Bridging Passion and Compassion: The UPA’s New Mantra

Even a stark enemy of P. Chidambaram would not say that he is not a realist. Recently he has declared that he will break a common ground between the passions for growth and the compassion for the poor. The assimilation of the two, according to him, is the noble goal of the UPA. And this declaration is going to acquire a central part of the UPA’s electoral agenda before 20104.

In his comment on the Sen-Bhagwati debate, Chidambaram has termed Bhagwati as a fierce preacher of income growth and the noble laureate as a sympathiser with the poor. Bhagwati has already reacted against this criticism but I am not concerned with all these. What need to be underlined is the covert admission of Chidambaram that there is a distance between the urge for income growth and the compassion for the poor. He and his political associates would annihilate that distance and develop a model for inclusive growth. This effort of initiating an economic ideology is going to be highlighted as an anti-thesis of the Gujarat model that Mr. Narendra Modi is so proud of. In Gujarat, conventional economic data and income growth feature on the top in the pan-Indian context but the state is in a deplorable state when it comes to statistics like human development index.

Whatever conflicting political & economic ideologies are at work, it would not be fair to relegate the issue of inclusive development to the sphere of income growth versus poverty alleviation. A proper economic development model of a developing nation cannot leave out either GDP growth or poverty reduction. And there is no last word on how these two will correlate.

Chidambaram’s comment, in this context, emanates out of his electoral concerns. The second UPA regime has suffered blows after blows involving corruption, policy paralysis and economic downturn. Promise of a unique economic ideology can earn some political brownie points for the ruling coalition but, Indian economy, in the long run, will not gain anything.

What saddens me as a student of politics and economics is the way two celebrated academicians are exploited to serve respective political interests. Intellectual atmosphere, like the political arena, will only get polluted with this.

A Political Statement: Looking into the State of Things Involving Telengana

Carving out a separate state of Telengana out of Andhra Pradesh is finally approved by the Congress high-command. UPA allies are not opposed to the decision either. Demand for a separate state of Telengana goes a long way back in the history of independent India. A paramilitary operation by the Indian government freed Hyderabad state from the rule of Nizam in 1948. Around the same time, Telugu speaking community of the then Madraj state started demanding for a state of their own. The agitation movement achieved a different dimension when Gandhian social and political activist Potti Sriramulu died on 16th of December, 1952 in a fast-unto-death programme in demand of a separate state for the Telugu speaking people. The Jawaharlal Nehru government was forced to form a state consisting of the Telugu speaking regions of pre-existing Madraj state.

People from Telengana region were demanding for more representation in administrative, political and academic circles of the newly formed state. But, as a matter of fact, most of the chief ministers and other highly placed personalities of Andhra Pradesh have been from the coastal areas. In this context, under the leadership of Chenna Reddy, another agitation movement in demand of another state called Telengana started unfolding.

Why Telengana Now

Creating Telengana at this juncture is significant in many ways. The decision is politically motivated and tilted to Congress’s favour. Rise of Jaganmohan Reddy and sectarianism within the state congress has weakened the century old party’s organizational reach in Andhra Pradesh. In the wake of the 2014 general elections, Congress high-command is expecting a sudden increase in their share of votes in the Telugu speaking Telengana. It holds 12 out of the 17 parliamentary seats in the region and with the possibility of Chandrasekhar’s Telengana Rashtra Samiti being merged with Congress after the creation of Telengana, AICC is aiming at forming another state government. But a section of Telengana Rajya Samiti activists led by Chandrasekhar’s son K.T. Rama Rao is avowedly anti-congress. And in Seemandhra (non-Telengana region), public anger is swelling because they are not ready to share Hyderabad as the capital of the newly-formed state. Will Congress be able to reap a rich dividend by acceding to the half of a century old demand? The answer is not blowing in the wind.

Telengana as a Catalyst

But a different kind of wind is blowing across the nation. From Ladakh-Leh in north-west to Karbi Anglong in east, the decision of granting Telengana is acting as a positive catalyst to a number of agitation movements involving demand for separate states all over the country.

Mayavati, once chief minister of Uttar Pradesh passed a resolution in the state assembly to divide the state into four separate states: Bundelkhand, Purbanchal, Awadh Pradesh and Pashchim Pradesh. Gaining political advantages was the motive for the BSP chief.

In the 1961 census, Bundelkhand region in the Hindi speaking heartland registered a nominal number of Bundeli speaking people. After 30 years, the census registered a massive growth in the number. This growth average was greater than the average of population growth in India as a whole. Most of the Bundeli speaking people hid their original linguistic identity in 1961 because they thought that rapid development would follow if they carried a Hindi speaking identity. All the prime ministers of India up to 1991 had been from the Hindi heartland. But Bundelkhand, still, features as one of the most underdeveloped regions of India. Consequently, demand for a separate state of Bundelkhand filled in the air.

