What’s the best way for the people to move up in life? That is the main swing question in 2019 – as it is in every election.
The controversial, Emergency-era 42nd Amendment of the Constitution of India added the words ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ to the Preamble. This did not alter the import of the Constitution, which already stressed on equality and upliftment of the downtrodden.
One of those two words – secularism – occupies a lot of space in our political debates. And yet, it’s the other word – socialism – that matters more.
‘Secularism’ is a life and death issue only for the 21 per cent religious minorities, especially to Muslims who are 14 per cent. For the 79 per cent Hindu majority, being invested in saving secularism is an option. This is sad and unfortunate, but true.
To be sure, “secularism” is a contested term in Indian politics. The rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came on the back of complicating and discrediting the term ‘secularism’.
Socialism is also a contested, discredited term. India was never a truly socialist country, and in 1991 gave up its hypocrisy over private enterprise and embraced capitalism. Just as secularism can mean different things to different people, socialism today stands for the welfare state that must pro-actively uplift its citizens from poverty, enable them to enjoy the fruits of capitalism, instead of blindly waiting for the ‘trickle down’.
‘Entitlement vs empowerment’
Indian socialism today is about subsidies and public services. Those who would like to remove the word socialism from the Preamble don’t spend much time discussing how to improve public services, such as education and health, because they can afford the private sector. On subsidies, the debate has converged on how they should be better targeted.
Just as the Congress and the BJP differ on ‘secularism’, they also disagree on ‘socialism’. It may often seem to be a matter of degree than ideology, but make no mistake, there is an ideological difference in how the Congress and the BJP see the issue.
The Congress believes in the welfare state much more than the BJP does, particularly the BJP of Narendra Modi-Amit Shah. The Congress believes in giving poor, landless labourers guaranteed work, highly subsidised food and loan waivers to farmers. The Congress believes in a 21st century form of socialism that is not antithetical to a private sector-driven growth.
A dislike for ‘handouts’ in the BJP is not a Modi phenomenon alone. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership also neglected rural India and agriculture. It focused on infrastructure and disinvestment and said ‘India was shining’. The Congress asked: aam aadmi ko kya mila?
That fault line is one of ‘socialism’ versus ‘capitalism’, welfare state versus libertarianism. The Modi government has phrased this as “entitlement versus empowerment”. This is the socialist fault line of the Indian politics and it will again be on test in the 2019 general election.
Take loans but pay them back
Over the last five years, the Modi government has de-emphasised the rights-based approach of the UPA era and moved towards “empowerment”. It may well have failed at delivering empowerment – voters will deliver their verdict on it soon. But it has certainly made a shift in that direction.
The Modi government wants people to take loans (Mudra) but doesn’t believe in waiving them off. It is happy to try and reduce interest rates and offer insurance schemes. It wants people to open bank accounts and pay taxes, become part of the formal economy. It is happy to offer the first LPG cylinder for free but you have to pay for the refill. Modi has neglected education and health, but again he’s gone big with a health insurance scheme.
It is at best happy to give you money to build a toilet, but only Rs 12,000. One exception has been housing where it made a late start after initially bringing the Indira Awas Yojana to a grinding halt.
The Prime Minster has spoken about NREGA derisively in Parliament: NREGA will stay because it is a ‘living monument’ of the Congress’ failure. NREGA allocations have gone up under the Modi era, an example of how it cannot do away with the need to alleviate extreme poverty and unemployment. Yet in its implementation, the Modi government has weakened NREGA’s ability to prevent landless labourers from migrating to the cities.
Farmers have not being doing well for a long while but in the Modi era, their plight has worsened, thanks to falling commodity prices, export restrictions, a relentless focus on keeping food prices low, two years of drought, a disastrous demonetisation and so on. Despite waves of farmers’ protests, the Modi government has refused to give a farm loan waiver the way UPA-1 did. It would be populist and make electoral sense to do so. It nearly cost Modi the Gujarat assembly election. It helped the BJP win the Uttar Pradesh assembly election. Modi has given the freedom to the BJP state governments to decide if they want to give farm loan waivers but has been unwilling to do so himself.
Why ‘empowerment’ may be failing
Rightly or wrongly, Modi seems to be ideologically opposed to what the economic right-wing calls ‘handouts’ or ‘doles’. But after losing three state elections, he may be forced to give some himself. “Entitlement” may win over “empowerment” and the word socialism may yet again justify its existence in the Preamble. These doles may take the form of ‘targeted universal basic income scheme’ or ‘farmers input subsidy’ or ‘farmers income support scheme’.
Modi has already been trying to discredit farm loan waivers politically, calling them lollipops. It is brave of him to do so. It comes from ideological belief, not electoral compulsions.
Modi may be pulled towards socialism against his own instinct for the fear of losing the election. And if Modi does lose, it will be the victory of socialism.
There are two reasons why Modi’s “empowerment” hasn’t been working. One, it has fared poorly on implementation. Modi wants overnight change but that is not so easy in a federal structure; the state capacity is weak, and the best results come with trial and error anyway. Second, Modi hasn’t been able to get job creation going. Had that been achieved, people would have said they don’t need the ‘doles’ anyway. Modi is saying forget socialism but is unable to make capitalism work for the masses.
The central fault line
These debates will continue forever, but they are rarely acknowledged as the central fault line of Indian politics. They are not as sexy and charged up as matters of religious identity or personality cult. But make no mistake, socialism is the central debate of Indian politics and elections.