In their July 2017 publication under the eloquent title Indian Income Inequality 1922-2014: From British Raj to Billionaire Raj? the world’s foremost economic analysts Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty remind us that while the process of divergence of income (and hence wealth accumulation) of the ultra rich commenced in India with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1984, this really took off after the ‘liberalization’ of 1991 by Narasimha Rao bringing to an end India’s experiment with ‘Socialism’. What ‘liberalization’ really did was to create very unequal access to opportunities for wealth creation for the already rich through a ‘deregulation’ of processes skewed heavily in their favour, and spiralling corruption as the entire elite classes dipped their hands in the till. ‘Current income inequality in India’ they assert, ‘is higher than during pre-independence period.’
Rajiv Gandhi did indeed move towards ‘liberalization’. But he himself was deeply aware that this would not alleviate serious imbalances between growth and distribution of wealth, issues that he recognized needed to be specifically addressed; hence his concern about distribution and redistribution of power through restructuring of representation in public institutions. Into the 21st century, this legacy underlay movements of civil society activists, socially committed bureaucrats and politicians. Zoya Hasan in her Agitation To Legislation:Negotiating Equity and Justice in India narrates a process that led, with the encouragement of none other than Rajiv’s widow Sonia to rights based legislation like the forest rights act, right to food, right to education and right to information climaxing in the years 2004-2007. These ‘were an attempt by India’s poorest citizens to claim delivery of basic services and ensure accountability.’
‘These movements’ says Hasan, ‘primarily targeted …..unaccountable governments, which often boasted of high rates of growth but followed skewed development strategies thereby denying a large percentage of the population their basic needs….’ But Hasan, who seeks to demonstrate the political experience from the mid 2000s to 2012, also describes in some detail the reaction from the economist leadership of the same party, which looked upon reform through a neo-liberal economic, not social prism, creating a space for Right-Wing politics. ‘The balance of power between government, civil society and the corporate sector changed in favour of the market and private sector’ (p. 7). Hasan helps fill a vital gap in tracing the trajectory of India’s liberalization and explains much of what has been debated, sometimes acrimoniously on the course taken by that trajectory ‘to change policy and not necessarily to change the system.’
The chapter on social activism, political processes and rights legislation argues that political leadership and political parties are a critical variable in the passage of rights based acts including the Lokpal Act. It delves into the history of social rights emanating from the freedom struggle and their development post 1991 as rights based legislation took ‘centre stage’ It seeks to ‘unpack’ the political base and the social rights agenda through civil campaigning into legislation, to transform issues from being simply welfare into law, which was achieved amid pervasive neo-liberalism. Herein she locates the centrality of the Right to Information Act 2005, even while failing to comprehend the fullest dimensions of this law. Interestingly Hasan ascribes the revolutionary nature of the promises for legislation leading up to the 2004 general elections to the Congress being ‘quite sure that the Congress would lose the next election’ (p. 34) and subsequently the belief that these promises had won the UPA that election. Although here she describes how the party was able to draw down from its past experience in poverty alleviation programmes, in which context she mentions the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act in contributing to the conceptualization of NREGA, she fails to recognize Rajiv Gandhi’s Jawahar Lal Nehru Rozgar Yojana, which was based on the Maharashtra programme, and was in fact precursor to the drafting of NREGA.
Nevertheless, in discussing the course of NREGA Hasan captures the rigour of the debate between the well entrenched neo-liberal establishment that found an echo even amongst members of the Union Cabinet that considered the initiative as expensive populism, and supporters of the legislation who considered it as the most significant attempt since Independence to address ‘persistent hunger and poverty’ in rural households. Yet it is interesting to learn the extent of the belief in civil society groups, including the respected civil rights crusader Jean Dreze that the final law was so watered down as to no longer represent a rights based approach (p. 39). The author herself is convinced that both RTE and MNREGA were universal, but were the last of these, as targeting characterized earlier and later UPA legislations (p.54). In describing this debate Hasan has also made an informed analysis of the role of the institution of the National Advisory Council (NAC), and its success in the UPA’s first term in office in funnelling social activism into the drafting of rights based legislation.
How the NAC foundered in UPA’s second term of office, unable to confront issues like corruption is described in two chapters. In tracing the legislation against hunger which Hasan places starkly against India’s dismal social indicators revealed in the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2015 of the UN’s FAO (p. 43) Hasan describes the strong resistance to the Bill from within the Manmohan Singh government including the PMO’s resistance to the NAC draft (p. 50), which so slowed the enactment of the NFSA as to raise doubts on government’s commitment to it, depriving government of any political benefit. The final law laid down a targeted approach which made it subject to state capacity instead of a rights base (p. 53). Hasan describes the corporate sector’s hostility to the alleged extravagence of both NREGA and FSA despite the fact that expenses constituted a negligible percentage of the GDP (p. 55).
This account reads like high drama when Hasan traces the course of the often unruly and ill informed public agitation and consequent legislation on Lokpal, achieved in the UPA government’s closing years but never implemented despite the purported support of the BJP, which formed the successor government. She ascribes this to corruption being seen as simply moral degeneration, not realizing that it was endemic to the structure of the political economy (p. 89).
Hasan also discusses the failure of ensuring gender quotas in Parliament. Her analysis of the feminist movement in India and its hesitation in supporting the idea of reservation is informative identifying the movement as the middle class movement that it was despite its Leftist alignment, only recognizing the disempowerment of women by the mid-90s by the privatization of common property resources and the accumulation of natural resources
This book answers many questions about why despite the success, political and social. of the rights based initiative and its strong endorsement in the elections of 2009, the UPA’s second term found its pursuit of rights based legislation lacklustre amid growing outrage at what was seen by the public as the government’s tolerance of malfeasance. What would have enriched the work would have been an assessment of how in fact the very products of the rights based legislation, notably the RTI, became the instruments of leveraging accusations of corruption and UPA’s inability to address what it should have anticipated would be the consequences of citizens exercising their rights. Instead Hasan seeks to explain this phenomenon by relying on dialectics between corporate interests and popular activism and government’s failure to stand firm without the support of the political Left in its second term, which it had in its first.
The title of the book also raises the expectation that although it might focus on specific legislation, it will address the underlying issue of social upheaval. This it doesn’t do. It addresses middle class concerns leading to orderly agitation but fails to note the agitation behind the Maoist outbreak. This is important because, given that Maoism has sprung from a perception in the tribal community that it is being systematically deprived, both the RTI and even more surely NREGA seek to provide alternative means of accountability and livelihood. And the legislation on Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) was specifically enacted to address this issue. The title of the publication then is misleading. However, the author does clarify in the introduction that it is specific to selected issues. And Hasan succeeds in establishing how the processes she describes can bring accountability bridging ‘the great gap that separates extravagant promises from thrifty delivery’ (p. 167) thus giving democracy depth.
In that sense this publication is a political contribution although it is not partisan except in its Conclusions. It also illustrates how India’s democracy, despite its failings, is unique in its aspiration to place the interest of the common man at the centre of public policy, while at the same time its falling short so to do.
Wajahat Habibullah is Former Chief Information Commissioner, India.