January 29, 2023

Whither Republic

Nilotpal Basu

EVERY Republic Day makes us realise how far we have advanced since founding of our republic. A fundamental premise of our constitution which, in the first place, was enshrined to realise the aspirations of our freedom struggle – a State with common citizenship irrespective of caste, creed, language and culture. The Indian Constitution evoked awe and appreciation across the world as this was an unprecedented effort to institutionalise democracy, secularism, social justice and federalism with a humongous population and rich diversity.

A key feature of the exercise was to create a society which could not only establish the freedom for people of all religious faiths but also their equality. The experience of the freedom struggle had made us realise as a people that without moving towards economic and social equality, the democratic and secular republic could not sustain itself. In the process of the making of our constitution it was concluded that the parliamentary system based on multi-party electoral democracy was the ideal form. But for this course a country such as ours could not sustain itself. It was obvious that a presidential form of government would be a disaster. 


Fundamental to this conceptual premise of the republic was an Indian identity based on democracy, secularism and equality. From the very outset, unlike participants of the freedom struggle, the RSS was principally opposed to this basis of Indian nationhood, not to speak of the republican constitution. For the RSS, the nationhood was seen from the prism of religious identity, for that matter the Hindu identity. The rejection by the national struggle of such religious identity-driven notion of nationhood had to logically culminate in the democratic and secular constitution. But the developments of the political process in the country since the formation of the BJP-led government in 2014 with a dominant RSS influence implicitly undermined the democratic secular constitution. It pitched for a narrow religious identity-driven Hindutvavadi Rashtra. The trend has further consolidated after the 2019 elections with transformation to eke out an overarching Hindutva identity. The fact is that these have been supported by Indian corporate capital galvanising into a corporate-communal nexus with the regime. A vicious attack on the accepted principles of nationhood and constitution became inevitable. On the other hand, this had its ramifications in re-defining nationhood and the very nature of electoral democracy.

Subsequent developments have only confirmed this regression which has lapsed into a majoritarian electoral autocracy. No wonder that this has been noticed all across the globe leading to a sharp criticism. Stunned by this, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has attempted to deflect the growing noise by claiming that India has been a democracy since the last 5,000 years starting with the vedic era. Thus, the coinage that India is the “mother of democracy”.

Getting the signal from the highest office, the RSS-controlled Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) commissioned “historians” with the task to manufacture this narrative which is neither historical nor scientific, but premeditated along the “imagination” of the likes of Savarkar and Golwalkar. The ICHR anchored narrative reads: “In India, from the vedic times itself two kinds of states, Janapada and Rajya have been in existence. The Indian experience evolved its own form of governance at the levels of village and the central polity: (i) The federal/central political structures were delinked from the lives of the community(village communities), and consequently, (ii) village communities became self-governing and autonomous and (iii) developed a hierarchy of self-governing institutions, such as panchayats and khaps that enabled them to remain unaffected by and large changing kingdoms/empires particularly, those of invaders hostile to Indian Hindu culture.” 

Thus, in one stroke not only has majoritarianism provided its ideological wherewithal based on distorted history, but democracy itself is fundamentally re-defined. Furthermore, the varnashram based social hierarchy of the caste system has also been given legitimacy. This virtually means turning the clock back to the pre-British days and erasing the collective experience of the freedom struggle against British colonial rule. 


With Indian corporates, particularly cronies of Prime Minister Modi, complicit with this course of development, India was destined to become the most unequal society. This is now sharply highlighted by the Oxfam report. The report, captioned “Survival of the Richest”, was published on the opening day of the 2023 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Elites gathered in the Swiss ski resort as extreme wealth and extreme poverty have increased simultaneously for the first time around the world in 25 years. 

Understandably, the top 1 per cent in India now owns more than 40.5 per cent of total wealth in 2021 while the bottom 50 per cent of the population (700 million) has around 3 per cent of total wealth. From the beginning of the pandemic to November 2022, billionaires in India have seen their wealth surge by 12 per cent, or Rs 3,608 crore per day in real terms (around Rs 2.5 crore every minute). The rich have done well for themselves, while the number of hungry Indians has increased from 19 crores to 35 crores.

Just 5 per cent of Indians own more than 60 per cent of the country’s wealth while the bottom 50 per cent possesses only three per cent of wealth. India’s richest man has seen his wealth soar by 46 per cent in 2022. The report shows that a one-off 20 per cent tax on this billionaire’s unrealised gains from 2017-2021 could potentially raise Rs 1.8 lakh crore. This would be enough to employ more than five million primary school teachers in the country for a year. This has triggered the call to end this obscene inequality and implement progressive tax measures such as wealth tax in the upcoming union budget. And from 2012 to 2021, forty per cent of the wealth created in India has gone to just 1 per cent of the population and only a mere 3 per cent of the wealth has gone to the bottom 50 per cent.

