Development and neoliberalism

Marketing politicians

Print edition : April 04, 2014

Narendra Modi in a helicopter after a BJP rally at Palace Grounds in Bangalore on November 17, 2013. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Daily-wage workers in a paddy field near Palakkad in Kerala. Between 2004-05 and 2011-12, Kerala spent substantial parts of its fiscal resources on welfare measures such as debt relief to peasants, and a health insurance scheme covering 60 per cent of its population. But the Kerala example does not figure anywhere in the current “development” discourse. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

The current development discourse projecting Modi as the development man has lost sight of the importance of making people agents of change and has got trapped in a paradigm pushed by the corporate-financial elite, which is conducive to the growth of fascism.

WHEN a country opens itself to freer cross-border flows of finance, it has little choice but to adopt economic policies that cater to the demands of globalised finance for otherwise finance would leave its shores en masse pushing it into a crisis. Retaining the “confidence of the investors”, a euphemism for remaining in the good books of globalised finance, becomes its overriding concern. The policies it follows to retain this “confidence” are well known and universal: curtailing taxes on domestic and foreign capitalists, keeping fiscal deficit down to a certain percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP), squeezing petty producers to effect both flow and stock transfers from them to big capitalists, and enabling these capitalists to acquire state property, common property and tribal property for a “song”.

All political formations, which visualise remaining trapped within a regime of globalisation, have willy-nilly got to follow these policies. Hence, no matter who comes to power through the people’s electoral choice, the same policies continue to be followed; indeed, even the programmes of the different “bourgeois” political formations hardly show any difference when it comes to basic economic issues. Politics, in short, gets marked by a “closure”: it ceases to have any transformational promise with regard to the abysmal state of the material lives of the people. A neoliberal economy is necessarily characterised therefore by a “closure of politics”; and this is evident even today in India when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as well have all expressed their basic commitment to neoliberalism on the eve of the elections.

Since political formations in this scenario are not marked by any differences on basic economic issues, their appeal to the people necessarily takes other forms, involving in particular various “marketing” techniques. They compete with one another in “marketing” themselves; and their efforts in this direction become ever more elaborate, such as hiring foreign public relations firms, commissioning pre-election surveys to project themselves, increasing visibility through incessant helicopter and chartered plane rides, and currying favour with the corporate financial elite to get media exposure.

Through these marketing techniques they “sell” themselves by claiming that the pursuit of the same policies gives a better result through their hands; and this result too, like the policies being pursued, is homogenised under one word: “development”. Competition among political formations, especially among their anointed candidates for the top job, now takes a form where these leaders vie with one another to present themselves as adept at accomplishing “development”. Just as breakfast cereals are marketed by how little sugar or cholesterol they contain, politicians are being marketed by how much “development” they are capable of achieving. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken the lead in this, projecting its “commodity” Narendra Modi as the “development man”. And others have followed suit, as inevitably happens in such situations.

The term “development”, needless to say, is reduced in this discourse merely to the growth rate of the gross State domestic product (GSDP). The BJP and its assorted backers, including several non-resident Indian economists, assiduously attempt to establish how impressive Gujarat’s GSDP growth has been, while others dispute the figures; and so the battle goes on.

Here, too, is an uncanny parallel with the world of commodities. Rival commodity sellers typically invoke very elaborate quantitative measurements. Breakfast cereals state with precision what the exact sugar content or cholesterol content in the commodity is. Likewise, the “development” discourse becomes meticulously quantitative. Modi’s superiority as a “development man” is established by invoking figures complete with decimal points.

