Sir Winston Churchill was prophetic when he said:
“the best argument against democracy is a 5-minute conversation with the average voter.”
So what is an average Indian voter experiencing in 2018?
The Indian Pursuit of Happiness
Politicians do not get reelected on only one issue. They get elected for a second term if there is an overall sense of well being in the average voter. It essential that every person has the right tools and environment to realise their potential. This potential includes being a productive member of society, living a meaningful life, and having a say in issues that matter to their nation as a whole. They must have the freedom to chose their livelihood, their partner, and their faith. Everyone should have the opportunity to pursue happiness.
High GDP growth does not always translate into happiness. India is the third largest country in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) but ranks a shameful 133rd out of 156 countries as per the 2018 World Happiness Report. The young now constitute the biggest group in India and millennials are asserting themselves more aggressively than ever before.
The Power of Indian Millennials
Indian millennials have gone, for the most part, beyond considerations of caste, religion and geography. They do not owe their allegiance to any particular political party or any politician. They reduced Dr Manmohan Singh’s government from 200+ seats in parliament to just 44 seats without batting an eyelid. They can do the same to Narendra Modi’s government. It would be dangerous to ignore the power of this generation and Modi’s government has exactly done that. The biggest issue the young care about is jobs.
As per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), only 2 million new jobs were created in 2017 for the 24.6 million people who newly entered the labour force. In terms of percentage growth, employment grew by shameful 0.5% in 2017. Rural employment contracted by 0.7%. Many young are so helpless that they have even stopped looking for work and as a result, labour force participation in India has actually shrunk from 46.6% to 43.9%. China, in contrast, has a labour force participation of 71% with the global average being 63%. Failure to undertake far-reaching land and labour reforms along with disastrous and impulsive economic misadventures like demonetisation are responsible for this.
Modi has made his party, the government, and India as a whole an extension of himself. So now who will tell the emperor that he has no clothes? To add to the economic woes, his government, party and affiliates have constantly damaged the social fabric and liberal traditions of Indian society. Indians increasingly find themselves in a precarious situation wherein the state is increasingly intruding into their private lives.
Minorities are increasingly feeling isolated in India. Tensions are common is a highly ethnically diverse country like India, but under the Modi government, they have boiled over. Muslim men are targeted for allegedly wooing Hindu girls. This is euphemistically called “Love Jihad.” Journalists are being attacked for views which are contrary to those of the government. Anyone who says anything against the government is called anti-Indian. Rana Ayyub, an investigative reporter who has reported stories concerning close aides of Modi, has been threatened with rape on social media. Her picture was even morphed into a pornographic video. The UN had to step in and direct the government to give her adequate protection.
Ravish Kumar, another leading journalist based in Delhi working for the NDTV media group has been sent death threats for his views. Gauri Lankesh, another journalist based in Bangalore, known for her liberal and radical views and criticism of the Modi government was shot dead last year. The World Press Freedom Report prepared by Reporters Without Border ranks India at 138th place, one place below Myanmar which until recently had military rule.
It is not just public figures but also ordinary citizens who air their discontent with the current regime that are harassed and targetted on social media. The Modi government has undermined important institutions of democracy such as parliament and the judiciary. Recently, three senior judges of the Supreme Court of India raised concerns about the arbitrary manner in which the Chief Justice, a government appointee, allocated sensitive cases to his preferred judges. In so far as parliament is concerned, important legislation is marked as a money bill to avoid the scrutiny of the upper house where the government does not have a majority.
Government Pressuring News Reporting
Media channels batting for the government are given preferential treatment while those running stories that oppose the government are deprived of any government advertisement revenue. Most of the media in India, when asked to bend, has sadly started complying. Slowly and steadily democratic values and the culture of debate and discussion critical to civil society is being eroded. Many trolls spewing venom and hatred on social media sending out rape and death threats are personally followed by Prime Minister Modi. Ministers giving inflammatory speeches and instigating violence are given patronage by the higher-ups. Modi and his party chief Amit Shah do not just have a lust for power, they have a deep desire to change the social fabric of India.
India has always been a pluralistic society which embraced people from all walks of life. In India, a woman of Catholic origin left the seat of Prime Minister for a Sikh who was sworn in by a Muslim president in a country in which 80% of people are Hindus. The current events in India are disturbing.
For the economy to prosper it is essential that India maintains a democratic and liberal environment. An environment in which every citizen can realise their full potential and economic assets are productively used. A fractured society is not good for the economy. It is imperative that the system of constitutional balances works well to keep the elected leader in check. Majority government should not become majoritarian.
Embracing Pluralism Is an Indian Tradition
While the Modi government has undertaken some laudable economic reforms, such as the Bankruptcy Code, the social profile of India has deteriorated under his watch. Economic growth by itself is not significant without an enabling, liberal and cohesive environment. The government should not just tolerate diversity; it should celebrate diversity.
A divided country full of in-fighting will not help the economic situation of normal Indians. India stands on the cusp of significant change. It can embrace itself as a melting pot of different cultures, ideas, and people, and grow into a strong and powerful global player. Or it can fracture along its emerging fault lines.
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