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‘Government will have to tackle farm distress’

Dey maintains that the concerns of civil society organisations were not misplaced and that the Narendra Modi government 2.0 will have to face the harsh realities of farmers’ distress and unemployment on the ground sooner or later.

Editorial | Kolkata |

A social activist, Nikhil Dey has been working in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan since 1987. He is a founding member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Soochna Evam Rozgaar Adhikar Abhiyan ~ movements which finally led to enactment of the Right to Information legislation.

He is also one of the founders of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) ~ a social and grassroots organisation ~ which has been spreading awareness among the people about their rights under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

In an interview with ABHIJEET ANAND, Dey maintains that the concerns of civil society organisations were not misplaced and that the Narendra Modi government 2.0 will have to face the harsh realities of farmers’ distress and unemployment on the ground sooner or later.


Did the BJP’s resounding victory in the 17th Lok Sabha elections not prove that the civil society groups had completely miscalculated the outcome of these elections?

The BJP did fail on many counts in the development or social sector, and that is why a substantial number of civil society groups were so critical of the government. Civil society groups were not contesting elections, and therefore their positions can’t be evaluated against the victory of one party or the other, or even the issues that dominated the election.

In fact, social movements and civil society groups have taken these positions regardless of who has been in power. This time, there was a greater attempt amongst some CSOs (Civil Society Organisations) to have these issues play a greater role in the election campaigns of different parties.

The polarisation of society along the lines of community or religion, the increasing fear amongst vulnerable groups, the sharp increase in hate speech, and the attempt to make political capital of armed forces’ action, were things that civil society groups spoke about, with alarm, and cautioned against them being used to garner votes.

The positions civil society groups advocated were tethered in a commitment to universal and humanitarian beliefs, and in pursuance of our constitutional mandate. These positions must be adhered to regardless of electoral outcomes.

Social movements have a commitment to sets of values regardless of popularity, and while being aware of the politics of development and democracy, calculating or miscalculating who will win the elections is not a primary part of a social movement mandate.

Despite the “unrealistic” claims in the BJP’s manifesto, people gave Narendra Modi a comprehensive mandate. Do you think this happened because there is nobody to challenge Modi?

Unfortunately, the credibility of all political parties is so low, that manifestos are not taken seriously by people during the elections, and not taken seriously by parties after taking office. As a result, people end up voting on the moods and trends of the moment, where sometimes even the price of one essential commodity can turn the result of an election.

This time the BJP chose to make security, and insecurity the main plank of their election campaign. Nationalism was connected to the religious identity of the religious majority, and other issues of development, democracy, and society were relegated to the back burner.

The BJP succeeded in its campaign thanks also to its massive advantage in access to resources with much higher expenditure during the campaign, dominant media access and projection, and allpervasive social media presence and management. As a result, all those who were trying to challenge this formidable machinery were trapped in the agenda set by the BJP where the BJP’s failures to address issues of employment or the social sector, or democracy, or democratic governance were not highlighted.

However, the BJP is now the ruling party with a big majority, and tangible results on economic and social sector issues are going to be far more important to people than popularity in terms of votes. The BJP will have to face the drought, deal with continuing farmers’ distress, deal with unemployment.

Beyond a debate over figures, they will have to accept as well understand that plurality in India is a part of our basic structure, and dissent and peoples’ voices cannot be diverted from their real concerns all the time. The vast majority of India’s citizens, including the young first-time voters who seem to have voted for the BJP and Mr Modi, are facing multiple crisis of access to basic services, employment, and livelihood and their expectations from this government will be very high.

It will not take long for popularity to turn into intense dissatisfaction. No matter who is in power, basic issues of development and a pluralistic democracy will have to be addressed.

Don’t you think the BJP has a social base?

BJP does reach out very strongly on the basis of caste. They accuse a lot of other parties for being castebased. Firstly, of course, they want to reject one particular religion. They want to target certain religions.

If you look at how they propose do deal with the National Register of Citizens in the manifesto, it is completely targeted. By doing that we are threatening the constitutional structure of our country. Once you start doing that you will obviously distinguish between one caste and the other; one region or one language or the other; one religion and the other.

It is not only an idea of being Hindu nationalist or Hindutva. But it is an idea of having a particular brand of Hindutva. If you know this country, there are huge number of Hindus.

But if you do not follow the BJP brand of Hindutva, then they consider you anti-national or non-national. They are reaching out to one social base and trying to build it. But they are dividing.

What is your assessment of implementation of the MGNREGA in the past five years?

The past five years have been the worst. The only reason that some reasonable work was done was because the Supreme Court in a Swaraj Abhiyan case made an intervention which allowed MGNREGA to survive and allowed some budget allocation to be made.

The past five years have been difficult for MGNREGA. It is not a complete monumental failure. But people are very frustrated. People are not getting wages. People are not getting job cards.