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Finance bill in India, Donald Trump's budget: Legislatures of stealth and rise of the Right states

Over the past few months there have been attempts made at overarching and defining domestic policy changes in the US and India — the American Health Care Act and the Finance Bill. There is a remarkable similarity between the two legislative moves including the tactics, the timing used to push them, as well as the vested interests behind them, even if on two opposite sides of the globe.

While in the metropolis the measures have not passed at the first try, with around 30 Republicans opposing it in the US House of Representatives – there is no doubt that a slightly watered down proposal would be offered as a compromise. For the Senate, the American Healthcare Act would be introduced as a “budget reconciliation” bill, requiring only 51 votes to pass, rather than the 60 votes required to avert a filibuster. On the other hand, the Finance Bill 2017 has passed in the Lok Sabha, and being a “money bill”, does not require standard passage in the Rajya Sabha.

Donald Trump budget

The Trump budget bill was cloaked as a healthcare bill titled the American Healthcare Act. Its defining feature was huge tax breaks for the wealthy, while overseeing mostly cuts to healthcare (including defunding Planned Parenthood) or handing over responsibilities to the states. The Meals On Wheels scheme for the elderly was abolished, a programme that feeds 2.4 million elderly citizens (arguing that taking the load off the taxpayer is “compassionate”). There was a seismic $880 billion cut to Medicaid, on the excuse of leaving it to the now-slightly-richer-taxpayer and the states, while lifted the weighted tax burden on the super-rich.

The bill grossly underfunded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and offered no new endowments for further action to safeguard the environment. In fact, Trump seeks to defy the Paris Climate Deal, in addition to overturning fracking controls on public land.

 Finance bill in India, Donald Trumps budget: Legislatures of stealth and rise of the Right states

US President Donald Trump. File photo. AP

Further, the bill oversaw huge cuts in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, rendering it virtually unable to tackle the chronic homelessness and the foreclosures that brought it into prominence in 2007-08 onwards.

The Appalachian region, whose plight Trump had highlighted during his election campaign had seen huge cuts to its area development fund, and even coal miners, who had voted for him, will eventually face hardship, job and wage cuts due to increased automation.

The education budget has been starved out – especially the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and for the humanities. Other cuts point towards huge disruption in medical and science research. After school progammes for 1.6 million children have been cut, as have federal meal programmess for schools.

Public broadcasting and public funded media have nearly been wiped out, though C-SPAN will remain funded by the financial corpus given by the private broadcasters and cable networks, unlike PBS.

While Trump had campaigned on tackling Islamic State (IS) but stopping US interference in endless wars, the budget saw a huge increase in military spending, including on veterans. Further, funding for the CIA, the FBI and the NSA has increased, encouraging covert action and mass surveillance domestically and abroad.

To top it all, the much-touted border wall gets billions of dollars in money (from the US Treasury, and not Mexico). A single border wall defies all financial sense as states like New Mexico do not have an “immigrant problem” and yet the wall would cover those areas as well. Other departments, agencies and programmes getting 12-20% cuts include Agriculture, Labour, Transport, the State Department, Health and Human Services, Amtrak (trains), alternative energy programmes, minority business programmes, and the North Border Commission (ironically!), among others.

The level of detail shows that it was not written up from scratch, was probably written up by corporations much before the inauguration, possibly before the election, to be handed as a list of demands to the winner, even if it had been Hillary Clinton. After all, the amount of corporate political contributions to Clinton far outdid any Democrat or Republican rival.

This explains the silence of the Democratic establishment. After all, $1.2 billion of corporate money was wasted on Clinton and she was unable to deliver the $880 billion tax-break corporate America demanded (though she would have had to, had she won). That Trump did it for free shows that the Republican Party, now in power in the House, the Senate and the White House, is fully back in favour.

