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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Elections and Wider Social Change

Wednesday 2 April 2014, by Bharat Dogra

Amidst the chaos and festivity of India’s multi-party colourful election campaign, it is not easy for saner voices of broad-based social change to be heard. If the print media has hardly any space for it, the electronic media has even less. Nevertheless efforts should be made at the time of general elections to link these with wider changes so badly needed in our society to reduce many-sided distress as well as to create longer-term conditions for sustainable, stable and inclusive development.

Firstly, the agenda for reducing poverty and deprivation needs to be better defined. The need is to give the topmost priority to it in development planning. Those who waited for too long should not be asked to further wait for too long. The challenge of reducing poverty, hunger and extreme forms of poverty to negligible levels within a decade or even earlier should be accepted. This calls for bigger changes in budgetary allocations in favour of the poor, and also more basic changes to correct structural inequalities. Reducing inequalities and correcting the inequality bias of the existing development path have to be essential components of the efforts to reduce poverty. This in turn has been neglected for too long and this neglect should now be remedied with a sense of urgency.

This is linked up with the other most urgent task of environment protection and protection of habitats of all species Policies to protect environment and policies for socio-economic justice should be mutually supportive. Unfortunately, the reverse has happened frequently, and this distortion needs to be corrected. The tasks of promoting sustainable livelihoods and protecting environment are mutually consistent. In fact if environment protection is to be ensured while meeting the needs of the poor, then action against proliferation of luxurious lifestyle is essential and this implies that inequalities should be reduced.

To reduce distress as well as to create overall conditions for satisfactorily meeting needs of all people, commitment to peace is a must. This commitment is needed at various levels. Firstly opposition to war and arms-proliferation is a must. Relationships of dominance which create conditions of war at wider levels are also responsible at another level for violence in everyday life including domestic violence and gender-based violence/violence against children which creates enormous distress. So relations of dominance should be checked at all levels, including dominance based on caste, class, gender, race, religion, nationality, species etc. while relations based on equality and coopera-tion should be promoted in various ways. This essential aspect of peace needs to re-emphasised in the particular context of India and South Asia in the form of a firm commit-ment to communal harmony based on equality, justice, mutual trust and respect.

Hence the peace agenda also has much in common with the agenda of social equality at all levels. Defined in this broad way, commitment to peace is such an essential part of the agenda to reduce human distress that there is no room for using violent methods to bring social change. In a limited way the need for some self-defence preparations can be accepted but there is no room for a predominantly violent agenda and certainly no room for indiscriminate violence. Violent agenda is difficult to co-exist with democratic practices while there is need for commitment to democracy and transparency at all levels.

Clearly there is need for as great as possible a mobilisation of people on this agenda of equality and justice, environment protection and peace. While this is a huge task which should continue at all times, election times offer a special opportunity when all forces, formations and people committed to these ideals should strive to achieve the broadest possible unity to mobilise supporters and voters on these issues. They should strive to form a united political party which can preferably win elections, or if it cannot do so, then at least it should be able to use elections effectively to spread these ideas and a practical programme based on this among as many people as possible.

Unfortunately, today these forces are very far from achieving such unity. The main contenders in the election are the BJP, Congress, and their allies. At the best of times, the BJP scores poorly from the perspective of these ideals. Under the leadership of Narendra Modi, this is even more true. Whether in terms of equality and justice, peace (particularly communal harmony) and environment protection, the Modi-led BJP is poorly equipped. Going by the record of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA’s performance, the commitment of the Congress party to the goals of equality, justice and environment protection is shallow and suspect. At best it can be credited with the introduction of some laws and schemes which have some good potential if implemented properly. However, in terms of commitment to communal harmony, the Congress has a better record than the BJP, even though this record is not without significant blots. Among smaller parties the CPI-M, CPI (or their allies), to some extent the JD(U), Trinamul Congress and the new party, AAP, may have a better record than either the Congress and BJP, although again they have their share of problems. Some of the other smaller political parties may have an even better record but these are not yet significant in the national level elections.

So on the whole the election scene in India is not promising just now from the point of view of achieving the desired ideals of equality and justice, environment protection and peace. Well-planned efforts need to be initiated without further delay so that the electoral prospects of the forces of peace, justice and environment protection can improve significantly in the near future.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.