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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 18 New Delhi April 20, 2019

Democracy Zindabad! : The Message of 2019 Congress Manifesto and its Holistic Logic

Tuesday 23 April 2019, by Kamal Nayan Kabra

Just as elections come and elections go, so do manifestos. They have rarely received wide-spread attention, much less succeed to evoke fierce and widely participated popular debates. However, they too invite their normal comple-ments of bouquets or brickbats. Their influence on vote-garnering remains unsubstantiated but cannot be written-off. For example, the better-off sections who rejoice at even a trivial cut in tax imposts tend to be dismissive, even sarcastic, about any positive offer for the lower sections.

The simple point is that the typical responses to pro-poor election-eve proposals is that of suddenly aroused concern among the better-off sections for the larger, dormant values of work culture, fiscal prudence and shock at overlooking the enhanced prospects of various inevitable leakages and corruption which would defeat the intentions to help the poor. The partisanship is too apparent and blatant to be overlooked. Thus it is smugly inferred that even if some positive suggestions emerge they would be of little practical value. They expect business as usual and no lasting change, snuffing out the potential lurking in the sincere implementation of the presently made commitments in Manifesto 2019.

What seems to be congenitally overlooked and downplayed are not just the direct gains which are likely to reach the poor but their immediate and medium-term implications for the larger reality. More so regarding the dent likely to be made in the adverse socio-political relative and absolute position of the masses following the carrying out of some of the path-breaking promises. More so if the totality of such announced measures is woven together and their interacting, mutually reinforcing likely impact spread over time is to be taken note of. This subdued aspect of the 2019 manifesto, whether deliberate or incidental, may turn out to be its real strength.

However the experience one has seen so far at the hands of the powerful liberalisers presiding over the post-1991 dispensation on both the sides of the political divide, spread over the entire period, entails some lessons and warnings one may note at the outset. True, the story so far may well lend support to such cynicism. A little noted aspect embodied in the announced proposals is that in their incidental totality they amount to a recognition of the counter-productive outcomes flowing from the free-market, globalised pursuit of GDP growth as the panacea. On the contrary the people have never been, even at the pinnacle of statist growth as development planning, courtesy the agency of state and corporate honchos, as bad off as they are after nearly three decades of the so-called freeing of the economy, opening up of the borders and all out pursuit of the growth of GDP as the real mantra. Vain and wasted growth indeed!

In fact the claim by the Congress that it is a non-ivory tower exercise evolved by consultations under the party fora and the major points of its new mantras seem to be weighed down by the fate the pre-2019 pro-poor and populist programmes and pronouncements have met so far. The widely known and cited facts about the intensification and dehumanisation of the typical growth-bred and intensified inequalities, lately front-paged, seem to have delivered a message which, though hidden, is not ignorable any longer. Thus one need not cite the limited and ad hoc outcomes emerging from even some purportedly rights-based relatively better-grounded recent schemes.

At this point a significant and generally overlooked tendency may be noted. There have always been episodes and periodic limited positive achievements which have largely improved the human lot but with thorns and exclusions remaining intact and capable of disrupting the spread effects. But these have often fallen short of building up stable and sustained dispersed and equitably shared capabilities which make the positive, desirable and equitable outcomes and institutions a normal occurrence and part of the operating system. There is mounting evidence that one can see the persistence of the problems faced by the common citizen. This may well be despite the in-built but poorly actualised potential inherent in the logic which activated the add-ons to the neo-liberal kitty, by way of the right to food, on-demand right to work, universal right to education and similar urgencies. These are typical of the ground level failures of the run-of-the-mill anti-poverty programmes.

It may be quickly added that there is nothing socialistic, Leftist or anti-private business and markets in any really effective sense as a part of the promised NYAY scheme. It seems to bear implicit corrective to the policies-led worsening of the inequalities and undemocratic adverse inclusion of the majority of people in order to pamper the corporate honchos, their hangers-on and their allies and promoters from the G-7 power block. As a macro economic consequence this amount of freshly injected purchasing power would in course of time give a fillip to the demand for goods and services. Being the biggest producer the corporate sector would find its order books growing. To them it would be equivalent of some kind of helicopter money to boost demand but instead of digging holes and filling them up, these measured transfers to the deserving masses would satisfy the legitimate urges of the poorest sections. A real mutually beneficial game!

The amount may well be close to two per cent of the nominal GDP and thus encourage production and investment with a multiplier effect. It would thus supply some necessary complement of oxygen to the growth of GDP and stubbornly rigid organised sector employment. A chain of indirect effects over time may follow.

