Tuesday, June 4, 2019

A REPUBLIC ALWAYS IN CRISIS


The Indian Republic is, was, and will be in crisis. And perhaps the biggest issue that dogs the Republic is social and economic inequality. Seventy years of electioneering has not solved the problem. Successive governments and civil society groups have failed to address the issue of inequality. The social and economic inequalities manifest in the form of routinized violence and discrimination in everyday life for the marginalized and minoritized communities. The crisis will only deepen in the future if these inequalities remain unaddressed.

The routinized violence and discrimination against the marginalized and minoritized communities are not new; it is a way of life since the establishment of the Indian Republic. Ever since its founding, the Indian Republic has been unable to stop the discrimination and atrocities committed against its marginalized and minoritized communities. The most recent and shocking revelations of the death of Dr. Payal Tadvi, a resident doctor at a hospital in Bombay, exposes yet again the casteist way of life in India. Barely three years after the institutional murder of Hyderabad Central University scholar Rohith Vemula, Dr. Tadvi’s institutional murder (now suspected to be cold-blooded murder) is déjà vu for those familiar with the discrimination, harassment, and violence against marginalized and minoritized communities.

The recent deaths contradict the democratic vision enshrined in the constitution of India. The routine violence and harassment fly in the face of political grandstanding about the greatness of Indian culture and its ability to harmoniously bond the various communities now and in the future. Fractures of caste and religion are often used—especially during elections—to polarize and scapegoat many marginalized communities. The result of almost seven decades of polarization, scapegoating, and a deepening of casteism is the spread of Hindu majoritarianism. Any attempts at realizing democracy and equality in India have to confront the juggernaut of religious majoritarianism—whether under the guise of secularism or a theocratic ideology.

The Indian Republic, emerging after the transfer of power from the British Raj, faced a crisis in the sharing of power with marginalized caste and minoritized religious groups. The elite Hindu groups, who controlled politics after the departure of the British, kept most of the power for themselves and their kin, while there were thousands of religious and caste communities, socially subordinated to the Hindu upper-castes, who expected to share power and influence in a new Republic. In such a scenario, the elite groups of the country, mostly Hindu, nurtured a political illusion of equal rights for all, while they maintained their hegemony. In other words, the Indian polity was actually based not on equality but clientelism. Most of the marginalized caste and religious communities have to play second fiddle to one or more upper-caste Hindu communities.

The contradictory nature of the Indian Republic whereby the elites sought (and seek) to hold on to power while employing a language of liberalism, secularism, and democracy obstructed any meaningful changes in terms of social justice. The culture of the new Republic too was overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindu. Thus, communities which did not emerge out of an upper-caste Hindu location had to change their culture to make it compatible with Hindu, or euphemistically, Indian cultural forms. The public culture in the new Republic was also marked by those cultural forms deemed appropriate by Hindu culture in terms of food, drink, and dress.

With their hold on power, elite Hindus (as well as non-Hindu elites), ensure that insignificant social and economic mobility for marginalized caste and religious communities. True, the constitution of India provides many safeguards against oppression and promotes affirmative action, but the push-back from the elite sections has resulted in the dilution of the progressive vision of the constitution. In publicly-funded universities and government employ, persons such as Tadvi and Vemula face constant and vicious harassment. It is not an exaggeration to say that persons from marginalized castes and minority religions are often unwelcome in the public institutions of the Indian Republic.

The problem of an equal, or at least a fair, sharing of power has dogged the Republic since the beginning. If one thinks about politics—and not just elections alone—in the Indian Republic, the elites shared power only on limited occasions. They have done so begrudgingly if at all power has been shared in the first place. One could think of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission and the deep-seated resentment that many elites in the country feel even today, as an example. The resulting concentration of power within the hands of a few is the cause of the continued crisis facing the Republic.

The crisis that confronts the Indian Republic is an old one: How to eradicate the deep-seated inequalities to build a community that looks after its own and nurtures its citizenry to its full potential? It is this question that most public intellectuals do not confront. Of late, there is the talk of the fundamental ethos of the Indian Republic being in danger. There is no doubt that it is in danger. However, one must bear in mind that the progressive ethos of the Republic has always been in danger. There has always been strong opposition to any progressive politics that goes beyond just words, that actually empowers the weak and shares power with the downtrodden.

