No one in the last two decades has come to power with greater euphoria than the Narendra Modi sarkar. It has taken less than a year for that euphoria to recede and change to disappointment. There are sufficient reasons for this change. The celebrations of the first year in office of this government are in sharp contrast to the plight of the common person.
The callousness of the government is most noticeable in its attitude to social sector issues. It does not seem to realise that rights-based legislation were not a UPA creation, but a reflection of the aspirations of millions of Indians struggling to procure the most basic entitlements. In its desire to establish itself by discarding past achievements, the current government is making a cardinal mistake. Nothing could be more symptomatic of this narrow partisan approach than the prime minister’s statement on the MGNREGA in Parliament. It is shocking that the PM could promise to build a programme only to establish its monumental failure. This statement sent a strong message down the line to discredit and mismanage the programme. It is a failure not only of leadership but of vision and governance. The PM’s rhetoric sounds hollow even to his own party. The Madhya Pradesh chief minister has publicly stated that the MGNREGA is one of the best programmes in independent India.
Rights-based legislation like the forest rights act, right to food, right to education and right to information, passed in the last 10 years, did not merely provide economic and social entitlements to the poor. They were an attempt by India’s poorest citizens to claim delivery of basic services and ensure accountability. The people’s right to participate to ensure delivery and to monitor these programmes arose from numerous failures. Rights-based legislation are an attempt by people to demand a share of governance. The demand for transparency, the right to question, audit development programmes and their implementation, arose from this. This framework is being undermined through budget cuts and the attempt to replace rights with cash transfers, which are much more in a paradigm of doles and handouts. Bank accounts without money and spurious promises through contributory pension and insurance schemes cannot replace the crippling of existing programmes. Even as earlier programmes and laws are ridiculed, there is no vision or direction for what is to replace them.
There is, in fact, no roadmap this government has to offer for the social sector. If this government felt that the earlier legislation were a complete failure, it should have issued a white paper on the shortcomings and provided a blueprint for how these would be overcome. This would at least have provided the people of this country an idea of what they could expect and where they could hold the government to account.
Much of rural India has found itself reeling under a loss of social sector entitlements and scrambling to save whatever resources it has. In the farming community, many might not be personally affected by the land acquisition ordinance, but most are affected by market-driven policies on minimum support prices and inefficiencies in the provision of fertilisers, irrigation, etc. The obstinacy of the government in repeatedly reimposing the ordinance has only confirmed the rural sector’s fears that these are the days of “company raj” and “bure din”.
The government has probably begun to realise that the MGNREGA is one of the less expensive ways to provide basic support, especially in times of distress. But the PM’s earlier message has been internalised by the system to such an extent that even the PMO’s later assurance to extend support for the MGNREGA has not been able to change things on the ground. People are still unable to get work. What could be a more decisive example of poor governance?
The attack on participatory governance has been even more surprising. While there was a stated ideological bias against social sector entitlements, the rhetoric on transparency, accountability, anti-corruption and improved efficiency seemed unequivocal. However, by repeated and deliberate acts of omission and commission, this government has made sure that a carefully constructed transparency framework has been comprehensively undermined. The accountability laws waiting to be implemented and passed have been pushed into amendments and committees.
The non-appointment of the chief information commissioner and three other commissioners cannot be justified on any legitimate ground. Despite repeated protests, the government has brazened it out to undermine the credibility of the information commission. The whistleblower protection and Lokpal laws were passed with great difficulty. They have been weakened through proposed amendments and further delayed by sending them to standing committees.
The grievance redressal law (a kind of RTI part II) would have ensured accountability of all government servants and been crucial to ensuring efficiency and service delivery. Instead, institutions more responsive in engaging with the people have been replaced by exclusive structures. The argument of efficiency remains a myth as the entire system functions with extraordinary centralisation, opacity and lack of public accountability. The fact that this is a “Modi sarkar” and not the “NDA or BJP sarkar” is proclaimed repeatedly and deliberately. It is testimony to the undemocratic nature of the government’s current internal politics. Critics gave the BJP credit for its (comparative) internal democracy. The ruling party is now defined in the feudal mould of a single ruler, rather than a party that functions collectively and democratically. The chaiwalla image has been replaced by that of a sartorially conscious leader with a designer suit. All decisions are taken by the PM, and he is constantly travelling abroad. This has led to a dysfunctional single-leader system where questions of the people do not get answered and find no platform.
Finally, the attack on activists, NGOs and other dissenters on development politics is unwise and deeply damaging to our democratic framework. People committed to the welfare of marginalised communities and the environment find themselves branded as “anti-national”, with a completely warped sense of what true national interest is. We can only hope that the people will assert their rights and demand that promises be kept and that we will see a more inclusive and plural India.
The writers are with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. Roy was a member of the UPA’s National Advisory Council until May 2013
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