Published in The Telegraph
It is fashionable to claim equidistance from the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janta Party by saying there is no difference between the two. The last one year of Modi Sarkar has of course shown this to be false. In an obvious departure from the UPA, leaders of the current dispensation have been at the forefront of polarizing the polity along communal lines resulting in a 25% increase in communal riots under the Modi Sarkar. The leadership of Modi and Shah has shown how vengeful and ruthless a regime – driven solely by power and unencumbered by democratic principles – can be. Having used electoral victory to marginalize all institutional and principled dissidence, the Modi and Shah combine sees little value in legitimating their rule through niceties of democratic governance. Hence Modi Sarkar has been marked by its repeated and excessive use of Executive power to marginalize Opposition, disregard for competence and quality criteria to appoint its loyalists in important institutions, and a vicious crackdown on civil society as an institution and as individuals. The hounding of Teesta Setalvad who has pursued accountability for Gujarat riots is not just personal but is being used to send a message to other would-be dissidents. While the Central Government has shown the difference in the nature of leadership of the two political parties, the BJP led Government in Rajasthan is in many ways the true ideological counterpoint to the Congress. Under the guise of “efficiency”, radical changes are being wrought in Rajasthan, which will alter the nature and role of the State itself. Yet privatization fundamentalism has so overtaken the public discourse that the changes have been cheered without discussion about their implications. Two themes of the Raje Government – elite capture and privatization of the State – are particularly pernicious and need to be highlighted.
Days before the Panchayat elections earlier this year, the Raje Government promulgated the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj (Second Amendment) Ordinance, 2014 mandating minimum education qualification of secondary education (Class 10) for candidates contesting Zila Parishad and Panchayat Samiti polls and Class 8 pass for Sarpanch candidates. In one shot, the ordinance disqualified majority of the rural populace from contesting elections, with women and Dalits hit especially hard. As per the 2011 Census, only 19% and 15% of rural SC and ST women above the age of 21 are even literate let alone Class 8 or 10 pass. Political careers of majority of elected Panchayati Raj representatives too ended, with 3717 of 5273 Panchayat Samiti members and 558 of 1013 Zila Parishad representatives disqualified by the Ordinance. The ordinance also denied people the democratic right to choose their own representative. An unprecedented 13 Panchayats across Rajasthan could not elect a Sarpanch because no one was eligible to contest! In a re-poll held after 6 months, 8 Panchayats continue to be vacant and are being run by the bureaucracy. Complaints of false certificates are rampant including against BJP’s own Zila Pramukhs undermining the legitimacy of the entire process. Unfazed, the Raje Government has passed another ordinance to stipulate similar educational requirements for ongoing municipal elections in Rajasthan. The BJP Government has justified its decision by saying that the ordinance has helped increase the numbers of “educated” people in governance; however, given that the majority of citizens have been disqualified from even contesting, this is actually elite capture. The Ordinance fundamentally changes the nature of the State from a democracy to a technocracy yet opposition has been limited to a few quarters.
The second leitmotif of the Raje regime is the determined privatization of the State. The previous Congress Government in Rajasthan expanded social security notably through universal pensions, free medicines and diagnostics schemes. However not only has Raje diluted social security, she is now hiving off core functions of the State – health and education – to give to the private sector. Last year, the Government closed more than 17,000 (20% of total) schools across Rajasthan. Closure of schools in the middle of the school year without consulting parents or teachers led to widespread student dropout (for cover, teachers were mandated to increase enrolment by 25 students each in the new school year). Now the Government is in the process of bringing a policy for “public private partnership in school education” in which new and existing schools will be turned over to the private sector on “first come, first serve” and “competitive bidding” basis. Similarly, in the health sector, the Rajasthan Government is turning over PHCs to the private sector (including for profit entities) through competitive bidding (euphemism for lowest cost). Teaching and healthcare staff from schools and PHCs thus given over in PPP mode will be transferred out and the private entity will be responsible for recruitment and management of the new personnel. Despite ongoing agitations by students for teachers, the Rajasthan Government has scrapped about one lakh sanctioned school education posts.
Again, Raje has used the “efficiency” argument to justify this unilateral rewriting of the role of the State. The draft “Policy for Public Private Partnership (PPP) in School Education, 2015” available on the Rajasthan Education website justifies turning over government schools to the private sector because of ostensibly “better learning outcome in private schools despite lower per student expenditure.” Not only is this not true – a 5-year study by the Azim Premji Foundation in Andhra Pradesh concluded, “contrary to general perception, fee-charging private schools are not able to ensure better learning for children from disadvantaged rural sections as compared to government schools” – this is a remarkable admission of failure by the Chief Minister. State run schools and hospitals such as Kendriya Vidyalayas and AIIMS can and do provide excellent service at par with the best private organizations. On the other hand, large numbers of private schools and healthcare providers have been indicted for poor performance and mal-intent. Private health operators have been found conducting unnecessary procedures on unsuspecting patients when the Government is paying. Private schools and hospitals are notorious for sending back students and patients for inability to pay fees. There is no guarantee that this will not happen in case of delays by the Government in transferring money to the private entity in question.
There is no question that public health and education sectors need reform; however, that “reform” should become shorthand for deregulation and/or privatization in all cases is reflective of a blinkered and anti-poor mindset. Markets typically fail to provide public goods and what is needed is an expansion of the State not its rollback. When faced with an increasingly exploitative health situation in the state, the Congress Government under Gehlot expanded health security through universal free diagnosis and free medicines, a move that received much commendation from the World Health Organization. On the other hand, the BJP Government in the state has thrown up its hands in despair and decided to outsource core functions of the Government – a mandate it just does not have. Under Raje, the BJP Government of Rajasthan is creating a template for a truly socially and economically right wing State, which is already being emulated by other BJP state governments. In this conception, in addition to the cow protection police outposts and saffronization of education, the social justice imperatives of the state are delegitimized and eliminated as inefficient doles. However, going down this road will fundamentally alter the nature and role of the Indian state as conceived in the Constitution. The last election focused much on individuals; the coming election will have to be fought on the role of the State.