India is once again pulled into the sensitive fire of reservation. The most prosperous community in one of the more prosperous states of India has just taken to the streets in revolt against the acche din that are being denied to them.
Why should they turn out in lakhs – eighteen lakh at last count – to protest reservations from which they are excluded? Instead of being the showpiece of the Gujarat “model of development”, and that too in the Prime Minister’s home state, they are on the streets threatening to bring down the very government they were principally responsible for electing time and time again.
To, Patel bhaiyon ko gussa kyon aata hai?
There are, of course, Gujarat-specific reasons for this wholly unexpected and unanticipated upsurge. And we can leave it to the Gujarat government to salvage what they can of the mess in which they find themselves. The more intriguing question to answer is why is it that the biggest beneficiaries of development are biting the hand that has so long fed them?
The Rajdeep Sardesais and Shekhar Guptas have a favourite word to explain the startling outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha election: the “aspirational” nature of India’s youth which Modi tapped into, but the Congress ignored at its own heavy cost. I invite them to ponder over why the most aspirational community in all of India, the Patels, one moreover which has been the engine of Modi’s spectacular rise to the summit, has so viciously turned against the very system that has brought them so much success.
I suggest it is because those first mesmerized by the promise of acche din are also the first to be disillusioned when it does not come to them instantaneously. More to the point, those less mesmerized might take a little longer to be disillusioned, but disillusionment will not be long coming – and then it will spread like a plague that could threaten the Modi establishment’s dreams of permanence that they have been assiduously nurturing these past 15 months. Hyperbole (‘jumla’) can win you one election. The taller the promise, the bigger the fall. This is the beginning of the end.
I do not celebrate the prospect for I fear the syndrome is symptomatic of a wider malaise: the dilemma of democracy and development. At Independence, we all assumed that development was desirable. It was what we had fought for. It was what we aspired to. While many were the ways to development being debated, there was a national consensus on the need for development. Equally, there was national consensus on the need for democracy. It was almost universally believed that democracy was the best political system within which to promote development – and till the eve of the Third Plan (1961), we thought we were succeeding, with Walt Rostow declaring that the first country to reach the “take-off stage” would be India. Then, a decade of war, 1961-71, left our growth rate stagnant and the argument began over the “Hindu” rate of growth. The answer, it was thought, might lie in liberalizing the economy to accelerate the growth process.
The most fervent advocates of LPG – Liberalization, Privatization, Globalization – persisted with their mantra although the first decade of liberalization returned very disappointing results, the average growth rate 1992-2002 of 5.9 percent being no more than 0.3 percent over the average growth rate 1980-90 of 5.6 percent. Then came the staggering acceleration under UPA I (which had its beginnings in the last year of the previous Vajpayee government) with growth rates touching 9.4 percent in 2006-07 and its being presaged that double-digit growth was just around the corner.
That hope has since been dashed but the germane point for us to note in the context of the Patel agitation is that the acceleration of growth rates brought into sharp focus the fact that higher growth led to sharper inequalities. A whole new class of dollar millionaires (with a sprinkling of dollar billionaires) sprang into existence even as most Indians found their incomes growing by a few paise or, at best, a few rupees. A debate began over growth and equity, it being argued in the LPG corner that priority should be accorded to growth, whatever its consequences for inequality, because whatever the short-term political consequences of growth aggravating inequality, in the long term, at the end of the day, growth benefited all. When asked how far off was the “end of the day”, the LPG-ists pointed to the Western world, eliding the fact that a measure of prosperity for all was achieved there some 150-200 years after the Industrial Revolution. That means our people could expect some measure of comfort by 2200 but not much before then! The deprived, it was believed, had no alternative but to take it on the chin.
That was to reckon without democracy. Democracy is impatient. It seeks results within five years. If what is sought is not achieved within that time-span, the answer is obvious: kick the fellows out, more politely known as “anti-incumbency”. Having thus got into a syndrome of frequent changes of government at virtually every election since the mid-90s, what is increasingly becoming clear is that every change of government is also bringing disillusionment with the system: “Natha Singh, Prem Singh/One and the same Thing”! Hence, this rightward swing to the strong man. Not just a swing from one party to another but a swing from the democratic pragmatists to the Strong Man at the helm who will single-mindedly put things straight because he has a 56-inch chest. One more swing to the right and we will end with dictatorship.
It has generally been assumed that, as in Germany and much of Europe in the throes of the Great Depression of the ’30s, it is the poor who would first vote for the strong man to end the curse of poverty in the midst of plenty. That has happened in India too, with the tribals of central India deciding they are sick of having to pay through massive displacement the price of so-called development. Comprising a mere 8 percent of our population, the share of the tribals in displacement has reached 55 percent, the worst case being Gujarat where their share has topped 76 percent. 65 million tribals have in 65 years lost their homes, their forests, their rivers, their herds, their livelihood, their customs and ways of life to enable high dams and deep mines to benefit the country. They are fed up. Else, they would not be assisting, or at least acquiescing in, the Naxal militants in their jungles. Our chaps in khaki have been chasing the chimera of a police-cum-military solution for more years than the Americans took to find Osama bin Laden but have come nowhere near finding an answer.
But this “most serious internal security threat” will prove as nothing compared to the chaos that will be engendered if the middle class beneficiaries of development, like the Patidars of Gujarat, decide to wage an urban rebellion against the establishment. We saw in the 80s what happened when the most prosperous famers of the country – the Punjabis – took to militancy. Development that is unequal spawns so much envy, even jealousy, that it undermines social stability and leaves millions frustrated and unhappy. When there is economic stagnation, social stratification is accepted. But when development churns society, as it did in Europe in the seventh decade of the Industrial Revolutions there, and is beginning to do in the seventh decade of our own Industrial Revolution here, it is time to wake up from our slumber and recognize that unless growth and equity are yoked together, we might end up undermining our single-greatest achievement since Independence – Democracy.
– By Manishankar Aiyar
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)