Sunday, March 13, 2016

The real threat to India is not Kanhaiya, it’s lack of jobs

Indian political life is rich in ironies. A leftist student leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, is arrested for sedition and anti-national conduct. The arrest turns him into a hero and a symbol of the freedom to dissent. The home minister defends the arrest by wrongly citing the United States as an exemplary democracy that doesn’t tolerate anti-national dissent.

Continuing strident protests crowd out a fine annual Budget of the government. In a magnificent speech, the ‘symbol of freedom’ reveals his true colours, espousing a statist ideology that does not allow economic freedom and has a record of killing millions for dissenting.

Prime Minister Modi’s great achievement was to broaden the appeal of the BJP in 2014 to a vast number of aspiring Indians who were swept by his rhetoric of jobs, growth and vikas. He thus created a genuine Indian conservative party made up of an ‘economic right’ and a ‘cultural right’, resembling the Republicans in America and the Conservatives in England.

Many on the economic right had little sympathy for Hindutva but they took a calculated risk, hoping that Modi would keep the cultural right under control, as Ronald Reagan did in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK.

Two weeks ago the government presented a prudent, job-creating Budget that rightly offered a ‘new deal’ to rural India. Particularly inspiring was the announcement of a mission to finally liberate millions of women in the villages from smoke-filled chullahs in their kitchens by giving them access to cooking gas, and removing at one go the most pernicious form of pollution that blights the lives of Indian women. It also sent a powerful message to Bharat — rural India too could aspire to the lifestyle of urban India!

The second nugget in the Budget was to give statutory authority to Aadhaar, which paves the way to deliver cash transfers into the bank accounts of the poor via mobile banking (including the women who will shift to cooking gas from cow dung). It is extraordinary that 98 crore Indians already have Aadhaar numbers, almost the same number as mobile phones, and 20 crore families now have bank accounts.

There will always be concerns related to privacy in a national identity program but I believe the Aadhaar bill addresses these fears. Plenty of countries have also solved this problem. The dramatic gains in the public delivery of subsidies and benefits to the poor via Aadhaar far outweigh the potential risks to privacy.

The Aadhaar bill is as transformative as any legislation introduced in India’s parliament. There were other gems in Jaitley’s Budget but all these were quickly forgotten, crowded out by the massive coverage of Kanhaiya, the new darling of the Indian media. Meanwhile, the future of the aspiring millions is in serious jeopardy.

The economy needs to accelerate by two full percentage points to deliver the required jobs. The Budget does offer the potential to do so but it will need single-minded attention to execution. The Prime Minister cannot afford more distractions like the sedition controversy, and he must control the cultural right if he wants to deliver his election promise.

If the sedition controversy was avoidable, so was the comparison to the US, where flag burning and other anti-national protests are not uncommon. The most dramatic incident, however, occurred in 1977 when members of the Nazi Party of America decided to stage a march with swastikas in Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Chicago with many Holocaust survivors.

The Jews sought an injunction from the court arguing that it would ‘willfully inflict emotional harm’ on them. The matter went up to the Supreme Court, and it ruled in favour of free speech for the Nazis.

The judge told the Jews to close their windows to avoid being offended. The US has faced a long struggle to reach this high ground of the freedom to dissent and hopefully India too will get there one day. Meanwhile, go and see Skokie, the powerful film with Danny Kaye, Eli Wallach and Carl Reiner.

The BJP government made the mistake of making a martyr of Kanhaiya. He is not a threat to India. The real threat lies in the failure to create jobs. If Modi wants to deliver vikas and restore credibility with the economic right of his party, he must control the cultural right and focus single-mindedly on executing his Budget.

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