Pre-modern project

Published : Jul 01, 2011 00:00 IST

The Ramdev episode did not just underscore our lingering pre-modernity; it expressed something infinitely more disturbing: that neoliberal India, far from countering pre-modernity, is actually strengthening it. - VIRENDER SINGH NEGI

The Ramdev episode did not just underscore our lingering pre-modernity; it expressed something infinitely more disturbing: that neoliberal India, far from countering pre-modernity, is actually strengthening it. - VIRENDER SINGH NEGI

The idea that a Lokpal will end corruption is flawed because in a capitalist set-up the Lokpal office will itself become an abode of corruption.

IN the entire discussion on the episode of Baba Ramdev's fast, one aspect has not received the attention it deserves, namely, that even if we ignore Ramdev's Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) links and the issue of his personal integrity, it still remains the case that the Ramdev project is fundamentally anti-democratic, anti-secular and a disturbing throwback to our pre-modernity. This is because while everybody in a democracy has a right to hold views on what is good for the nation and to fight for their realisation, this fight must not violate two conditions; and Ramdev violated both.

First, a fast-unto-death may be justified as a weapon of struggle in certain cases of personal victimisation, but it cannot be used legitimately as an instrument for demanding specific public policies. As there is a constitutionally stipulated mechanism for the determination of such policies, any attempt to force such policies upon the nation through a fast-unto-death, no matter how benign the intent, amounts to an abrogation of the Constitution, and hence of the democratic order guaranteed by it.

And Ramdev does not just want specific public policies; he even wants a change in the Constitution so that the people directly elect the Prime Minister, an echo of the Bharatiya Janata Party's earlier demand for a presidential form of government. Settling such vital issues under the Damocles' sword of a fast-unto-death is fundamentally anti-democratic. (Imagine what would happen tomorrow if some religious leader went on a fast-unto-death demanding the disputed Babri Masjid land for his constituents.)

Secondly, it is illegitimate on the part of anyone to mobilise people for a political end, namely, demanding a particular set of public policies on the basis of non-political loyalties that he or she may command. If a person commanding the loyalty of millions of devotees for religious, spiritual or other reasons uses that loyalty to mobilise them behind political demands, then we have a subversion of the secular polity. Ramdev's political mobilisation certainly owes much to the loyalty he commands as a yoga teacher. If the dangers of such mobilisation are not emphasised, then this will provide a carte blanche to religious leaders to impose their particular agendas upon the nation, undermining the country's secularism.

The BJP, an offshoot of the RSS, does not set much store by a secular polity. But what has been surprising is the attitude of the government. True, Ramdev's fast was terminated by the government, but not before it had deployed four senior Cabinet Ministers to appease the Baba, even to the point of meeting him at the airport when he arrived in New Delhi to start the fast. If, instead of appeasing him, the government had opposed the Baba's plans from the beginning and placed before the people a perception of the threat to democratic order that such fasts-unto-death for enforcing specific policies and even amending the Constitution posed, then the denouement would have been better than what it has turned out to be in at least three distinct ways.

First, the violence that occurred when the fast was terminated, after having been allowed to start, would have been prevented. Second, a public debate on the wisdom of such actions would have been started, which would have raised democratic consciousness all around. And third, a halo of martyrdom would not have been provided to the Baba, the dangers of whose project have still not been explained to the people despite his fast having been terminated. The opportunism of the present government becomes clear if we ask ourselves the question: would Jawaharlal Nehru have rushed four Cabinet Ministers to appease a Baba who was on a Constitution-amending spree?

Devaluation of politics

The fact that the government has fallen so low is, paradoxically, not despite its economic success but because of it. The economic trajectory being followed is one which necessarily embroils the entire bourgeois political class in corruption. It devalues politics, and hence leaves the field open for all kinds of babas, swamis, godmen and self-styled messiahs, who are accountable to no one and who are not even themselves necessarily free of corruption, to move in and impose upon the state their own agendas that have no social sanction. The devaluation of politics is necessarily an attenuation of democracy and a throwback to the pre-modernity against which our freedom struggle was fought.

