With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to cut down on his travel abroad in 2016, it is interesting to look back at the past year that had been dominated by headlines of not just the PM’s ‘selfies’ and his focused attention on cameras no matter where they were positioned, but also his ‘bonhomie’ with world leaders and several of his business tie-ups with the likes of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg who proposed the idea of Free Basics with the ‘stated’ intention of reaching out to rural India. The list of captivating associations include those between India and the US, while the latter has chosen to increase the fee for H1B visas, despite the hyped visit of the PM to the US in September 2015. Compromises play a significant role in maintaining a balance. For how else would the PM hold his ground despite his chequered past of the Gujarat 2002 riots?
Two starkly different images of India have been projected in the mainstream media debates in the past year. One image is that of Vikas: a magical synonym for India’s economic growth that is expected to be furthered without any of the coalition compulsions that caused policy paralysis during the UPA Government. While manufacturing is the buzz-word of Modi’s Make in India campaign, paradoxically a recent Economic and Political Weekly editorial, January 16, 2016, takes note of the decline in 2015 in the “share of India’s core manufacturing sectors (in exports)… to below 50 per cent”. On the other hand, the other image is the ‘India of intolerance’ reflected in the murder of activists, writers and minorities.
The returning of awards by Indian writers last year on account of ‘intolerance’ drew global attention. Interestingly, Union Minister Rajnath Singh in an interview with The Economic Times, November 2, 2015, insisted on taking the blame for intolerance in the country in his capacity as Home Minister. This was with the intent to oppose the trend of heaping blame on the “institution” of the Prime Minister. The government is thus concerned about incidents that would tarnish its image internationally, instead of taking concrete measures to end the violence.
Furthermore, Prime Minister Narendra Modi evaded criticism on intolerance in the country by drawing on his global image. This was achieved by forging links with several countries and conglomerates for bringing in investments in India. Our roving Prime Minister travelled to more than 25 countries in 20 months, while juggling State election campaigns in the back-ground of sporadic acts of caste and communal violence. The suicide of Dalit student Rohith Vemula of Hyderabad Central University is a case in point, in the run-up to which Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya had termed the activities at the university as anti-national following a clash between the Dalit students and ABVP activists. The ideology that the Minister (a former pracharak of the RSS) is associated with has long served as the basis for inciting violent communal incidents (last year’s Atali riots and Dadri killing).
Although it is clear that Right-wing groups derive their impunity to kill from the silence of the government, international indifference has allowed Modi to legitimise his majoritarian-style rule based on violence by deflecting attention from intolerance to economic growth. This is basically because these countries choose to overlook violent incidents in India as long as their business interests are served.
But what is even more striking, yet not unfamiliar in the diplomatic arena, is Modi’s ready acceptance in the international commu-nity. While the 2002 Gujarat riots received condemnation globally with the revoking of his visa for travel to the United States, Modi has today found legitimacy in his vision of a high-growth model of India. Although the recurrence of violence in India is a frightening anomaly, heads of states that India has diplomatic ties with have refrained from raising the topic with the Indian establishment for its failure to curb violence.
Instead, the arbiter of democracy seeks to ‘install’ democracy only in countries that do not toe its global financial strategies. We will of course not see the US drop a bomb in the Indian territory as a reaction to how Modi is turning a blind eye to repeated acts of violence. We do not expect it to be so either. The least that is expected from leaders in these countries is a concrete disapproval of the violence in India, such as the ban on Modi’s entry into several European States that was in place till 2012. This is not a question of impinging on India’s sovereign matters, one that is likely to be raised. It is rather an acknowledgement that violence is being fomented instead of being curbed when it is within the reach of the government to take effective action. So if a government refuses to crack down on violent elements and fails in any case, is it not a failure of governance? Is this what Modi means by “minimum government, maximum governance”? The question that ought to be raised by the media is of failed governance. One might also contest that the situation in India is not as bad as what is happening in States like Syria. But it is the rate of violent incidents and how this phenomenon is becoming normalised in India that is unusual. Moreover, looking at India’s past where violence has been orchestrated for electoral gains, the issue being raised here gains relevance.
While last year US President Barack Obama raised concerns on communal violence in India, the US has since trodden cautiously on the tightrope of diplomacy and not taken up the issue further. This essentially was the last reaction of another country to India’s manufacture of violence. International business tie-ups have thus in a significant way aided Modi in covering up his complicity of silence.
