The ‘JNU row’ is now an inflection point. What should and could have been resolved as a university-level disciplinary issue has been allowed to snowball into a media controversy, a challenge to the legitimacy of the courts, a dramatic loss of trust in policing and critically as well as a seemingly irreparable polarisation around what constitutes democracy, dissent and freedom. This full-blown crisis will now loudly ring through Parliament in the coming weeks with public money and time used over what need not have become a contentious issue in the first place.
The ruling political class is substantially to blame for bringing us to such a pass. There is an unmistakable pattern that is also emerging. India’s much-recognised institutions of higher learning such as the FTII, University of Hyderabad, IIT (Chennai) and JNU have been subjected to almost diabolical pressure from the human resources ministry with the sole purpose, as it appears, to undermine autonomy and control the idea of learning itself.
A disturbing ideological game plan seems to be at the heart of such clumsy and high-handed efforts with strong links to the recent worries about intolerance, the killing of an innocent over the beef ban, the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula and the aggressive ‘love jihad’ campaign in western UP.
Pointedly put, a social and cultural crisis has been recklessly generated and the flames are beginning to lap up at the feet of two of the important constituents of India’s economic growth story. The middle class and India Inc. are now clearly anxious. For the middle class, a cosmopolitan nationalism helps them access and harness the potential of globalisation. Any narrow idea of the nation, especially the ‘goonda nationalism’ of Vijay Chauhan, who led last week’s assault on journalists and students by lawyers at New Delhi’s Patiala House court, will have severe repercussions over how brand India is represented and understood abroad. Cosmopolitanism, with its notions of patience, tolerance and acceptance of cultural diversity, is how global markets are defined and rigged around notions for travel, consumption, tastes and fashions.
For India Inc., on the other hand, social peace is linked to political stability and critical for economic growth. A seminal work by Harvard professor Alberto Alesina and three others in 1992 demonstrated the deep interconnections between political stability and economic growth through a study of 113 countries between 1950 and 1982. A similar work published in 2011 by two economists at the International Monetary Fund, Ari Aisen and Fancisco Jose Veiga, showed how the adverse impacts are quickly transmitted through a decline in rates of productivity and slower physical and human capital accumulation.
We have seen evidence of this in South American countries such as Argentina, Bolivia and, closer home, in the ASEAN region during the 1970s and 1980s. Even in our case, the best periods of sustained growth, 2003-2010, for example, have come in years of relative social and political stability.
Anyone who knows their history and politics of the past decades will also tell you that South Africa had to abandon the idea of running a racist regime because, simply put, there was no other way to join the global economy.
Aisen and Veiga, who studied economic progress in 169 countries between 1960 and 2004, also found ethnic homogeneity beneficial for growth. If one were to flip that argument for India, a country of ethnic heterogeneity, it would mean our ability to ensure social harmony has a bearing on the economy’s growth.
“Social cohesion determines the quality of institutions, which in turn has important impact on whether and how pro-growth policies are devised and implemented,” wrote William Easterly of New York University in a 2006 paper co-authored with Jozef Ritzen and Michael Woolcock. “A country’s social cohesion is essential for generating the confidence and patience needed for reforms.”
And for both, the Indian middle class and India Inc., the sanctity of the courts, the neutrality of the police and a robust education system are critical ingredients to their aspirations and ambitions.
The intensification of the ‘JNU row’, moreover, is increasingly rubbing against another major fault-line. Much like the devastating Jat agitation in Haryana, this too has all the potential of exploding. More than half of JNU’s students come from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. To brand them anti-national is to open the flood gates for unstoppable and dangerous regionalism. Migrants to Delhi from Bihar already nurse a degree of resentment over how they are treated, especially by Delhi’s Punjabi population.
Small wonder then that Shatrughan Sinha’s description of Kanhaiya Kumar as ‘our Bihari boy’ has already found resonance across the political spectrum in Bihar. JNU, it must be remembered, is one of the most important educational institutions for enabling small-town boys and girls from these relatively backward states to move into the ranks of the middle class growth story in India.
Incidents such as the ‘JNU row’ run the risk of bringing regionalism centre stage of politics. India Inc. certainly won’t want that, for it comes in the way of harnessing the potential of a unified national market.
The author tweets as @rajeshmahapatra