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Whose freedom do we celebrate?

Whose freedom do we celebrate?
In our house, my ailing mother’s attendant occasionally deputes her daughter – who just entered her teens – to supplement her services. Much to my chagrin and active protests on the point that she should be going to school, her mother simply ignores my plaintive arguments, with my mother’s quiet acquiescence. This Monday (15 August) in the evening, I had my moment of revelation - so to say: she came to my room to ask me what date was it this day.

She did not have any interest beyond knowing that it was 15 August – the banality of her temper about the day’s significance told me this: in a country where the median age is 27.3years, with a large section of the billion plus population millennials, whose freedom do we celebrate?

The pundits argue that we belong to a post-colonial society, where 70 years on, a 13-year-old who is exposed to television as a medium of information or, infotainment to be precise, does not harbour any sentiment of being free. On the contrary, she may, in fact, feel chained to the idea of supplementing the family income. She is producing. At the moment she is adding to what is called the “growth rate.” Naturally, one will need to investigate this “growth rate” to find what it actually is. First, this “growth rate” is that of the gross domestic product (GDP), which does not define how we are to identify the truly poor. This “growth rate” also means that this girl is entering an age where she will soon add to what is now called in the language of the polite society, “demographic dividend.” There is very little recourse available to actually garner this “dividend” for national gains.

But what happens when some decide to question these “growth rates?” If they do it with guns in hand and challenge the status quo, they are dubbed militants and extremists. Why? Because the monopoly over violence resides in the State.

The other option is to question the “growth rates”. The politics of this kind of pulsing the system is called the Parliamentary/democratic route. This is obviously extolled by an entrenched elite who know how only to feather their nests, and have been continuing in the same vein for almost the same period that we have been “free.”

Let us examine what is the result of this kind of “Parliamentarism” We are supposed to be the second country in the world which is driving another statistic, the global “growth rate.” The first is China.  Now, that’s at the top end of aggregated “growth rates” of nations. Yet, in 1949, when China’s GDP as we know it was USD 30.55 billion, while India was almost at par at USD 22.1 billion.

Today China is the second largest economy in the world; India the seventh largest. The figures are further stark when one looks at the poverty figures: China about seven percent; India at 29 percent (even this figure is contested).

Remember our protagonist: that girl of 13 years? By my tentative calculations, her family income is about Rs 20,000 per month. So she is at the edge of what can be called the neo-middle class. But her family with three earning members working almost 12 hours each every day, is still teetering at the edge of the precipice. One calamity –if it be a health issue, with quality healthcare in India, which is largely in private hands is almost prohibitively expensive and out of bounds for most people – and she and her family will topple over.

While the World Bank had talked five years ago of the Chinese government virtually lifting by the boot-straps 300 million people above their poverty line; after much cogitation and wrangling along with much wringing the same world body, talk about 140 million people in India who have been raised above the same – the World Bank being otherwise an institution of munificence of the global elite.

So what is it that has acted as a drag on the India development story. The pointed finger is usually directed at “democracy.” Yes, democracy is noisy and unruly. On the other hand, the Chinese Party-State with its authoritarian style is considered more successful. But the fact remains in case of India we had a Prime Minister who talked about only 10 paisa percolating down from the “development rupee.”

In the process, Rajiv Gandhi had not just pointed at the political class but had actually put on the dock the standing bureaucracy that actually acted on the ground delivering what the politicians gave (courtesy the political side of the government). And it is this bureaucracy that has held up India’s growth story for two reasons: the exhibition of power over people and two, for loathing any idea which whittled down their discretionary power that is meant to underline their avarice and other-worldly sins.

So 70 years on, if the narrative needs to change, then the bureaucracy-led “reform” and so-called “development agenda” has to be upended. What has to replace it is a more democratic system of peoples’ participatory governance. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi understands this, as did Sonia Gandhi during the National Advisory Council (NAC) days of the UPA government. Gandhi failed to restrain his kleptocratic colleagues.

It remains to be seen whether Modi’s presidential form of Prime Ministership succeeds in its place. Otherwise, the regional neo-elite of the Dalits and the OBC will make the Centre irrelevant as the periphery will tighten its circle closer to New Delhi, and political conflicts will sharpen.

That is not necessarily a bad thing – American political scientists have introduced the concept of “power distance.” It meant how far the people are removed from the source of power. This “power distance” is in fact what needs to be bridged.

And that indeed is a transformative experience, way much bigger than any government with 29 percent support for the ruling party can barely handle. Modi has to expand his support base and reach out to the hitherto disenfranchised, deprived, and the destitute. That can’t be done just by the “growth rates.”

(The views expressed are strictly personal.)

Pinaki Bhattacharya

Pinaki Bhattacharya

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