Such like outcomes could have emerged from a non-token implementation of similar programmes as were subsumed in the neo-liberal kitty. However, many factors blocked such prospects going far. For one, the craftily devised and adored bogey of fiscal deficit (typical of the hidden mantras actively used by the master-minds steering the post-1991 policies), and two, persistence of the pro-rich hidden subsidies adding fuel to the inherent inequalities and denial of participation to the bulk of the emerging labour force (again justified in the name of growth!). Then we came across the third factor by way of the persistence of high priority pro-rich disequalising growth (related in part to the head winds of the global recessionary, and secularly declining/recessionary traits combined with top-level privatised infra-structure. These factors are rarely noted, despite the warnings by many scholars in the tradition of democratic voices such as that of the scholars in the tradition of Galbraith even in the precincts of mainstream economics, of course on the side-lines of the Western establishment.

As a consequence of persistent poverty, deprivation and discrimination, a lot many demeaning insults have been heaped on the rights and aspirations of the masses by continued inadequate access to dependable livelihood opportunities or, to use a Hicksian expression, absorption of the people who are willing and capable of supplying labour power. This causes exclusion on a large scale and typical leakages flowing from various social support measures of inadequate size compared to the need for them and thus create a scramble for them and their discretionary, leaky implementation.

These are the inevitable effects of non-universal coverage of less window-dressing schemes meant for the poor (populist in the sense of declared pro-people character but token and ineffective because of their gross inadequacy and uncertain life span and tout-infested administration). Thus populism often amounts to limited access to the right to food and work and good and meaningful education etc., that is showy measures with lack of sincere commitment, mainly for the political support and helping the cronies with illegal access to illegally diverted public funds. To these were added the institutionalised injuries caused by the diversions of resources away from so-called anti-poverty programmes in order to pour a heavy dose of public investment in extremely top-heavy, exclusionary infrastructure. Thanks to the over-expansion of white-collar crimes by the rich and powerful in the corporate and political spheres in the course of their normal occupations.

As a part of such topsy-turvy priorities and processes national natural resources and huge bank and foreign-resource, such as finances, were allocated for the exclusionary, depriving and discriminatory projects such as six-lane metro road projects, bullet-train kind of other non-inclusive growth kind of infrastructure which divert resources away from the rights and needs of the people at the bottom end. The token, inappropriate and highly porous character of many prevalent projects to reach and benefit the really deprived are also well known. The point is the need for really meaningful programmes which directly, adequately and in a sustained manner benefit the poor in a non-discretionary, non-partisan, objective way and on a scale that is effective to make a real departure from token non-sustainable gains.

The distinctive point of the NYAY and accompanying proposals in the Manifesto is to put an end to such showmanship and introduce real, sincere efforts, which were hardly consistent with logic and intentions underlying neoliberal causes which were lapped up by the failed statist protagonists owing to their lip-service to it while being hidden market votaries and globalisers, patronised by the establishment of the Western self-certified donor nations. It is this kind of “hriday-parivatan” of the old establishment motivated by the instinct of survival. One suspects this factor too has played a part in the putting together of some elements of a move towards genuine pro-democratic developments in the Manifesto 2019. Of course the usual care not to stray away too far can also be seen. A real litmus test of the democratic pro-people credentials of the Manifesto came from the Finance Minister of the NDA regime who publicly proclaimed these proposals as “dangerous”!

As against the above, today once again the bogey of lack of and diversion of resources, negative effect on work ethics of the people who are systematically and predictably kept without work for long stretches of time, free-riding mentality among the people who essentially live by the sweat of their brow, and of course boost to corruption (look who is complaining!), and what have you has also been raised. They do indeed amount to downplaying the pro-people content of the Manifesto 2019. One can note how the eyes have been tendentiously moved away from most of the adverse exclusion-causing practices which at every stage and in every sense go on to line the pockets of the top-end people, both legally-formally and more so by several underhand or subterranean means. Even now when the time comes for the post-May 2019 situation, an occasion to respond not to the arithmetic of numbers alone and give a free-run to the power dreams, but for initiating a genuine effort to really democratise governance and development by taking up the carrying out of the Manifesto with utmost seriousness and commitment. It is in this context and assumption that one can see how the Manifesto 2019 can mark a break from the past. Of course, not only the neo-liberal veneer but hard content would survive but pro-people corrections too cannot be avoided. A new mixed bag of policies and stances or some such thing may emerge as they become unavoidable. In some such senses we can thus say: Democracy Zindabad!

