General Elections 2014 : Rhetoric and Reality

May 4, 2014

by Aloke Bhattacharya

At the very onset let us make it clear that this article is not intended to articulate or prescribe whom to vote in the general election 2014 in India. The process is already on and everybody has made up mind whom to vote or no. In fact, there is so much of emphasis from every possible opinionated corner on voting somebody in the race that it would be interesting to know the percentage of voters who have decided for opting to press the none of them above button, when the results are out.

A legitimate question therefore arises regarding the purpose of this article. Many elaborate and detailed commentaries are already available in print and electronic format from all possible corners about the election campaign of so called “big” political parties. On the other hand, there is very little analysis beyond the rhetoric and antics played round the clock in news channels, regional or national or in the print media. Thus, it may be worthwhile to comment on the actual issues before they are again put to backstage when the results of election are out and the tiresome, irksome process of cabinet formation among the so called coalition partners take the centre stage of political discussions.

So far, one interesting feature of voting in the general elections of 2014 is the large turnout of voters, wherever voting has taken place as well as the largely peaceful nature of it. On an average, in last three general elections participation of voters hovers less than 60%: viz. 59.99% in 1999, 58.07% in 2004, and 59.7% in 2009 [1]. This average numbers of course do not reflect the varied and skewed participation of voters across states. All reports of voter participation in the election process of 2014 till now suggest that this average number will go beyond the 60% mark, indicating steady growing interest of Indian adult electorate to participate in the political process by voting the national government once in five years. In apparent transparency of the process, there is elaborate mechanism in place to conduct the elections in nine phases from April 7 to May 12, 2014 utilizing the service of close to 4 million staff, along with massive deployment of security forces so as to give more than 814 million voters a chance to choose their parliamentary representatives across 543 constituencies with more than ten thousands candidates.

Every general election in recent times has witnessed a steady increase in the number of candidates aspiring to be representative of a parliamentary constituency – in 1998, 4,750 candidates contested, and a little over a decade later in 2009, the figure stood at 7,514 [2]. The candidates represent extreme ends of economic spectrum. In the current election, Nadan Nilekani, the Congress candidate from Bangalore South has declared assets worth of Rs 7,710 crores, whereas the Socialist Unity Centre (SUCI) candidate Biju from Kottayam in Kerala has declared in the affidavit that his cash in hand is Rs 500 and the available balance in a local co-operative bank is Rs 250! [3].

Although these statistics in themselves may not suffice to express the complexity of the exercise of adult franchise in this vast country, they certainly speak volume of stupendousness of the entire exercise. Last to be discussed is the taxpayers’ contribution in the process – according to estimation of election commission (EC), the general elections 2014 are to cost the state exchequer Rs. 3,500 crore, i.e. 150% more than the amount spent for the elections in 2009 (Rs. 1400 crore). This does not include the cost of movement and deployment of security forces and the money spent by political parties which is itself estimated as $5 billion, only second to the expenditure on US presidential race (which hit the $7 billion mark) [4].

While such mammoth expenditure and activities spanning around half of a year seem to be sacrosanct to everybody – starting from the ombudsmen in EC to tea vendors accompanying the busy bee in nomination filing event – enshrining the reflection of peoples’ will (to some audacious oratory it is even verdict from the peoples’ court) it may be worthwhile to ponder how the votaries of such huge expenditure and engagement are interpreting the process.

By their own admissions, to many it is just a formalisation of an anointment proclaimed in September 2013. The prime minister of the nation is already declared, only formalisation by voters’ consent is being completed by two months’ stretched polling propaganda. This is possibly first time in this country that authority of a person to rule over billion-crossed population is being consummated by peoples’ consent in a mammoth exercise of voting, opinion polls, and endless interviews of voters’ choice. In other words, months of propaganda blitzkrieg are built up to utilize the majoritarian principles of consensual democracy and to create the illusion of voluntary consent for authoritarian rule.

Opponents to this design are crying hoarse seeing the replication of Hitler’s rise in Germany by thumping majoritarianism in Reichstag. But they fail to mention why Hitlerism could find synchronism in tune in war ravaged Germany by bringing the agenda of reclaiming national honour that is synonymous in the current rhetoric with elevating asmita (honour) of Gujratis to pan-India canvass.

