September 13, 2020

Ideological Hostility to state intervention, BJP a tool to carry the agenda

Tikender Singh Panwar

ANKHI Das, a name, which all of a sudden became popular in the country continues to make headlines in the media. Public policy chief of Facebook for South and Central Asia, Das is known for her proximity to the BJP and also to the point how she shaped Facebook’s policy, more aligned to the BJP. Her remarks do not just limit to this alignment brought about to win the general elections in 2014 but go deeper to the ideological hostility to which she is wedded/ linked to. And that ideological leaning provides her a fitting joint to be with the BJP.

This ideological antagonism got exhibited in a message posted in 2014 just a day before the results were to be announced. “Its taken 30 years of grassroots work to get rid of India of state Socialism finally.” The Facebook did its job; “We lit a fire to his(Modi’s) social media campaign and the rest is of course history.” I do not want to contest here whether it is state socialism or state capitalism, but this ideological hostility of Ankhi Das et al working in various capacities to get rid of state intervention and how the ‘big capital’ was immensely interested to see this change is all the more interesting. Not that the withdrawal of the state from many important sectors began after 2014, after the victory of BJP, it started quite early in the 1990s, but ensuring a victory to BJP was all the more linked to fasten the pace of this ‘neo-liberal’ capitalism.

Ankhi Das’s statement reminds one of a book- ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’, by John Perkins. Perkins was responsible to align many countries of South Asia to the US concept of democracy and to convince leaders of underdeveloped countries to accept loans for large construction and engineering projects and then ensuring that these projects were contracted to US companies. He did all that was in his power to do so. From bribing country heads to making them vulnerable. The similarities, between what John Perkin’s did for the US and what Ankhi Das et al are trying to do, are many with the only difference that John Perkins wrote his confessions and admitted to his misdemeanor, whereas Das continues to ride on the same horse.

Another name who is less discussed but equally virulent with the same hostility towards the state intervention and now is in the closet of the prime minister is Sanjeev Sanyal.  Sanyal is a principal economic adviser in the ministry of finance, government of India.  I remember meeting him in one of the conferences in Delhi on urban issues. This conference was organised jointly by the London School of Economics and Deutsche Bank called the ‘Urban Age Conference’. Interestingly, Abhijeet Banerjee (Nobel laureate), Professor Dunu Roy and I were in the same panel called: ‘inclusive governance’.

The focus of the discussion was to have more empowered cities, inclusive governance with the greater intervention of the state. After the discussion was over Sanyal met and said that the era of state intervention is over. The government should not have any business in running the utilities in the cities and except governance, rest all should be commanded under the private sector to make cities more competitive and attractive to get investments. Sanyal now is part of the policy paradigm changes in the Modi government and we can easily realise why the growth of the GDP has fallen to nearly 24 per cent.

Let us explore the depth of this hostility towards state intervention and how this policy direction has affected the functioning of the cities. In 2015 the concept of smart cities was announced by the BJP government. One hundred smart cities were identified in the country on a so-called ‘competitive’ basis, which was then supposed to be the lighthouse of urban governance. One of the essential elements in the qualification for smart cities was the urban reforms carried out in these cities. These reforms which sounded as progressive, however, were inherently regressive - for the privatisation of the cities; privatisation of its assets and governance. Quintessential to these reforms was how much capital generation and user fee generation was taking place in the cities.

These 100 smart cities were not to be run by the conventional system of council empowered decision making in the municipality, rather through the creation of special purpose vehicles(SPVs). The SPVs were then registered under the companies act and in none of the SPVs formed in the country; the elected members including the mayor of the city are heading them. These are controlled either by a bureaucrat or by a consultant. The hostility against state intervention did not just restrict to the selling of the PSU’s but extended even to the functioning and governance of the cities.

How this functioning has further worsened the condition of the people living in the cities and how the SPV formula has been a big failure need not be stressed here. The point is that this malaise towards the state intervention is for abject privatisation of the assets that the community or the city owns in the urban Indian context. There is a push for privatisation of basic utilities like garbage collection, solid waste management, water distribution, housing and almost all the basic utilities that the state or its structure was supposed to provide or intervene in.

In this background, we have also seen how the smart cities concept is for the digitisation of the city-governance and even other basic functions. There is no harm in digitisation but the way it is being carried out and which is now all the more unambiguous with the deals struck between Reliance and Facebook, it is for expropriating massive surplus form the pockets of the citizens. The smart cities offer spaces for such loot to get legitimised. Digital solutions which could have been provided at cheaper rates are shelved and the city command centres(digitally controlled centres) are being handed over to big corporates.

Hence Ankhi Das et al and their intervention should not just be restricted to the partnership established between the BJP and the Facebook or likewise but part of the larger agenda that they want to implement in India. BJP, for that matter, is a nice tool to implement it.