Saturday, May 31, 2014

Rise of the Right and the New Religion of ‘Development’

Satyaki Roy

The verdict of the 2014 general elections marks an unprecedented rightward shift in public opinion in post-Independence India. It was an emphatic victory for the rightwing forces together with a decisive mandate for one party rule. It appears to be a paradigm shift from coalition politics that defined political combinations in the past three decades.
Parties and forces that lie at the centre and left of the political spectrum are marginalized at historically low levels in the face of this rise of the right. This is also accompanied by sky-rocketing of stock prices and market going bullish with high expectations of inflow of foreign finance that a pro-corporate government is likely to trigger. The country not only voted against the UPA combine that failed to check corruption and inflation but also with a hope of ‘good days to come’ that Modi campaign has successfully transpired. At the national level in fact there had been hardly any real challenge from opposing combinations barring a few tokenism in bringing together loosely linked secular forces. In spite of the fact that in the later phases of election in the northern India Modi did take resort to communal symbolism, engineered opinions using the backlash of Muzaffarnagar riots and invoked the issue of infiltration/migration eying to polls in bordering districts of Bengal and Assam nevertheless essentially the campaign was pitched on a ‘development’ and ‘governance’ plank that eventually de-stabilized all caste and religion equations in north India. The ruling class of India, the corporate elites could successfully integrate their dream of decisive shift towards liberal reforms with that of ‘development’ of the poor and middle classes in the course of the multi-crore campaign during the past three months. The success of the campaign lies in selling of a dream that touches the aspirations of all and could come out victorious by the art of constructing consent. The irony is that people elected a political force that explicitly vouched for corporate led reforms even though the public rage against outgoing government was primarily against policies and outcomes that favoured cronies of neoliberal policies.

Religion of Development

The rise of the right this time is not a ride on Hindu jingoism as it happened earlier rather it is a ride on a new religion namely ‘development’. In the course of election debate there were hardly any reference to social structures such as caste class and gender and it appeared that the promise of development would satisfy all sections irrespective of their social status. The achchhe din would come to all. This discourse of development has emerged as the shared religion of modernity despite the fact that it is very difficult to objectively identify what it is and what it is not. In other words it is a shared belief which relates to some normative injunction but hardly amenable to some objective choice. Building roads and bridges, providing drinking water, opening new schools and colleges, reducing deficits and subsidies, reducing tariffs, promotion of competition and markets, allowing foreign investment in retail, expanding public distribution systems, dispossessing people from land, building new industries and many other contesting claims can be silenced into single window solution of development. The strength of ‘development’ discourse comes of its power to seduce; it fascinates anyone and everyone and deceive the contesting terrains within society by promising a sum of virtuous human aspirations. Durkheim gives a definition of religion that does not invoke supernatural force. It rests on a collective belief on certain indisputable truths that determine obligatory behaviour in such a way as to strengthen social cohesion. Development is the new religion. One can privately dispute its implication but like any religion it leaves little scope for public denial of such shared truth. The discourse on development emerged as the religion of modernity.

The power of the discourse is that it brings to the fore entirely a new problematic and as a result political positions need to be redefined on the basis of this new challenge. Development paradigm is claimed to be transitive in the sense that it acknowledges the possibility of ‘developing’ a space or enhance capabilities of people despite being historically underdeveloped. It notionally recognizes everybody having equal potential to grow and develop. There are in fact no structural reasons that create deep rooted differences within societies. One who is poor today can easily become rich tomorrow; a region underdeveloped is only the past image of a developed region. Hence deprivation of various dimensions has to be looked in a continuity rather than in a framework of causality and confrontation. Underdevelopment in this discourse is nothing but signifying the incomplete state of development and that has nothing to do with structural asymmetries that get reproduced over time. Hence what is required is a technocratic solution to every social problem leaving little space for political contestations. It is as if the goals are pre-defined and immutable and the only job of a social engineer is to fix the problem without invoking much debate. Modi emerges as a doer.

