Politics

Dangerous brew

Print edition : August 05, 2016

February 13, 2006: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury, CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan and CPI secretary D. Raja at the UPA-Left parties Coordination Committee meeting in New Delhi. The liberalisation-globalisation project was more or less kept under check during UPA-1 essentially because the Congress government was dependent on the support of the Left for survival. Photo: AFP

A rally organised by the BJP Traders’ Cell against foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail in New Delhi on August 23, 2012. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The sociopolitical concoction the BJP has brewed with fundamentalist extremism and corporate control of the political process will have a crippling effect on the country.

INDIA’S formal engagement with the economic paradigm of liberalisation and globalisation was approximately eight months old when the American political scientist Benjamin Barber’s much debated article “Jihad vs McWorld” was published in The Atlantic Monthly’s March 1992 edition. Three years later, in 1995, Barber developed the arguments he had put forth in the article and published a book under the same title. Barber’s attempt, self-professedly, was to address and analyse the central conflict of the contemporary world. In his perception, this conflict was between globalisation and the corporate control of the political process on the one side and religious and tribal fundamentalism manifesting themselves socially and politically as extremist pursuits of diverse narrowly conceived faiths, including in the form of mainstream organisations as also fringe groups, wedded to militant and terrorist activities. He sought to represent these forces metaphorically through the concepts of “McWorld” and “Jihad” respectively, emphasising that the latter expression was not being used to denote any particular religion. The thesis went on to argue that these seemingly antipodal forces were intertwined and interdependent in very many strange ways and that both contributed towards a common political outcome across the world, albeit in varying scales and nuanced characteristics. What is the common political outcome? Undermining democracy, democratic governance and the concept of the nation state.

Barber added that these two tendencies were sometimes visible in the same country at the same instant. One of his cases in point at that time, the early 1990s, to highlight the coexistence of the diametric tendencies was India, where the pursuit of the new economic policies targeted at universalising the market to enhance the benefits of private corporates coexisted with fissiparous exercises of fundamentalist social and political forces. In this context, the article specifically mentioned that “the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, along with nationalist assassins, are imperilling its [India’s] hard-won unity”.

McWorld & ‘Jihad’

At the 25th anniversary of the formal implementation of the policies of economic liberalisation and globalisation, it is evident that the political and social trajectory charted by India over this period is indeed an epitome of the strange coexistence of “McWorld” and “Jihad”. While Barber talked about the coexistence of the two divergent trends in one country, India’s experience in the last 25 years has thrown up a single political organisation that brings together these dichotomous tendencies. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power at the Centre in 2014 by creating a political and social concoction that catered to both religious fundamentalism—through Hindutva-oriented communal polarisation—and corporate, market-oriented forces. In fact, there are claims from within the BJP, large sections of the corporate class and the bureaucracy, as also political observers that Narendra Modi and his close associates in the BJP represent the “true followers of practical liberalisation and globalisation” though the process itself was initiated by the Congress in 1991, when P.V. Narasimha Rao was Prime Minister.

Indeed, there are arguments, particularly from political organisations such as the Congress, that sections of the BJP and many of its associates in the Hindutva combine were opposed to the structural adjustment programmes at the time of its initiation. The name of Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a Sangh Parivar outfit that continues to make noise against some liberalisation policies from time to time, is highlighted in this context. In a recent article, Congress leader and former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram stated as follows: “The past week marked the 25th anniversary of economic reforms and the liberalisation of the Indian economy. The government ignored the occasion and the reason was not far to seek: the reforms were ushered in by a Congress government under P.V. Narasimha Rao and the BJP had, at that time, stoutly opposed them. (The Swadeshi Jagaran Manch survives to this day.) Imagine that Mr Vajpayee had been Prime Minister in 1991 (rather than in 1998)—the government would have gone to town with its own brand of celebrations.”

There is little doubt that Sangh Parivar outfits such as the SJM and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) and even sizable sections of the BJP had opposed the 1991 initiation of liberalisation, arguing in terms of Hindutva identity and Swadeshi economics. Their contention was that globalisation would have long-term negative implications for India as a political economy and as a society. But with successive forays into power at the national level under Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and now under Narendra Modi, the BJP’s opposition to liberalisation has got increasingly muted. A Sangh Parivar insider said: “With the formation of a government with full majority in May 2014, the SJM-BMS opposition to liberalisation has indeed become mere lip service.” Especially after the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) stated in June 2014 that the Sangh Parivar’s idea of swadeshi was broad enough to accommodate policies of economic liberalisation, including disinvestment of public sector units [PSUs] and opening up of sectors that generate employment to FDI. Following this, the Modi government has gone all out pursuing liberalisation and Hindutva at the same time.

