Social Fabric

General miasma

Print edition : April 12, 2019

The Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, now bereft of the security cover once provided by a ring of shops and homes around it. Local Muslims worried that an Ayodhya-like situation might be engineered to destroy it. Photo: PURNIMA S. TRIPATHI

The undermining of democracy and secularism under the present dispensation is of a piece with the aspirations of crony capitalism, which requires an unquestioning consumer base.

We know no system of governance independent of the dominant economy that at the last instance decides national policies and programmes. This would mean that activities by way of legislation and execution under the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) regime have been determined by corporate houses. Even after being aware of the nature of this political economy, we expect, in vain, a welfare state and get shocked seeing a crony capitalist government in place, and wonder at the rise of billionaires, the proliferation of millionaires, the over-exploitation of natural resources, the growing number of people living in abject poverty, the progressive elimination of the tribal people, and mounting inequality, which are natural social consequences of the dominant economy.

We associate all these social consequences with the idiosyncrasies of the Prime Minister, who is only a tool of the dominant economic interests. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s passions do matter, but they influence the direction of governance only marginally. A Prime Minister who is less democratic and more communal would be ideal for the corporate powers, for getting their interests satisfied faster, rather than one encumbered by democracy and secularism. There has been hardly any radical change in the nation’s juridical-political system for the past two decades, and most policies belong to the same genealogy. However, the assertion of the communal ideology and the tightening of the corporate control over the state have caused impairment of democracy and secularism. This is the overall perspective with which I analyse the social impact of the NDA government, which is nearing the completion of its current tenure.

Social Consequences

We expect things that are most unlikely and are shocked when we do not get them. Nonetheless, having stated the perspective at the outset, such bizarre hopes are precluded in the present analysis of the social impact of NDA rule in terms of legislation and execution of policies and the promotion of ideologies. Some of these were initiated earlier, and some others have been introduced in the present time. For instance, Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric and demographic identification system, which was initiated by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and implemented by the NDA government, has become the nation’s most reliable identity card and makes it possible for citizens to avail themselves of a variety of services through a single ID. But the claim that this unique identification helps in poverty eradication is mere rhetoric. It is a crony capitalist strategy of entrenching “control society” and “surveillance state” with the citizenry’s biometric identity and personal database. The Aadhaar database has enormous potential as a source of national soft power. One will have to watch out for the future uses and abuses of Aadhaar data.

The Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana scheme of financial inclusion did help poor people secure a bank account and a debit card, thus enabling access to social security schemes. But studies show that it did not work as a people-centred empowerment measure. It functioned largely as an enterprise benefiting the system and not poor farmers in the grip of moneylenders. Similarly, the Hydrocarbons Exploration and Licensing Policy, a much hailed reform to encourage upstream investment and improve productivity and thus attract more private and foreign investors into the oil and gas sector, ended up with no social benefits. Whether or not the reforms lead to oil price recovery and a spurt in investments, they are not going to be consumer friendly.

Likewise, goods and services tax (GST), a long-drawn-out reform substituting eight taxes of the Centre and nine taxes of States as a strong measure against tax evasion, must have positively impacted public finance. Nonetheless, its bureaucratised implementation and the compliance imposition on small-scale enterprises involved serious social consequences. None of these national economic reforms could control price rise and help improve employment productivity, open up new livelihoods, reduce cost of living or enable better access to basic necessities. The NDA government’s crony capitalist approach made the nation’s administered pricing system dubious and kept the domestic price of fuel at unprecedented high rates, while the international oil price registered a record fall. The government did not address farmers’ issues such as debt burdens and lack of crop insurance and hence encountered massive protests by poor farmers and lower-middle-class people all over the country. While agricultural exports failed miserably, the country imported various pulses at lowered tariff rates during periods of domestic surplus and upset the farmers’ exchange market. Widespread distress in the agrarian sector has seen farmers committing suicide again in different regions.

The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, introduced in 2016 and then made into a law through the IBC (Second Amendment) Act, 2018, is aimed at time-bound insolvency resolution of corporate persons, partnership firms and individuals. It is a much applauded piece of legislation and is ostensibly meant to act as a check on surreptitious privatisation of public revenue. It has been hailed as a legislative move to curb crony capitalism. But in effect, it facilitates state-sponsored maximisation of the value of assets of entities pleading bankruptcy, extension of valuable assets at heavily discounted rates to them, ensures easy exit from the failing firm, and furthers the ends of crony capitalism by accommodating crony capitalist agencies like assets reconstruction companies. Likewise, the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Amendment Act, aimed at controlling black money and enabling the government to provisionally attach and eventually confiscate benami properties, hardly has any social welfare angle. A much more dramatic move purportedly against black money was demonetisation, which targeted the curbing of fake currency and cross-border terror financing. Apart from its effects on real estate, demand, supply chain disruption, and stock-market instability, demonetisation has seriously affected ordinary people.