Announcement of Telengana has revamped a number of statehood demands like Bundelkhand across the nation. Demand for a separate state for Gorkhas in northern Bengal has been a sensitive issue since the eighties. A deal brokered by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi granted a large degree of autonomy to the Gorkha community and Gorkha Hill Council was formed. Following this example, within a few years, Bodos in Assam, who were demanding a separate state, gained certain degree of autonomy. With the announcement of Telengana, agitations and violent movements are brewing in Karbi Anglong once again.

A similar kind of demand has been on the ethno-political agenda in Bidarva region of Maharashtra. In Ladakh-Leh region of Jammu & Kashmir, accession to greater autonomy and creation of a separate police administration for the region have led to strengthening the demand of a separate state.

Political Parties on Statehood Demands

The Jawaharlal Nehru government in the 1950s was forced to form a commission on redistribution of state-borders. Clash between ethno-political ideologies in the then Madraj state and ethnic aspirations in a newly liberated nation resulted in the decision. But Congress has been apprehensive of creating smaller states for decades. The irony lies in the fact that Congress regimes have formed most of the smaller states in India. With its nod to Telengana, Congress has contributed to a tradition.

On the other hand, BJP, on principle, has been for the creation of smaller states.

Among the left parties, towards the beginning, CPI (M) used to support movements and agitations involving ethnic identity. But from mid-seventies onwards, especially after coming to the power in West Bengal in 1977, the party is opposed to the idea of smaller states. CPI (M) has vociferously resisted the movement for Gorkhaland and after the announcement of Telengana, Sitaram Yechury, the party’s politbureau member, has asked the centre to disclose the basis and formulations on which it has declared the decision.

Conclusion

When the idea of India as a nation was being developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, anti-colonial sentiments were at work. In 1947, British administration left behind a divided subcontinent dotted with innumerable independent princely states. Handiwork of Sardar Patel, Nehru and their associates gave India a proper federal shape. If India of the 21st century cannot solve the problems involving ethnic or linguistic identity, its democratic structure will be at stake. I expect that this land of diverse languages and cultures will soon find a solution. But is our political class capable of handling the issue sensibly, refraining from scoring political brownie points?

Unequal Attention to Equally Important Issues: Relative Poverty in India

There are two kinds of poverty measurements: relative & absolute. Absolute poverty is the measurement of the percentage of people below the set poverty line in a given society. In the midst of intense political attention & debate on absolute poverty in the wake of the recent NSSO survey, the recently published statistics on relative poverty is on the backburner. Measurement of relative poverty brings economic inequality to surface. And according to a recent NSSO survey, economic inequality has been on a constant rise over the last 15 years or so. In between 1999-2000 and 2011-12, for the 5% of the most affluent rural population, consumption expenditure has increased more than 60%; on the other hand, over the same period, for the 5% of the poorest rural population, this rate of increase is 33%. For the 5% urban & rural population of the same categories, the rates of increase are respectively 63% and 30%.

If one analyzes these data from a different perspective, one finds, in the year 2000, the richest urban socio-economic unit would spend 12 times more than the poorest urban socio-economic unit. In 2012, the former spends 15 times more than the latter. In the rural areas, this gap has grown to 9% from the previous 7%. There are two conclusions to be drawn from this body of statistics.

First, inequality, across urban and rural regions, in terms of lifestyle, has increased. Second, advantages of economic reforms or liberalization and national income growth have not trickled down to the lower economic sections of the nation. Past experiences of economic surveys show that the inequality in terms of expenditure has generally been lower than the inequality in terms of income. So the overall picture appears to be bleaker.

The result of the survey is ominous. There are worries on two fronts: political and economic. This kind of an economic inequality is dangerous for political stability. Maoist insurgency has been gaining a rapid momentum once again. Political unrest in both Kashmir and the north-eastern states is not on the wane either. Social and economic inequality of such a degree will strengthen extremists’ hands in near future. Our study of politically volatile and vulnerable nations proves that social and economic inequalities widen political instability.

Economists like Raghuram Rajan have shown how economic inequality led to the economic downturn in the USA in 2008. Indian middle classes have been benefitted from the IT boom and economic liberalization in late 1980s to early 2000s. But the poorer and especially rural population has not come to terms with the changed economic infrastructure. Spread of education is not yet a pan-Indian phenomenon. Amartya Sen and Jean Drez, in their recently published book have reminded of such a possibility. If our policymakers don’t pay attention to this ever-widening gap between economic conditions and remain obsessed with GDP growth, Indian economy will keep suffering in the long run.

