Professor Amartya Sen delivered the inaugural Hiren Mukerjee Memorial Lecture on ‘Demands of Social Justice’ in the Central Hall of Parliament on 11th August 2008. In his lecture he focused on the momentous manifestations of severe injustice in the world today, such as appalling levels of continued undernourishment of children, continuing lack of entitlement to basic medical attention of the poorer members of the society and the comprehensive absence of opportunities of basic schooling for a significant proportion of the population. He argued that the reasoned humanity can hardly fail to demand the urgent removal of these terrible deprivations in human lives.
Two days after the lecture, Professor Sen also gave an exclusive interview to NDTV in which he expressed disappointment over the Left parties’ withdrawal of support to the UPA Government over the developments around the Nuclear Deal. He argued that in the process the Left has lost its political leverage in its cause to remove the massive deprivation of the poorest in India. He attributed this to the Left’s lack of pragmatism and its overestimation of the power of the US imperialism. Three important questions arise out of the issues raised by Professor Sen, which this article seeks to address.
Has the Left overestimated the power of imperialism?
Can Professor Sen’s concerns regarding social justice and massive deprivation be separated from the question of imperialism?
Is support to the UPA government the only way for the Left to fight for social justice?
Has Imperialism been “Overestimated”?
The 21st century began with two of the largest imperialist aggressions in world history – Afghanistan and Iraq. War and militarism on the one hand and gunboat diplomacy and deceit on the other by the US government has been geared around preserving its hegemony over global markets and resources – energy, commodities, labour – to cater to the imperatives of international finance capital. The mobility of today’s international finance capital, moving in and out of national economies at will, coupled with its institutional capacity to forge quick but short-lived interlocking through direct mergers, predatory acquisitions and speculative investments through derivative financial instruments, is the source of power that makes all nation-states subservient to finance capital. However, the belligerent imperialism of our times, in spite of all the rhetoric about ‘globalisation’, is more than ever an imperialism that depends on a system of nation-states. The US, which seeks absolute hegemony in the post-USSR era (Project for the New American Century) depends on a plurality of either ‘strategically allied’ or politically and militarily sub-ordinated nation states, to enforce the legal and political order that finance capital needs in its daily transactions.
The ruthless “war on terror” unleashed by the Bush administration (and already insured against any respite under a future Obama or McCain administration), is the most naked expression of imperialism and militarism that the world has witnessed, since the days of Fascism prior to the Second World War. The deliberate whipping up of Islamophobia by the neocons in the US has created a fertile ground for religious extremism and terrorism, creating a ‘dreadful dialectic’ of war and terror in which democratic discourses are being squeezed out (Bush’s infamous “either with us or with terrorists”). The ongoing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; sanctions and threats of military aggression against Iran; the eastward expansion of the NATO and placing of missiles in East European countries targeting Russia; the continuing economic blockade of Cuba and machinations against popular Governments in Latin America and the attempts to create an ‘Asian NATO’ by roping in India along with Japan and Australia to contain China and divide the Asian nations into rival blocks; all these comprise the imperialist strategy of the US for perpetuating its global domination. How can any talk about an “overestimation” of imperialism in this backdrop be taken seriously?
The world can only become a better place in future if this absolute hegemony of the US, which is playing havoc with the lives and destinies of the peoples of the world, is challenged and reversed. The worldwide resistance to US imperialism will get considerably weakened, if India, a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, abandons its independent foreign policy and joins the US camp as a strategic ally. It is this predicament which the Left parties have sought to prevent with all their might, through their opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal. The withdrawal of support by the Left parties came only after months of debate and persuasion failed to convince the Prime Minister and the Congress leadership that such a script was never agreed to in the first place in the Common Minimum Programme. No other ‘pragmatic’ options were left after the intransigent Prime Minister made it clear that he would push the strategic alliance with the Bush administration, by hook or by crook. Pragmatism cannot be conveniently defined as acquiescence to imposed beliefs which fundamentally contradict one’s core convictions.
Can Social Deprivation be Fought without Fighting Imperialism?
Professor Sen’s concerns regarding social deprivation and their persistence in India, after six decades of political independence and ‘development with freedom’, is quite well known. His concerns on issues like mass hunger, poverty and deeply skewed access to education and health, are genuine. However, what strikes one while following the consistent and steadfast advocacy for providing nourishment, education and health facilities to the poor Indians by Professor Sen – laudable as it is – is the lack of a clear policy perspective. Why is it the case that half of India’s children remain hungry? Why are they deprived of schooling? Why cannot access to basic healthcare ensured for all citizens of India? These questions remain unanswered in Professor Sen’s otherwise enlightening discourses.
Professor Sen’s preoccupation seems to be on the most spectacular, the most heart-rendering description of the abject social deprivation faced by the poor people of our country; not on analyzing the causes behind such deprivation or providing policy prescriptions for doing away with them. “Philosophers”, said Marx in his eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, “have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. Unless the nature of India’s post-independence economic development is appraised and critiqued, can one arrive at the right conclusions regarding the persistence of mass poverty, hunger and social deprivation in India, even after six decades of independence? Can one arrive at the correct conclusions about social deprivation in India without arriving at any position on the class character of the Indian State and the relationship of the Indian ruling classes with imperialism?