On the other hand, there has been substantial international media coverage on the violence in India, in addition to objections raised by Indian American groups in these countries such as in the US to the situation of human rights in this country. Additionally, several British scholars in solidarity with Indian writers opposed the invitation extended to Modi at Cambridge University during his UK visit in November. Despite these reactions in their own countries, heads of states have not reflected on these issues or taken a stand. For reflection on human rights is not a ‘luxury’ in these states, some of whom are in any case dealing with the refugee crisis.
The Labour Conundrum
World leaders are rather happy about the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ in India, which the Indian Prime Minister is facilitating by seeking further deregulation. Global conglomerates have as a matter of fact found it convenient to follow labour laws in their own countries while seeking flexible labour markets in developing countries where they oppose the formation of unions. This in essence provides the leeway to assign contractual jobs to workers even though skills of permanent workers and work performed is similar.
The argument based on deregulation is that laws such as Industrial Disputes Act (IDA) need to be reformed to propel investment. World Development Report 2013: Jobs stated the “IDA makes it extremely difficult for firms to terminate employment”. The worker is thereby treated as a mere commodity that can be hired and fired at will, as if it were an inorganic entity that could be tossed around arbitrarily by amending laws. For instance, the Rajasthan Government in 2014 amended the IDA that makes it permissible for firms hiring up to 300 workers (up from 100) to shut down a unit without government nod. Additionally, the Small Factories Draft Bill proposes to exclude factories employing less than 40 workers from the Payment of Bonus Act.
The requirement of ‘cheap labour’ in effect has contributed to the growing informalisation in the organised sector. The employment elasticity in the manufacturing sector was higher in the pre-liberalisation period, and stood negative at -0.31 between 2005 and 2010. Moreover, the excitement over creation of jobs in the manufacturing sector would only benefit white collar employees, if at all, for whom job permanency is typically guaranteed, and nothing for blue collar workers given the look-out for a competitive wage market.
The wage scenario in any case has not been rosy for workers in the private sector, when a comparison is made with the government, where the income ratio of the lowest to the highest is 1:12. Professor T.T. Ram Mohan in an opinion piece in The Hindu, September 5, 2015, noted: “Higher pay at lower levels of government also reflects shortcomings in the private sector, such as hiring of contract labour and the lack of unionisation”.
So while mainstream debates have centred on positive effects of a flexible labour market on economic growth, the other side has not been thoughtfully discussed. For instance, worker suicides resulting from informalisation have unfortunately not received due attention. In 2010, over 500 workers committed suicide in the garment industry in Tirupur. Workers are basically kept on the tenterhooks by making imminent the threat of sacking, thereby exposing them to exploitation. This creates a feeling of insecurity often leading to suicides. Is this the growth that Modi’s ‘vikas’ seeks to achieve? Whose development are we really seeking?
Paradoxically, this is the basis of making labour laws more amenable to the industry. This is what ‘Make in India’ thrives on — that is, the emphasis on deregulation.
The grand ‘Make-in-India’ image was tarnished in October last year when Moody’s Analytics pointed to the rising intolerance and “ethnic tensions” in the context of India’s “domestic and international credibility”. (The Hindu, October 30, 2015) The Government of India dismissed the report as spread of misinformation by the media to bolster its viewpoint. Despite this reaction, the overall global attention has forced the government to defend its international image by terming dissent as an ideological opposition. The image of intolerance will continue to haunt the Modi Government’s projected image until it becomes determined to put an end to orchestrated violence.
Recent developments in Uttar Pradesh are therefore a cause of concern. With the moving of pink sandstone to Ayodhya despite the Supreme Court order that stayed the Allabahad High Court verdict dividing the site, the likelihood of the administration turning a blind eye to brewing communal mobilisation by the likes of Yogi Adityanath seems inevitable. As the 2017 elections in UP approach, we can only wait and watch.
“Unprecedented decline”, Economic and Political Weekly, 51.3 (2016): 7.
The Economic Times (2015): “Elections apart, Amit Shah to get second term next year: Home Minister Rajnath Singh” by Ravish Tiwari and Pranab Dhal, November 2.
The Hindu (2015):”Moody’s to Modi: Keep BJP members in check or risk losing credibility” by Puja Mehra, October 30.
The Hindu (2015): “Seventh Pay Commission is no ogre” by T.T. Ram Mohan, September 5.etc…