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Mainstream, Vol. XLVI, No 23

Political Parties besieged by Fatigue?

Thursday 29 May 2008, by K Saradamoni


Punjab, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh—the recent elections gave all the three States to the BJP. The Congress spokesmen had no difficulty in telling us about the incumbency factor and that they have not done that badly. I thought that the Left parties, especially the major Communist Parties, would use the occasion for a serious introspection. Is it not time for them to remember that they had a not insignificant presence in Maharashtra, especially in the old Bombay, Punjab, UP, Andhra Pradesh and there were members of the Communist Party in many other parts of the country too?

At present they seem to be content with the three States, Tripura, West Bengal and Kerala. When the party split and the CPI-M and CPI came into existence, the former had a larger following. While in West Bengal they ruled the State continuously for thirty years, in Kerala the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), the two coalition fronts, were alternating during the same period. In Kerala, a State known for its literacy and education, and a high level of political awareness , the success of the LDF was not always dependent only on the members of the Left parties. There is a section of voters, not too small, who are not members of the Communist Parties, but invariably vote for the LDF. The Left politicians have been seen as people standing for the poor, the deprived, and the disadvantaged. The major political activity expected of them is to get for those people their human rights which is essential to lead a life with dignity. Such needy people are there in every State in our country.

The year 1991 is reckoned as the year in which India officially started what is generally called the new economic reforms, the offshoots of what by then had come to be known as globalisation, privatisation and liberalisation. The main features globalisation had already been introduced in many parts of the world, including our neighbours like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and some other Asian countries. In our country, where the economy is based on planned development, a strong public sector and notions such as self-reliance had to be unsettled before the forces of globalisation could take over. Slowly and steadily they worked and paved the way for their easy entry in 1991.

The main features of a globalised economy are growing unemployment, widening inequality, labour migration, inter-community, inter-regional conflicts, increasing number of the poor and the hungry among whom the aged and people with different kinds of disabilities are significant. In a relatively short span of seventeen years a great divide has come about in our country. Certainly there was inequality here, based on wealth including land ownership, education and status raising official positions and caste. Independent India tried to attack inequality through legislations like the Untouchability Abolition Act etc. and other policy measures meant to “eradicate poverty and uplift the deprived”. Several schemes were evolved mainly to bring about rural development, and also to help special groups like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, fisherpeople etc. True, the expected results did not come from the policies and schemes. But the great divide that has come about after 1991 is qualitatively different from what prevailed earlier.

When the twentieth century dawned the poorest in India were both socially and economically low. The customary practices that prevailed ordained what each group could do and not do. They included dress, hairstyle, personal names, habitat, right to approach high-caste people and public places like road, school, temple, court etc. Independent India’s Constitution tried to do away with the earlier customary practices and asserted the right of every citizen to have equal opportunity for development. In our country, with deep-rooted notions of inequality and prejudices, the policies and programmes could not make any signicant dent into the prevailing social system. But the sixty years of government promises about a better life , especially those made during election time, have torn apart the old rules about what the low castes who were also poor could not do. The post-independent genertations among them have not experienced the taboos experienced by their parents and grandparents.

However, only a very small number among them have succeeded in getting absorbed into professions which would give them status, power and high income.

While the workers and the unemployed poor are facing greater uncertainty in every aspect of life, news came about the government’s decision to raise the salary of the President and Vice-President of India. In a discussion on this issue, telecast by a national TV channel, a spokesperson of the corporate sector welcomed the move. This rise in salary at the highest level has the possibilty of being followed by Ministers, Members of Parliament and State Legislatures , and naturally by the employees of Central and State governments. The segment of the population left outside the scope of improvement in earnings would be those engaged in agriculture and other “traditional” occupations without a salary, that is, those on the other side of the divide. That segment is numerically bigger, but not visible and its members do not have a loud enough voice to make their protests/ grievances heard.

WHEN the NDA Government raised the slogan ‘India Shining’ most of us had doubts about the claim. The Congress pointed out that most parts of India were not shining. When the UPA Government proudly announces the high rate of growth the country is achieving, we have the same or graver doubts.
What is this growth, who are responsible for that, and who are benefiting from that growth? The government, the academics and many politicians may point out the visible sections of the ‘economically active’ population as the authors of this growth. At the same time, the ‘less fortunate’ or the deprived cannot be totally ignored. As citizens of this largest democracy they constitute a significant section of the ‘vote-bank’. Our Prime Minister often refers to inclusive development, but in action his government’s perspective for the disadvantaged in the country does not go beyond minimum wages and minimum levels of living. In the early decades after independence we talked about povery and inequality. Concentration of income and wealth in some quarters bothered those who were responsible for planning and development. Today such discussions are not heard at all. True, in a market oriented economy these certainly are not issues. Both sides of the divide are not what they were five decades back. One hears of a new middle class with far greater spending power than what their parents could afford. That again is because the young engineers/management degree-holders start with huge salaries, higher than what their parents got at the time of retirement.