Its necessity arose out of the present conditions. Not only the country, its democracy, the essence of India and the very future of the Congress and other democratic political parties are at stake. Even now the realisation of the gravity of the current conjuncture may not have found an adequate response despite the major breaks marked by some salient aspects of the Manifesto. The short-run, immediate political and power gains mentality (the lure of what appear to be low-hanging fruits) continues to prevent many broadminded strategic decisions, particularly in terms of mobilising a variety of united people’s front elements. A broad consensus not just for seat-sharing but even in terms of a joint programme adopted by and presented to the people by a likely shared post-May 2019 government would have added to the appeal, popular sanction and enthusiasm for the common platform by so many of the nationally committed and keen democratic inclusive forces. After all, it is claimed to be not a product put together by randomly picking up several ideas floating around. On the contrary it is supposed to be a collective product that emerged from several exercises of large popular consultation and participation, involving the interests from the grassroots. The manner in which it could have shunned several hobby hoses and pet ideas of many vested interests from within and abroad (centres known for kibitzing development policies, ideas, concepts, theories and programmes with a pseudo-neutral, expert and benefactor posture, say, from the multilateral think-tanks and research, evaluation outfits) is something which cannot be ascertained at the present stage. The way the concerns of those at the bottom of our distressingly top-heavy socio-economic and cultural pyramids with sections facing persecution tend to find an identifiable place in the Manifestos and relate to the ground level conditions, concerns and unmet expectations seem to be among certain reassuring facets of the Manifesto. They must be built on. The dangers posed by emerging oligopolies with nefarious mafia linkages have to be assessed and fought.

That this clear social engineering has been carried out without hurting either the top echelons and much less even the middle ones is not just political correctness and necessity. The process of equalisation need not always involve chopping off or scaling down the top but raising up the bottom-level forces and people. This is one immediately feasible course of action whose practical and practicable logic is reassuring. Given that the bigger line can be shortened by attempts to draw a bigger line. Then a new social balance may emerge. An ensemble of people-friendly appropriate programmes put the fat of vested and narrow-minded interests on the alert and they raise false alarms. One may recall how a big business lobby’s front-paged advertisement practically coincided with the Congress Manifesto and the attempt to flog the dead horse of the GDP growth (a total misnomer for pro-people development) and a real name for the wealth and wellbeing of the top brass in business, politics and social arena. This has in practice turned out to be a means for paving the road to disaster for the common citizen as the sum and substance of the mal-development suffered by India over the past few decades. Its glaring gulf between the real and nominal GDP with their two institutionally and structurally different beneficiary groups is too direct to be missed out.

Little wonder, already one sees some misleading as well as mean manoeuverings to downplay the salient pro-people thrusts of the Manifesto. These aspects have a relatively long-term potential which can go beyond the conventional fire-fighting and dependence-enhancing features. Let us explore the real meaning implicit in some of the key inter-related and mutually reinforcing proposals.

In short, one can say that instead of just money transfers (fairly sizeable, nay, fully adequate according to the size of the task to be meaningful—20 per cent of families without any discrimination on any non-economic criteria and thus making the gimmick of reservation for the higher castes redundant) with impact on capabilities, relative independence, impact on overall quality of life through self-chosen spending pattern, greater needed expenditure on education, health services, social security etc., and granting the right to homestead and for effective solution of quest for one’s own shelter and continuation of extension services and a farmers’ budget to overcome the neglect of agriculture and the peasantry and links with organised sector through unfreezing of accumulated public recruitment, and most importantly, expansion of the home market by rationalisation of the GST rates around one uniform rate, to mention a few, there seems to be a well-conceived and well-intermixed design which may go to fill the long standing capability gaps and thus open up relative autonomy and access to other means of self-actualisation to the citizens waiting for coming into their own rights-based position.

Thus instead of causing perpetual dependence or bogging down in a low income de-humanising trap, these legal and citisenship-based non-discriminatory entitlements do not bind the beneficiary to the minimum level or block her autonomous and self-driven endeavours. Thus thanks to the complementary enlarged and resurrected schemes such MGNREGA and such like programmes so far with thin financial allocations and still persisting less than effective methodology and limping design for the rights-based access to meaningful purchasing power by constructing socially useful for 150 days in a year, the NYAY programme has been made a second string to the bow and not the sole support system. One has to watch some fiscal conser-vatives and known advocates of the corporate against their artful tactics to rob the programme of its kernel.

