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Ministers of Public-Interest Dislodgement

Hiren Gohain |
The idea that public good is upheld by the state is part of our heritage, and political parties should give it serious attention.
Ministers of Public-Interest

We are living through strange times indeed, witnessing things none could have foreseen even two or three decades back. Among them I would count the fact that deep and troubling fissures in state and societies are being papered over by magniloquence on inane generalities. Another one, with which I deal hereafter is “born-again liberals” who, having suavely paved the path to tyranny, are now claiming to have in their pockets all the wisdom needed to overcome it. True, these are also times when in greater public interest we should let bygones be bygones. But when liberalism is laced with vested interests there is good ground for caution.

One unfailing mark of such quarters is that they refuse to countenance the plain truth that in a democracy like ours a state that sets out to eliminate social rights is most likely to cruise into a stage where fundamental civil rights also gets snuffed out. Prof Manoranjan Mohanty, moderating a recent webinar on the New Education Policy, observed that the government seemed to be giving undue weight to “constitutional duties”. In doing so in my view it actually seems to be pushing into the shadows its own inescapable duty of abiding by the Constitution in turn.

In this connection I propose to discuss what it is doing to eradicate the very idea of “public good”. My impression is that this concept took a definite and concrete shape following the first great modern socio-political revolution, i.e. the French Revolution. It introduced the notion of public funding for such intangible but very important goods as education and health. This is mentioned by such eminent historians as Eric Hobsbawm as a characteristic feature of the modern national capitalist state.

Since the end of the World War II many other services and public institutions of the state serving the ordinary citizen had been created as public goods. But from the eighties of the last century onwards, proponents of a “liberalised economy” stridently advocated sweeping such ideas into a garbage heap. Capitalism has come a full circle and seems to be assuming tyrannical political forms to abolish the very idea of social entitlement for securing broad general loyalty to the state. Socialism is of course the ultimate evil in its eyes and the public sector is routinely denounced as a decrepit edifice that deserves demolition.

I beg leave for a brief diversion into some dim regions of history. Kalhana’s historical chronicle, the Rajatarangini, a unique and epic chronological account of the ruling dynasties of the prominent ancient state of Kashmir shorn of the usual hyperbole and fabulous nature of most available Sanskrit accounts of the past. It faces without flinching the unvarnished truths about the descent of Kashmir into a continual vortex of violence and bloodshed for centuries after the serenity and general prosperity of Buddhist times.

We tend to feel outraged when we read about Sultan Mahmud’s ruthless desecration and destruction of Hindu temples in order to plunder their incredible store of treasure. But “Rajatarangini” records the same kind of pillage by three Hindu rulers of Kashmir before that celebrated iconoclast. One of them, Harsha, despoiled numerous temples without any scruple, and even had a special minister with the honorific title “Devotpatana Amatya” (god-dislodgement minister) to carry out that task in systematic fashion! This features in saptama taranga, or Canto Seven, verse 1091, Rajatarangini. This fact to the best of my knowledge was first brought to light by the eminent historian of ancient India, D N Jha.

I have a notion that this fact does have a curious parallel in modern India. The first prime minister of independent India called publicly-funded multi-purpose river-dams like Bhakra Nangal “temples of modern India”. The term would have fitted other great enterprises in the public sector designed then to secure the “commanding heights” of a developing modern economy and built on land owned or acquired by the government in public interest and built out of public funds to serve the ultimate purpose of improving the lot of the people.

How the noble purpose later ran to seed is another story. But there is every reason to believe that given goodwill, such monuments of public benefit could have been repaired and restored to health for their intended aim. But neo-liberal wisdom roared the chorus that these were white elephants eating up resources of the government, and first slowly, and then with remarkable celerity they were sold off or practically gifted to corporates that now allegedly bear the burden of national development. In a startling sequence to the building of public goods out of public investments, a minister was now appointed as Minister for Disinvestment!

This is pertinent to the reported Assembly resolution in Kerala opposing the transfer of Trivandrum International Airport, as well as the pain and heartburn in Assam about sale of Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi airport in Guwahati to Adani after spending Rs.1,381 crores of government revenue on sprucing it up. What is the reason behind that widespread anguish in Assam? Over and above the fact that it had been named after a great patriotic leader and freedom fighter, who as prime minister of Assam towards the end of British colonial rule mobilised and united public opinion against it, and displayed great parliamentary skill in preventing Assam from being engulfed by the colonial Pakistan project in the face of apathy of the prominent national Congress leaders then engaged in negotiations for transfer of power.

Besides, land had been acquired from indigenous people of the area who parted with it in the hope they would be able to share some of the economic benefits. In the 1960s, the airport accommodated a flying club to enable local youth to acquire basic training as amateur pilots. Now that Adani has got it on lease for 50 years, people are aggrieved that the decision had been taken over their heads. Given the monopolistic nature of such business there are fears that airport services will become much more costly. Employees are fearful as to the security of their jobs.

Monopolies of the public sector have also shown lacklustre performance and apathy to public interest thanks to bureaucratic culture and their treatment by short-sighted politicians as their nest eggs. But these were at least subject to public scrutiny and accountability. Further, it is well known that when they were released from bureaucratic management and allowed to compete for quality and competitiveness, some leading PSUs did well enough to earn the sobriquet of “Navratna”. Now, batch by batch, they are placed on the block.

Is it justified? Here is a grey area. The Supreme Court famously declared it is not in a position to oppose or run down government policies. Can that be the end of the story? We ought to recall at this point that this spree of privatisation cannot be classed with some West European countries’ transient experiments in nationalising and socialising certain goods and services, which were thrown overboard after their apparent failures. (Though France recently saw massive country-wide protests against government attempts to hand over certain public goods to private parties.)

In our case, these public goods were built with public resources in the earliest phase of our history as an independent country with a resolve to bring about a “socialistic pattern of society”. Though the word “socialist” to characterise the state was introduced by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, her successors who had overthrown her deemed it proper not to blot it out. Thus the idea of public good upheld by the state is part of our heritage, and political parties should give it some serious attention and not swim with the current.

The author is a socio-political commentator and cultural critic. The views are personal.

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