The Patna-based political observer Surendra Kishore told Frontline that this so-called turnaround of the RSS once again underscored the fact that the mother organisation of the Sangh Parivar was essentially dictated by its political objectives. “It subsumes everything to its primary political agenda, which is capturing power. All other slogans and positions are mere instruments to achieve this. And that is exactly why outfits like the SJM and the BMS have become completely marginalised. They may be given other roles to play and that is as and when the Sangh Parivar leadership deems fit,” he said.

This metamorphosis of the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar as a singular political entity that strikingly encapsulates the mixture of corporate control of the political process as well as fundamentalist extremism has resulted in exactly the same kind of bleak and foreboding outcome that Barber was apprehensive about. In the two years of BJP-NDA rule, democracy and the concept of democratic governance have been repeatedly and dramatically violated and trampled upon. Hindutva fringe groups have killed and savaged people in different parts of the country over the so-called Hindutva pride involving issues such as cow protection, religious conversion and love jehad, while these groups and the government have joined hands to hound scholars in several prestigious institutions of higher learning in the name of patriotism. This has struck a blow at the very roots of one of India’s fundamental democratic tenets, the idea of a secular republic where people are not discriminated against in the name of caste, gender or community. Amidst all this, the government showers largesse on corporate bigwigs such as the Adanis and the Ambanis through huge allocations of land and bank loans. Forest and agricultural land is converted to make it amenable for other uses and bequeathed to these big players. In short, the dramatic reorientation of the development paradigm that happened with the structural adjustment programmes has acquired new heights, reach and penetration. The political manifestations of this new reach and penetration are intensified oppression of different classes of people in the name of political, social and economic issues.

The biggest and most notable political economy manifestation of the 25 years of liberalisation and globalisation programme has been the ousting of the state from the position of the primary player in socio-economic development. The principal drive of the policy was to liberate trade and commerce from govern ment restrictions, decontrol industry, give liberal entry to multinationals and foreign investment and disinvestment and privatisation of the public sector. In the process, the state’s role as the guarantor of the welfare of the citizens was majorly diluted. Several studies in these two and a half decades have shown that this abdication has had a debilitating effect across the social sector, especially in areas such as public health, education and food security. The corporatisation of agricultural land has resulted in large-scale migration and rising unemployment and aggravated exploitation of workers in both formal and informal sectors. These tendencies had become visible right through the first five years of liberalisation during the 1991-96 Congress rule and continued to intensify in later years.

Former Union Minister and senior Congress leader Vayalar Ravi told Frontline that in the early years of the liberalisation-globalisation project, there was significant opposition from within the Congress, and many activists at all levels of the organisation had warned against the dangerous deviation from the Nehruvian model. “Many of us, including myself, Rajesh Pilot and Mani Shankar Aiyar, had repeatedly asserted that the Nehruvian model was the core of the political economy philosophy of the Congress. We used to assert that along with wealth, globalisation could also increase social vulnerabilities. The dependence on external markets often leads to recessions and the collapse of the job market. We had demanded that we learn from the Scandinavian countries where trade is not done at the cost of people’s welfare. These points were raised by me and others at the 1998 Pachmarhi Congress chintan baithak (brainstorming session) too. However, over the years the voices in the party against the liberalisation-globalisation project became more and more muted,” he said.

A couple of other senior Congress leaders, who did not wish to be named, were of the view that the liberalisation-globalisation project was more or less kept under check during the 2004-09 Manmohan Singh regime essentially because the government was dependent on the support of the Left parties for survival. “But the 2009 electoral victory delivered the Congress of such dependence and the proponents of the project held complete sway during 2009-14, with disastrous political consequences for the party,” one of them said.

In the two years since the defeat of the Congress in the Lok Sabha election at the hands of the Modi-led BJP, there is some talk in the Congress about a rethink on ideological and political economy parameters. Vayalar Ravi said that even ardent advocates of the liberalisation-globalisation project, such as Chidambaram, had now started speaking in terms of the shortcomings of the project in terms of expanding freedoms for the people at the level of the economic, social and religious life. By all indications, this rethink is the principal reason why the Congress has not got into a celebratory mood in the 25th anniversary of liberalisation. However, this rethink has not led to concrete alternative plans. This is partly because of the general listless manner in which these issues are treated in the party, particularly at the level of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. Thus, politically, the advocates of the liberalisation-globalisation project hold command in both the principal mainstream parties of India.

