Tricks of magic

Published : Mar 17, 2001 00:00 IST

Magical realism in the fabulous world of the Indian economy.

MAGICAL realism is an Indian habitus discovered accidentally by Latin American fiction. Gabriel Garcia Marquez - may his recent illness be as painless as possible - wrote in a style that evokes for me the social relations of the Indian subcontinent. No w onder, then, that his technique is so freely, and profitably, used (most mimetically) by Salman Rushdie and (only partly) by Arundhati Roy.

Consider two small examples. For almost eight decades, a fire has raged under several square kilometres of Jharkhand (formerly southern Bihar). This fire, in Jharia, began in an unsafe colliery run by British capital and it has burned, uncontrolled to th is day. Over the past three decades the Indian government has relocated about 2,500 families (and even considered the wholesale transfer of Jharia town). But 13,500 families remain on the hot surface, with callused feet to carry them each day over the in satiable inferno.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away in Nuapada, Orissa, in the early 1980s, agencies committed to 'development' castrated the local, and very resilient, Khariar bull. Cows in the district, according to journalist P. Sainath, were from then impregnated with imported Jersey semen. Two years later, after millions of rupees were spent on the project, the several cows only produced eight calves of poor health. The diary farmers in this drought prone district suffered the presence now of worthless cows and the rumour of a fabulous, but now extinct, bull. Magical realism on the backs of the working-class and the peasantry.

Foreign tourists to India often are amused by the sheer density of experiences, as they are overloaded with sensory data. We Indians in the U.S. take on a bemused tone when confronted with the enthusiasm of the liberal tourist. India seems to do things i n excess: too many spices, too many colours, too much noise. Magical realist fiction thrives on this vision of an overripe India. I suspect that after you have brushed off the orientalist (and sometimes racist) overtones of this reaction there is a germ of truth to it. South Asian cultures are decidedly non-puritanical when it comes to public space and there is a sense of revelry in the north Indian marketplaces with which I am familiar. If the subcontinent has a tendency to excess, our local fascistic movement is not to let us down on this score. The Hindu Right is flamboyant in its cultural outrageousness and almost camp-like in its subservience to the logic of capital. No author of magical realist fiction would dream of opening a Ministry for Disinv estment. Only in India!

And who is the Minister of State for Disinvestment? Arun Shourie, the arch conservative journalist and author who toes the line of cruel cultural nationalism. Why is this brutal writer seconded to the primary task of neoliberalism - to cut down the welfa re state? Because, like Nixon in China, only he can do it on behalf of transnational capital and the big Indian bourgeoisie. Like many states after the two oil shocks, the bourgeois-landlord Indian state came under pressure in the 1970s to undertake Inte rnational Monetary Fund (IMF) conditionalities to earn foreign exchange from commercial lenders. The agent for IMFundamentalism at that time was the old behemoth, the Congress party. But the Congress had created its legitimacy as the force of anti-imperi alist patriotism, even if it had long abandoned its core precepts that put the people before capital. Import-substitution allowed the Congress to retain its position as a patriotic force despite its active partisanship on behalf of the big bourgeoisie an d kulaks, or the big farmers. With the turn to neoliberalism, the Congress lost its claim to the national-patriotic as regional bourgeois forces rose to fill the gap, alongside the gradual rise of the Hindu Right.

The Hindu Right emerged in the 1980s as the national heir of the Congress, as the bulwark against the 'foreign.' The 'foreign,' for the Hindu Right, was not finance capital and transnational firms, but Muslims, Christians, oppressed castes and others. Ar un Shourie was one of the main propagandists against the composite nature of Indian nationality, and one of those who promoted the idea that the Hindu Right would protect the national culture of India. When it came to power, first in 1996 (for 13 days) a nd then in 1998, the Hindu Right has kept up this posture of cultural nationalism (mainly in its pogroms against Muslims, Christians and missionaries, and selective elements of 'foreign culture'). At the same time, it has been a champion of neoliberalism , first with its welcome to transnational private power companies (like Enron) and then in its ruthless destruction of the regulated economy in favour of cowboy capitalism. Budget 2001 is a sign that the Hindu Right has pushed forward the agenda of neoli beralism: not as stewards of the IMF, but as agents for the dominant classes which are ravenous for state assets that they can translate into speculative capital.

The Budget of the Finance Minister of the Hindu Right, Yashwant Sinha, was notable for three magically barbarous moments. First, he proposed that the Ministry of Disinvestment continue its work with alacrity. State assets worth $550 million will be put o n the auction block - most of these are vastly undervalued industrial units whose real estate itself merits the sale price. Second, the state will divest itself of the task of increasing agrarian produce and seeing to it that foodstuff reach the poor at controlled prices. The public distribution system was set up to offer minimum support prices to the peasantry and to mobilise foodgrain for the poor. But the government will now only trouble itself with 'maintaining food security reserves', hardly the ta sk of a social democratic regime on the other side of imperialism. Furthermore, farmers short of agro-businesses will face the threat of cheap imports of agricultural commodities once the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) come into effect. Thir d, the state casts out of regulation all workers who toil in enterprises that employ less than a thousand workers. Most studies show that these small scale manufacturing units already function under the radar of governmental regulation, but now they will do so with impunity. The amended Industrial Disputes Act will allow small industrialists to 'hire and fire' workers at will. This comes at the same time as the government puts the small scale sector at the mercy of foreign industry, with an end to excis e taxes. Therefore a constrained small scale sector will certainly employ ruthless tactics to eke out an existence as pressure from imports mounts against them: the unregulated factory will become ghastly for its workforce.

Those who incidentally mouth off about the death of the state should think twice about that position. The state remains the horizon of our democratic aspirations, just as we fight for inter-state solidarity. Nationalism of the culturalist form is bankrup t, but patriotic statism is still necessary to engender democracy. The state remains the only form available to ensure some measure of accountability: but not a state in the hands of the dominant classes. To abjure the state as the horizon of our struggl es is to play into the hands of those who want to dismantle the state in the service of other forms of entrenched power: the state is the principal forum for the class struggle.

In 1982, Salman Rushdie wrote that Marquez' magical realism is not 'an invented, self-referential, closed system.' Rather Marquez (and Rushdie himself) writes of those societies "in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish a nd extreme than they ever get in the so-called 'North,' where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what's really going on." Here, in the relative comfort of the United States, even the working-poor can comfort themse lves with the chimera of American exceptionalism, with the sense that the dollar which they hold in their hand can clobber the daylights out of any other currency. In far off India, a government tenders a Budget that is an act of magic against its own pe ople.

But the magic trick is no mystery to everyone. The Left has been agile in its critique and in its mass mobilisation. The Communist parties in India have planned to hold mass demonstrations across the country from March 12 to 18 to counter the "naked disp lay of the pro-big business and pro-multinational corporation approach of the BJP-led government." The bad guy is not only the IMF, but decisively IMFundamentalism sired not simply by the Washington Consensus, but also by the cultural nationalist, but ne oliberal Hindu Right.

Vijay Prashad is Director, International Studies, Trinity College, Harford, Connecticut.

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