It may be worthwhile here to mention that the country faced declared authoritarianism some forty years ago – specifically 25th June 1975, when internal Emergency was declared. Many of the votaries of today’s personality cult and in fact the person himself went either underground or were sent to prison. That blanket ban on parliamentary democracy duly sanctioned in parliament (!) [5] was preceded by widespread dissent among the youth of the country, particularly the “Nav Nirman” movement. In fact these occurred in the states of Gujarat and Bihar, which are ironically the hotbeds for the genesis of today’s authoritarianism. Most importantly, these protests were preceded by the first pan-Indian display of workers’ might, the twenty-one day railway men’s strike in 1974, which really brought to the national scene the working class with their own agenda.

On the other hand, it does not require much explanation to understand that if the authoritarian tendency wins in the race after May 16 of this year, it will have the strength of a consensual sanction via the electoral process. And, of course, there is no working class agenda being heard in the build up of the propaganda machine for this authoritarianism. In fact, across the vast spectrum of election propaganda being covered by both national print and electronic media, no discernible working class issue/struggle is there in the massive engagement of the major political parties.

Thus, the question that crops up is – if there is no working class agenda in the electoral process, then why is propaganda battle so shrill? It is amusing to find that the persons targeted and censured by the ombudsmen in EC include chief minister of Bengal, deputy chief minister of Maharastra, person aspiring to be prime minister in UP, and current ministers holding different government positions. Sometimes their grievances against the referee of the game are so pithy and belligerent, that it confuses an onlooker to figure out against whom the fight actually is on.

Invariably the issues involved in these apparent confrontations are : blatant and open intimidation, threat either to the electorate in general or to the contending parties by so called emissaries of parliamentary process. Of course, it is their “democratic” right to exercise open challenge to their “institutions”, whenever they find the referee is creating blockade to their designs of obtaining the consensual agreement of the electorate. The drama of issuing threats and counter-threats, personal mudsledging and evening out such offsides and fouls by the referee seem to be the major focus of coverage in the media. This leaves the onlooker wondering – for what reasons are the majority of adult voters exercising their right of voting?

Nevertheless, voting happens and happens with gusto. Opposition to the build up of personality cult is shrill and boisterous in declaring that they are preordained to protect “the heart of India” by exhorting continuance of a family cult as the real alternative to it. So many opinion polls have been conducted (as if these polls have already decided the fate and declaration of results is a formality!) to point out that the current dynastical rule at the central Government may be shown the exit door with the retirement of their much maligned head of government.

The late outbursts from this opposition are not carrying weight to the audience, towards whom the clamour is directed. For example, the harping on the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 is being adequately countered by the incidents during the carnage against Sikhs in 1984 (under the direct supervision of the protagonists of protecting hindustaniyat). In both the cases, justice to the victims and punishment to the perpetrators are entangled in the web of lingering litigations running for decades. Although these issues are being dug out from the past by both the opposing camp, it seems that some equilibrium is maintained with both sides having the record of committing communal genocides in modern India. One can only conclude that voters for the opposing camps are only exercising their right to select the camp of bloodbath to which they are forced to belong.

In fact, the shrill and heated campaign on “development” is even more disturbing. More than two decades ago, there was a significant shift in the paradigm of governance, when the current prime minister made his formal entry to the central cabinet. There is complete unanimity among the opposing camps on the financial reform policies formulated by the minority government in 1991, when he was the finance minster. Those who are currently baying with vicious, mutual hatred, however have no qualms in following the basic policies laid down there. What was known at that time as deregulation of restriction to international financial investment has now taken complete shape by governments of all shades, both at states and at central level.

This has happened by total integration of Indian economy to the whims and hiccups of international financial markets. Thus, so-called independence of financial decision making is now replaced by interdependence of financial reforms and international financial market related decisions, to which there is no disagreement among the opposing camps. The viciousness in attacking each other is restricted to the claim of speedier implementation of the reforms that were initiated via the central budget of 1991. So much is the fundamental difference of approach among the vitriolic opposition that the same person could unequivocally be key member of the minority cabinet, chief leader of opposition during the rule of current opposition and then prime minister for a decade at a stretch, without ever being elected via any parliamentary constituency!

For an example of this unanimity, let us take the case of repeated reference to ‘crony capitalism’. It is alleged that the focus of so called ‘Gujarat model of development’ has been in leasing out huge acres of land and seashores to particular industry houses at hugely liberal and concessional rates, leading to phenomenal growth of profit for such houses who are, in turn, paying back via liberal grants to the propaganda build-up of the personality cult. So much is the desperation that the name of one of the biggest monopoly houses of India is now being dragged in election propaganda, for their overnight switching of automobile manufacturing plant from Singur in Bengal to Sanand in Gujarat, via land deals at hugely concessional rate.