It is in this cnext that one must be watchful to ensure that the six per cent GDP on education and three per cent on healthcare are not allowed to fall prey to the fiscal conservatism of the forces which spend tons and tons of public revenue on meaningless subsides to the corporates for reducing their effective tax outgo to ridiculously low levels.

Real tax rates must conform to the declared ones and backdoor hidden reductions must be ruled out. Access to homestead land provides the firm basis for autonomous living worthy of equality before law. Their uniform, non-discretionary selection, a tough task, has become an imperative. Individual isolated schemes falter owing to non-sustainability and inability to create sustainable capabilities in the hand of the beneficiaries. But schemes supported by other accompanying schemes and programmes, like health and education and homestead land and access to bank loans without inviting and attracting criminal prosecution, have to be viewed as parts of the preconditions for NYAY. The transition from growth with its built-in and intensifying anomalies to NYAY could herald a big qualitative redesign of development.

One has to warn against the false alarms raised by the obliged and purposively picked-up media, including some worthies or suddenly propped-up experts who feel the necessity to pay the debt of their sudden elevation as they have hurriedly jumped the band wagon to bask in reflected glory of their shady mentors and spare no effort to dismiss the pro-people programmes and switches in public policy and programmes. Clearly many such experts have been caught off their guard. That the false and failed and deceptive God of GDP slowdown, bogey of fiscal deficit etc. took just a little polishing and are on the prowl again. One may note that many top-most Establishment scholars and perceptive mainstream thinkers too have buried the ghost of GDP meaningfulness and its value as a precondition for anything meaningful for society. The GDP growth as a precondition and as a cure-all and as the indicator of progress which can be depended on infinitely are by themselves long lasting endemic curses foisted by pseudo-theories.

Recently a powerful study with access and utilisation of both academic and official documents by Mathias Schmelzer (CUP, 2016) has gone in great depth and acumen to explain the real logic and manipulations to disproportionately further the interests, power and opportunities for the super rich under the illusion of GDP growth-centric development of the nation and its people. Such a fetish of GDP has historically not helped any nation, including India, to achieve equitable, fair, sustainable and mass participative development. It has been a self-goal that worsened inequalities, increased mass endemic unemployment, chronic poverty. environmental decay and all-round social perversion. The point is small, incremental gains in several fields which fall short of the requirements and potential and imposes disproportionate and perversely imposed costs and long-term irreparable damages can possibly be taken to mean limited sectional growth but not all-encompassing and balanced social development. The GDP-centric growth cannot be a substitute for policies directly good and empowering for the lower adversely included sections.

Obviously it would be too much to expect the Manifesto 2019 to be by itself a contribution of this kind of a qualitative breakthrough the nation needs. For the present it would suffice if it could be taken as a sincere beginning of the efforts to move out of the present blind alleys. But in terms of its well-conceived, inter-related and mutually reinforcing schemes and programmes and other explicitly brought out commitments. For example, some small steps towards cleansing the political and democratic processes in terms of transparent election funding are but a welcome move while scrapping the non-transparent electoral bonds is awaited. However, the essential point is to make the party system democratic and fully participative at every level. This would reduce the requirement for massive spending for wooing the masses, The daily policies and adminis-tration can become effective substitutes for special pleadings and election-eve orchestration. However the sadly lacking law for democratisation of the political parties and their open, transparent internal democratic functioning remain a far cry. Nonetheless, what has been provided in the Manifesto is a big positive measure inching towards introducing long awaited correctives which contain some elements and a certain logic to strengthen and push ahead by means of the power of the people. The logic of the power of a few has to be made to yield place to the power of the people. Democratic and centralising measure at the same time cannot simply go hand in hand as the Soviet story too shows. What is essential is to energise and create vistas for appropriate channelisation. The NYAY and similar closely connected complementary programmes hold such as a promise.

The Congress 2019 Manifesto marks a qualitative advance insofar as it surefootedly inches towards genuine and self-accelerating inclusion of the masses in the mainstream economic activities. This is designed to be attempted without any effort to chop the heights and stop the businesses or make it hard for those to function—rather the young ones are to be freed in a real sense of the hassles-free methods of initiating and financing new ventures. The litmus test of ease of doing business and security for the informal small businesses is to convert the policy goals towards the ease and security of living for the common man. With a meaningful amount of assured and adequate rather than token income supplement (in this the top echelons may see the phantom of losing some of the hidden subsidies and the loot of public money via bank advances, grey political economic linkages, and so on). The presence of a reasonable amount of purchasing power in the purses of the people year after year, access to bank loans, better and assured prices for their produce (hope made practicable by a local easily accessible village panchayat-run warehouse which a gives a negotiable warehouse receipt as a financial marketable financial instrument) freed of the stigma of defaulter facing jail, indignity and acute inability to ensure that the two ends meet, and this being not just a one-time affair, with adequate and effective access to education, health, affordably-priced food supplies, homestead land, access to MGNREGA to bring about some income supplementation over a better part of the lean season, social security access of the kind not seen before, possible share in new government jobs, etc. may open up a new era.