While these two principal mainstream parties—the Congress as the initiator of the structural adjustment programmes and the BJP as the ultimate combiner of the neoliberal paradigm with fundamentalist exertions—are the prime movers of the liberalisation-globalisation project, its crippling impact on the people, especially the vast number of poor and marginalised, was intensified on account of the succumbing of other important political players to the dynamics of the project. Since 1991, a striking feature of Indian political and social life has been the emergence and growth of social and political forces that have forcefully represented various caste, communal and regional identities. The most prominent among them has indeed been the BJP with its Hindutva identity politics, but there have been several other players who represented various other multifaceted identities. These include prominent representatives of identity politics such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), all of whom have their primary support base is among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and the Most Backward Classes (MBCs). The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has a huge support base among the historically downtrodden Dalit communities, also registered big growth in the post-1991 period.

Most of these parties have held power in many important States at one point of time or the other in the past 25 years. This period has also been marked by rampant pursuit of economic liberalisation and globalisation along with concrete structural adjustment programmes to effect this, which in turn accentuated the hegemony of market forces in everyday lives and over systems of governance. The interests of most of the multifaceted identities represented by these parties have been, more often than not, at variance with corporate-driven and market-oriented development. Yet, the reach and control of market forces have grown substantially. This has happened essentially on account of the fact that the political leaderships of almost all the representative organisations of identity politics have made peace with, and at times submitted comprehensively to, corporate, market-oriented forces.

Dole-driven governance

As this all-round placation and surrender before neoliberal market forces continued apace across dominant segments of the political spectrum, the political leadership’s Independence-eve pledges to the country and its people on core issues such as social justice and equitable distribution of wealth and resources got ignored and even rejected outright at the level of both the Union and the States. Governmental and administrative measures once considered obligatory, such as the advancement of land reforms, protection of forest rights for indigenous communities, and environmental preservation of rivers, hills and other natural resources, were systematically and repeatedly bypassed. Of course, popular resentment came up against such negligence and deviations from time to time. The response of the dominant segments of the political spectrum in such situations, without exception, was to resort to disbursement of doles to different demographic and social groups in the name of one felt need or the other. The assuaging effect created by doles was such that the dominant political spectrum quickly assimilated it to its general political practice. Over the last 10 years this “dole-driven governance” has gathered great momentum, especially at the level of State governments. All parties have resorted to this type of governance irrespective of their political and ideological perspectives. However, the identity politics-oriented regional parties are the front runners in this cynical exercise of power. The inclination to pursue this is also bound to increase as such dole-driven governance and political propaganda based on it are helping these parties reap rich electoral gains. This was evident in the May 2016 Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.

Other secular parties, including the Left led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and recent entrants into the political space such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) who are not driven by motivations of identity politics have also floundered in grappling with the liberalisation-globalisation programme. Especially, in terms of striking a balance between the development requirements of the State or region under their electoral power and protecting socially and economically vulnerable sections of society from the negative impacts of the liberalisation-globalisation programme. The Left Front governments, which held power for considerable stretches of time in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, had sought to implement some alternative policies such as completion of land reforms and promoting people’s planning. Yet, when it came to industrialisation with the help of multinationals and corporates, the track record of Left parties was rated as wanting. This came up most starkly in the context of Singur and Nandigram, where the local population rose in revolt. The CPI(M) sought to address this situation from time to time and brought out a number of theoretical documents in the 2000s in an effort to bring clarity and balance on the issue, but that did not help the Left prevent a massive decline in West Bengal, the State where it was once powerful.

According to Prabhat Patnaik, economist and political analyst, the ambivalence towards globalisation and the lack of a concrete strategy of countering globalisation are felt internationally among Left organisations. He is of the view that Indian communists do not suffer from this ambivalence and have taken a position of clear opposition to globalisation and associated neoliberal policies. Yet, they have not charted a concrete alternative development strategy. The AAP leadership, too, has not been able to evolve alternative development strategies and plans, though many of its leaders admit that the popular resentment against manifestations of the liberalisation-globalisation programme has helped in the growth of the party and its electoral successes. In fact, stray and isolated voices within the Sangh Parivar, belonging to outfits such as the SJM and the BMS, point to the AAP‘s electoral victory in Delhi and the Grand Alliance’s victory in Bihar to assert that sustained pursuit of the liberalisation-globalisation programme could place the BJP, at some point in the future, in the same electoral situation as the one the Congress faced in 1998 and 2014. However, there is also the perception, shared by a number of political analysts and observers, that the damaging implications of the sociopolitical concoction brewed by the Modi-Amit Shah regime in the BJP and its cohorts in the Sangh Parivar using liberalisation-globalisation and Hindutva fundamentalism would have a such a huge crippling effect on the country that it may not be possible to gauge it merely in terms of electoral gains and losses.

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