Public protest and the Indian democracy

These days, India is reverberating with protests, many of them distinctly political in nature. There are these usual bandhs and strikes called by the trade unions arising from the adverse effects of the economic policies of the central government (some being implemented, many others in the pipeline) on the lives of industrial workers, farmers, tribals, small traders, bank and government employees, urban and rural poor over the past several months. There is little doubt about the latent political undercurrents within these protests and industrial actions (sometimes leading to major violent incidents as in the Maruti automobiles plant in Manesar, Haryana). Being prodded by the big corporates and showing much sensitivity to the foreign investor sentiments, the central government is trying to kick start the stalled economic ‘reform’ and rekindle the positive investment climate in the country. The policy prescriptions and the actions following from them are invariably precipitating political realignment among sections of population. 

Avalanche of scams – commonwealth games, 2G spectrum and finally the coal block allocations – were mere blow up of the intrinsically corrupt ways in which the benefits of liberalization were and are being cornered by a section of corporate industry, politicians of many hues and the government officials at many levels. It is but natural that corruption has become, these past two years, one of the focal points of mass protests and agitation. Insofar as cases of corruption, especially the spectacular ones arresting current public attention, involve politicians, government bureaucracy, the police, the protests and agitations demanding means to end corruption invariably appear political. Involvement of corporate houses in influencing politicians and manipulating the government officials bring in a class bias to the corruption issue and make it even more deeply political. Since the present government (the UPA alliance) is in power over the last eight years during which some of these major scams unfolded (and many of those charge sheeted or interrogated by the Central Bureau of Investigation belong to and/or sympathize with the ruling parties) the protests even by apparently nonpolitical organizations (like India against corruption at the beginning of the Anna agitation) tend to be dubbed politically motivated, championed by those hostile to the present government and the major political party at its helm.


In the backdrop of the accumulated impact of these scams, the obsession of the prime minister with the so-called ‘economic growth rate’ (a number sometimes reported with a fractional precision, not 6 nor 5 but 5.5 !), the evangelical zeal of some of his cabinet colleagues, the planning commission, the prime minister’s office, top bureaucrats in many ministries in the same cause appear to common citizens quite jarring. Especially so, when time and again a number of statistical indicators have shown that the famed galloping growth rate of India in the last two decades or so may have served to create many Indian billionaires all right but the disparity between the rich and the poor have grown. In terms of indices of hunger, nutrition, infant mortality, women and child health, education (as indeed in terms of the UN human development index) India’s position has not improved and is below those of many small countries of Africa and some of India’s neighbours. The government proactively reduces tax burdens of the corporates and provides them many sops (which is not deemed to be giving subsidies to the rich), but its functionaries froth in the mouth arguing their case of reducing subsidies on fertilizer, petrol, diesel and cooking gas.


By all empirical evidences vouched by many field workers, observers, journalists and backed by the statistics put out by government’s own National crime records bureau, the farmer’s suicide over this same high growth period has grown by alarming proportion. But both at the highest governmental level (vide statements by the agriculture minister) and at the operational levels of police, district and state administration concerned with maintaining the writ and the image of the government and minimizing its expenditure (owing to compensation to farmers’ families) strenuous efforts are being made to discount most of these suicides as due to agricultural distress.


The standard rationalization of growth providing the government with funds for social sector expenditure sounds a bit stretched in view of reports about pilferages and non-functional status of the NREGA, the flagship social welfare project of UPA, in many states (tendentious statistics about the scheme fuelling rural protein demand and even the food inflation flying in the face of observable increasing disparity in rural incomes), corruption and failure of the national rural health mission. Year after year huge amount of food grains rot and wasted being dumped outside warehouses in the open due to lack of storage space. But government does not agree to the humanitarian suggestion of the Supreme Court to provide even these low-grade grains to the poor at low or nominal prices or through the public distribution system. Government neither chooses to build adequate warehouses or cold chain nor is in a position to spark the ‘animal spirit’ in the private entrepreneurs to invest in the same. And now with the FDI in the retail being green-lighted government has spared itself the need for an ‘unremunerative’ public investment as well. 


In this scenario many and varied sections of the population cannot help protesting. Although the rationale for protests and modes of agitation adopted by different groups are different their target eventually converge on the UPA government at the center, though many agitations are going on in many states against actions and decisions by the state governments (e.g., anti-mining agitations in Orissa) or those by the central agencies like the National Power Corporation under the Department of Atomic Energy (e.g., Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu). The snowballing of the anti-corruption movements into fasting by Anna Hazare, August last year, made the central government directly face up to protests that articulated challenges to both the way governance was being delivered to the people and also to certain principles of the democratic functioning in this country that the ruling classes have assumed as axiomatic truth.  


Some of the key questions of principle that arise in this context are as follows


1)      Do the citizens have a right to ask probing questions as to the quality of legislative functions the elected peoples’ representatives discharge in the parliament and the state legislatures by way of meaningful accountability to their constituents ?

2)      Can the MPs and MLAs hide behind grandiose sentiments about the pristine qualities and the constitutionally assigned roles of each of our democratic institutions, expressed in speeches made from the pulpits or within the safe confines of the legislatures, while engaging most of the time in effective manipulation of the legislative agendas and debates in the house and subverting the contents of the proposed bills through elaborate and devious lobbying and partisan majoritariansm in statutory committees ?   

3)      It can hardly be denied that people are affected by various new economic policy initiatives taken by the government after perfunctory deliberations or shrill shouting matches passing for debates in the parliament and state assemblies or (as is becoming the norm in the recent past) as executive decisions without any debate and most commonly when the legislatures are not in session. Important decisions on the allocation of scarce natural resources (spectrum, coal block, minerals), foreign direct investments in retail trade, land acquisition on behalf of corporate houses and industries (for proposed industrial or infrastructure development) etc. are being taken in a questionable manner. Do people have a right to question the rationale for allocation of natural resources or forcible or manipulative land acquisition ? Do they have a right to protest and agitate when many such actions neither seem according to law (or an archaic law of questionable validity today) nor even producing the end results touted to justify the government’s actions (electricity automatically flowing from the allocated coal blocks) ? 

4)      Can our democracy be in danger if such questions agitate peoples’ minds and find a focus in some public demonstration which might have embarrassed the government, would test its confidence, equanimity, fair mindedness, sensitivity in dealing with such agitation? 


The governments at the center and in the states may have felt aggrieved that, while interpreting their executive decisions as public good, pure and simple, its writ (and therefore their electoral mandate to govern) is being increasingly challenged publicly and, occasionally, probably unjustly.  But there is a strong case for introspection on their part as to whether the perception of evangelical propensity to liberalize (who says only Marxists are dogmatic), mala fide decisions and actions, unholy nexus between sections of influential corporate houses, politicians and bureaucrats, plain misgovernance and endemic corruption are mere figments of imagination of those hostile to the ruling political parties.

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