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Looking backwards as we look ahead to 2019

By Patralekha Chatterjee

No one can definitively say what 2019 will bring but as we bid goodbye to 2018, some things are clear. The debate about whether politics will trump development or vikas is becoming redundant. Development is political and has always been so. Politics will continue to be permeated with high-decibel talk about vikas. Both politics and development will be buzzing with pro-poor promises. But will the “poor”, or anyone else for that matter, still be satisfied with promises alone? Unlikely.

Many of us wish that India moves beyond spats about temples and mosques, hatred and violence in the name of religion, the endless renaming of cities or building statues. Instead, India should focus on removing poverty, providing health, education and safety and protecting the environment, as filmmaker Onir observed in an anguished tweet this week. But that is unlikely to happen.


Today, religion and mythology make up the main course on the high table of political discourse in this country. And it is not just the RashtriyaSwayamsevakSangh worthies in Nagpur and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad who are stridently demanding fast tracking of the “Ayodhya case” hearing at the Supreme Court. BJP parliamentarians, chief ministers and even Cabinet ministers have joined in the daily drumbeat around the Ram temple. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath recently told a national newspaper that the issue is a “symbol of the larger public sentiment, and that should be respected at all costs. We have told the Supreme Court that in the interest of the country’s development, it should resolve this issue at the earliest”.

The latest voice to join the chorus is Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. Inaugurating the 15th National Conference of the AkhilBharatiyaAdhivaktaParishad in Lucknow this week, he said: “I appeal to the Supreme Court in my personal capacity to hear the Ram Janmabhoomi issue like a fast-track court for a prompt disposal of the case.”

And it is not just the Ram temple. With elections drawing closer, Hanuman has also been dragged into the limelight with a stream of statements from various political worthies on his “true identity”. At the yearend, India is convulsed with animated discussions around whether Hanuman was a dalit or a Muslim or a brahmin. The topic also triggered much mirth among the country’s public health community with a medical doctor joking that Lord Hanuman was also the first healthcare provider. Think of the story of him literally moving a mountain to get SanjeevaniBooti, the life-restoring herb, to heal a wounded Lakshman.

But will discussions around myths and heroes of ancient times going to decide who forms India’s next government? Does this really reflect public concerns? Do most Indians really place Ram over roti? The answer will remain wrapped in tantalising uncertainty till the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are known.

Meanwhile, what is clear is that while India is shining for some people, millions of Indians are struggling to survive. Agrarian distress is very real and is not going away anytime soon. Farmers will be centre stage in the coming year no matter how much effort is put in to divert attention from their woes. A heated discourse has started around loan waivers, the politics and the economics surrounding it. While loan waivers are temporary palliatives, farmers themselves do not say it is the only thing they want. Conversations with dozens of farmers who were part of the recent rally in Delhi indicated that their main concern is getting a fair price for their produce. Attempts to underplay agrarian distress and the tragic story of farmers’ suicides will backfire.

Sadly, it is not just sections of the political class. Many urban middle class Indians continue to be apathetic to the woes of farmers. Many see farmers’ rallies solely through the lens of traffic snarls and inconvenience to themselves.

But agrarian distress does not stay confined to villages. Farmers in acute distress move to cities in search of a livelihood when farm incomes can’t sustain them. In a democratic country, you can’t stop people from moving where they wish to. What happens then is the concern of city administrators and an urban issue as well.

Feelings of uncertainty and anguish about the future are not confined to farmers. Earlier this month, during a work trip to Mumbai, I spent some time in Dharavi, known in tourist guidebooks as Asia’s biggest slum. I had been in Dharavi in the late 1990s, working on a film 24 Hours in the Life of Mumbai. Much has changed. There certainly has been some development. There is a lot more visible money and the place is less smelly, though pockets of filth remain. But random conversations with people who earn their livelihood in small-scale enterprises, like the potters in Dharavi’s Kumbharwada, showed that the mood was glum. Input prices have gone up, Dharavi’s potters now have to compete with potters elsewhere in India who have access to more advanced technologies. Returns are plummeting.
An Uber taxi driver told me his regular job was as a bus driver but the income was not enough to feed his family, and so he took up a second job. He was clearly not below the poverty line and one could say millions of Mumbaikars have always struggled, that this was nothing new. But what is changing is the rising level of aspirations and many are starting to ask tough questions.

Will “welfare politics” save the day for the party in power? The short answer — one has to differentiate between the official narratives of development, grand statements of intent, and what is actually being delivered on the ground. And in this context, “data” can be revealing or misleading, as we know from experience.

Data can tell you how many toilets have been built or how many primary health centres have been upgraded. But unless one actually goes to the sites, checks out the ground reality, one does not know how many of them are actually being used, how often, by whom and for what purpose.

What is promised is less and less of an issue. What is delivered and to whom and how quickly is what matters. The coming elections may spring huge surprises to those who think they have all the answers. They may find that the questions have changed.