Of course, the terms of both the land deals offered for automobile factory at Singur and Sanand are state secrets (!) protected by property laws of the highest court. The most amusing fact is that the person who is publicly bringing these names of industrial houses for their proximity to the personality cult from Gujarat, has in his family the very name who has immensely benefited from all sweetheart land deals from state Governments of Haryana and Rajasthan! If proximity of industrial houses to Government policy making and decision is the bone of contention, then all policies starting with the financial reforms in 1991 should be put to big question marks.

All decisions of bringing in international finances, and providing them land at hugely concessional rates for power plants, steel plants, coal block allocation, gas block allocation, mining rights allocation, port build up, airport build up, road built up – name any one index of industrial build up, all our couched with concessions and industry friendly policies initiated in 1991 and diligently followed by Governments of all hues. As a logical fall out of fierce competition among the giants of financial markets and corporate lobbies, every such big ticket financial deal with the Governments are followed immediately by news of a scam of greater magnitude, leading to endless number of parliamentary, judicial, administrative committees of enquiry.

Charges on corruption and proximity to government have grown so enormous that several Central cabinet ministers and chief ministers had to resign and were sent to jails. Even, several corporate bigwigs of industrial houses are currently serving jail terms. If the Gujarat model of leasing out land at concessional rates to industry houses is to be criticized, then the land deal at Singur, West Bengal should also be criticised. Same should be done about the leasing out of huge tracts of protected forest ranges in Orissa for bauxite mining by the South Korean firms, leasing out Krishna basin for inflated claims of gas reserve by another monopoly house. In fact, all such deals involving tracts of lands, forests, river basin, sea basin to industrial houses need to be questioned.

It is amusing to find that the chief ministers of competing state ministries are bragging about their competing success in drawing industrial and financial investment in comparison to the bonanza offered in Gujarat. They do not though mention the fact all their success of “development” are emanating from the financial policies of reform initiated in 1991. If the success of the annual congregation of industrialists in Vibrant Gujarat by drawing industrial houses to invest in Gujarat is to be emulated all over the country, then the thanks goes to the current prime minister for bringing in not only the pivotal policy but also the associated scams, corporate lobbying and murky land deals as standards of current Indian financial reforms. This reality of paradigm shift in economic and fiscal policy making along with their necessary fall-outs, is of course never present in the rhetoric played around the clock on the TV.

To make the story of corruption charges on “development” paradigm complete, we must not ignore the raging controversies in the mega-defence deals. What started with Bofors gun scam, has now snowballed in huge amount of money changers among middlemen in Tetra truck scam, VIP chooper scam, Barrack missile scam. None of these can be established in court of law by the investigating agencies, but the suspicion and controversy continue to linger on. It is most saddening that even by the terms of normal jurisprudence, that in the case of mother of such scams, the Bofors scam for which a government fell in 1989, the kingpin could never be put to trial in the country, and the mystery lies buried in his graveyard in Italy without any possibility of the truth being out. It can be strongly apprehended that the fate of other such mega scams will similarly be trapped in the cobwebs of courtroom battles as several of Pandora boxes might be opened before general public, shaking the very system for which this process of voting is on. Of course, this bare reality is not present in the rhetoric of election canvassing, although several retired generals and other retired “holy cows” are in the race to prove the hollowness of their election campaign.

Is it not, therefore, logical to ask whose election it is and what for? We are put in a Hobson’s choice where increasingly more number of the working population find this to be the logical route of expressing their political choice that cannot possibly be ignored; on the other hand, there is no route of expressing the reality of despair among the working people through their representatives of choice. It will be pertinent to mention that the financial policies of economic reforms in 1991 and the so called “developmental” routes of societal implementation have been successful in effectively keeping the interest of working class out of the broad contours of political-social issues in more than last two decades.

All political parties, be it of left shade, of right shade or centrist, have taken it as a maxim that bringing in international capital or collaborating with them is the only route of survival for them. Therefore, the land deals or deals regarding other natural resources have become the major focus of controversies. In no previous elections, hobnobbing of industrial houses and their direct or covert understanding with political parties were matters of so apparent public mudslinging. Yet, there is no working class dissent or voicing of such issues in the election campaign. The political parties who claimed to represent the interests of working class could never come out with any alternative policy outlook countering the “developmental” economic policies in more than last two decades, effectively decimating the morale of the working class.

