A defining moment of our freedom struggle was the passing of the Karachi Congress resolution in March 1931. For the first time, it outlined a vision of free India. It guaranteed basic civil rights of free speech, free press, freedom of assembly; equality before law irrespective of caste, creed or sex; “neutrality” of the State with regard to all religions; elections on the basis of universal adult franchise; and free and compulsory primary education. In addition, it declared that “in order to end the exploitation of the masses, political freedom must include real economic freedom of the starving millions”, and set out a programme for achieving it. This programme was emended subsequently, through the explicit addition for instance of abolition of landlordism. The basic vision of the Karachi resolution, in the context of the heightened misery caused by the Great Depression of the 1930s, drew people into the freedom struggle and into supporting the Congress in the 1937 elections to provincial assemblies. The Karachi resolution, with its emendations, constituted, as it were, the implicit social contract upon which the modern Indian nation was founded, and which later informed the Indian Constitution.
The point that the post-Independence Indian State reneged on the promise of “economic freedom” is obvious and need not be laboured. Landlordism, in the sense of extreme concentration of landownership, continues, and the pledge to “secure a decent standard of living for all” remains unfulfilled. On the contrary, the “starving millions” are more starved today than at the time of the Karachi Congress in 1931: the per capita annual foodgrain absorption in British India in 1931 was about 172 kilograms (it was to fall to 137 kgs by Independence), compared to 162 kgs in the Indian Union in 2009.
There is, however, a difference between the early post-Independence period and now. Even though the process of reneging had started then itself, it was shame-faced. The social contract was still formally adhered to. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, concerned over the rising inequality in income and wealth, had even set up a committee under the chairmanship of P.C. Mahalanobis to examine the problem and suggest ways of dealing with it. And Indira Gandhi, in the pre-Emergency period, did make an effort through bank nationalization to ensure that economic development acquired a broader base, which, it was thought, could confer more widespread benefits. However, with the process of “reforms” in 1991, not only did inequality grow phenomenally, but even the egalitarian vision itself, which had been held since 1931, was abandoned.
This was done in the name of ushering in a higher rate of economic growth through nurturing big capital, including foreign capital, on the argument, initially, that the benefits of growth would “trickle down” automatically, and later, with the 11th Plan document, that higher growth, by expanding the State’s fiscal resources, would enable the State to undertake measures to alleviate poverty. Increased inequality was never perceived as transitory, to be followed by a move towards egalitarianism; it was legitimized as a means of ensuring an absolute amelioration of the misery of the poor. This amounted, therefore, to a de facto abandonment of the egalitarian premise of the social contract. In the event, even the absolute amelioration never materialized; per capita annual absorption of the most elemental necessity, foodgrains, fell sharply, for instance, from its end-1980s peak of around 180 kgs to the recent 162 kgs.
The abandonment of the social contract is taking its toll today. “Corruption”, the current talking point, is merely the epiphenomenon arising from this abandonment. Take the example of coal block allocation. The point is not just that the allocation was done without an auction, which no doubt is reprehensible. The point is that allocating the nation’s mineral resources to private capital for captive exploitation, a policy that started in 1993 in the wake of the “reforms”, is reprehensible per se, even if the allocations were to be based on auctions, and totally antithetical to the vision of an egalitarian society that the Karachi resolution had unfolded. Not surprisingly, the Karachi resolution itself had stressed the need for State ownership or control of key industries, mines and means of transport.
What is more, even the growth story, which, notwithstanding the distress it brought to vast masses of petty producers, including the peasantry, and hence necessarily to the labouring poor at large, appeared for a while to dazzle many, has come to an end. And the current frantic effort to put Humpty Dumpty back on the wall is unlikely to succeed, given the context of the world capitalist crisis, where a re-enacting of a credit-sustained “bubble”, which, in effect, what the Indian growth story was all about, appears impossible. State-sponsored effort to promote inequality further, in a bid to bring back high growth, would no doubt intensify; but even if it succeeds in increasing inequality, high growth will remain elusive.
It would, of course, be simpliste to reduce the nation’s several current problems, whose acuteness cannot be overstated, to the abandonment of the social contract. But there can be no gainsaying that a revival of a social contract that brings back to every Indian citizen the dignity of belonging to a fraternity of equals, will go some way towards an abatement of their acuteness. A move towards such a new social contract would entail at least five immediate steps: the provision of food security through a universal public distribution system that guarantees to every family a certain quantum of foodgrains at fixed low prices (the demand has been for 35 kgs per family per month at Rs 2 per kg); the provision of free universal healthcare through a national health service; the provision of universal employment guarantee in response to demand at a decent living wage; the universal provision of free and compulsory primary education through a network of neighbourhood schools; and the universal provision of pensions to the old, and support for the handicapped and the disabled. Other measures, on housing and sanitation, will have to follow; but these will do for a start. These measures are modest in scope; they have been introduced even under capitalism.
What is important is that the measures must have universal reach, rather than being targeted, as some of their pale precursors currently are. Universality is indicative of fraternity; it confers on the recipient the dignity of being one among equals. Targeting, by contrast, expresses largesse towards some and suggests a sense of charity by the State. If the new social contract is to make the citizens transcend their specific identities, then instead of targeting these measures at specific groups, and hence indirectly unleashing a scramble for inclusion that is destructive of both fraternity and the dignity of being equals, universal coverage becomes absolutely necessary.
Several objections would be immediately raised against this proposal, the first and the most obvious being — “can we afford it?” This question itself must be conceptually rejected, since the whole purpose of a new social contract is to get away from this tyranny of “we”, a euphemism for a well-heeled upper caste elite that has been the beneficiary of the neo-liberal dispensation and dons the mantle of “expertise” to appropriate for itself the right to speak for the nation. The nation, if it is to survive, must steel itself to honour, even if belatedly, the social contract that caused its coming into being in the first place. In short, it must find the resources, which undoubtedly exist, to put into practice the measures outlined above.
The second, somewhat tepid, objection would be: even if the financial resources can be mobilized, does the administrative machinery have the capacity or the honesty to implement these measures? The quality of the administrative machinery itself, however, is influenced by the social setting. The slothfulness and cynicism that may characterize the bureaucracy in a hierarchical society where inequality is increasing, with the obscene growth of wealth at one pole and poverty at another, are bound to be dented when that same society seeks to re-energize itself through a new social contract for an egalitarian order.
The third objection would be that any such agenda, which must entail increased taxes on the rich and increased intervention by the State, will frighten capital, including foreign capital, into refraining from investment, and hence lower the growth rate of the economy. But a high growth trajectory that is associated with growing inequality and poverty, and which, therefore, corrodes the fabric of the nation by violating the social contract upon which it is founded, is far inferior to a low growth trajectory that nonetheless respects this social contract. Philosopher Akeel Bilgrami talks of a “malaise” that afflicts not just the poor but even the rich in a society with marked inequalities; if overcoming that “malaise” entails even putting up with “the Hindu rate of growth”, then so be it.