The Kabul Question: India’s Concerns

Besides the turbulent political scenario in the middle-east, the world is closely watching Afghanistan. Western democracies and NATO members will pull out their military personnel from the land by the end of 2014. What kind of a turn will Afghanistan take in terms of administrative, diplomatic and political structures? This question has been haunting not only the NATO nations but also Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors like Pakistan, Iran, India and China.

India has already invested millions of crores in the development of Afghan roads, education, health infrastructure, electricity, public distribution and a number of other sectors. A large number of Indian professionals are working in Afghanistan. On top of that, New Delhi has recently initiated a programme to train the Afghan police and military forces. So India is not happy when the news of a Taliban comeback is gradually gaining momentum. India is evidently dissatisfied with the American effort of collaborating with Taliban representatives in the administrative and political structures of new Afghanistan. This dissatisfaction was conveyed to the US Vice President Joseph Biden when he had come to India a few days back.

Pakistan has an altogether novel stance on the issue. With the new Nawaz Sharif government at the helm of affairs, it has toned down its hardliner approach to the issues involving Afghanistan. Pakistan is now open to strike up collaboration with India. The Islamic neighbor of India was, once upon a time, an intermediary in Afghanistan’s communication with the west. NATO, through Pakistan, used to supply weaponry and stocks to the Afghan Mujahidins and then to the Talibans. But now, owing to the changed domestic political equations and sudden rise of Pakistan Taliban and Hakwani group, Pakistan is more sensible as a democratically elected regime. Salman Bashir, the Pak high-commissioner to India has recently observed that all of the neighboring states including India have right to take part in the Afghan transition.

Hamid Karzai, the present Afghan president is hard on the Talibans. On the other hand, the Talibans are committed to oust the Karzai regime at any cost. Their effort will be strengthened with the exit of the NATO forces. The Talibans have their internal conflicts along the lines of religious ideology, language and origin. It will not be possible for them to build up a harmonized and smooth regime. So the Taliban question is critical for India at this moment as it is a stakeholder in the organization of a democratic Afghanistan.

The North Block needed an assurance of collaboration from the rest of the stakeholders like the USA and Pakistan. It seems that India’s wish has been fulfilled for now. The recent India tour of Joseph Biden appears to be positive. Pakistan’s new government is cooperative on many fronts. Let’s wait for 2014 and keep our fingers crossed.

Politicians’ Poor Performance: in the Light of the Recent NSSO Survey

When the theatre of the absurd had been gaining currency in post-war Europe of the 1950s, obsession with excessive reasoning and logic was being criticized. The empirical understandings of post-colonial Europe and war-happy North America experienced a sudden blow, not in economic terms but in the formation of a thinly united third world ideology. India, a leader of the third world and the subsequent Non-alignment movement, was filled with optimism of a newly liberated nation. Things were difficult but the political class, at large, had a vision that led the nation through the heated up silence of the cold war nuclear politics.

Nearly 70 years after, an Indian citizen superficially aware of political course in the country will be remembered of the idea of the theatre of the absurd. A recently conducted survey by the NSSO has stirred up the old debate of poverty reduction statistics, the parameters and definitions of poverty. Our political parties are so obsessed with number that they are missing out the wood for the tree. There are some political leaders who are circulating frivolous statements which seriously question their ability of representing masses. For example, Raj Babbar, a congress spokesperson, has recently said that rural people can have a tomato or a mango from their own fields or trees whenever they wish, no one asks them to pay for those things.  And Prakash Javedkar, a BJP spokesperson has identified the NSSO report as ‘a ploy of Congress against the poor’. The way the important report is being used by the political camps to score electoral brownie points doesn’t make us hopeful as citizens of this glorious nation.

This is not a novel trend as far as Indian politics is concerned. Every time our politicians get hold of a statistics for or against them, unhealthy pandemonium is let loose. It is no exception this time.

The report reveals a sharp decline in the number of Indian people belonging to the below-poverty-line. In the fiscal 2011-12, the number of BPL people in India stands at 21.9% of the population. It was 29.8% in 2009-10 and 37.2% in 2004-05.

The UPA has started circulating the data as a summit of their success stories. With the general elections in 2014 around the corner, the ruling coalition has finally got an oasis in the long arid stretch of their second regime. Corruption, economic downturn, and policy paralysis- everything seems to be a closed chapter and with the NSSO survey report in hand, they are in search of a mandate once again.

If Congress comes, can BJP be far behind? They are leaving no stone unturned to resist the UPA from garnering political sympathy towards the closing period of the ruling coalition’s second term. Theories of ploy, stratagem, tricks, and misuse of governmental power are doing the rounds.