The problem with such a discourse is its totalitarian tendencies. It allows little space to question why regions or certain groups of people are ‘underdeveloped’ in the first place, why some are rich and some are poor and so on. It might talk of poverty alleviation and design policies that improve relative positions of certain targeted groups but leaves no space to create politics of confrontation that unveils the social cause of poverty. And this is precisely the reason why Left should feel suffocated in such a discourse. Radical politics is not about various designs of ‘achche din’ to all but for a different regime altogether that could really make change to the lives of the majority working people at the cost of curbing freedom of profit that few people enjoys at the moment. And hence a radical agenda has to be built upon a radical critique of the ‘religion of development’. The collective belief on a vague notion has to be destroyed and replaced by a collective praxis of creating wisdom that relies on evolving combinations for shared goals of the working people. It is more about commitment to defend the rights of the poor and the working people, the peasantry, the workers in the formal and informal sectors, the petty producers and self-employed the middle class employees who face the onslaught of neo-liberal reforms.

Aspirational India

Many talked about the rise of an aspirational India in this election. Mainly the youth voters are impatient for change, aspiring for a vibrant nation freed from ‘corruption’ and other vices; looks forward for a vision that would provide not only more jobs and better earnings but also respect and dignity. One can easily identify episodes of political turmoil in India in the recent past mostly led by middle class urban youth that were focused on demands having more or less universal appeal: anti-corruption, anti-rape, pro-development and so on. But essentially these movements were articulating rights and obligations of individuals at its core and a liberal normative discourse emerged that one could hardly disagree to. The aspiration that transpired across regions, caste and class is driven by the assertion of a consumer identity submerged in a freedom of deriving pleasure of near homogeneous nature. The emerging socio-cultural middle class is not necessarily at linear relation to income levels. Smart phones, junk foods, satchels, style statements, passions and pains, frustrations and desire of similar nature telegraphs senses across towns, villages, cities, allow them to break barriers of caste and class. These micro-derivatives of consumptions make the deep fissures at the macro picture less visible. And this perhaps makes ‘development’ far more acceptable as a technocratic solution to aspirational India especially when a long drawn motivated transcendental agenda has not been visible in the horizon. It appears that aspirations are pitched at a lesser goal but probably it is potent with a promise of a deeper change in Indian polity. It denounces patron-client relationship in polity and aspires for institutional reforms that would not be responsive to ascribed characteristics brought down through relations and patronage. In other words young India aspires for expanding the realm of civil society. And the apparent disgust to political formations was not actually against politics per se but against a system that highly values reciprocal relations driven by political clientele. Mainstream politics in this context offers a technocratic solution to a socio-political problem close to the idea of ‘development’ and that is the promise of ‘good governance’. But what is actually required is a transparent system which is democratic and accountable to people.

Relevance of the Left

(Wo)men live on dreams and aspirations. And the current phase of ups and downs in Indian politics would be characterized by sharp fluctuations and opinion swings. Volatile opinions are on the rise reflecting the instability of ruling combinations. Ruling combinations would always prefer a bi-polar format under the broad rubric of ‘development’ so that satisfactions of some and dissatisfaction of others would create premises of pseudo-alternatives confined within the hegemonic discourse of development. The relevance of left would be in re-creating the space of a radical agenda. It has to decolonize the imagery of all-encompassing development. The left has to come out with alternative people centric perceptions of well-being that not only re-dresses the economic issues of scarcity but also issues related to increasing risks that the current society and people faces. It has to get rid of itself from the ‘productivist’ determinism and favour social collectives and negotiations that confront big capital. It has to believe and propagate from the core that living standards attained by the few could not be achieved by all in any future society whatsoever might be because such a growth is simply impossible and ecologically unsustainable. Hence restraint to use of energy as well as priorities on social optimal good is an imperative for human societies to come. It has to believe that misery of the working people is a crime that a civilized society must not allow to happen and it should emerge as the voice of the poor and the underprivileged. In other words it has to re-create the discourse of class, reveal the real life contestations that one can hardly avoid and propose concrete policies that unveil the ambiguity of the so called development agenda. Society is increasingly getting democratized through participatory modes and the left has to reclaim spaces for public opinion that makes power accountable to people. It has to come out with a deep commitment of change that others can hardly offer. In sum the relevance of Left in our society unlike other political combinations depend upon how they are able to create discomfort for the ruling dispensation, how they can voice the unheard, how they can think beyond individual gains and losses; how they can create culture of the collective, its immediate actions should also bear the imagery of a future society of ‘associated producers’ that it aspires for. It has to come out with creative possibilities that ensure the greatest good for the majority much beyond what the deceptive religion of development can offer anytime.….and as illusions of ‘development’ die out one would expect  the Left reclaiming the streets in the face of the biggest fascistic onslaught of our time.

The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi.

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