“If the BJP wins the next elections, India, as we have known it, which guarantees equality for everyone will be tampered with. With the coming of the Hindu Rashtra, not only non-Hindus, but most Hindus are also going to suffer,” stresses Aruna Roy, activist and founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. MKSS, which was formed in 1990, is a grassroots organisation in Rajasthan that works with the rural poor on issues such as minimum wages, right to employment and right to information. She emphasises that the present government will attempt to do everything possible to divert attention from the primary issues of livelihood, work, health, education and employment to the so-called issue of ‘national security’. Ashlin Mathew caught up with her for an interview
What do you think are the key issues for the Indian electorate this time?
Primarily the issues remain the same – livelihood, work,health, education, employment. And, especially this time because this government has grossly failed on all these fronts, specifically on employment generation. They have failed to deliver their promises on economic issues,developmental issues. I don’t see them succeeding even on their terms. On our terms, they have always failed.
To divert attention from all these issues, the present government is highlighting the issue of ‘national security’. How far national security diverts people at the grassroots remains to be seen but the projection of this man as a ‘doer’ still retains its gloss. Rural India may see Modi as separate from the BJP. But, I think, the economic issues must be highlighted by the Opposition. I think they have to highlight the extraordinary failures of this government.
If we match the performance of the BJP to its own promises made to the poor, then also, it is a total failure. This government has done nothing to better their conditions. Their Swacchh Bharat programme is a failure, so is their Ujjwala scheme. Almost all their programmes were built on earlier schemes which existed before they came to power or it has been allglitter with no work. So, I think the Opposition should build up a discourse on the failures of delivery by the ruling establishment. This means a tremendous amount of grassroots mobilisation to even those places where the RSS has a strong network.
Then, we must look at the propaganda being run to push certain issues to the forefront. This dichotomy is going to cost the Indian public very dearly. The real issues are not coming on top because of the undue influence of the right wing on the media. There has been an overlooking of real issues after the happenings in Pulwama. A debate on the notion of misplaced nationalism is being pushed forward.
What is that we fear if BJP comes back to power?
The Opposition parties should see the election not for individual parties, but for democracy. The prospects of retaining our parliamentary democratic structure hangs in the balance.
If the BJP wins the elections, India, as we have known it,which guarantees equality for everyone will be tampered with. Hindu Rashtra will not just make the non-Hindus suffer, majority of the Hindus too will suffer. They will face a kind of inequality which they cannot even imagine today. The imaginings of a non-secular state and what it could possibly produce is something all media people should lend their minds too. Imagining of anon-secular India will really help people think about why they should not vote for BJP this time. But that exercise has not been done.
Has anyone thought what will happen to women? What will happen to Dalits? Non-Hindus are going to be second-class citizens. We have this blasphemy law in Pakistan that is used against anyone who speaks rationally. So, we will have an equally vindictive law. I don’t think we have really understood what we are going into. Their’s is such a narrow dream of power capturing that it is also self-defeating.
This path that India has taken is a jolt for those democratic South Asians who are fighting for more democratic rights in their countries. So long as India was a secular democratic country, it gave them a strength to fight for it. It’s not a betrayal for Indians, but also all South Asians.
I don’t think India’s electorate understands what we are fighting for.
How has this government intensified rural distress?
This government came to power stating that MGNREGA and RTI are monumental failures of the previous government. What else could we have expected? We have to see what this government has done at all. It has done nothing for MGNREGA or RTI or for any of the rights-based laws. This government has only been maintaining a façade. By not releasing the money and delaying payments in MGNREGA, it brought down the number of people who applied for work.In Karnataka alone, the outstanding payment amounts to Rs 2000 crore. The outstanding amount in Andhra Pradesh is phenomenal too.
The state governments did not promote or facilitate people who were asking for work. They were okay to allow the erosion and corrosion within the MGNREGA management systems to happen. MGNREGA has survived not because of this government, but because of the law itself and the workers.
In Rajasthan, ever since the Congress won the Assembly elections, we have seen such a huge rise in the number of applications for MGNREGA again because the political establishment promotes it. If one does a contrast, then the difference is there for all to see.
