What the BJP Govt is doing to liberal democracy

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

One of the most striking contrasts between the United Progressive Alliance government that ruled India from 2004 to 2014, and the National Democratic Alliance administration that succeeded it, has become vividly clear eight years into the latter’s existence. That relates to the differing attitudes of the two to the idea of “empowerment” of the ordinary citizen. For the UPA, people were to be empowered through the conferring of rights enshrined in legislation – the Right to Information, the Right to Education, the Right to Food Security, and even the Right to Work (under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). The rights-based framework empowered the ordinary citizen to make demands of the state to fulfil her essential needs. The NDA, however, has approached empowerment through the conferring of benefits rather than rights – toilets, gas cylinders, housing, electricity, rations, cash transfers and the like. This has made the citizens into what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party calls “labharthis”, or beneficiaries, of the state.

On the face of it, this may seem odd, coming from a government that first rose to power decrying the “handouts”, the “doles” and “the welfarism” of its predecessor. The UPA, Mr Modi’s campaign argued in 2014, had regarded the nation with a “povertarian” mindset; his aim was to help ordinary people rise above poverty and welfare to stand on their own feet. If economic realities have now obliged him to change his mind, he still frames the issue in the language of empowerment. “The poor need to be empowered,” Mr Modi declared, “to fight poverty on their own strength”. So the Prime Minister and his government are giving welfare benefits to this end, replacing the “entitlements” that came with the UPA’s rights-based approach with a version of “empowerment” that sees welfare benefits as tools to enable individual self-sufficiency. What the Government’s former Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind Subramaniam, describes as “the subsidised public provisioning of private goods” is a form of individual “atma-nirbharta” which, in the government’s telling, helps each citizen to overcome poverty.

Public goods are government financing for health, education, highways and the like; private goods are those enjoyed by the private citizen in her own home. A gas cylinder is a private good but it is now being provided to the individual citizen by public money. It’s a sort of “new welfarism” that the BJP/NDA under Modi are happy to claim credit for. As Amit Shah explained, the government has “upgraded the lives” of citizens so that they are “empowered” to make the most of them.

A corollary of this approach, however, is the revised implicit contract between the “labharthi” and the ruler who has given him those benefits. The beneficiary has received his benefits not because he has a “right” or an “entitlement” but because the government, in its generosity, has extended its charity to him, for which he is expected to be grateful. (It is no accident that the BJP maintains lists of those who have received government benefits, provides it to election campaigners, and systematically reminds the beneficiaries of their need to be grateful when elections come around.) The eminent political scientist Rajeev Bhargava has argued that this has created a different type of Indian citizen, the “passive subject”, who does not have any rights but “live[s] by the grace of the ruler and get[s] protection and other benefits by being loyal to him.” As Yamini Aiyar of the Centre for Policy Research explains, “Welfare is not provided out of political duty, but rather as an act of benevolence linked to electoral return.” In other words, I, the ruler, provided you, the subject, with a gas cylinder and a toilet; it is your duty to be grateful for this by expressing your thanks at the ballot-box when your turn next comes up to vote for me. Targeted benefits received by individual voters, rather than general benefits shared by the public as a whole, facilitates the task of voter mobilisation so that the BJP can, in effect, convert taxpayers’ money into votes.

The centralised delivery of benefits are intended directly to create and perpetuate an image of the “benevolent ruler”

It’s actually quite a breathtaking transformation of the basic assumptions of democratic governance that has occurred in our country. The voter has become a subject, the passive recipient of government largesse for which he must be grateful, rather than one who feels he is entitled to demand benefits as a matter of right. As Dr Bhargava observes, “just when the passive subject was beginning to be seen as a relic of the past, it has made a stunning comeback. And … it has severely compromised our democracy and made citizenship virtually redundant.” Aiyar points out that by stripping welfare of the language of “rights”, the government has in effect created a new technique of political mobilisation that galvanizes votes in return for merely doing its job. The centralised delivery of benefits, and the attribution of credit to the Prime Minister and his government, are intended directly to create and perpetuate an image of the “benevolent ruler”, which has repeatedly served the BJP well in election after election. The moral legitimacy conferred by granting such benefits enhances the ruling party’s standing. When Mr Modi modified his famous slogan “sab ka saath sab ka vikas” to add “sab ka vishwas”, he was subtly reminding the voters to believe in him – to have faith, or “vishwas”, in his munificence.

Indian citizens have thus been reduced to political subjecthood. As Dr Bhargava explains: “They live by the grace of the ruler and get protection and other benefits by being loyal to him…. [P]olitical subjects identify the state with the ruler, as does he himself. Belonging to the state means becoming a ruler’s subjects. Unlike a democratic body of equal citizens, the relationship between the subject and the ruler then is unabashedly hierarchical. Though the subject’s condition is a mixture of subordination and servitude, he gratefully accepts it because of the protection provided by the ruler. He interprets the wishes of the ruler as commands and has no appetite for rebellion…. When a subject receives a small, negligible portion of the state’s treasury, he believes it is charity flowing directly from the ruler’s personal largesse. Overawed by him, the subject cannot but be deferential to the ruler. Disobedience would amount to shameful betrayal…. Laabarthis, no longer rights-bearers, are the exact opposite of ever-demanding, rights conscious active citizens. In the recently held elections, the Prime Minister rightly went to them with the expectation that they would vote for him…He instinctively knew that those who had eaten his ‘namak’ (salt) cannot betray him.”

Those journalists and political leaders puzzled by the BJP’s continuing electoral successes, despite the long tradition of anti-incumbency in our democracy, need look no farther for an explanation. The active citizen has become a passive subject; the wielder of rights has become the recipient of benefits. No wonder our liberal democracy is now being seen around the world as an electoral autocracy.

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