Gujarat and Kerala: a comparison

A comparison of Gujarat with Kerala, during the period roughly covering the Left Democratic Front (LDF) rule in the latter, shows that their growth rates were more or less similar (7.91 per cent for Kerala between 2004-05 and 2011-12, compared with 8.19 per cent for Gujarat, at 2004-05 prices). But Kerala, during that period, never went out of its way to woo an Ambani or a Tata or a multinational company (MNC). And despite the fact that it was already far ahead of Gujarat in terms of human development indicators, it spent substantial parts of its fiscal resources on welfare measures such as debt relief to peasants (long before the Centre had thought of it and in addition to what the Centre provided), and a health insurance scheme covering 60 per cent of its population. The pro-worker orientation of the LDF was also underscored inter alia by its jacking up the daily-wage rate of coir spinners from Rs.70 to Rs.200 over the period of its rule.

But the Kerala example does not figure anywhere in the current “development” discourse. Gujarat’s growth rate, about whose veracity questions have been raised, was higher by a whisker; and that is all that matters. The current pre-election discourse on “development” unleashed by the BJP, in short, is not concerned with people; it is not concerned with whether they are malnourished, whether the infant mortality rate or the maternal mortality rate are high. It is concerned exclusively with “growth rates” where “commodity Modi” claims superiority.

To say that politicians are being sold as “commodities” with “development”, interpreted as “growth rates” under their rule, as their selling point is not to belittle the importance of the coming elections. On the contrary, the fact that politicians are being sold to the people as “commodities” represents an extremely sinister trend; it is indicative of a shift to fascism. The present development discourse ironically (not all development discourse need be like this) portends fascism. And it is not surprising that the BJP, which is an offshoot of a communal-fascist outfit like the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), has taken the initiative in launching it.

An expensive proposition

This sinister aspect arises for the following reason. Marketing politicians is an expensive proposition, and increasingly becoming so. For instance, Modi’s dashing around the country in a helicopter and his plane rides must be costing a fair packet. Somebody has to pay for it; and typically it is the corporate-financial elite that does. And when it pays, it does so because it expects to rule through him. The tendency of “selling” politicians to the people is simultaneously therefore a move for direct rule by the corporate-financial elite. And fascism was defined by none other than Benito Mussolini as a “merger of state and corporate power”. Modi’s visibility and prominence arise from the fact that he, more than anybody else among the bourgeois politicians, enjoys the backing of the corporate-financial elite and the media controlled by it.

Looking at it differently, in the current situation of economic crisis in the country, when the corporate financial elite faces a potential threat to its position because of the aggravated discontent of the people (including of the urban upper middle class that has hitherto been a beneficiary of the neoliberal dispensation), it projects a person to lead the country, through whom it can wield state power more directly. The marketing of Modi is beneficial for it in several ways: first, Modi’s emphasis on the “poor governance record” of the UPA (he does not even invoke “corruption” the way the AAP does) creates the impression that the crisis is a result not of the pursuit of neoliberalism but of the infirmity of that pursuit. It serves therefore to deflect attention from the ills of neoliberalism.

Second, since his “development” record, such as it is, is supposed to arise from his closeness to the corporate financial elite, the message goes out that the country needs such closeness, that is, it needs fascism as conceived by Mussolini. Third, as the obverse of it, Gujarat under Modi has been quite notorious for its suppression of workers’ rights; lauding its “development” record therefore entails endorsing the suppression of workers’ rights.

Fourth, pushing to the forefront a concept of “development” that involves a close relationship between the government and the corporates amounts also to obliterating all other aspects of the development agenda, such as decentralisation of decision-making and resources to elected local bodies, land reforms, and institutionalising tribal land rights. The development discourse that is being promoted today by the corporate-financial elite through its marketing of Modi as the “development man” is nothing else therefore but a fascist discourse.

The RSS, which has been instrumental in pushing Modi to the forefront of the BJP, with full knowledge that he enjoys corporate backing, is thus making a shift from “communal fascism”, which it had always championed, to fascism proper, without of course abandoning the former in any way. This is a point not often appreciated. The danger of Modi’s coming to power is still seen almost exclusively in terms of what it would mean for the minorities, especially the Muslim minority. But in addition to this, it also means corporate rule, a snuffing out of workers’ rights, and an intensification of exploitation of the working people.