The way out of the crisis of inequality, violence, and minoritization is to recognize that chest-thumping nationalism—of any shade—only diverts attention from the real issues. It allows those in power to engage in further polarizing the polity and permit the wholesale diversion of resources to crony capitalists from those who need them the most. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 4 June, 2019)

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

CONVERSATIONS FOR OUR FUTURE


In the Lok Sabha elections 2019, most voters faced the proverbial horns of a dilemma. These voters who want a non-communal, non-corrupt government have, on the one hand, voted for a particular party whose record in combating communalism and corruption belies its lofty rhetoric of upholding values of honest politics and secularism. On the other hand, some may have voted for a new party, whose unique selling pitch is its tirade against corruption, and whose new-ness has ensured that it has no real record of malfeasance.

However, these two choices—though made in desperation—have a fatal flaw built into them: they are stopgap solutions and have consequences for the future of the polity, society, and the environment for the next 10 or 20 years. As far as electoral representation is concerned, if the abovementioned dilemma gets resolved momentarily by choosing the lesser evil, throughout the next several decades, we shall only be electing the lesser evil.

One can appreciate why many voters are desperate. The Indian first-past-the-post electoral system with the minoritization of thousands of communities often leaves people with little choices other than the short-term, stopgap ones. Often, voters operate based on guesswork over how best not to waste one’s vote, and also get some short-term benefit by choosing the lesser evil. More often, one hopes that the short-term choices have no long-term destructive consequences.

It is crucial, therefore, to have a new type of political conversations, which ensures long-term solutions to our current problems. Our powerless-ness and hopeless-ness during elections should encourage debates over long-term changes in politics, society, and environment. As many have started to recognize, deepening democracy and combating communalism and corruption cannot happen during elections alone. What we do and say after an election, anticipating the next, buffers us from powerless-ness and can truly give us a choice. Accordingly, we can think of education, workers’ rights, and environmental protection as part of a multi-pronged strategy for providing us with better choices during elections.

We must have political conversations over issues that are useful in the long-term. Education is fundamental if one is to live in an empowered society. In recent times, Goa has seen the demand for government aid for English as a medium of instruction at the primary schooling level. In terms of higher education, we are witness to spirited fights for securing the right for education and employment in universities through affirmative action.

The importance of education and the discrimination therein should impress upon all the need for affirmative action in our schools and universities. The empowerment of a generation of young persons, otherwise excluded from these spaces, will create a citizenry that contributes to equal or equitable social relations. Currently, schools and universities are battlegrounds where the marginalized lose out to the privileged. The reason is that schools and universities have not provided equal opportunity for all. By leveling the field through education, the electoral process will see the participation of young voters who are not easily swayed by demagoguery or false promises.

Another theme for a political conversation is migrant workers and the bogey of ‘vote-banks’. Some of us get enraged by ‘vote-bank’ politics when the truth is that it denies a large section of the population their basic rights. These workers provide vital labor and hence, rather than rail against the ‘vote-bank’, we need to be sensitive to the matter of their fundamental rights. Securing the rights of workers such as minimum wage, health insurance, housing and enforcing these rights in good faith empowers a constituency to be not exploited by the vote-bank politics of the national and regional parties.

Protecting the fundamental rights of migrants have advantages for locals as it strengthens the rule of law internally. One can see an interesting parallel with the denial of basic rights to migrant labor and the crisis facing Goa’s mining-dependent, or the locals. In the case of the mining-dependent, the government had no safeguards against rampant illegalities and the economic fluctuations of an industry based on the whims of the global capitalist players. The mining-dependent, much like the migrant labor, are expendable in the larger scheme of the capitalist-party politics nexus. The mining dependents form a large group of people whose destiny depends on the goodwill of politicians and big businesses. They, too, vote but hardly control their destiny.

Thinking of workers’ rights and mining dependents, we can easily see the connections with environmental degradations. More and more people are pushed into doing the work for large, capital-intensive industries like mining and construction in the name of ‘development’. This ‘development’ often occurs by flattening forests or filling prime agrarian land. Every successive election sees an intensification of the destruction of the forests and the communities that call these forests their home. Together with the communities which depend on agriculture and mining, the forest-dwelling communities form another chunk of voters. It is best if the electoral process does not deny these communities an independent say, so they also contribute to the common good.

