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When Brecht speaks as Ambedkar
Citing literary sources, turning to parables, prose, plays, poetry is the wherewithal of political discourse
Policemen and policewomen are not mindless digits in khaki. They have all been to school. Many of them are MAs, some PhDs. And they have families, friends just like anyone else who has not been clad in hide-tough uniforms the whole day. When at end of duty hours they return home, get back to home-clothes, settle down to a tired day’s evening, like anyone else, they talk of all they went through during the day, good and bad, honest and wicked, how they had to respond to political orders, ‘high’ influence, low intrigue.
- Those who know Brecht’s play laugh at lines in it like these:
- “I am afraid of making enemies of other mighty men if I favour one of them in particular. Few people can help us, you see, but almost everyone can hurt us.”
- “Stomachs rumble even on the emperor’s birthday.”
- “The First God: Do people have a hard time here? Wang the water-seller: Good people do.”
- “The First God to Shen Te the prostitute: Above all, be good, Shen Te, Farewell!”
- “Shen Te: But I am not sure of myself, Illustrious Ones! How can I be good when everything is so expensive?”
- “The Second God: We can’t do anything about that. We mustn’t meddle with economics!”
- And they would have understood, with a sigh, the line: “No one can be good for long when goodness is not in demand.”
- The same play, one of the funniest, wittiest, most profoundly thoughtful and mind-rinsingly disturbing in that genre, has the woman prostitute-protagonist burst out with the words: “Unhappy men! Your brother is assaulted and you shut your eyes! He is hit and assaulted and you are silent!… What sort of a city is this? What sort of people are you? When injustice is done there should be a revolt in the city. And if there is no revolt, it were better that the city should perish in fire before the night falls…”
- In words that powerfully echo Brecht’s, the architect of our Constitution, Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar, said in the Constituent Assembly: “How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up.”
- Here is a great, perhaps the greatest, German writer of our times, using a Chinese parable to give the world a touch of truth about the human condition, the human propensity for domination and the human impulse for freedom, justice. And when on January 1, 2018, in the Bhima-Koregaon event these lines with a timeless and location-free message were recited in their Marathi rendering, they were seen as “an incitement to violence”. If, instead of Brecht’s the reciter had cited Babasaheb’s words, would he have been charged with incitement to violence? Today, who can tell?
- Mohandas Gandhi was charged, likewise, in the spring of 1922 “for inciting disaffection towards His Majesty’s government” for articles by him published in Young India. In one of them, titled ‘Shaking the Manes’, he used a phrase from then current political discourse and ‘shook’ the Raj. The accused said in his famous trial: “I have no personal ill-will against any single administrator, much less can I have any disaffection towards the King’s person. But I hold it to be a virtue to be disaffected towards a government which in its totality has done more harm to India than any previous system.”
- We have our own Brechts.
- Just before the declaration of the national emergency in 1975, Jayaprakash Narayan had, before a massive rally in Delhi, quoted the great Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s lines: “Singhasan khali karo ki janata aati hai (vacate your throne, here come the people).” We know what happened thereafter to JP, to India. Also, what happened subsequently to the system that imprisoned him.
- Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem Hum Dekhenge (We Shall See) is a classic in the same vein, quoted time and again as a call against oppression.
- Citing literary sources, turning to parables, prose, plays, poetry is the wherewithal of political discourse. Our Prime Minister has in a Dinkar commemoration cited the same line with pride.
- Just as policemen on duty are only human beings in uniform, so are lawyers in black silk. They know true from false, fact from fiction.
- India, the theatre from time immemorial of a hundred injustices, a thousand oppressions is also the site of a million awakenings. Therein lies its strength.
- Kuchh bat hai (there is that something), as Iqbal sang, about Hindustan that cannot let its self-hood fade.
- Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former Governor of West Bengal, is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University
They laugh then at the ways of the cunning world of which they have become part, and feel sometimes proud of what they did and sometimes not. And then turn on their television sets to watch not news — of which they have had enough and more — but, to lighten their minds, old and new cinema, hear Lata Mangeshkar singing through the lips of Meena Kumari, or Asha Bhosle through those of Madhubala.
In States like West Bengal and Maharashtra, with their strong traditions of theatre and musical arts, they can well go to see a play, ‘with family’, based on old epics or written by bold new playwrights staged in theatre-houses invariably named after Tagore, in his grey-flowing beard or the great Chhatrapati Shivaji in his sharp-pointed black one.
