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Deep questions of equity are raging in India and the U.S. — hyper-nationalism is blurring the debate

BY: Varghese K. George

Debates over taxation and representation have been central to the evolution of democracy over centuries. India and America, the biggest and oldest democracies, respectively, are in the midst of a renewed debate over these subjects in recent months, the repercussions of which will be felt decades into the future.

The two cases

In the U.S., the Donald Trump administration’s decision to include a question on citizenship in the 2020 Census form is being challenged by several States and cities. Unlike India, the U.S. reallocates the 435 seats in the House of Representatives after each Census. This process of reapportionment also leads to a redistribution of the 538 electoral college votes that elect the President. Besides determining how many seats each State will have in the U.S. House, the Census will also determine allocation of federal, State, and local government funds for social services, community programmes and infrastructure. Critics say seeking citizenship information will suppress the count of non-citizens, who may be legal or undocumented, in the Census, disadvantaging States and cities with more immigrants. Simultaneously, the federal tax code rolled out by the Trump administration seeks to punish States with high taxation and high welfare spend, which tend to be Democratic. In response, several Democratic states have announced measures to help residents circumvent provisions of the federal tax law.

In India, the decision to switch from the 1971 Census to the 2011 Census for the 15th Finance Commission is troubling States with low population growth, which are more or less also the States that contribute a relatively higher share per capita to the national tax kitty. After the 2031 Census, India will switch to a pan-country delimitation of parliamentary constituencies, as opposed to the current practice of redrawing constituencies without affecting the number of seats in individual States. This will result in reduced parliamentary representation for States with higher success in checking population growth, typically through better social welfare and education strategies.

Deeper questions

Underlying the many concerns expressed in terms of federalism and the regional power balance, however, are also deeper questions of citizenship, identity and marginalisation of religious, linguistic and ethnic minorities in both democracies.

America’s founding fathers had made “no taxation without representation” a principle of democracy, but the correlation between taxation and representation is rather weak now. Every year, a million people come to the U.S. as legal residents and potential future citizens and start paying taxes without legislative representation. So is the case with hundreds of thousands of guest workers. However, they get represented in an oblique manner by virtue of being counted in the Census. Some conservative groups are campaigning for redistricting and resource allocation based on the number of citizens, as opposed to residents, in a geographical area. The question remains open as a backdrop to the Trump administration’s move to count citizens.

A second critical principle of democracy, “one person, one vote,” was established in the U.S. through a series of judgments by the Supreme Court through the 1960s, alongside the Voting Rights Act that empowered African-Americans to exercise their franchise. Both debates were politically fraught. The American electoral map had overlooked the massive urbanisation in the country in the first half of the 20th century. Rural voters in thinly populated Congressional districts held hugely disproportionate political power compared to expanding cities, and lawmakers had no incentive to redraw the political map. Since the late 1960s, regular reapportionments have been institutionalised.

Universal franchise and the principle that everyone’s vote must carry equal value were part of the Indian Constitution originally. Subsequent constitutional amendments have mandated that the distribution of parliamentary representation among various States be based on the 1971 Census, until the first Census after 2026. The effort was to avoid disadvantaging States that stabilised their populations. But the result is, for example, that around 1.7 million people can elect a member of Lok Sabha from Kerala, while in Rajasthan it takes 2.7 million people. It has long ceased to be “one person, one vote.”

Political power in India will shift to northern States such as Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, post-2031. Kerala could lose six of its current 20 Lok Sabha seats and Tamil Nadu could lose 11 of its 39. In the U.S., political power will shift, post-2020, from Snow Belt States in the Northeast and Midwest such as New York and Michigan to Sun Belt States in the South and West, such as Texas and Washington.

The impact on the political character of a region or the country as a whole due to these shifts is difficult to anticipate. But there are reasons why minorities and vulnerable groups feel unsettled. In the U.S. several Republican States have in recent years introduced measures that make minority voters less effective, diluting the “one person, one vote” principle. Many fear that the citizenship question in the Census could be a prelude to citizenship-based redistricting and resource allocation which would disempower immigrants, legal and undocumented. In India, political marginalisation of the Muslim minority is taking place not through legal manoeuvring but through social polarisation. The current Lok Sabha has 4% Muslim members against their share of 14% in the total population, an imbalance of power as problematic as the regional imbalance of power. The enthusiasm to promote Hindi demonstrated by the Narendra Modi government is hardly a reassuring prelude to discuss looming shift of political power and relative share of tax revenue from non-Hindi States to the Hindi belt.

For any country to have a national identity and purpose, the more prosperous people and regions would have to share their wealth with relatively poorer communities and regions. Taxation and redistribution are among the tools through which democratic societies seek to achieve this goal. It is not that regionalism was never a part of politics in the U.S. or India, but in recent years the competition among States has been institutionalised and the rationale of taxation and redistribution itself is being undermined by the market economy. Since 2015, Indian States are ranked for ease of doing business; in a starker demonstration of this logic, Amazon is conducting a competition among American States to decide where to house its second headquarters. States that do well by competition, often by offering sops to investors, are then expected to concede resources to weaker States for the good of the collective, creating a tense dynamic.

The current climate of hyper-nationalism in India and America is only exacerbating tensions instead of tempering this conversation. Who are the more authentic members of the nation and who the more legitimate claimants for its resources were questions that fuelled the populist, hyper-nationalism undercurrents in India in 2014 and in the U.S. in 2016. Several policies enacted by governments in both countries since then smack of a majoritarian project. As new debates over representation and taxation open old wounds, the challenge before both democracies is to imagine a national community that is inclusive, representative and reassuring for all its minorities — religious, linguistic, ethnic and the economically marginalised.

Courtesy The Hindu

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