Professor Sen’s silences on concrete economic policy questions comprise a major gap in his argumentations. For instance, while discussing persisting poverty, hunger and malnourishment, he does not elaborate his position on the state of Indian agriculture and the Public Distribution System (PDS) in the post-liberalization period. The neoliberal policies pursued by successive governments at the Centre, Congress and BJP alike, have allowed global price movements to determine cropping patterns and the viability of farming in India and have greatly added to the scope for speculation in essential commodities through hoarding and futures trading. These policies have intensified agrarian distress by exposing small and marginal farmers to import competition from highly subsidised agriculture in imperialist countries, while taking away their ‘entitlements’ to government support for subsidised inputs, institutional credit and public investment in irrigation. The universal PDS has been substituted by a targeted PDS, limiting its coverage by creating artificial categories of APL and BPL within the poor on the basis of deeply flawed poverty estimates. Allowing private corporates a free hand in the trade of essential commodities have left the vulnerable sections at the mercy of the marketplace, at a time of high inflation and galloping food and fuel prices. Repeated attempts are being made to ‘reform’ existing labour laws and encourage their violation, in order to promote ‘hire and fire’ policies aimed at attacking the rights and ‘entitlements’ of workers that the trade union movement had achieved after independence and also institutionalise various forms of informalisation of the workforce. All these have had tremendous impact on intensification of hunger, displacement, insecurity of livelihood, poverty and malnourishment in India. However, one is yet to know where Professor Sen stands on these issues.
The crucial issue in education and health in India today, as in most countries of the world, relates to the role of the State. After years of denouncing “Government failures” and berating the State as the harbinger of inefficiency and corruption, State sponsored education and health systems is making a comeback in diverse theatres: from the “new socialist countryside policy” in China to the election manifesto of the Democratic Party in the US. The Leftwing Governments in Latin America, inspired by Cuba, have laid special emphasis on literacy, mass education and healthcare for the poor with considerable success. However, the policy discourse as well as outcomes in India continues to be heavily loaded in favour of private provisioning of education and health, spawning huge inequities in access. The UPA Government also treated its commitments in this regard made in the Common Minimum Programme with contempt. Neither has expenditure on health and education been raised to the promised 2-3% and 6% of GDP respectively, nor has been the goals of universalisation of school education and ICDS (anganwadis) achieved.
The basic impediment in meeting these goals, as always, has been inadequate financial resources made available by the Central Government. The question of resource mobilization and allocation, and broadly the entire macroeconomic policy framework, is therefore germane to the quest for universal school education and primary healthcare. Where does the Government get the money in order to set up and run public schools and hospitals? Who pays the taxes and how much? It is here that the fight for universal school education and healthcare, and in fact the entire struggle for social justice, gets intricately linked to the struggle against imperialist dictated economic policies. The neoliberal policy prescriptions of tax cuts and concessions for big businesses and financial markets, blind pursuit of deficit reduction and privatisation of profit-making PSUs and basic public services, make the adoption of any meaningful redistributive welfare measure by the State and resource mobilization for the same, next to impossible. The struggle for social justice in general, and for universal food security, school education and healthcare in particular, therefore cannot be separated from the struggle against neoliberal policies and imperialism.
The Left and the Struggle for Social Justice
It is hardly surprising that the moment the trust vote was won by the UPA Government, through means that have set an alarmingly new low in the already murky world of India’s bourgeois politics, the neoliberal cabal within the Government started pushing the recommendations of the US-India CEO Forum, like allowing greater FDI in insurance, banking, retail sector and higher education. It is clear that the heart of the UPA Government lied not in the commitments towards social justice made in the Common Minimum Programme but in the CEO Forum recommendations; the blueprint for greater penetration of US capital in India. The CEO Forum recommendations also prescribe civilian nuclear cooperation, whereby Indian corporates would get a slice of the cake once the nuclear deal is sealed and orders for nuclear reactors are placed before the US based nuclear power companies. The brazen and crass style of Amar Singh is hardly the only manifestation of cronyism in India. It is here that the “liberalization with a human face” strategy of Manmohan Singh has fallen flat. Appeasement of big capital and imperialism on the one hand while ensuring social justice on the other is a chimera – both cannot go hand in hand.
Social justice can only be ensured when the neoliberal and pro-imperialist policy regime in India, installed in 1991 under the stewardship of Manmohan Singh, is dismantled and an alternative progressive policy regime put in its place. This surely cannot be attained by the limited pressure that the Left had been able to exert on the Congress led UPA Government through its outside support for four years, although the Left influence on the UPA Government’s policies have been benign. The aim of ensuring that the communal BJP – sworn enemies of secularism and social justice – is kept out of power cannot be construed as an acceptance by the Left of the role of a junior partner to the Congress led alliance at the Centre. In fact the importance of the Left in Indian politics lies precisely in ensuring that the polity does not become a bipolar one with Congress or BJP led alliances ruling by turn, basically adopting the same set of economic and foreign policies.
The demands of social justice in India calls for an independent role of the Left, which can usher in an alternative policy regime. That would obviously require protracted struggles involving larger sections of the Indian masses. It would also require political openings at the Centre which would provide further momentum to such struggles. In fact the Left itself has to grow much bigger through such struggles. It is this vision which has informed the tactics of the Left in the recent period. Professor Sen, whose empathy for the poor and commitment to social justice remain unquestionable, need not be disappointed with this vision.