What we have is in some ways a “fast forward” of what happened under classical fascism in the 1930s. Hitler’s fascist movement, for instance, had begun as a petit bourgeois movement; though it had obtained tacit support from some sections of monopoly capital, its rhetoric was Right radical, not just anti-Jewish and anti-Left but anti-big-capital as well. The Nazis allied themselves with monopoly capital truly and properly only after coming to power and, in doing so, sacrificed the core of their own petit bourgeois cadre, the SA and its leader Ernst Rohm, in a bloody purge during the “night of long knives” in 1934. The RSS, an essentially petit bourgeois-based movement, has effected an alliance with monopoly capital for capturing power, not post facto as under classical fascism, but even before the event itself.

Alternative development discourse

The question arises: if Modi’s “development” discourse is a fascist discourse, then how should we conceptualise an alternative development discourse appropriate for a democratic society? The answer must be as follows.

The essence of democracy is that the people should be able to shape their own lives through their collective political intervention; but, as we saw earlier, their ability to do so is constrained by the economic arrangements within which they live. Changing these economic arrangements for realising democracy requires conscious purposive action on their part; it requires, to borrow a term from philosophers, their acquiring agency. Acquiring agency is the means through which people create conditions for being able to shape their lives through their own collective political intervention. The purpose of development in a democracy must be the acquisition of “agency” by the people.

Let us express the matter differently. If development is seen in terms of “production”, then this production must refer not to the production of “things” but to the production of relationships. Development must produce relationships that provide agency to the people. It is “production” in this sense that Karl Marx was referring to when he wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy that “of all the instruments of production the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself”. Marx, of course, was referring to the proletariat, in the context of capitalism; but in societies where the capitalist mode exists within a pre-capitalist setting, the agency in question is not of the working class alone but of the working people as a whole. The point being made however is a different one, namely, that the development of “production” was seen by Marx as the development of this agency.

To be sure, for the working people to acquire this “agency”, they must also have certain basic minimum material conditions of life. Manik Bandyopadhyay, the renowned Bengali novelist, has a short story about the Bengal famine of 1943 which asks the question: why didn’t those dying of starvation snatch food from the shops, where food was plentifully available, to fill their empty stomachs? The answer he gives is that they were too famished even to have the will to raid shops that stocked food. A minimum level of energy is necessary, in other words, even for the people to acquire agency. And in that sense, making a certain amount of “things” available to the people is essential even for their agency. The development of “relations” that are conducive to the agency of the people does require, in short, a certain level of development of “things”, provided these “things” are made available to the people at large.

But the “things” are only a means to an end which is the acquisition of agency. If we imagine (only as a thought experiment) everybody in a society is getting enough to eat because of the orders, say, of a dictator who consolidates his power owing to this instance of benevolence, then such a denouement can still not be called “development”, since it thwarts the “agency” of the people. It is thus not enough that there is simply growth of total output; it is not even enough that the fruits of this growth are widely distributed and accrue in some measure to the people at large. What is required in addition, and above all else, is that they must be the architects of this project itself. Overcoming hunger must be through the active intervention of the people and not an act of “do-gooding” social engineering. “Do-gooding” social engineering, to be sure, is better than “not-do-gooding” social engineering, but it must not be taken to be synonymous with “development”.

The Left traditionally has emphasised the agency of the working people. The devolution of resources and decision-making to elected local bodies, which the Left has consistently supported, was with this objective. Of course, sheer devolution itself is not sufficient for giving people “agency”, since it can easily result instead in a consolidation of existing local power structures (and indeed is more likely to do so). E.M.S. Namboodiripad, well aware of the problem, had argued in the context of Kerala that such devolution, together with the existence of strong mass organisations of the working people, would lead to their empowerment. To what extent this has happened in Kerala and elsewhere, where devolution has occurred in a significant manner, is a separate matter. But the traditional Left perspective in India has always seen the crucial importance of the “agency” of the people. The current development discourse alas has lost sight of it and has got trapped in a paradigm pushed by the corporate-financial elite that is conducive to the growth of fascism.

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