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India’s Tryst With Destiny at 70

by Alf Nilsen on August 15, 2017

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, in his speech to the country’s Constituent Assembly as the midnight hour approached on the fourteenth of August 1947. The following day, India was to enter the ranks of independent and sovereign nations after having been subordinated to British colonial rule since 1858. Freedom, according to Nehru, was to be used to build “a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation.” Has this been accomplished, 70 years after India woke to life and freedom?

Uneven and Unequal Development

If Narendra Modi, India’s current Prime Minister, is to be believed, strong economic growth has brought about a new age of prosperity in India. In 2016, the country’s economy grew at a rate of 7.9% and Modi claimed that this was the result of prudent economic policies and efficient management. This message is in line with his reputation for being “vikas purush” – a man of development – and resonates strongly among India’s urban middle classes, who constitute the main pillar of electoral support for Modi’s party – the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s landslide victory in the general elections of 2014 was in large part based on a promise that his rule would bring “acche din” – good days – to the people of India. The impressive economic growth rates seem to indicate that good days have indeed arrived.

However, Modi’s growth rhetoric confronts serious questions. The summer of 2017 begun with new numbers that revealed a drastic reduction in the rate of growthdown to 6.1% in the period from January to March, and an estimated annual growth rate of 7.1%. India consequently lost its status as the fastest growing economy in the world. Far more important, though, is the fact that India’s economic growth, which has been registering high rates since the early 2000s, underpins a development process that is both uneven and unequal.

Economists Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze have shown that India’s social development indicators are weaker than those found in far poorer neighbouring countries. For example, India has a higher infant mortality rate, shorter mean years of schooling, and a lower rate of literacy for women than Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This is first and foremost due to the fact that very little of the country’s gross national product (GNP) is being invested in the expansion of social infrastructure. In fact, India uses no more than 1.7% of its GNP on social protection for its most vulnerable citizens. Small wonder, then, that in a country with a food surplus, 44% of all children are malnourished – more than twice as many as in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition to this, India’s economic growth is failing to generate sufficient employment. Most new jobs are emerging in the service sector, which employs less than 30% of the country’s population. Manufacturing employment has stagnated, and 92% of the working population ekes out a living in the informal sector, where incomes are low, working conditions poor, and employment tenuous and unstable. Youth unemployment stands at more than 10%, which is a considerable problem when 27% of the country’s 1.3 billion strong population are between 15 to 29 years old.

Jobless growth and weak social development indicators are part of a larger picture characterised by persistent poverty and deepening inequalities. Indian authorities – both under Congress and the BJP – and international organizations have made it a point to tell the world that poverty has decreased strongly in the country after the introduction of liberal economic reforms in the early 1990s. According to official numbers, 22% of the Indian population live below the poverty line – but this figure is estimated according to a poverty line that is widely criticized for being too low and too narrow. In contrast, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHDI) – which measures poverty according to an index that brings together standard of living, health, and education – estimates that 41.3% of India’s population live in poverty. At the same time, an elite group of 57 billionaires owns as much wealth as the poorest 70% of the population. This uneven and unequal development has to be understood in relation to India’s paradoxical political trajectory in the wake of independence seventy years ago.

Politics and its Paradoxes

At its birth in 1947, Indian democracy was controlled by the country’s elites. It was overwhelmingly men from the upper castes who controlled the levers of power in the Congress party. And Congress in turn secured its dominance through alliances with landowning high caste groups in the countryside. These groups controlled whom the lower castes and Dalits – India’s former untouchables – voted for in national and state elections. Consequently, the world’s largest democracy was also a conservative democracy – that is, a political regime that did not prioritise redistribution and welfare for its poorest citizens.

This system has changed in many ways. Not only is India one of the few countries in the world where the poor now participate more actively in elections than the rich. Congress dominance has also been eroded while lower castes and Dalits have emerged as independent political actors. This process began in the 1970s, when low caste groups who had established themselves as prosperous farmers in the wake of India’s land reforms formed their own political parties. These parties soon became a force to be reckoned with in northern India and have formed national coalition governments on several occasions. Dalits followed suit and mobilised through the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – a party that has ruled the politically important state of Uttar Pradesh for long periods, both alone and as part of coalitions.