No wonder the total number of billionaires in India increased from 102 in 2020 to 166 in 2022. The combined wealth of India’s 100 richest has touched USD 660 billion (Rs 54.12 lakh crore) – an amount that could fund the entire union budget for more than 18 months.

The report, therefore, infers that “while the country suffers from multiple crises like hunger, unemployment, inflation and health calamities, India’s billionaires are doing extremely well for themselves. The poor meanwhile in India are unable to afford even basic necessities to survive. The number of hungry Indians increased to 350 million in 2022 from 190 million in 2018. The widespread hunger is resulting in 65 per cent of the deaths among children under the age of five in 2022, according to the Union Government’s submission to the Supreme Court. After witnessing mass suffering and death during the Covid-19 pandemic, it was critical that the Government of India took aggressive measures to address injustice and poverty."

However, these astronomical levels of inequality and the resultant incidence of growing poverty is not a chance coincidence. While the poor in India continue to be taxed more, the rich benefit from tax exemptions. In 2019, the Central Government reduced the corporate tax slabs from 30 per cent to 22 per cent, with newly incorporated companies paying a lower 15 per cent rate. The projected revenue foregone by the union government in 2020-21 in the form of incentives and tax exemptions to corporates was more than Rs 1,03,285.54 crore. This is the equivalent to the allocation towards Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) for 1.4 years. The CEO of Oxfam India has observed, “The country’s marginalised – dalits, adivasis, Muslims, women and informal sector workers – are continuing to suffer in a system which ensures the survival of the richest. The poor are paying disproportionately higher taxes, spending more on essential items and services when compared to the rich. The time has come to tax the rich and ensure they pay their fair share. This is the time to implement progressive tax measures such as wealth tax and inheritance tax which have been historically proven to be effective in tackling inequality.”

The tax policy stands out as obscene and vulgar. The government has raised taxes on goods and services, which disproportionately tax the poorest people and exacerbate gender inequality. The report highlights how the Union Government continues to tax the poor and middle class more than the rich. Approximately 64 per cent of the total Rs 14.83 lakh crore in Goods and Services Tax (GST) came from the bottom 50 per cent of the population in 2021-22. As per estimates, 33 per cent of GST comes from the middle 40 per cent and only 3 per cent from the top 10 per cent. The bottom 50 per cent of the population pays six times more on indirect taxes as a percentage of income compared to the top 10 per cent.

It is not only the tax regime, but the debt recovery policies of banks have also enhanced the reverse transfer of financial resources from the poor to the rich. India’s banking system demonstrates class bias when it comes to dealing with loan recovery.  Instead of protecting the poor and vulnerable from invasive loan recovery strategies, the RBI withdrew its curbs on third party recovery agents. But in the same year, the loans written off by public banks reached Rs 11.17 lakh crore which are mostly given to corporates. Hardly 13 per cent of this massive amount has been recovered by banks.

It is ironic that such vulgar games of the corporates in line with the global trends, but obviously more pronounced, have been confirmed by the very same global corporates who congregated at Davos for the annual World Economic Forum jamboree. Mandarins of the finance capital have announced almost with a note of fatality that by the middle of 2023, the global economy will descend to a deep recession. And the reasons are not hard to explain. With burgeoning food prices driving inflation and unemployment, demand all over will be adversely affected. This will be further aggravated by the growing unemployment. 


The Modi government’s cynical move to legitimise unlimited and anonymous corporate funding of political parties, particularly during elections, was bound to create a quid pro quo between the government and the corporates. The legitimisation of such funding outside the public domain has completely destroyed the level-playing field between political parties. And such financial backing has made the pro-corporate policies inevitable. 

The results are for everyone to see. In the financial year 2019-20, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got over 75 per cent of the total electoral bonds, while the Congress party could manage to get just 9 per cent of the total amount of Rs 3,435 collected, according to an Election Commission of India (ECI) data. The BJP could get the bulk of the money donated – Rs 2,555 crore – through electoral bonds, and this was reported to be more than what it received the previous year. According to its audit report filed with the ECI, the BJP’s cash flow remains the highest among political parties at Rs 3,501 crore, up from Rs 1,904 in 2018-2019. BJP's annual audit report submitted to the ECI stated that it received Rs 210 crore contribution in the form of electoral bonds in 2017-18.

In such a bleak scenario, how is it that the republic can be salvaged? A resolute, vigorous unity and struggle of the people can only salvage the situation. Where “survival of the richest” seems to be the norm in contemporary India, survival of the poor is at their own hands, on the streets, in barricades. There are flashes, like when the three farm laws intended to hand over agriculture to corporate control had to be repealed in the face of a sustained protest by farmers. The pressure from below is forcing political parties to actively consider that with the regime in a murderous aggression, a broad platform to take on the corporate-communal nexus has become inevitable and urgent. It is only through these battles on the streets that an alternative policy course and a change in the government is possible, which will roll back the present lethal attack on the constitution.