If we closely look at the facts, this battle of words appears to be an utterly futile exercise. The best performing states, according to the survey, are Bihar and Orissa. Regional parties outside both the UPA and the NDA are at the helm of affairs in both these states. The two states- Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat- ruled by BJP reflect opposing scenario. So do two UPA ruled states Manipur and Kerala.

There should have been a conciliatory approach in the political strategies and both the coalitions should have worked together for the betterment of the nation. When will our politicians be matured enough to lead the country?

The Conference Adjourned: Looking Into the Aspirations in Ladakh

The Demand for self-rule has been a burning agenda of political activities in Ladakh for ages. An overwhelming urge for self-rule, across the globe, often leads to secessionist movements. Ladakh is not an exception. But the state authorities don’t address this concern in a proper sensible way until the situation takes an uncontrollable turn. Representatives of the agitators are called upon; conditions and provisions of self-rule are negotiated on the table; a council is formed with or without a mandate of the masses; and then funds are transferred to the concerned councils. The state government of Jammu and Kashmir had formed a council long ago. Recently the chief minister has decided to form a separate police administration for the region. It will now be easier for police to enforce law and order in the remote region which is 400 kilometres from the state capital Srinagar.

Administrative decentralization has been a joint demand of the Buddhists and the Muslims of Leh for long. In this heated up context of Muslim-Buddhist rivalry across the subcontinent (Buddhist resistance in Myanmar and alleged involvement of Indian Mujahedeen in the blasts in Bodhgaya), the success of this joint movement becomes extremely significant. Both Kargil and Leh are demanding more autonomy from Srinagar; they want to carve out a division consisting of the two districts. It, according to them, will make them more independent of the state in matters other than administrative. The two districts are now parts of the Kashmir division.

Omar Abdulla is not yet ready to concede all that much. Huryat Conference leadership, too, is firm on its stance. Extremist Huryat leader Syed Shah Gilani has already termed the accession to autonomy as an ‘evil ploy’ to divide Kashmir. But Huryat, for ages, has been vocal about Kashmiri sovereignty and has been a dedicated organizer of violent movements to achieve this. By Kashmir, they mean the entire state, putting aside the fact that the Hindu and the Buddhist peoples of the state have always been apprehensive about joining in their proposed sovereign structure.

People of Ladakh do not want to be a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. If Huryat’s reluctance of being part of India is justified, so is the Ladakhis’ reluctance of being Pakistani citizens. Huryat, at this point of time, should think over why the Muslims of Ladakh are setting aside the issues of cultural and religious similarities in their perception of political identity. Does this point out a failure on the Huryat’s part to organize an inclusive mass movement? Huryat leaders have to engage in a scorching self-introspection to find out the answer.

Writing off the Right to Information

Presence of a particularly favored class and the consequent disparity in the social and political orders are not healthy for a democracy. Unfortunately, the Indian democracy mirrors this kind of situation more often than not. We shall find ample examples of politicians who are above the law; even if their misdeeds are proven legally, it is not a cakewalk for the concerned administration to catch them. The common man, having been a witness to this preferential treatment for years, is getting frustrated with the political class as a whole.  Reforms in the political and electoral procedures could be a means to gain back their support and admiration. But the leading political parties in India are naturally anti-reforms. It was proved once again when they opposed the recommendation of the Central Information Commission to bring Indian political parties under the purview of the Right to Information Act. Our lawmakers are even toying with the idea of framing an ordinance in the parliament to rebuff the proposal. This means that the act or bill to negate the recommendation will make its passage without a series of debates among the legislators. I hope that such a rapid exhibition of consensus will take this nation forward.

There are a couple of points in this widely accepted opposition. First, Indian political parties do not want to be defined as public authorities. Any governmental body, bodies that receive government grants and bodies formed under constitutional provisions are public authorities and comes under the purview of the RTI Act. Political parties are formed under constitutional provisions and they receive government grants on many occasions. I can’t understand how the parties entrusted with the task of representing public can detach themselves from the definition of public authority. Second, they fear that coming under the purview of the RTI act might necessitate a disclosure of their internal strategies and programs. And competitors may garner unfair advantages due to this.  But the article 8(1) of the RTI Act ensures that a body cannot be compelled to disclose any information that will discriminate it in the field of competition. And above all, one can always approach the Central Information Commission or the judiciary if they have problems with disclosing information.

So the opposition to the recommendation is contrary to the idea of democratic clarity and encourages a form of preferential treatment. In this age of widespread public anger involving the issue of corruption, it would be better for our political parties to cooperate in the process of smooth implementation of the RTI Act.