Narendra Modi Finance Bill

The Finance Bill introduced in Parliament along with the budget initially did what it was meant to, dealt with new taxes and cuts, along with suggestion of public funded elections. The amended version reintroduced was nothing like the original. Its purpose as a finance bill became marginalised as it offered amendments to over 40 acts of Parliament.

One of its major features is making the Aadhar mandatory for filing IT returns, for a PAN card, for various subsidies and to avail nearly every public scheme or programme, in defiance of the Supreme Court that limited Aadhar to a small set of uses. Another example of its overreach is in how it makes Aadhar mandatory for not only receiving government fellowships, but for getting university degrees as well.

The bill further merges various oversight bodies and tribunals, including the ones that arbitrate between the government and companies, between several companies, between Public Sector Units (PSUs) and private contractors, and between the central and state governments – including the fact that the central government will be able to intervene more easily in disputes between states, the nature of which will be dependent on approaching electoral calculations and which party rules what state.

File image of Narendra Modi. Getty Images

Narendra Modi. Getty Images

There is also a strong element of financial decentralisation of welfare programmes, provided that the Centre funds each state adequately and proportionally. While the central government washes its hands free of the responsibility of welfare, the relations between the regime in power at the Centre and various state governments would determine the capacity of the latter to carry out those relegated functions.

The authoritarianism and injustice of the legislation is best demonstrated by the provision allowing income tax and allied officers to raid anyone without accountability, without them necessarily being charged with anything. Further, the assets of that person may be indefinitely seized, with no judicial safeguards laid out in the current form. This is the entry of the practice of indiscriminate civil forfeiture into India. John Oliver’s video on civil forfeiture does a comprehensive job of explaining the intricacies and implications of the practice in the United States.

Companies are not per se “people” so they would not require an all-encompassing Aadhar identity, they would see no caps on their political donations and there would be no disclosure required for the same. In short, this bill serves as the Citizens’ United of India – only that in the US, the decades long battle was finally decided in the Supreme Court. However, like Citizens’ United, spending money on a candidate or party will now be considered the right to free speech clubbed with the right to support a candidate.

The cherry on top is the provision that parties no longer have to disclose funding. It appears that now, instead of being bribed during office, politicians and parties will be open for bribery before the election itself.

The elephant in the Lok Sabha was the silence of the Indian National Congress, relieved that measures got pushed through under BJP, as they would not have to be considered the culprits in the future. Further, in the future, the Congress and other parties will also have to vie for huge corporate donations to be able to compete electorally and politically with the ascendant BJP.

Both governments are enabling erosion of privacy

Both bills are cloaked as something else, while the real provisions and functions of the bill are altogether different from the title of the bills.

Both legislative moves either enable an expansion of government, erosion of privacy, through funding or legislation or encourage private sale of data. While ISPs can sell user data in the US, Aadhar data in India has been repeatedly leaked.

Both include huge forms of social security cuts (in India it was part of the Union budget that the Finance Bill initially accompanied). Provident funds and pensions have seen massive negative overhauls in both nations.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Both have been spurred on by big political donors, mostly billionaires and corporations, and in turn remove what little limits remained to campaign funding.

Both involve huge tax cuts for the wealthy and for the corporations, in one way or the other, including indirect tax shifts burdening the consumer.

Both serve the “development” discourse where one inquires into the welfare of private profits as symbols of national pride (GDP) rather than whether those very corporations are paying their fair share of taxes that would fulfill what people really need - economic rights, welfare and higher standards of living.

Thus, while increasing surveillance on ordinary citizens, accompanied by reduced surveillance on corporations, their financial flows, and their political spending — at the individual level — the elite are enriched and empowered to donate, and in India, foreign investors have been brought to the table as equal partners.

Both interact with other, more nefarious bills. The Trump bill was soon followed by a successfully-passed bill in the US House of Representatives that allowed Internet Service Providers, among other corporations, to sell users’ browsing data to companies. The American media was extremely late in reporting this – corporate owners such as Amazon (owns The Washington Post), Viacom, Time Warner, NewsCorp and Comcast (own most of the news channels) have a far greater vested interest in the bill passing than in honest journalism. This also related to the Wikileaks revelations that the CIA and NSA have taken to installing spyware on personal devices at the manufacturing level, as well as the hack tools used to ensure tight mass surveillance.