But how is corruption linked to our economic trajectory? What is called corruption refers broadly to two kinds of payments. The first consists of payments for services that are illegitimate because such services are not supposed to be commodities at all, that is, they are not supposed to be bought and sold in the first place. And the second consists of payments in excess of the prices, which happen to be fixed for certain goods and services, to obtain excess amounts of them, that is, in excess of what would have otherwise accrued under the system of rationing (which accompanies fixed prices).

If I have to pay a bribe in order to get a telephone connection for which I have already deposited what is legally necessary, then that is a case of corruption of the first kind. This is because the service rendered to me by the person taking the bribe, of giving me a telephone connection, is not supposed to command a price, that is, it is not supposed to be bought and sold at all. On the other hand, if my child does not get admission into college (that is, is rationed out), but I get him admission by paying an amount over and above the admission fee, then that is corruption of the second kind. Most cases of corruption can be classified under either one of these categories. (The 2G scam corruption clearly belongs to the second category).

But the basic point is this: underlying the concept of corruption there is a distinction between two spheres, a sphere of free commodity exchange and a sphere outside of it. We do not talk of corruption in the realm of free commodity exchange. Corruption arises when in the sphere designated to be outside of free commodity exchange a price is charged as if it belonged to the sphere of free commodity exchange. The elimination of corruption simply means that the boundary between these two spheres must remain intact, must not be transgressed. Is this possible?


One of the deepest insights of Karl Marx was that under capitalism there is a pervasive tendency towards commoditisation, that is, there is a tendency for everything to become a commodity. The boundary between the sphere of free commodity exchange and the sphere outside of it is forever being pushed outwards. But if this boundary is legally fixed, then this pushing outwards occurs in violation of the law, and thereby becomes corruption. In the pre-neoliberal era, or under what is called the license-quota-permit raj, there was a palpable legal fixing of such a boundary. This provided an easy explanation of corruption (on the grounds that the boundary was wrongly and arbitrarily fixed) and created the impression that if this boundary was pushed out through neoliberal reforms then corruption would disappear or at least get minimised.

This argument missed two obvious points: first, no matter how far outwards the boundary is pushed, a legal boundary will always have to remain, for a society in which literally everything is for sale is simply inconceivable (which, given the pervasive tendency towards commoditisation under capitalism noted earlier, points to the transitoriness of the system).

To see this point, imagine, for instance, what would happen if examination results became a commodity. And if any such legal boundary remains, then the immanent tendency under capitalism to push it outwards will necessarily still generate corruption. Secondly, the force with which the tendency to push the boundary outwards beyond its legal delineation operates depends upon the degree to which money-making becomes respectable, that is, capitalist values become pervasive. Neoliberal reforms have made such values pervasive; the force with which corruption has entered our public life has accordingly multiplied. And since the ultimate responsibility for the executive enforcement of the existing legal boundary of free commodity exchange lies always with the political personnel of the state, the logic of capitalism makes these personnel, who comprise the bourgeois political class, the most significant practitioners of corruption.

The idea that corruption can be weeded out by simply making it legal is flawed not just ethically but also analytically, because a boundary for the terrain of commodity exchange must always remain, and in a world of pervasive capitalist values this would still breed corruption. For instance, even if medical college admission is made a commodity sold to the highest bidder, this will still not end corruption in medical colleges since examination results will then be surreptitiously bought and sold.

Likewise, the idea that a mere Lokpal Bill will end corruption is flawed because in a world of pervasive capitalist values the Lokpal office itself will become an abode of corruption: as a senior Supreme Court judge explained recently, in the current environment the desire for post-retirement sanctuaries (which are at the government's discretion) makes sitting judges try to please the government through judgments in its favour.