Brecht at Bhima-Koregaon
Yet, Bertolt Brecht’s is not a name all policemen on duty in Maharashtra’s Bhima-Koregaon village on January 1, 2018 are likely to have known. The great German playwright is, sadly, ‘niche’.
Why sadly? Because he is bound to have amused, inspired, delighted, enthralled the non-kitabi, the not-a-bookworm-at-all as much as the bespectacled ‘intel’. And because Brecht speaks the truth and doesn’t care a hoot whether his truth is seen as the truth or is not. And Brecht’s truth, rather like truth itself, is non-denominational, non-sectarian. The Marathi translation of his timeless play The Good Person of Szechwan is more than likely to have passed by the police force on duty at the village celebrating, as it has done for decades, on that day the great Dalit-Mahar battalion’s vanquishing – disputed by some – of the much stronger army of the Peshwa order known for its rough-handling of Dalits. Only, this year the celebration was the more celebratory, being the centenary year of that 1818 victory. And since one group’s celebration is seen as another group’s lamentation, ‘law and order’ was a concern. And rightly so. Violence and counter-violence saw ‘the law’ swing into action, ‘order’ asserting itself. And months later, arrests are still being made. Has all this been without ‘fear or favour’? The courts will, without doubt, tell us.
In Ambedkar’s words
We shall see
Repositioning the Sangh
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s ‘moderate’ outreach is aimed at Hindu centrists
- The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will never sever its ideological ties with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). But ever since the Narendra Modi government assumed office in 2014, the party has been rapidly metamorphosing into an entity no longer as dependent on the RSS network as it once was, or, indeed, as mindful of the latter’s leadership. The rapid expansion of the BJP organisation on the ground, the construction of modern party offices equipped with the latest communication tools, and a more centralised way of functioning with all party office-bearers answerable to party president Amit Shah and Mr. Modi has reduced the importance of the RSS in the BJP’s scheme of things.
- For the Modi-Shah duo that leads the BJP, this slight shift in balance is important because the desire to wield absolute power by winning as many elections as possible takes precedence over all else, whether it is the stated goal of development or the unstated one of the spread of Hindutva.
- Earlier this week, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat turned the spotlight on the 93-year-old organisation he heads, at a three-day conclave in New Delhi. Facing possibly the most vigorous and sharp attack in its history from the Congress, under president Rahul Gandhi, Mr. Bhagwat attempted a major image makeover for the RSS, describing it as one committed to creating an inclusive society of which Muslims and other minorities are an indivisible part. He talked of unity in diversity (a long-standing Congress slogan), acknowledged the Congress’s stellar role in the freedom struggle, and said he didn’t believe in a Congress-mukt Bharat (though that has been the rallying cry of top BJP leaders). Flagging the spate of lynchings, he said no one had the right to take the law in their own hands — even though cow protection is an imperative. If the RSS chief’s effort was to ensure that Hindu centrists, disturbed by attacks on the vulnerable, did not desert the BJP for the Congress, the apparent departure from the Golwalkar-Hedgewar hard-line threw the RSS faithful into a state of confusion.
- For RSS cadres, the message was clear: they must take their cue from the RSS chief who was trying to increase his organisation’s acceptability among Hindu fence-sitters. That Mr. Bhagwat’s speeches were motivated by political expediency rather than a change of heart was apparent. At the recent World Hindu Congress in Chicago, he had given a rallying cry for Hindu unity, and called its opponents “dogs”.
- The RSS believes in the power of the collective, and is therefore uncomfortable with the cult status that Mr. Modi has acquired. It is also unhappy with the Modi-Shah duo’s strategy of seeking to isolate dominant Hindu castes to consolidate the rest against them: in Haryana, the BJP successfully united non-Jats against Jats; in Uttar Pradesh, non-Yadavs against Yadavs; in Gujarat, non-Patels against Patels. Now in Maharashtra, there appears to be an effort to bring together non-Marathas against Marathas. The BJP has adopted these tactics as its apex leadership has realised the limitations of working towards Hindu consolidation as its only electoral plan. The RSS, however, sees this as hampering Hindu unity, which has been its only goal since its founding in 1925.
- Nevertheless, the stakes for the RSS are just too high for it to work against the party that is its only ticket to achieving its ultimate goal of establishing a Hindu Rashtra in India, something the current BJP leadership is also happy to promote. Indeed, at the RSS conclave, Mr. Bhagwat urged his audience — largely RSS supporters — not to tap the NOTA button, but cast their votes, by implication, for the BJP.