One can also recall the battle over net neutrality in both India and the US waged over the past two years.

Increasing right-wing consciousness

In India, the Finance Bill’s interaction with other laws is far-reaching. One of them is the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The second is the compulsory creation of Jan Dhan Yojana bank accounts for every citizen. The third is opening up key sectors such as defence, civil aviation and pharmaceuticals to full-share FDI (allowing India and US to be at the mercy of the same set of investors). The fourth is demonestisation – in particular the forced depositing of nearly all the country’s cash reserves and tracing them to respective bank accounts while boosting digital transactions and pushing back the informal economy. The fifth is the post-demonetisation banking sector regulations led by SBI including transaction taxes, lowering of free transactions in ATMs, higher minimum balances, etc put in place to make the Indian system more in line with the US (where ATM fees are a huge problem).

The Indian media was late in reporting the Finance Bill, too – once the floodgates to money in politics open, the media will be the biggest beneficiary as most campaign money is spent on formal and informal advertising. Corporations wanting to curry favor, corporations wanting to earn through paid news, and parties on campaign blitzes will all inject massive amounts of money into the media. This will also ensure that the Indian government, unto eternity, shall never defy ruthless corporate interests, no matter what party is in power. This is of course, not to say that the mainstream media is not already corporate-owned.

Tied to this are the discourses that interpret such actions — both long and short-term narratives, from how the media daily reports them to how history judges them. One has witnessed many discourses discussing the “global rise of the right” — mainly worrisome analyses dealing with the dangers of right wing consciousness, but in actuality meaning simply Brexit, Modi and Trump. A fairer media would have provided a clearer picture, which would in turn have provided clearer studies.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

The victorious Brexit vote had more to do with bipartisan British complacency in the wake of unemployment, healthcare-education-housing shortfalls, wage stagnation and increases in the cost of living that the EU’s version of neoliberalism was creating and the lack of an alternative – than it had to do with blind xenophobia or the desire for libertarian, small government economic policy (and yet the latter was the result). David Cameron’s second win was consciously promoted by the media while the spectacular rise of Jeremy Corbyn was suppressed and attacked by the British media. In India, however, there is indeed a rise and empowerment of xenophobic, communal and castiest aspects of consciousness and concurrent socio-political-public forces – though when it comes to economics or authoritarian aspects, the government still has to resort to sneaking behind the citizens’ backs. There is no denying that conservative forces are stronger than liberal forces here, numerically.

In the US, however, there are more, if not as many people opposing Trump and his party’s policies, and the media (barring Fox News, the New York Post and Wall Street Journal – all conservative outlets) usually coming down heavily on him. Further, the Trump movement was miniscule in comparison to the Bernie Sanders campaign in terms of crowds, small donations, volunteers, enthusiasm, and magnitude of change in political consciousness. The Trump movement only looks large because of the Republican laissez faire that followed and Trump’s own lack of ideology/competence. As a result, however, Republican activism is at an all time high. Further, Trump could only win because the Democratic primary was rather publicly rigged by the Democratic Party and the media – in an election year where the establishment candidate was bound to lose, and Clinton was unable to get the turnout required for her to win in crucial states in an electoral college system.

Other than India, we are still dealing with fractured polities, if we take a comparative view. More importantly, are the Right wing moves the governments are making things that the people want? No. Public support for most actions of these governments is either apathetic or nil. That there is a nearly equal left wing wave in the UK and the US, is often undercut in most worried “global narratives”. In short, there appears to be less of a global rise of Right-wing consciousness and more of a rightward turn of the state in some countries.

The author is a research scholar at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Updated Date: Apr 01, 2017 12:37:07 IST