In each of the issues I have discussed above, there is currently a tremendous opposition from privileged members of our society, blinded by the caste and class privileges they enjoy. In such a context, a change in political conversations emphasizing social justice above everything else will alter the rules of the electoral game. Taken together, then, an emphasis on equal access to education, securing rights and protection for workers, and preventing environmental degradation promotes the empowerment of many voters who vote due to powerless-ness rather than out of free choice. Without truly empowered voters there are no democratic choices.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 1 May, 2019)

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

IN LIFE AND DEATH: POLITICS AND POLITICIANS

In Goan politics, the politician is an indispensable cult figure, one whose image is more important than his or her ability to discharge his or her public responsibilities. The unexpected presence of the ailing Pandurang Madkaikar, Cumbharjua MLA, for the first time in public in 11 months, at the floor test of the BJP government, a few weeks ago is a case in point. Madkaikar, who suffered a brain stroke last year, has been away from public life all this while. Despite his ill health, Madkaikar contributed, or was forced to contribute, to the cutthroat power struggles, even though he has not discharged his public responsibilities and was dispensed from his minister’s post since last year.

In the images beamed by local news channels, Madkaikar looks cheerful although he is clearly not fully fit. Two attendants hold him steady as he slowly inches his way to his seat. Once seated, he does not appear to be comfortable. But he manages to joke and chat with his colleagues while two uniformed guards keep a close watch throughout. During the decisive moment of the floor test, Madkaikar raises his hand with difficulty—another attendant helps him.

To be fair, Madkaikar is not the only one who has clung to power despite ill health while being unable to function in a public capacity. There was former MLA of Mapusa, the late Francis D’Souza, who clung to his position. It was common knowledge to his constituents in Mapusa that D’Souza would frequently be away for treatment. The former CM, the late Manohar Parrikar, is, of course, the most recent example of clinging to power as the CM. In Parrikar’s case, the BJP and the Chief Minister’s Office went on a propaganda blitzkrieg to convince all that the CM was in good health.

In the farce that is contemporary Goan politics, Madkaikar’s public appearance at the floor test showed the BJP government in poor light. There was simply no able second-rung leadership—a comment oft repeated following Parrikar’s demise as well. Surely, the people of Goa deserve better. Especially since the in-fighting amongst various elected representatives has plunged Goa into an uncertain political future while the destruction of its people and landscape, initiated by various governments, both present and previous, is continuing unabated.

The lack of substitute leadership stems from the fact that Goan politicians jealously cultivate their own cult. They make themselves apparently indispensable to the voters as well as their followers. Many political commentators have stressed that Parrikar was the one who cultivated a cult following for himself more than anyone else. Parrikar’s close friend and mentor, Subhash Velingkar was one of the commentators who gives the best insight into Parrikar’s functioning. Reflecting on Parrikar’s political career, Velingkar noted to a local news channel that Parrikar was “dictatorial” by nature. He was often unable to work with the rest of the leadership in his party.

Velingkar and many other commentators allude to the ‘cult of the personality’—a figure like the kings and queens of olden times—in Parrikar’s functioning and rise to power. In fact, all politics in Goa operates through the ‘cult of the personality’. The constituent or the voter is expected to be beholden to the politician in a patron-client relationship, while in a democracy such a relationship is theoretically and legally not necessary. Parrikar, though the best example, is not the only one who assiduously cultivated his own cult. Others, like Madkaikar too, cultivated their own cults.

Whether driven by naked ambition, a greed for power, the persistence of their supporters, or social circumstances, politicians like D’Souza, Madkaikar, and Parrikar enable and sustain a politics of the ‘cult of the personality’. This leaves truly little room for efficient leadership to emerge and thrive. Rather than having leaders who lead, we only have rulers who want power and nothing but power. These rulers, in fact, serve those who fund their campaigns more than the people who vote for them. As such the most important function of democratic politics—to govern society efficiently and look after the welfare of each of its members—becomes a marginal issue in the grand scheme of cutthroat power struggles.

Think about Parrikar’s compromises with the casino and mining companies which have almost destroyed the rivers and forests and think also about his belief in Hindutva which has furthered the already existing social and communal fractures in Goan society. To think, then, of Parrikar’s legacy as an indispensable leader and cult figure is to realize the damage done by cult figures to the social fabric, culture, environment, and polity.

One of the reasons why the ‘cult of the personality’ marks our electoral politics is because our society is fundamentally stratified by caste and class. The severely stratified society makes it easier for politicians from dominant groups to become godfathers to leaders from the Bahujan underclass. The leaders from the Bahujan underclass find it difficult to rise and survive unless they compromise with the agendas of their groups. The result is dismal for a democratic polity: subaltern groups are further marginalized and minoritized simultaneously with environmental and cultural destruction.

In life and in death, the careers and legacies of politicians have lasting scars on the landscape, the culture of the land, and the future of the polity. 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 4 April, 2019)