The point is not that the scale of corruption is absolutely invariant to all measures and can never be decreased; it certainly can, and to that extent legislation against corruption is not to be pooh-poohed. The point is that the entire discussion of the spreading capitalist values, the passion for money-making, the intrusion of commoditisation into every sphere of life, all of which are integrally linked to our current economic trajectory, has receded into the background in the current discourse on corruption and in its place all kinds of facile quick-fix solutions are being sought to be rammed down the throat of the nation by parvenu godmen and self-styled messiahs; and the bulk of the political class opportunistically acquiesces in their doings, to the detriment of democracy.

Impact of capitalism

The fact that our current economic trajectory with its uninhibited emphasis on money-making delegitimises the terrain of politics by corrupting the bulk of the political class and thereby opens the door to political intervention by babas and swamis is germane to another basic debate, which has raged for long and which relates to the modernising impact of capitalism in societies such as ours.

Capitalism is usually seen as a powerful modernising force; indeed many in India have supported neoliberal reforms on the grounds that the unfettered capitalist development they unleash will hasten our march to modernity. Their argument, reminiscent of the old dual economy models, has been that our economy and society consist of two parts: a modern capitalist part and a traditional pre-capitalist part; as the former develops rapidly, the weight of the modern segment increases and, correspondingly, society gets progressively modernised.

The Left, ever since the days of Lenin, has rejected this position. It has argued that in countries embarking late on capitalist development, the bourgeoisie allies itself with feudal and semi-feudal elements and, hence, far from dealing the requisite decisive blows against the old order, reaches a modus vivendi with it that impedes the march to modernity; the capitalism that develops on this basis is itself enmeshed with pre-modernity, bearing the marks of the soil in which it is rooted. The Left view has been that it is only those social forces that seek to transcend capitalism which can also carry the country to modernity.

If the rapid gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate of the country, its new-found prestige in the international arena and the globalisation of its elite had created an impression that the Left position was wrong, the Ramdev episode should dispel it. The episode did not just underscore our lingering pre-modernity; it expressed something infinitely more disturbing, namely, neoliberal India, far from countering pre-modernity, is actually strengthening it. We have seen a revival of khap panchayats and now we have had the spectre of a Baba demanding policies and constitutional amendments of his personal choice through a mobilisation of his disciples.

Recent developments, in short, suggest something that goes even beyond the usual Left position. The development of capitalism within a neoliberal regime, far from overcoming pre-modernity, is actually strengthening it on a new basis. The discrediting of the bourgeois political class, itself a fallout of the neoliberal strategy, is allowing babas, swamis and other interlopers, typically steeped in a pre-modern outlook, to appropriate the political space of the nation at the expense of actors envisaged by our modern Constitution to be occupying it.

The Anna Hazare episode

The Anna Hazare episode was itself quite problematical from this point of view: the government's agreement with him for ending his fast meant an implicit devaluation of parliamentary institutions, though it covered only the drafting of a Bill, which at least had to be submitted to Parliament for ratification. (The devaluation consisted in taking this ratification for granted.) With the Ramdev episode, the attempt of interlopers to devalue constitutional institutions is brazen.

The point here is not to apportion blame or to vilify anyone but to capture a dialectic that is taking the nation in a dangerous direction. One can get trapped within this dialectic, in which case the only choice will be between a Ramdev-like figure on the one hand and a corrupt political class on the other. To do so, however, is only to carry forward this dialectic. The point must be to overcome it, to rise above it, so that the choice is no longer confined to one between a corrupt political class and a set of pre-modern interlopers.

For this, it is necessary that all the sane and honest elements within the polity should come together, both to fight corruption, and the neoliberal regime underlying it, and also to prevent our democracy and secularism, which have been our biggest achievements in the last two millennia, from being undermined by the intrusion of babas and swamis into the political arena. The Left, which is by and large free of corruption, opposed to neoliberalism and committed to modernity, will have to play a major role in this struggle.

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