- The BJP leadership knows it will not be as easy a ride as it was in 2014. At the BJP National Executive earlier this month, Mr. Modi tried a new tack: “For 31 years we are in power in Gujarat. We have been able to do that because we are not greedy for power. We don’t seek power as an instrument of sitting on the chair, rather we seek power to work for the people.” He presented this as a contrast to the Opposition’s politics.
- For a government that claims success on all fronts, turning the spotlight on the Opposition may seem surprising. But the BJP knows a second term in power will depend largely on its ability to train the attention of voters on the contradictions in the Opposition, rather than on its own mixed record in office (including the Rafale controversy and discontent over rising fuel prices) and the rumblings within its ranks — for instance, upper caste rage against the government for having restored the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act to its original form. The BJP is also not taking lightly the Opposition’s success in by-elections in U.P., where parties earlier antagonistic to each other joined forces to defeat the BJP, thus projecting a template for 2019. Mr. Modi, of course, remains the larger-than-life figure who can be pitted successfully against the lesser mortals of the Opposition, and he is the BJP’s best bet to paper over the grievances, dissatisfactions and anger accumulated over the last four years.
- If the BJP retains the majority it won in the Lok Sabha in 2014, the road will be clear for Mr. Modi. But there is no saying what would happen if it does not: will the allies and the RSS then have a say in deciding on the next Prime Minister?
- Smita Gupta is Senior Fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy
A difficult election
Is the NITI Aayog relevant today?
It is introducing new ideas and bringing about a greater level of accountability in the system
- The NITI Aayog was formed to bring fresh ideas to the government. Its first mandate is to act as a think tank. It can be visualised as a funnel through which new and innovative ideas come from all possible sources — industry, academia, civil society or foreign specialists — and flow into the government system for implementation. We have regular brainstorming sessions with stakeholders from various industries and sectors. Initiatives like Ayushmaan Bharat, our approach towards artificial intelligence and water conservation measures, and the draft bill to establish the National Medical Commission to replace the Medical Council of India have all been conceptualised in NITI Aayog, and are being taken forward by the respective Ministries.
- In that sense, I think of NITI Aayog as an action tank rather than just a think tank. By collecting fresh ideas and sharing them with the Central and State governments, it pushes frontiers and ensures that there is no inertia, which is quite natural in any organisation or institution. If it succeeds, NITI Aayog could emerge as an agent of change over time and contribute to the Prime Minister’s agenda of improving governance and implementing innovative measures for better delivery of public services.
- We also work to cut across the silos within the government. For example, India still has the largest number of malnourished children in the world. We want to reduce this number vastly, but this requires a huge degree of convergence across a number of Ministries, and between Central and State governments. NITI Aayog is best placed to achieve this convergence and push the agenda forward.
- NITI Aayog is also bringing about a greater level of accountability in the system. Earlier, we had 12 Five-Year Plans, but they were mostly evaluated long after the plan period had ended. Hence, there was no real accountability.
- NITI Aayog has established a Development Monitoring and Evaluation Office which collects data on the performance of various Ministries on a real-time basis. The data are then used at the highest policymaking levels to establish accountability and improve performance. This performance- and outcome-based real-time monitoring and evaluation of government work can have a significant impact on improving the efficiency of governance.
- Using such data, we also come up with performance-based rankings of States across various verticals to foster a spirit of competitive federalism. That is another big mandate of NITI Aayog. We identify the best practices in different States in various sectors and then try to replicate them in other States. We also play an important role of being the States’ representative in Delhi, and facilitate direct interactions with the line ministries, which can address issues in a relatively shorter time.
- The Atal Innovation Mission, which is also established under NITI Aayog, has already done commendable work in improving the innovation ecosystem in India. It has established more than 1,500 Atal Tinkering Labs in schools across the country and this number is expected to go up to 5,000 by March 2019. It has also set up 20 Atal Incubation Centres for encouraging young innovators and start-ups.
- With its current mandate that is spread across a range of sectors and activities, and with its unique and vibrant work culture, NITI Aayog remains an integral and relevant component of the government’s plans to put in place an efficient, transparent, innovative and accountable governance system in the country.
- As told to Yuthika Bhargava
An action think tank
It will need to evolve into a much stronger organisation than it is now
- “The road to the free market was opened and kept open by an enormous increase in continuous, centrally organised and controlled interventionism,” wrote Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation. Polanyi was referring to the structural transformation in the 19th and 20th centuries. He wrote: “While the laissez faire economy was the product of deliberate state action, subsequent restrictions on laissez faire started in a spontaneous way. Laissez faire was planned; planning was not.” In other words, planning for a developing economy can be abandoned, but only at its own peril. The implication for a complex country like India that became an industrial economy late is that planning would, and should, remain a central function of the state in the medium run. However, we would contend that the Planning Commission, unfortunately, did not fulfil its function adequately. NITI Aayog will need to evolve into a much stronger organisation than it is.