Even when the nascent struggles of the new working class recently sprouted out in Manser, Faridabad of Haryana, they faced brutal repression by the state administration. There were also few solidarity calls among the class brethren. The bastions of old working class in states like Bengal, Maharastra, Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh stand decimated with the new generations of working class left with no protection against increasing contract form of wage labour. In the new forms of division of labour (which is much eulogized by the votaries of economic policies of 1991 and broadly called the information technology (IT & ITES) sector), the labour is yet to realize they are part of the working class, however shining the white collar is. Only when the spectre of benching around or forced/idle sitting at home at company’s largesse loom large as the fate and future, will they realize that there is nowhere to look around except competing and competing fiercely with another fellow bencher. This vast section of the working class is increasingly international due to the very nature of division of labour, yet fiercely unprotected in securing a stable livelihood, and therefore permanently agitated with the future of oneself.

It is now clear that the policies of economic reform from 1991 have increasingly widened the gap between the rich and the poor. According to the recent sample survey of National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO), from statistics of household data for 1999-2000 and 2011-12 (i.e., data over a decade of economic reforms), the richest 10% of Indian society have seen highest growth while the poorest 10% have seen the slowest increase in incomes. The remaining 80% of the people have seen roughly the same levels of growth ranging between 35% and 40% in rural areas and between 40% and 50% in urban areas over 12 years [6].

The so called growth indices of infrastructure need not be growth of job/employment and productionisation of human labour for its social growth[7]-[8], but it is mostly and predominantly the growth of the new form of capitalism that has immensely benefitted from the inroads of international financial markets out of these policies. In fact, this is not the case of this country alone. Joblessness in growth indices, insecurity of employment, and high degree of uncertainty in engaging stable, productive division of labour are major features of all the so-called growing economies such as India, Russia, Brazil, and China [9]. Invariably these economies are laden with breathtaking stories of oligarchs, cronies, profiteers – a smack way of defining the brute forces of current forms of capitalism to the people who always are devoted to some ideal, nice, liberal face of capitalism!

The other face of this deceptive description is that there is no working class in this discourse of capitalism; but, a broad contour of general, exploited bundle of people without economic means of survival – largely rural working population or population scavenging for livelihood in new urban set up, largely uprooted from the rural setup. They are the natural fallout of “development”; but they are not the working class who can resort to strike and can provide a glorious solidarity that was last seen in the railway men’s strike in 1974 in India. It is this class brotherhood, their agenda, their alternative policies to the makings and breakings of international czars of finance capital, which are hugely absent in the current general elections.

Therefore, this is not an election that espouses in any form the agenda or even in partial form the issues that agitate the working class. Yet, the fact of life is that vast majority of the workers are participating in this election and will probably play a role in facilitating the rise of a personality cult and shaping an authoritarian rule over them. If the results of May 16, 2014 really put the psephologists’ predictions to be true, then the working class of India may be looking for more organized efforts in curtailing even the minimum protection of rights that still they can talk of enjoying. Even getting organised at the factory level by unions may be the first hit in decimating organized protests at its embryo. Then, the labour that is already facing the wrath of contractual forms of exploitation will be more harassed, more insecure and more uncertain in their livelihood. Whether such a reality will bring forth new realisation, new forms of workers’ struggle and organisation to confront the new forms of exploitation by capital, only future can say. But, at this point of time, we only attempted to bring to focus this rude reality which is different from the rhetoric that is increasingly deafening in its decibels.

References

[1] Statistical report on general elections 1999, 2004, vol I, Election Commission of India, New Delhi.
[2] Statistical report on general elections 1998, vol I, Election Commission of India, New Delhi.
[3] “SUCI(C) nominee from Kottayam with total assets of Rs 750 files nomination papers for Lok Sabha polls,” News item in The Economic Times, PTI, 16th March 2014.
[4] “The 2014 Elections Are the Most Expensive Ever Held in India,” News item in TIME, Nilanjana Bhowmick, 11 April 2014.
[5] Imtiaz Omar, Emergency Powers and the Courts in India and Pakistan, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2002.
[6] “Income disparity between rich and poor growing rapidly,” News Item, The Times of India, Subodh Verma, 28 July 2013.
[7] B B Bhattacharya and S S Sakthivel, “Economic reforms and jobless growth in India in the 1990s,” pp 471-500, India Towards Economic Super Power: A Journey of Economic Reforms, Ed. A K Sinha, 2005.
[8] Sonia R. Bhalotra, “The puzzle of jobless growth in Indian manufacturing,” OXFORD BULLETIN OF ECONOMICS AND STATISTICS, 60 (1), pp. 5-28, 1998.
[9] Goutam Adhikari, “Aspiring for Equality,” The Times of India, Mumbai Edition, 19 April 2014.

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