Following the general elections for the lower house of the Parliament in India, a new government with Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the Prime Minister has been sworn in. There is immense speculation and anxiety in the Indian press and abroad about the “change in direction” of Indian domestic and foreign policy this new administration will pursue, especially because the BJP has more than 50% of the seats in the lower house and together with its allies, has comfortable majority to pass new legislation through the lower house.
Indian business houses, collectively referred to as India Inc., have put forth their wish list and the government is putting in place a mechanism for its implementation. It has become clear that ‘the change in direction” by the new government is really no change in direction at all but more of the same.
The four main elements of the program are: (i) facilitating more liberalization and privatization of India’s economy and handing over many remaining state resources from the Nehruvian “socialistic pattern of society” to private hands, (ii) reforming labor laws to erode various social protection of the working people, (iii) beefing up and modernizing the armed forces and (iv) opening new doors for Indian businesses to enter foreign markets and vice versa. These have been the program of the previous UPA government and nearly all the the non-Congress – non-BJP state governments, including TDP, CPM, BJD, AIDMK, Trinamool Congress etc.
Mr. Modi’s government has decided to have a two-pronged strategy to implement its version of this program. Mr. Modi knows that NDA does not have the legal ability to push through many legislative goals as the upper house of the Parliament and the President’s office are not under its partisan control. At the same time, all the political parties are favorably disposed towards the four-legged agenda of India Inc. The program has faced political opposition when various parties have tried to implement many of them, especially those include cutbacks to social programs as resources are diverted towards private businesses or defense. The new government is taking much care to soften the resistance of the masses, especially outside the parliamentary formalities, in streets. The partisan tone of the parliamentary parties has been softened and a systematic message of inclusiveness and pro-poor image of the new government is being packaged under the broad theme of making India a major world power.
Indian opinion makers have already tried to first project a cult-like image of Mr. Modi, creating and backing down on Mr. Modi’s life story entering school text books, promoting Mr. Modi’s demonstrative “feet-touching” of BJP elders in the Parliament and “bowing” on the steps of the Indian Parliament building, seeking public blessings from his mother etc. and then asking MP’s not to touch Mr. Modi’s feet in public! What is ironic is that if Mr. Modi’s power and responsibilities as the new Prime Minister are rooted in the support of the people of India, none of these needs to be put on public display. These matters belong to the realm of Modi’s private, personal domain, his right to have his system of beliefs and behaviors. A deliberate display of private behavior to the masses can only be for divert attention away from a public discourse of public policies and political actions. Mr. Modi’s call to his MPs in the Parliament Hall to serve the poor of India is similarly a diversion because the government represents all the people and not just the poor. In fact, at his swearing in, just the reverse was on display - the wealth and pomp of the India Inc. was on there to celebrate. In attendance were the leaders of Indian big business houses and the MPs most of whom are themselves quite wealthy (assets over one crore rupees). The who’s who of the “non-poor” sections of India was savoring the occasion.
Side by side with drive to neutralize the opposition of the masses to any fresh initiative for implementing the privatization-liberalization agenda, definite measures are being taken for weakening the existing official mechanisms to oppose privatization program through legislative, bureaucratic and judicial means. Mr. Modi is fast dismantling the “collective” ministerial level approach of the prior three governments by abolishing the inter-ministerial and inter-departmental mechanisms and replacing them with an executive style decision-making by the prime minister’s office (PMO). A PMO press release has asked all Ministers who have difficulties in deciding issues relating to their own Ministry to refer them to the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat for resolution. Mr. Modi has established a direct link between the PMO and the secretaries, by-passing the ministries even. In short, the current government is strengthening the mechanisms for the executive power to function above the legislative power to implement the agenda of the India Inc.
The recent election and government formation process has made it clear that people of India and of Indian origin living abroad have a deep yearning for India’s marginalization in the world and people’s marginalization inside India to end. The Eurocentric world order continues to marginalize India in world affairs on the one hand and the parliamentary system inside India, where the elected representative do not remain subordinate to the electorate after the elections are over, marginalizes people from power. Indians very much want this nightmare to end, they look forward to India becoming a responsible and respected global force by having peace, harmony and prosperity at home. Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajapayee and Manmohan Singh governments have all raised the hope that their governments will usher in such an India but they all have come short as no one could address to the disempowerment of people through the parliamentary system inside nor weakening of the Eurocentrist world order dominated by big powers. India Inc. and Mr. Modi are following the exact same path – raising the hope that they can make India stand tall in the world by building its military muscle on the one hand and strengthening India private business houses on the other, diverting the attention of the people away from the fact that this is a tested and failed policy. It has failed before under the last five governements after the end of cold war and there is nothing new that suggests that it will be otherwise this time.
