save the Girl Child’ in April 2008, and it figured prominently in his 2009 Independence Day speech.

On caste, Bhalla makes a classic mistake. While he rightly underlines that one cannot link predictable electoral behaviour to sociological attributes such as caste — a fact now supported by a wealth of evidence — he wrongly deduces that the role of caste altogether has considerably faded in favour of other factors, such as development and economic aspirations. The relation between large segments of voters, candidates, parties and the frontline state remains greatly — although not entirely — mediated by caste dynamics, regardless of variations in electoral outcomes. Caste matters locally, rather than transversally.

The analysis is often undermined by sweeping opinions on the Congress, the Constitution, ideology. Despite citations, the book makes little use of scholarly contributions on constitutionalism or the history of reservations.

The chapter on fake news is essentially meant to counter common criticisms of this government’s interventions in the economy. While the author focuses on improved tax compliance as a measure of success of demonetisation, it obfuscates its destructive impact on jobs. Further, that recent employment data have been held up finds no mention, while there is a hint that the latest NSSO data might be released after the elections.

The author does not shy away, though, from pointing out the government’s failures, notably with regard to cow vigilantism or temple politics. But rather than question its impact on these issues, the author puts the onus on other agents (the gaurakshaks, the RSS) as well as on Muslims themselves, who should just “consider yielding to the Hindu demand for a Ram temple”, in the “interests of unity, harmony, peace, and all things good”.

Although the book dwells at length on fake news, it might ironically have the same effect on readers as social media misinformation campaigns, despite not sharing their disingenuous character. Supporters of a certain side will be strengthened in their positions while others will summarily reject both the author’s premises and prescriptions. Few, one expects, would change their mind.

The writer is assistant professor of political science, Ashoka University, and co-director of the Trivedi Centre for Political Data

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