Will the 'Infection' in the Body Politic Mar the Nation?

When entitlements are denied or reduced, we instinctively turn to the constitution but the constitution itself is wide open to interpretation as per the ideological orientations and personal beliefs of those in power.

Credit: Sean Ellis/Flickr Commons

Credit: Sean Ellis/Flickr Commons

Union urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu recently said in riotous Haryana that law, order and peace are a must for attracting investment. But why is attracting investment necessary? Is it because it is believed that investment spurs economic growth which, in turn, eradicates poverty; the more we produce the more there will be to distribute to the poor?

In the 26 years since the economic crisis in 1990, GDP growth rates have gone below 5% only thrice, otherwise averaging over 7%. Over the same period, the population growth rate has come down from 2% to 1.2%. This sustained economic growth should have removed poverty by now but about one-third of the population continues to enjoy living below the official poverty line. In fact, as some economists have shown, the Gini coefficient – the index of inequality – has obstinately loitered around 0.3, which means the poor have become poorer while the rich have become richer. As disparities have grown, employment growth rates have dropped from 2.61% to less than 1%, giving rise to “jobless growth,” particularly in the young educated workforce.

What reality is telling us is that there is something rotten in the state of India.

Some analysts say this is because economic growth is actually transferring wealth from the poor to the rich, while others reason that the “trickle down” to the poor has to be encouraged by deliberate policy measures.

Indian governments have been following the second path – claiming to make available social security to the most vulnerable sections. But, in the recent budget, the share allocated for Integrated Child Development Services has reduced by 10%; it has gone up by a pitiable 2% for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan; by 2% for the National Health Mission; by 4% for the revived (and reviled) MNREGA; by 4% for rural roads; and by 5% for the Mid-Day Meal Scheme – all well below the 7.3% economic growth rate. It was announced that the allocation for agriculture has been power-jumped by a huge 127%, but that was an exercise in creative accounting transferring the subsidy on farm loans from the Department of Financial Services to the Department of Agriculture. While subsidies for the poor remained around 2.5 lakh crore rupees (less than 4% of GDP), transfers to the rich, by way of revenue foregone, were about 5.7 lakh crore rupees (more than 10% of GDP).

When entitlements are denied or reduced, we instinctively turn to the constitution and Articles 16-29 on fundamental rights. Curiously, only two of these 14 articles – on the prohibition of child labour and the freedom to pay religious taxes – confer absolute rights. The rest are all discretionary. Thus Article 15 (discrimination) permits the state to make special provisions; Articles 16, 19, 25, and 26 on freedoms of equality, speech, conscience and religion can be restricted by requirements of residence, public order, decency or morality; Articles 17 and 18 on the abolition of untouchability and titles have to be in accordance with the law; Articles 20 and 22 on protection from conviction and arrests cannot protect those who are already afoul of the law; Article 23 (forced labour) can be suspended by the state for public purposes; Article 28 (religious instruction) exempts only private institutions; and Article 29 (minorities) prohibits denial of admission on grounds only of religion, race, caste or language. Even the much-celebrated Article 21 (life and liberty) says the denial of these can be justified by “lawful procedure’. Thus, the constitution is wide open to interpretation as per the ideological orientations and personal beliefs of those in power.

Since power is now bowing before “collective conscience,” “akhand Bharat” and “hurt sentiments,” but shrugging off the enrichment of the rich and the impoverishment of the poor, is it adequate to defend the constitution? Do we forget that the word is a product of “constituting” the nation: one that did not exist from the beginning of time, but was given to the people on November 26, 1949? Hence, is it possible to constitute other nations too, even under the benevolent gaze of this constitution?

In a histrionic speech in parliament, human resource development minister Smriti Irani declared, “I am not certifying your idea of India, but do not demean mine.” What was this “idea” of India that should not be demeaned? Irani’s text suggests that to “perpetuate the colonial legacy of portraying ancient India, as synonymous with Hindu” was acceptable, but placing Shivaji on the same pedestal as “Akbar, Aurangzeb as responsible educators and animators,” teaching about “Hindu-Christian riots in Kanyakumari” and referring to the “atrocities of the Indian state” in Kashmir were not. A festival where “a fair-skinned beautiful goddess Durga is depicted brutally killing a dark-skinned native called Mahishasur” was not in harmony, but a maternal instinct for Rohith Vemula, “as the death of a child and not as a death of a Dalit” was.

Irani invoked the security and peace of this idea of the nation in multiple fashion by stating that “35 security personnel and three female guards” certified that students in JNU chanted “anti-national slogans,” akin to “those who want to bear arms to overthrow the state” and implying that this chanting was made possible by those students who “have gone and lost their lives on the border.” In a chilling allusion to how this new nation was being constituted, Irani quoted Cicero (writing about the civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic over 2000 years ago), “But the traitor moves amongst those within the gates freely. His lie whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of the government itself. For the traitor appears not a traitor, he speaks in the accent familiar to his victims…In a night to undermine the pillars of the city, he infects the body politic so that it can no longer resist.” It was perhaps this “talking truth to power” that elicited the high praise of satyamev jayate from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Does this ‘infection’ of the body politic now also lead to gangrene of the ‘nation’?

Dunu Roy is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University