In the early 1990s, when the economy was new but our mindsets were old, your humble columnist, then newly returned from Oxford was astounded at the old-fashioned world of Indian journalism. In those days, it was believed that the fate of the nation rested on the home ministry, defence ministry, ministry of external affairs and the finance ministry. These ministries were covered by senior male journalists, snarling patriarchs who guarded their domains with the fierce territoriality of lions. Rural development, education and health — which all over the world were seen as vital to a nation’s progress — were relegated firmly to second place. These ‘social sectors’ were covered by women, conscientious ladies who were repeatedly reminded that infant mortality, epidemics, primary education and affordable housing didn’t really matter as much as high diplomacy or heavy-duty weaponry.
Now, more than a decade later the government has at last caught up with the rest of the world in realising what constitutes progress. Having realised that it was largely the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Rs 66,000-crore loan waiver that won them the election, the UPA is now rightly convinced that progress is measured by how educated and healthy a country is, not by how many weapons it can buy or how many summits its diplomats attend.
Today heavyweight male politicians head ministries that were once thought of as “women’s concerns”. Kamal Nath is in road transport, Ghulam Nabi Azad in health, Kapil Sibal in human resource development, C.P. Joshi in rural development, the smart Jairam Ramesh in environment and forests. Our gentle sardar with that wise head wrapped in a blue turban has created a revolution in the way government has started to think, in the way the “social sector” has been given the primacy it has long deserved.
Perhaps one of the additional reasons for this remarkable shift is the Rahul Gandhi persona. The crumpled kurta-pyjama, the two day stubble, Hindi as the preferred language and renunciation of high office in favour of grassroots party work, has certainly set the tone of a government that prefers — or ostensibly prefers — Darbhanga to Davos. The tendency was visible even in the UPA’s first term, which saw initiatives like the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission and the National Advisory Council. Today, for the first time in decades, a central government has enunciated a new social charter with the citizen. This new “social charter” is the heartbeat of the UPA government.
Yet there are certain pitfalls in the conviction that one is the sole repository of the “people’s mandate.” A missionary zeal in do-gooding could lead to creeping autocracy and dictatorship. The UPA’s social charter with the citizen, progressive and revolutionary as it is, must not become a rigid manual of political correctness where the clock is set back on democratic functioning. After all, most dictators throughout history from Adolf Hitler to Lee Kwan Yew were convinced that they were the sole spokesmen of “the people.”
The speeches made by the PM and other ministers during the election of Meira Kumar as Speaker were telling. We were not told about the qualities of Kumar or her unique suitability for the post of custodian of the Lok Sabha. Only Kumar’s virtues as a “dalit”, “daughter of Jagjivan Ram” and a “woman” were extolled, as if birth and background were sufficient justifications for such a crucial constitutional office. A social conscience is certainly a positive virtue in any government but in 21st century aspiring India, governments must think beyond quotas. Identity alone cannot be a challenge to Mayawati.
Perhaps the greatest bad mark against this “good” government is the vanshvaad (dynastic) politics it presides over. A record number of sons and daughters of politicians have been elected in 2009 and many are part of the government. Erstwhile rebel Purno Sangma has even tendered an abject apology to Sonia Gandhi for the kindness of making his daughter a minister of state. This watertight caste of a handful of ruling families each backed by powerful corporate interests is a terrifying development for Indian democracy. It effectively means that politicians are so rich and so corporatised that passing on the family business necessarily means passing on the Lok Sabha seat as well. This creeping tendency should make every citizen shiver. Pakistan is still paying the price for letting its politics be captured by 200 elite families.
A rethink is also urgently necessary on the Women’s Reservation Bill. This bill, which the UPA says its committing to passing within 100 days, is a highly defective and anti-democratic piece of legislation that will further open the floodgates of the bahu-beti brigade into politics. By reserving one-third seats for women, seats which will be decided by lottery, a male MP who loses a long-nursed constituency will simply put up his wife or daughter from the constituency, which is suddenly declared reserved for women. A much better more effective method is to have a one-third quota for women in allotment of tickets (not seats), so women will compete equally to win. In fact, parties like the JD(U) and Samajwadi Party that are at the moment implacably opposed to quotas on seats have no problem with quotas on ticket allotment.
The Congress’ tryst with democracy has always been a slightly problematic one. This was after all the party which imposed the Emergency and the party which is still ruled by an aristocracy of birth. Rahul Gandhi’s glasnost within the Congress and successful attempts to revitalise the youth congress are perhaps the only hopeful things about the UPA.
Indeed just as the UPA has created a stunning new social charter for India, it now needs to create a democratic charter as well. This means reducing, not enhancing, the role of families, avoiding tokenism and encouraging merit at all levels of government. The massive re-think and re-ordering of governmental priorities that the UPA is carrying out will be brought to nought if the India it bequeaths to future generations is lots of excellent schemes on poverty alleviation and infrastructure, but a dysfunctional and rotten democracy.
Sagarika Ghose is senior editor CNN-IBN.