The impulse to disenfranchise runs as a streak through not just the idea of a monocultural, majoritarian nationhood but also in the social sector priorities of the Modi government.
As the second Bharatiya Janata Party-led government completes two years in office, one of its major ‘accomplishments’ is surely the manner it has gone about disenfranchising some of the most vulnerable sections of Indian society. This disenfranchisement is party the result of direct state actions but also a consequence of the work outsourced to the regime’s support base or ‘parivar’ – the family of organisations linked to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh.
The impulse to disenfranchise runs as a streak through not just the idea of a monocultural, majoritarian nationhood but also in the governance and social sector priorities of the Narendra Modi government. When this impulse is at odds with the laws and the institutional mechanisms as they exist, the BJP seeks bypass routes in order to maintain the constitutional shell. This is accomplished through restricted implementation or non-execution of laws, as well as by manufacturing or enforcement of consent through the instigation of media hysteria and mob aggression.
This process began even before Modi came to power. By violently and aggressively targeting Muslims during the run up to the 2014 elections, in keeping with the RSS-BJP idea of nationhood, the resulting polarisation paid the BJP rich electoral dividends. That polarisation was a well thought-out ideological and electoral strategy is attested to by the fact that Modi himself in his speeches from the Malwa region of Madhya Pradesh right up to south Bihar raked up the rhetoric of matar (greenpeas) versus mutton. Invoking the stereotype of supposedly antithetical Hindu and Muslim food habits provided the cue for other BJP campaigners, including elected government and public functionaries. This aggressive targeting of Muslims around food became particularly virulent, as is well known, after the BJP came to power – resulting in draconian new laws and sustained low intensity mob violence against the minorities on the issue of cow slaughter and beef eating. This has resulted in sporadic acts of murder in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu, but the sense of fear, discrimination and exclusion has spread much further. Christians too have begun to feel besieged; not only have there been the odd act of violence against their places of worship, but also legal action against preachers and nuns for allegedly indulging in illegal conversions.
If the ruling dispensation’s concept of majoritarian nationalism is being rolled out aggressively by its support base and is aimed at deepening existing communal fault lines, the impulse to disenfranchise is also affecting other vulnerable populations.
The first instances in this regard are the laws passed by the BJP governments of Rajasthan and Haryana that prescribe educational qualifications for contesting Panchayati Raj elections.
In the interest of universal adult franchise and the universal right to represent, so central to real universal democracy, the constitution and the Representation of People Act had rightly desisted from prescribing educational, property and income qualifications for electors or aspirant public representatives for parliament and state legislatures.
The BJP-ruled Gujarat had earlier surreptitiously brought in a property qualification for panchayat representatives by prescribing pucca toilets in a candidate’s house as a precondition for contesting panchayat polls. To have a pucca toilet one must own enough pucca residential space, in short, one must have property. Such restrictions mean that the uneducated and the un-propertied or dispossessed can’t get anyone from among them to be their representative. If people are uneducated or can’t afford property, it’s not their fault. It’s because the state has failed in its constitutional responsibility to guarantee them sufficient education and livelihood for which it is punishing the people and depriving them of their electoral rights in a representative democracy. The whole move hits at the base of the principle of universal adult franchise and representative democracy.
This year’s severe drought proved more painful for the poor because of their disenfranchisement from entitlements granted by laws passed by parliament guaranteeing minimum permanent security from misery.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and the National Food Security Act (NFSA), even though they might not be fully sufficient, would have provided minimum relief in terms of income and food to the most vulnerable in times of such a calamity. But the NFSA is not yet fully operational across the country because of bottlenecks in the states related mainly to selection of beneficiaries – which hasn’t kept in step with marriages, births, migration, homelessness, nomadic tribes, proof of identity et al. The Central government could have ameliorated this by making the provisions of the Act universal in the calamity-hit areas and foregoing the question of establishing identity, which the Supreme Court finally ordered.
The MGNREGA allotment, despite this year’s crisis, remained less than last year’s in real terms as the Rs. 38,000 crore allotted didn’t account for inflation. And of this, Rs. 12,000 crore was earmarked for payment of previous year’s arrears. Even the first instalment of wage arrears was released during the pendency of a petition in the Supreme Court. Despite the court order, the government hasn’t released the amount for further arrears. The central government is yet to honour the court order for the full amount of grain under the NFSA to be fully distributed by all fair price shops. The judicial order regarding mid-day meals to be served in drought-affected areas even when the schools are closed, and the immediate supply of fodder and water to scarcity-hit areas also remains to be fulfilled.
The disenfranchisement being pursued is not just effected by ideological aggression, misguided policy and law, and deficient implementation. Even the deliberately blinkered application of technology becomes a means to disenfranchise the poor from their entitlements.
Ground-level media reports and surveys by activists in Rajasthan have found major malfunctions in the Aadhaar card-based sale of subsidised grains from public distribution system shops that deprive the poor of their precious food entitlements during this crisis. The Aadhaar technology has failed to solve the problem of changing biometrics – due to hard manual labour and malnourishment – of the working class population. Many times, biometric identification fails because of deficient network connectivity too and the fact that not everyone owns a mobile phone. Because of manual error or negligence also at the time of data entry, the card, the UID number and the real identity of the beneficiary get mixed up and the machine sometimes ‘locks’ the poor beneficiary out. Since the poor have no control over the technology, nor over the system that operates it, and the support staff at the PDS shop or the local level is unequipped to solve the malfunction at the sale point or local administrative level, the poor are often deprived of their food entitlement or have to spend much time and money on multiple trips to get the system error corrected. This they cannot often afford. Considering the mass resentment because of this, the Rajasthan government gave shop-keepers one-time discretion to sell grain at below-poverty-line prices to the beneficiary – discretionary power that Aadhaar was supposed to eliminate. According to a recent survey by activists covering all the divisions in Rajasthan, only 45% of the beneficiaries had received their grain entitlements under the NFSA in the last three months.
Such apprehensions, apart from those over privacy, were probably behind the Supreme Court order to not make Aadhaar enrolment compulsory for various government schemes. But, first the UPA, and now the NDA government more robustly, effectively made Aadhaar compulsory by threatening the poor that they would be deprived of their entitlements under various schemes if they don’t enrol.
Linking a poor person’s most essential food entitlement with Aadhaar is in the interest of the powers that be because if people don’t avail of their entitlement, they can argue that the poor are not interested in getting subsidised food. They can then use the poor as an alibi for eliminating the public distribution system and subsidised food altogether – thereby disenfranchising them from an important part of their socio-economic rights. Exclusion on various grounds has always been the bane of our system. The Modi government’s reflexive impulses are towards gradually rolling back to the greatest extent possible whatever universal entitlements the excluded have acquired over the years.
No wonder then that this trend, coupled with a jobless stagnant economy, has caused a great deal of angst among students, especially those coming from a deprived background. It was in the fitness of the regime’s reflexes that it clamped down on the campuses when young students started actively expressing their angst. Activists already engaged with the fault lines of exclusion were being targeted anyway. The net of disenfranchisement is now falling upon a dissenting intelligentsia with the help of spurious legal and mob aggression spurred by an ultra and insincere nationalism.
Neelabh Mishra is a senior journalist and former editor of Outlook Hindi