Indian businesses feel the need to deal with the glaring poverty, inequality and blatant corruption of political power inside India. As long as the extremes of these problems are not softened, rich and powerful Indians as well as patriotic and hard working masses feel their weight and can’t hold their head high in the contemporary world. Mr. Modi does not seem to recognize that his government has to solve this problem by empowering all Indians behind a new nation-building project where political rights, national right, tribal rights, economic rights including that of health care, education, housing and food can be dealt with. He seems to think that he can dispense some privileges through the parliamentary system to the poor on the one hand and pump wealth to the rich through the same parliamentary system on the other. His first words in the Parliament, "I want to assure you that in this temple of democracy, all efforts will be made to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of people," suggests this mindset. Rather than addressing to the shortcomings that disempower people in the Westminister style parliamentary system and first-past-the-post electoral process, he and India Inc. want to further centralize the existing power through an “executive premiership”. This would be accompanied by the discredited process of the yester-years where “garibi hatao” type homily speaks to the poor while state monopoly capitalism enriches the business houses and “defense of national unity and territorial integrity” of India provides cover for state repression at home and massive arms purchases from abroad.
Indian voters, who participated in the recent election in record numbers, have an opportunity to build on the post-election momentum of political discussion and organizing work. The crore-pati MPs, celebrity MPs and MPs with criminal records have not volunteered to be Parliamentarians to empower their constituents. They have not gone to the Parliament to work for the nation-building project that will uplift people’s living and working conditions. If past is any guide, they are driven by the desire to fill their pockets at the expense of the working majority. They will speak in the name of development and shining India but will do everything to benefit those that have bank rolled the election expenses and worked out the winning election messages. The people who create development by toiling in the fields and factories without adequate shelter and nutrition or safety and security of their families are not in control of the Parliament. They do not have any mechanisms available to them to enforce their will on their representatives under the current parliamentary system. India Inc. will pursue its agenda with a vengeance and likes of Modi will enforce that agenda by mixing populism and diversion with authority of law, courts, army and police. The treasury will be opened for increasing the private assets of Industrial and business houses, sometimes in the name of efficiency, sometimes for creating infrastructure for private capital and sometimes in the name of security.
A dispassionate assessment of the Indian situation suggests that the electorate needs to urgently organize to defeat any moves of the NDA government to hand out more public assets to the private business houses. In the short term, all forms of parliamentary mechanisms can be used to block the sale of public assets to private investors and open the sectors like defense to private enterpreneurs. The first-past-the-post electoral system has gotten the BJP to form government with only 31% of the votes. Considering that only 66% of the eligible voters cast their ballots, vast majority of the electorate can be considered to be not in the BJP bandwagon. The current political mechanisms can be used to block the NDA initiatives inside the parliament through extra-parliamentary pressure on the in the opposition parties to block sweeping handout of public money to the rich. Pressure must be mounted on the government to increase spending on social programs to improve people’s lives and security. The Rajya Sabha and the president can be made stop NDA agenda of servicing their wealthy patrons if the popular movement develops and the agenda of India Inc. is contested. This must occur in the short term.
In the long term, the focus has to be on the alternative movement for comprehensive nation-building. In the political arena, the executive power has to operate in subordination to the legislative power and the legislature has to be subordinate to the constituents through a new system of institutions of power. This will enable all economic developments to be directed towards solving the problems facing the people by involving the people in that solution. The thought of Parliament doing everything a la Modi is the exact opposite – people waiting with folded hands for MPs, prompted by business and foreign lobbyists to steer the resources to private hands.
Coming out of the electoral campaign, opportunities exist to rally the activists for creating building blocks of future political authority so that it can flow from below. The need of India is to make the people “the governing and the governed”. The content of “less government and more governance” slogan of the BJP is the exact opposite because it keeps the governance in the hands of the government which rules from above, executive above legislative power and people completely disempowered after they cast their ballot for a candidate who is funded by the wealthy and presented to them by their electoral machine.
People all over the world are shedding their illusion over the privatization wave of the post cold war era but the illusion of parliamentary system is still strong. Recent trend has been to make use of the parliamentary illusion to put openly retrogressive political forces in power in country after country. People of India can blaze a new movement for people’s empowerment if the short term goals and long term goals above are taken up through serious organizing work at the electorate level.