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- India needs a rights-based redistributive programme

Let us begin by accepting the two propositions that have been generally advanced about the results of the just-concluded assembly elections: one, that there is a strong anti-Congress wave in the country; and two, that this would not necessarily ensure victory for the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party, or any political front put up by it, in the coming parliamentary elections. As the Delhi results show, if there is a credible third contender like the Aam Aadmi Party, then a non-Congress, non-BJP force could emerge as the winner.

It is tempting to conclude that all those interested in keeping the communal-fascist elements of the Modi camp out of power should either pitch for the spread of the AAP to the rest of the country or try building up its clones elsewhere. This, however, is an erroneous conclusion: the AAP, notwithstanding its much-vaunted financial probity, represents an avoidable trend in Indian politics. My saying this may appear odd since the AAP enjoys a fair degree of support among the Left, but I do so for a reason.

The remarkable thing about the AAP is that while its leadership, or more broadly its “techno-structure” (to borrow a term used by John Kenneth Galbraith in the context of corporations), is generally Left — ranging from Lohiaites to sympathizers of the “Marxist-Leninists”, to erstwhile members of progressive non-governmental organizations, to persons who earlier owed allegiance to mainstream Left parties but are now dissatisfied with them — the ideology of its support base is largely right-of-centre. This assertion may be contested on the grounds that the AAP got substantial votes from the poor and the working people of the capital; but that per se signifies little. And the fact that about half of its supporters expressed a preference for Modi at the national level in an opinion poll underscores the point, as does the strong anti-Pakistan chauvinism exhibited openly by many of them.

A party with a left-of-centre leadership and a right-of-centre following is not unusual in itself; what is unusual is the mechanism through which this oddity is sustained, which consists in the leadership’s remaining silent on every significant issue other than “acceptable” ones like “corruption” or reducing power-tariffs (whose economics remains to be clarified). True, the AAP has a programme and a manifesto tucked into some website, but it does not express its views — as other parties, notably the Left parties, do, on the range of issues confronting the nation — for fear, one cannot help concluding, of putting off its support base.

This represents a sort of “inversion” of politics. Parties, especially those not based on “identity politics”, have views, and try to convince people about the validity of those views. This has been the case from the days of the bourgeois revolutions in England and France right till now: the “Levellers”, the “Diggers”, the Girondists, the Jacobins, the Hebertists, all stood for particular points of view and sought to influence people into accepting them. But the AAP, one suspects, camouflages its views in order not to put off people. This goes against a fundamental feature of democracy, namely the public confrontation between alternative views that has an educative role in the people’s journey towards becoming masters of their own destiny.

It follows that an emulation of AAP-style politics in the rest of the country will lead, if anything, to enfeeblement rather than invigoration of democracy. This is not to say that the AAP alone is the culprit and that other parties do not ever do similar disingenuous camouflaging of their views; but the AAP appears to have made a point of it and this represents a highly avoidable trend.

The attempt to prevent the ascendancy of communal-fascist elements, if it is not to take the form merely of a “stop-Modi” campaign that would have little credibility with the people, must present before them a clear-cut and comprehensive alternative agenda, not one confined to generally acceptable slogans like preventing “corruption”, but signifying a ‘new deal’. Such an agenda will necessarily be a redistributive one, based on the recognition of certain universal rights.

At least five such rights come immediately to mind, though the list may be expanded over time. These are: a universal right to a minimum quantity of food at fixed affordable prices; a universal right to free healthcare through a publicly-funded national health service; a universal right to free education up to a certain level at publicly-funded institutions, within which free and compulsory primary education through a system of government-funded neighbourhood schools can be embedded; a universal right to employment (or unemployment allowance as a certain reasonable proportion of the wage rate); and a universal scheme of adequate pensions for the elderly and of support for the disabled and the handicapped.

The first question that will be raised with regard to such a programme is: why universal, why not targeted schemes for the below-poverty-line population alone? This is because any such programme must be seen not as charity, not as alms to the poor or largesse on the part of the State. The institutionalization of such a perception is offensive to human dignity. It implicitly sanctifies social inequality and is fundamentally antithetical to democracy. A programme of the sort proposed, therefore, must be based on the recognition of rights of citizens as members of a community of equals. Some potential beneficiaries may choose to opt out of such schemes, but the scope of the schemes must be universal.

This also underscores the difference between such a ‘new deal’ and what the United Progressive Alliance government, which also, of late, has been talking of “rights”, has instituted. Apart from the fact that several of its welfare schemes offer mere “peanuts” — for instance the provision of a pension of only Rs 200 per month to the elderly —and several others are observed only in their breach (take the right to education), these schemes are not universal, not even the recently passed food security legislation (which now additionally has become subject to World Trade Organization scrutiny). The idea must be to move to a system of universal rights from a system of charity, even if such charity is dressed up as “rights”.

The next question that will be raised is: where are the resources for such a programme? This question itself should be deemed offensive and anti-democratic. A democratic society cannot wait for resources to become available for launching such a programme; doing so would mean waiting for ever, waiting for Godot, as it were, in Samuel Beckett’s celebrated play. It must mobilize whatever resources are necessary for financing such a programme, at a level of course that corresponds to the general economic state of the society.

To be sure we are talking here of a programme that a political formation consisting of several parties can present before the people immediately, which limits the extent to which a radical breakthrough can be effected. But a programme involving roughly 7 percent of the gross domestic product — which means that the excess over the currently-incurred welfare expenditure under a lot of scattered heads will be less — put into effect over the tenure of the next government, is certainly possible.

There have been some voices after the assembly election results were announced that have seen these results, especially the Rajasthan result, as a rejection of the strategy of “welfarism” espoused by Sonia Gandhi. One, of course, sees in any phenomenon what one wishes to see: for instance, the protagonist in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film, Gol Maal (whose role was played by Utpal Dutt) would have seen in the election results the electorate’s preference for a moustache (which Modi sports) over a clean-shaven look (such as that of Rahul Gandhi). Those opposed to welfare schemes, therefore, would tend to see the Congress debacle as arising from its welfare schemes, such as they are, rather than from more obvious causes like inflation or the loss of moral legitimacy on account of rampant corruption. But even if one accepts such an explanation, a new deal of the sort suggested here remains a moral absolute for the nation, irrespective of whether it fetches votes for its proponents.

Clearly, a time for change has come. And if the change is not to be one that exacerbates the enormous inequalities that already afflict Indian society — which would be the unavoidable denouement if a corporate-backed Modi leads the nation on a so-called “development” agenda — then it must take the form of a rights-based redistributive programme. That would also be in keeping with the spirit of the Karachi Congress resolution of 1931, which had first presented a vision of free India. The mainstream Left must take the initiative in mobilizing anti-communal political forces around an agenda that takes us towards the realization of that vision.