What Niti Aayog chief Amitabh Kant’s remarks reveal

Too much democracy: What Niti Aayog chief Amitabh Kant’s remarks reveal

This is a government on an agenda that has nothing to do with the ordinary, everyday citizens of India

CEO of Niti Aayog Amitabh Kant. Credit: PTI Photo

The BJP quickly distanced itself from Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant’s remark that India has been “too much of a democracy” to allow reforms that the bureaucrat categorised as “bold”. Officers trying to keep the ruling party in good humour, particularly when they have been given plum roles, is nothing new. But Kant was a little too much to digest even for the BJP, which has tried to end the furore over those remarks with Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad saying, “We are proud of our democracy.”

Kant himself has explained that the way his remarks were reported is not the way he meant to say it. We must accept his explanations yet note that his choice of words and the timing were ironic, even if nothing else need be said about the thinking in such senior echelons of our bureaucracy.

Kant’s other remarks in the same meeting that have not caught as much attention reveal more about how actually this difficult thing called democracy is being set aside as the government marches ahead with its plans like no other government has before. Kant plays to the political tune by painting a rosy future of a path he talks of as if he knows it so well; it is precisely this idea of certitude, blind in its beliefs, unmindful of what the nation feels and suffers, that has brought us unprecedented strife, of which the farmers’ protests are the latest example.

The question is not about “reforms”, which many might reasonably argue are required (though the popular mood appears to have distinctly turned anti-“reform”). The point is the way these policy actions are being pushed down the throat of an unwilling nation when trust in the promises and actions of the government isn’t at its best and gets lower by the way it works and stands in the face of unprecedented opposition.

There are simple ways to understand what the nation is going through. Sharad Pawar explained it in a few lines when he said: “When these Bills were tabled before Parliament, it was conveyed to the government that though it was possible for them at that moment to clear these important Bills without any discussion, there was bound to be a reaction from the farmers at a later stage. But the government did not pay heed to this and cleared these Bills with a nominal discussion of 15-20 minutes.”

The Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee understood it equally simply and explained: “It is not so much that you could not make a case for getting rid of many of these very old-fashioned institutions in the agriculture sector…but the lack of trust is massive. The sudden cancelling of the Centre’s liabilities under the GST Act does not help. You…have power delivered from top down and (you say) we are just going to take decisions.”

But this is precisely the way, the approach and the method of choice for this government. We have it on authority from Kant, who explains in remarks that have not been cited enough: “The (Covid-19) crisis has been used by this government as an opportunity to unleash reforms that will modernise India’s agriculture…” He goes on to cite a host of reforms that can only be contentious and even more so when they are pushed without discussion. These are changes to labour laws, mining, coal, tariffs in the power sector so that industry users are no longer subsidising home users.

There is no doubt that these are “hard” reforms. Kant says they were held up for years, but he cares not to pause to think or ask why. These remarks are bound to be contested; they will generate political heat and social strife. The anger may not find its way out on the streets in every single case, but people are seething, and this will come out somewhere and with not very good outcomes. Consider how must labourers respond when working hours have been stretched, when basic protections, already rendered weak by a contractual system, are withdrawn and the unorganised are left to the vagaries of an owner class that has been known (with some exceptions) to care a damn.

Should a government use the suffering wrought by a pandemic to push through such deep changes that will carry longstanding ramifications for ordinary citizens without listening, debating, arguing and settling down for a bit of give and take? What is this, if not the working of a system that has decided that we have too much democracy, and it’s time to cut it down and push ahead on a path that the people at the top have decided is best for all of us – with people at the bottom having little say in the matter?

The pandemic has thus been used not so much to bring immediate relief to the people, or to help migrants who were forced to flee amid the ill-advised order of an almost sudden shutdown, but to push an agenda while the people are suffering. And in the process, more strife and more suffering follow and we see it on the roads and highways where farmers brave the wintry weather to take on a haughty government. Is it any surprise then that the names of crony capitalists are today becoming synonymous with the leading lights of the government? This is not even getting into the arguments over MSP and how and why it has been left out of the farm laws.

Let us therefore not confuse the protests with reforms. People see them as only they can. This is a government on an agenda that has nothing to do with the ordinary, everyday citizens of India. It is taking us on a ride to a mythical, vainglorious future, trampling aspirations, dignity and rights today to build airports, exports and fancy factories for tomorrow. To achieve this, “too much democracy” has to be tamed. And thus, all the nation’s energy, vibrancy and diversity is being sucked out. It is the ultimate plunder of Mother India.

(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)