Increasing minimum wages has been a non-issue for the BJP governments. And in case of the Food Security Act, ever since it was made dependent on the Aadhaar, it is in a mess. Such a small percentage of the GDP is spent on feeding the poorest, yet they have so much resistance. They have been underwriting exorbitant amounts of corporate loans, spending so much on defence. So why are they against this? No one knows.
What are the societal changes that you have seen in these five years? How does one go back to being a much more civil society again?
The BJP government led by Modi has attempted to alter the social fabric of this nation. Our Constitution guarantees equality, liberty,fraternity and celebrates diversity. The current ruling dispensation, beholden ideologically to the RSS, threatens us by its promotion of Hindutva and the superiority of some over the others. Lately, Amit Shah’s comments on the NRC,classifying Muslims and Christians as infiltrators, are conclusive proof of the xenophobia and intolerance promoted by the BJP. India was an example of how a nation with various castes, religions, races, cultures and ethnicities could peacefully coexist. This aspect of India is under threat on many fronts. Dalits and Muslims are being lynched with impunity, the citizenship of minorities who have lived in India for decades is under threat and the patriotism of anyone who raises a voice against this is being questioned. The BJP-RSS combine, led by Modi, would like to do away with the Constitution that underpins our nation and holds our society together and transform India into a Hindu Rashtra.
The way to go back is to vote the current ruling dispensation out of power and give our Constitution primacy again. The Constitution of India lays the foundation upon which to build a civil society.We must reaffirm the values that the Constitution holds and elect a government that respects and enforces these values. Any party that wins the confidence of the voter for constitutional values has to guarantee its protection.
What has happened to the Right To Information Act under the Modi government and what will happen if he is back?
It is ironic that one of the factors that set the stage for Modi to come into power was the use of the RTI to expose widespread corruption and a lack of visible, concrete action against it before 2014. Riding the wave of a popular demand for a Lokpal, Modi promised to wipe out black money. The unpalatable reality is that the Modi government has been far worse on corruption than the preceding governments. Modi’s autocratic and centralised style of functioning is fundamentally antithetical to the philosophy of participatory governance that RTI promotes. RTI will suffer under any regime,the current one included, that doesn’t believe in being democratic. The RTI distributes power and those who hegemonise privilege and have dictatorial tendencies would hardly promote it. This is evidenced by the continued and unabated harassment, attacks and murders of RTI users. The government has failed to even notify a Whistleblower law, already passed by the previous Parliament, five years ago. Information Commissioners are not being appointed while pendency is on the rise in the Information Commissions. The government has tried to reduce the stature of the Information Commission and Commissioners. In fact, all democratic institutions have been hollowed out!
If Modi comes back, one can be sure that not only the RTI but the entire regime that checks abuse of power will be diluted and dismantled. The CBI has been reduced to a puppet in the hands of politicians.Judicial independence is under threat. Activists and whistleblowers will be either jailed for being ‘anti-national’ or ‘urban naxals’. They may be physically attacked - and even killed - by the goons of the RSS/BJP. Our democracy will slowly recede into a dictatorial, autocratic, centralised,police state.
In Rajasthan, what is the situation on the ground?
The previous BJP state government, led by Vasundhara Raje,was very unpopular because of its lack of response to basic needs and the exclusive nature of its functioning. It was voted out of power. The priorities of the government were misplaced.
The new government has been in power for only a short while.But some differences are palpable. The number of work days under MGNREGA has increased dramatically and will greatly help the people when the state is facing a drought. Such measures are probably reinforcing the feeling among the people that a BJP-led government is not in their best interest. The BJP will certainly not be able to repeat the same performance as they had in 2014.
There is also much anger for creating an atmosphere of religious violence and guaranteeing impunity to mischief makers and criminals.It is also true that people have begun to understand the deceit of retracted promises - whether unemployment, hunger, health, education, old age pensions orany other basic need. The farce of Demonetisation and gimmicks like Swach Bharat stand stripped of projected claims.
Post Pulwama, Modi has misused imagery of the armed forces and strident words , but the response of the Election Commission has been weak.The young have been courted to cast their votes in the name of nationalism, fora party! This is abuse of power and misuse of the media. We hope that the young voters are smart enough to see through what Ravish Kumar calls the “Godimedia.”