False consciousness

There have been concerted efforts to manipulate ideological and institutional means to distort the public sense of reality to conceal the intensified but sophisticated exploitation intrinsic to capitalist social relations across classes. The capitalist economy requires total conformity and uncritical acceptance. A primary requirement is a mentality of consumerism. Further, people should never be politically conscious enough to force the government to regulate capital, combine growth with equity, or ensure distributive justice. They should never be capable of demanding that the government redistribute wealth, enhance consumption, boost investments, and generate employment.

In order to ensure such an apolitical social environment, the government has been spreading false ideas of polity, economy and culture. Communalism has been under constant ignition in the guise of patriotism and the government has been praising its achievements in hyperbole axioms such as “In our country everyone is equal” or “Those who have looted the nation and looted the poor are not able to sleep peacefully today” and “Let us join to create a new India”.

Planned attempts have been made to spread false ideas about ancient Indian achievements in science, mathematics and technology. Such obscurantisms have penetrated into national councils of science and technology, institutions of research and professional bodies. Recent claims of aeronautics, nuclear weapons and stem cell biology being known to ancient Indian science are examples. At the same time there is no discussion of real achievements such as the development of calculus by Madhava of 14th century Kerala, the curious number theory or infinite series of Srinivasa Ramanujan, and contributions of Nobel laureates like Venkataraman Ramakrishnan and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar of Tamil Nadu in the 20th century. It is mystification, not the unveiling of science, which engages the obscurantist. An equally exasperating process is the political promotion of superstitions about god-men and god-women to help them attract blind followers. In fact, the state itself was constrained to book some of the exposed criminals among the god-men. Nevertheless, Sangh Parivar politicians pander to them for mass support. Corporate powers have distinct economic reasons for banking on obscurantist practices, for they help turn the people into apolitical, apathetic and uncritical masses.

Food fascism

There has been widespread mobilisation for nationwide prohibition of cow slaughter. Slaughter of cattle has been banned in about 18 States. A senior judge is reported to have demanded declaration of the cow as the national animal and imposition of life imprisonment to those who slaughter the animal. Cow vigilantism of an extremely aggressive kind is on the rise all over northern India. Several Muslims have been lynched for eating beef, trading in cattle, even on suspicion of stocking beef. Lynchings over rumours of beef being cooked at someone’s home have been reported.

Many people, irrespective of religious differences, and most Dalits (formerly untouchables), Muslims and Christians of the country eat beef. How can certain groups of caste Hindus decide what people should eat in a land of cultural diversity and varied dietary habits? Interestingly, all these caste-Hindu families across Indian villages continue the practice of selling male calves to meat dealers and butchers. Indian villages always had a wide diversity of food habits differentiated along lines of religion, region, and caste. Hence, food fascism is an expression of communal divisiveness, caste-based distancing and the practice of untouchablity.

There has been a significant rise in the number of violent incidents of moral policing by vigilante groups, religious organisations and unaffiliated citizens. All over the country there are vigilante groups acting aggressively in defence of “Indian heritage and culture”. Certain practices, customs and ways of dressing are opposed on the grounds that they are part of an alien or Western culture. Attacks on gift shops selling greeting cards on the occasion of Valentine’s Day and beating up couples for kissing in public are examples.

Aggressive communal fringe organisations attack and lynch Dalits and Muslims for marrying outside their caste or community. All this is part of the process within capitalist economy. The state and the ruling class create social norms, value systems and social stigmas to create a hegemonic culture by which their continued dominance is ensured.

Impairment of democracy and dissolution of secularism have been the main sociopolitical consequence of NDA rule. This is an inevitable consequence of corporate capitalist development.

Functional autocracy

 

Corporate powers have turned the democratic state into a functional autocracy under the guidance of corporatocracy—a regime of corporate powers, for corporate powers and by corporate powers.

Corporate houses have cleverly manipulated state power so as to efficiently mobilise people’s consent for functional autocracy. This process is made easier by uncritical masses, moved by sentiments of divisiveness, rooted in caste and communalism, which degenerate nationalism into false consciousness. A crony capitalist state, with its economic sovereignty highly impaired, has to strain at the leash to counterbalance itself with an overtly self-aggrandising political sovereignty.

This is what the leader of the NDA government has been trying and doing all along.

Rajan Gurukkal, a historian and social scientist, is a former Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, Kerala.

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