India is one of the few countries in the world where income inequality is growing the fastest.
As societies and nations evolve, they become more and more rule-based. Democratic societies generate rules based on a consensus. Once formulated, often after prolonged debate, all societies, open and closed, strenuously enforce these rules without which they would be riven with constant internal strife.
In India, on the other hand, we seem to be moving away from a rule-based order. Our politicians are so obsessed with retaining power that they are prepared to sacrifice order at the altar of electoral politics.
Thus, even traffic rules, increasingly flouted with impunity all over the country, cannot be enforced. Wrong side driving, jumping red lights and callous parking becomes the norm. This kind of lawlessness has become endemic in our cities and finds expression at all levels of society, in every socio-economic sphere.
When the average citizen finds everybody else flouting the rules, he or she too begins to break them. This behaviour breeds a population that doesn’t pay electricity bills, evades taxes, defaults on bank loans, disregards the traffic rules, challenges law enforcement, ignores the most basic of courtesies and bribes its way through countless misdemeanours.
Not surprisingly, crime in India has been rising exponentially. Today, murder statistics in India compare with the world’s most violent nations such as Mexico and Brazil, way above Pakistan and China. According to one estimate (2009), there were more than 40,752 murders in India compared to 13,860 in Pakistan and 13,410 in China.
Last year, London’s Guardian reported that India “is the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labour, according to a poll of global experts”.
At the economic level, a disordered society implies massive imbalances in wealth and circumstances. Those who can, accumulate monumental wealth by flouting the rules — the thousands of powerful builders who have made fortunes by duping or short-changing home buyers are a case in point.
Today, it is not unusual for high income individuals to spend more on a single meal at a mall than what they pay their drivers or other employees for an entire month. The super-rich spend on marriages more than what it would cost to set up a hospital or school.
High national economic growth rates therefore mean little when a handful of people reap unimaginable wealth (which is spent in bribing the system, buying political power and in conspicuous consumption), leaving the great majority in abject poverty.
India is one of the few countries in the world where income inequality is growing the fastest. Research carried out by the Paris School of Economics suggests that India, along with China, Russia and the United States, has seen the greatest increase in income inequality in recent times.
Of these countries, India is the only one with vast, mind-numbing poverty levels. Today’s India’s poverty rate of 60.40 exceeds that of Bangladesh (59.2) and is well above China (12.1) and Russia (0.3).
Welfare spending, occasional sops and a few projects for the poor cannot change the basic structure of inequality as long as the rich and powerful in this country can bend the rules to their will and maintain their oligarchic control over economic resources, including finances.
The Indian electorate voted overwhelmingly for Narendra Modi in 2014 not necessarily because they were all ardent BJP supporters but because they were sick of the open corruption, arrogance and general disorder of the Congress government.
People had come out on the streets to protest against the rampant corruption and maladministration, including inability to secure justice from the courts. They voted for Mr Modi in the hope that his accession would restore order, curb corruption and reward the majority that works hard and plays by the rules.In Varanasi, after Mr Modi’s landslide victory, roads were cleaned and repaired overnight while the electricity department cracked down on defaulters. There was a great expectation that like the power situation, other things too would soon improve. But all that proved transient. Within months, Varanasi and its cynical administration reverted to its old ways.
At the national level, the leadership refused to appoint an ombudsman to deal with corruption or bring back the millions they claimed had been stashed abroad. Demonetisation too failed to unearth the thousands of crores of black money said to be in the hands of an unscrupulous minority.
Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi are just two high-profile bank defaulters being pursued by the government. Numerous other economic criminals, including builders guilty of criminal theft of homebuyers’ money, are not being touched.
If homebuyers have got some relief, it is because of judicial intervention.
In most cities and states, the bad old corrupt ways continue while work opportunities for the masses stagnate. The money is not trickling down; it is being stashed in suitcases, land and other non-productive assets, or being transferred out of the country as before.
It is an Orwellian nightmare for most Indians: The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Of late, the country is seeing an unprecedented breakdown in consensus at all levels, between communities, caste groups, liberals and fundamentalists, ethnicities and the rural-urban divide.
Most worrying is the open conflict within the executive, judiciary and even law enforcement agencies, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is responsible for preventing corruption, economic offences and administrative crime. Mr Modi, in the ultimate analysis, has failed, not because he lacks personal integrity but because of an incapacity to effect systemic change. In co-mparison, Pandit Jawa-harlal Nehru, whom Mr Modi so reviles, was a transformative leader who steered the country through a paradigm shift, from a colonial to a democratic order.
Mr Modi, in contrast, promised much but delivered little. He might well win the next general election but his track record suggests that the country should expect little change in the dynamics of disorder.
The socio-political free for all that Mr Modi continues to preside over can neither generate prosperity nor transform India into a great nation. Even national unity and integrity can only come with order. In anarchy, we are destined to remain a poor, wretched country of economic thugs and political vandals, ascending not to “Ram Rajya” but descending steadily towards “Pralay”.
The writer is an independent commentator on political and security issues