- Learning from the experience of the now-industrialised countries, the Chinese state ensured that after its market-oriented economic reforms began, its State Planning Commission became more powerful in the state apparatus. The result was growth and poverty reduction on a scale unprecedented in history. China became the “factory of the world” — backed by an industrial policy driven by the National Development and Reforms Commission.
- Similarly, in all East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, industrial policy was planned and executed as part of five-year or longer-term plans. It was precisely because these countries had planning institutions which went hand in hand with industrial policy that they managed to steer policies through turbulent times in the global economy, thus sustaining growth.
- In most of Latin America/Caribbean (LAC) countries and in Subsaharan Africa (SSA), two full decades of potential economic growth and human development were lost when per capita income barely rose even as populations continued to grow. These countries abandoned planning and became captives of the Washington Consensus. On the other hand, the important identifier of East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, which did not experience such “lost decades” in the 1980s and 1990s, were their planning structures, backed by an industrial policy and implemented by learning bureaucracies. That is how they were able to ride the wave of their demographic dividend, which comes but once in the life of a nation. India cannot risk going the LAC/ SSA way, since it is already past the midpoint of its dividend.
- While East Asian and Southeast Asian countries still had, and have, five-year plans, what was also integral to their planning was productive use of labour, their most abundant factor, through an export-oriented manufacturing strategy. It was this strategy that was lacking in India’s planning. Giving ‘planning’ per se a bad name for poor policy is indicative of an ahistorical understanding of planning.
- If NITI Aayog is to implement such a strategy within a planning framework in India, two major changes in governance structures are needed. First, planning will have to become more decentralised, but within a five-year plan framework. Second, bureaucracy will need to change from generalist to specialist, and its accountability will have to be based on outcomes achieved, not inputs or funds spent. NITI Aayog should spell out how these reforms will be implemented.
Two changes required
India cannot transform with new ideas without having a paradigm of planning for development
- The erstwhile Planning Commission had been on the decline since 1991, much before the final blow was delivered to it by the present regime in 2014. At some point, the charge of the Planning Commission was entrusted to eminent experts, many of whom had trained in neoliberal schools. This did not fit well with the imperative for an inclusive and equitable path of economic development in India, a socially hierarchical and economically iniquitous society.
- In the original Nehruvian vision, the public sector was entrusted with the economy, given the weak market mechanism which was dominated by mercantile capital and a feudalistic system, especially in rural areas. Even then, the Planning Commission controlled only half of the total investment in India, since what was consciously adopted was a mixed economy system. It also fitted well with our republican democratic Constitution.
- The rise of neoliberalism, the decline of erstwhile socialist regimes worldwide, and the rise of right-wing market fundamentalists within the country paved the way for the demise of the Planning Commission. Its replacement by NITI Aayog looks more apologetic than substantial for the task of transforming a deeply unequal society into a modern economy that ensures the welfare of all its citizens, irrespective of their social identity.
- It has no role in influencing, let alone directing, public or private investment. It does not seem to have any influence in policymaking with long-term consequences (for instance, demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax).
- NITI Aayog is supposed to be a think tank. This implies that while generating new ideas, it maintains a respectable intellectual distance from the government of the day. Instead, what we see is uncritical praise of government-sponsored, acronym-infested schemes. It sings paeans to the virtues of the private corporate sector as the saviour of the Indian economy without realising, let alone appreciating, the foundational and socially oriented contribution of India’s vast public sector.
- How can a country like India transform itself with new ideas and strategies if it doesn’t have a paradigm of planning for development? How can it lift its poor? How can we ensure that every working member of the Indian population has a decent job with at least a minimum wage and social/employment security? Why doesn’t it occur to the political leadership to ask why more than 90% of those in the workforce slog in the unorganised sector — in small farms and tiny non-farm establishments — with two-thirds of the total being working poor? Why don’t they ask why more than half the workers in the organised sector end up as ‘insecure’ or ‘informal’ labour? Why is the labour force participation rate of women so low and declining when neighbours like Bangladesh have registered an increasing trend? Why do the Dalits and Adivasis continue to be at the bottom of the ladder in every conceivable social and economic indicator of well-being? Why do regional, gender and other inequalities based on social identity keep increasing?
- India requires planning that addresses social justice, reduces regional and gender inequalities, and ensures environmental sustainability.
Wields no influence