They are employed in the IT companies, foreign banks, local offices of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and other foreign companies. They have huge spending power and new products flood the market to attract them. At least for the time being they do not worry about savings and security. Life-styles, make-over, soft skills, internet and advertisements become part of their life. In the process, development gets redefined.

The development vocabulary shifts from agricultural and industrial production, large-scale employment and reduction in poverty to campus interviews, foreign postings and huge salary for a relatively small number of employment seekers, infrastructure, sensex and its rise/fall, express highways, flyovers, special economic zones, shopping malls, twentyfour hour TV programmes where advertisements and serials together capture the minds of the viewers, and make them believe that life is not complete without the ever-changing products, whether it be dress, brand undergarments/ footwear, products to enhance beauty, and household goods. All these go on changing, and the buyers get into the habit of disposing even things like new clothes. New professions like beauty care clinics, catering become widespread. All these happen in such haste that decisions and actions of those who are caught in the whirlpool are not mostly taken after considered thought. During the same period, the old slogan of ‘land to the tiller’ gets forgotten, land reforms give way to land grabbing, contract farming , GM seeds and modern fertilisers and pesticides poison the earth and water. Good drinking water becomes scarce. Farming communities get driven away from their homes. Deprived of the skills and knowledge they had acquired over generations, the women, men, old and young, and children get dispersed.

Young men between 18 and 25 come to Kerala from faraway Assam, West Bengal, Orissa to work in construction sites, to help make roads or buildings. Most probably they are unaware of inter-State migration laws which have clauses to protect their interests, even if they know they are not in a situation to demand anything. They live in over- crowded, unhygienic situations and are prone to ailments, for which they seldom get medical care. The government claims to have grandiose plans for the rural and urban poor. But their basic needs are not met. They are compelled to enter into areas or become accomplices in activities considered anti- social like production and distribution of spurious liquor, cultivation and sale of ganga and similar products, looting, theft, and even become paid killers. People lose faith in the system and fear of the law disappears. Shocking stories like people lynching nomads in public, schoolchildren shooting a fellow students to death, and rape and abuse of women and children are on the increase. None of these evoke sustained public outcry. This coupled with the absence of effective and immediate action by the government result in more violence and anti- social activities. This instills fear in people’s minds. Such a society cannot contribute to the implementation of the government’s plans meant for the welfare of the people or improving the quality of their life. The government’s concern continues to be about the overall economic growth and the share of sectoral contributions, which the ordinary people do not even understand. And the government, in its turn, does not appear to take seriously the constitutional guarantees to the people.

Questions may be raised about the relevance of all this in the development of the nation. For any concerned person the most urgent question is: where is this country going and how do the people (not select) live? Even though ppp (public private participation) has become a pet usage, it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that all people in the country have opportunities to live a satisfying life, the first condition of which is steady work and income. That cannot be achieved by an economy dictated by the market or the rhetoric of inclusive development. Strangely the PM’s most important agenda appears to be the nuclear deal with the US. I quote the following from the Hindu dated December 18, 2007 (p.13) :”Disappoinment if nuclear deal falls through: Manmohan—Prime Minister says he will pray to God to give him courage to be graceful under pressure“. The occasion was the distribution of prizes instituted by the NDTV to the best actors and best businessman of the Year. The socio-economic situation faced by the deprived and the marginalised, whose number is not small, does not make the PM disappointed. His Finance Minister, who was also present at the above function, said that the ‘reforms will go forward’.

In many parts of the world people think about and attempt alternative ways of social transformation which does not depend on ‘growth’ alone. For a viable alternative it is necessary for us to understand why the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Non-Aligned Movement and the South Commission withered away. Despite possible inner weaknesses, the involvement of global sharks in the above cannot be ignored. As the Secretary General of the South Commission our Prime Minister was party to a report where development, focusing on people, and based on self-reliance, South-South cooperation and freedom from indebtedness, was emphasised. An India based on people’s aspirations and solidarity and not dictated by the market forces is possible and for that we have to raise the slogan of ‘Development for All’ and continue to work for it till the goal is reached. It is not a utopia, but an exciting, realisable dream.

A renowned economist and concerned social activist, K. Saradamoni is the President of the National Federation of Indian Women.

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