Exploring how increasing inequality and pervasive corruption are likely to force the re-scripting of Indian growth story
Eventually, every individual issue of contention like the separatist insurgency in Kashmir valley, the communal tension in the states like Gujarat, the Naxalite insurgency in the central India, the recurrent terrorist attacks in the Indian cities, all came to individually occupy the center stage of national debate with undue bitterness and intensity while the larger and overarching narrative of reducing the wealth gap and addressing other grievances of people was lost in the process. It was in this background that the loot of the state wealth with collusion of those inside and outside the government continued unabated for two decades since 1991.
The result was, while the Indian middle class started to dream big inspired by the increasing proximity with the western world and the aura of imminent flatness of the erstwhile spherical world with unstoppable march of the free market economy, the cumulative cost of the silent misappropriation to the state wealth became so huge that it could no longer be contained in the background and erupted in the surface as multiple scams. The confused clamoring for ‘ending the corruption’ and ‘hanging the corrupts’ that followed the eruption, failed even to comprehend that it was only the painstaking process of installing accountability at every level of governance that corruption could really be reduced. Ironically, those who had been warning from early on about the loopholes in the system and questioned the viability of such anti-corruption movement that defined corruption in moral terms, were once again ridiculed with same intensity.
While corruption may be one of the biggest problems that face India today, that is by no means bigger than the ‘scale of inequality’, asserts Tarun Tejpal, one prominent Indian journalist who has witnessed the whole sordid story of mass pauperization in India very closely for decades. According to National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB), a staggering 270,940 farmers have committed suicide in India since 1995 mostly in the states where the march to neo-liberal utopia had forced the farmers to choose cash crops like cotton whose prices in world market were determined by how much countries like US chose to subsidize its cotton farmers. Tragically, in a year when India surpasses China to become the largest arms importer in the world and a mission to Mars is proudly announced by the PM, the plight of the poor remains same as ever. As dictated by the neo-liberal policies the poor are just left ‘free’ to die of malnutrition, preventable diseases and increasing violence.
This brings us to the conclusion. The India Shining narrative was too exclusive to start with and was subsequently hijacked by the apologists of the extremist version of neo-liberal policy to suit the interests of the wealthy and increasingly powerful corporates. The undue belligerence to the dissenters added the authoritarian streak to the narrative and it no longer had the willpower or capability of monitoring the prudence of those in the neo-liberal bandwagon led for the entire period of the past decade by Manmohan Singh. When it was realized that something was wrong, it was too late to intervene. While corruption and inequality flourished in symbiosis, the attempts to dislocate the two from each other so as to selectively pursue the more appealing and fashionable cause of corruption led to the unpleasant demise of the much hyped anti-corruption crusade led by Anna Hazare over the past year.
The lesson: regardless of whether Manmohan Singh was underachiever or overachiever, the losers in the whole India Shining fiasco of past two decades were the people whose hunger coexisted with the rotting food grains in the stores yet PM Singh calmly explained how distributing those for free would “destroy the incentive of our farmers to produce more food”. Apparent innocence and calm demeanor apart, Singh has been one of the most steadfast supporters of growing inequality with coexistence of extremes of hunger and opulence in India, practically if not rhetorically. He also carries the credit of preferring the use of lethal force to tame the Naxalite movement in tribal Indian heartlands to facilitate the extraction of the underground wealth as a convenient alternative to the costly and time-consuming process of uplifting the lives of the poor people. Thus his fall from fame and grace may be an awful thing for the proponents of belligerent version of India Shining narrative but not everyone shares that sorrow. Instead, a break from the status quo may provide the opportunity for India to shine really with legitimate concerns of the majority of people being addressed as opposed to the obsessive indulgence of the state machinery in the process of making the rich into super rich while pauperizing the population. I can clearly see the silver lining in the clouds.