A non-explicit item seems to be the rural civic infrastructure for hygienic living conditions, water and intra-village roads and ecological regeneration, etc. and productive work sites for the MGNREGA works in an integrated locally determined manner. The role of the state and line departments has to be confined to specific areas only. That this income support is unconditional for all makes it a real boost to the market demand for goods and services and hence to the organised sector growth as well. The real value of the GDP figures is to indicate the size of the market and this would be served well by the NYAY and connected schemes.

The design does not make the rural and urban masses and the young men and women willing and capable of working mainly for the corporates but intends to bring back to life the unorganised small businesses in rural and small urban centres, backed up by the most popular and life-line business of viable farming. With the freedom to initiate business without the hassle of government approvals, tax payments even before incubation is over and so on. The real ease of business for the common person has to be the ease of living.

The corporate honchos who always look to imported, inappropriate non-swadeshi technologies, product-mix and ways and means of running business which lines the private pockets of the hand-in-glove corporate and political bosses. The emphasis on imported and inappropriate technologies has to go. The adoption of direct universal basic income transfer (added by adequate and appropriate education, health services and social security and so on) can work slow miracles provided the Congress worker is able to convey the message. The manifestos’ debate must steer clear of overtime working lobbies (as a recent CII front page advertorial presaged).

One wonders if anyone who has exercised one’s franchise time and again during the past few decades would recall how few and far between have been the occasions when the manifestos or even loudly proclaimed announcements and promises have raised a storm of heated or lively debates from divergent perspectives. This time one would not probably be wrong to anticipate that the delayed manifesto of the main rival has to an extent immediately responded in some ways to the preceding rival manifesto. The drive to move the discourse away from the conditions and concerns of the people, particularly of those impinging on the lowest rungs of India’s increasingly disequalised society have begun with many big thuds. More of such efforts may well be waiting in the wings. The effort may well be to try and make it an emotionally surcharged one concerning many vacuous, airy-fairy and artificially kicked-up issues. If the manifestos have a fighting chance to become the main election battle-cries, the election this time may concern the people relatively directly.

Then they may spawn a fresh wave of aroused aspirations, whether revolutionary or not the time only would tell depending on the seriousness with which they are backed up while running the government. Any departure from the past in this respect would surely add new feathers to the cap of Indian democracy. The package brings back the common citizenry directly to the political and economic market, social space and capable of participation in the civic, economic and cultural spheres without having to lean on the shoulders of some big guns forcibly or on the basis of a meaningful basic income supplementation, state-provisioned access to capabilities-building social services such as education, health and sanitary services, removal of the burden of distress and productive loan repayments and servicing and the security and pride of owning a small homestead plot of ones own. One has seen how the universal access to such services and facilities and entitlements in small doses have gone some distance in the past but remained discretionary, inadequate and hence victims of bad and discretionary delivery with proliferation of touts from the administration, criminal mafia gangs and their white-collar counterparts in several avatars.

It is the complexity of the present conjuncture and the emerging unmet challenges which seem to lead to the erosion of faith causing a gulf between the word of the political class and the outcomes they deliver. The confusion generated by the phenomena like post-truth and fake news, the gulf between the promises and practices followed by the high decibel public account publicity interspersed with personal venomous charges and countercharges have replaced, to an incredible extent, serious and credible debates. The irony is that the more approachable people have become, thanks to so many technical breakthroughs and gadgets, the more misuse of them has become the rampant practice. With the huge army of youth with unsuccessful common pursuits, the ease and low cost of putting together a huge army of hangers-on and errand guys for doing the dirty tricks galore has increased. Without much elaboration of such unpleasant, unwholesome realities, it is clear that the stakes of every interest in the 2019 elections seem to have reached a new peak.

An eminent economist, Prof Kabra was a Professor of Economics (1980-2003), Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi; thereafter he was the Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor (2010-2017), Economic Development and Decentralised Planning,Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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