This process has been called a “silent revolution” in which political power has been transferred from higher to lower orders in Indian society in a largely peaceful way. However, it is not immediately evident that these new democratic dynamics have resulted in corresponding socioeconomic transformations. Uttar Pradesh was ruled more or less continuously by the BSP and the lower caste Samajwadi Party between the early 1990s and 2014. Despite this, social indicators among the lower castes and Dalits in the state are far worse than in the rest of India. It is primarily the more prosperous sections among the lower castes who have reaped the benefits of the changing political power equations. In contrast, more than 40% of all Dalits in Uttar Pradesh still live in poverty.

Conditions in Uttar Pradesh are in many ways a microcosm of national poverty structures. According to the OPHDI, 65.8% of India’s Dalits, who predominantly earn a living as wage labourers, and 58.3% of the country’s lower castes are poor – compared to 33% of the rest of the Indian population. This is the fundamental paradox of India’s democracy, namely that increased political representation has not resulted in the redistribution of income and wealth in favour of marginalised groups. Above all, this is symptomatic of the fact that, during the past three decades, the country’s economic elites have consolidated their influence over reform policies that have been developed in Delhi and at state level. This has constrained possibilities for pursuing redistributive welfare policies in India. As a result, already existing socioeconomic inequalities have widened and deepened as market-oriented reforms have created new opportunities to accumulate private profits.

A Stable Democracy?

Despite its obvious limitations and social deficits, India’s democracy has been uniquely stable over the past seven decades. However, under Modi’s regime there has been an authoritarian turn in Indian society and in the country’s public sphere. Despite the populist rhetoric about bringing development to all Indians, Modi and the BJP are part of a Hindu nationalist movement with roots stretching back to the 1920s. This movement consists of a wide spectrum of organizations that operates with the goal of making India a Hindu nation.

The movement is clearly antagonistic towards religious minorities, and this has repeatedly resulted in anti-Muslim pogroms – for example in Gujarat in 2002, where Modi was Chief Minister when Hindu nationalist activists led violent gangs who murdered more than 2000 Muslims in a systematic and horrifically brutal manner. Since Modi took charge in Delhi in 2014, violence against Muslims and other marginal groups has proliferated. This violence takes the shape of spontaneous lynchings, where vigilante groups attack individuals – most often Muslims or Dalits. Those who are attacked are often accused of storing, eating, or trading in cow meat, and the gangs who carry out the attacks claim to be “gau rakshas – protectors of the sacred cow. The last eight years, India has witnessed 63 such attacks, which often end in murder. More than 96% of the attacks have taken place under the current Modi regime. Muslims constitute more than 50% of those who have been attacked and 86% of those who have been killed.

The lynchings, which have escalated strongly in 2017, can be seen as an expression that Hindu nationalists feel that they have free rein to use violence and fear to promote their majoritarian agenda in Indian society. The attacks are also part of an authoritarian tendency that is having an adverse impact on India’s public sphere. For example, dissidents and activists, as well as students, academics and journalists who are critical of Modi’s regime are regularly accused of being “anti-national” and subjected to harassment and silencing.

This doesn’t mean that Indian democracy is at immediate risk of unravelling. What it does mean is that the future of India’s tryst with destiny rests in the hands of those who have not given up faith that it is possible to win social justice – the women who protest sexual violence and patriarchal power, the Dalits who reject caste discrimination and demand equality, the intellectuals who practise their right to free speech and dissent, the peasants and Adivasis who fight against dispossession, and the slumdwellers and workers who assert the right to dignified lives and livelihoods. In the face of inequality and authoritarianism, it is their collective action in India’s democratic spaces that ultimately has the potential “to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”.

Alf Nilsen
Alf Gunvald Nilsen is Associate Professor at the Department of Global Development Studies and Planning at the University of Agder and Research Associate at the Society, Work and Development Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand.

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