Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2011 > The Neoliberal Revolution

Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 39, September 17, 2011

The Neoliberal Revolution

Friday 23 September 2011, by Anand Teltumbde

Expectedly, the high-pitched media-supported Anna anshan at the Ramlila Ground has come to an end with Parliament passing a unanimous resolution as dictated by Team Anna. The three conditions—that the lower bureaucracy should be within the Lokpal’s ambit, Lokayuktas in States should be brought in through a Central legislation like the Lokpal’s, and a citizen’s charter detailing the responsibilities of government functionaries and the penalty for non-fulfilment should be instituted—were favourably discussed by Parliament but the government initially avoided passing the resolution, retracting its commitment to Team Anna and thus adding one more point to its score of foolishness. Soon thereafter, it retracted again and managed a unanimous resolution in Parliament, which would satisfy Anna Hazare to give up his fast on the 12th day. The media screamed “Anna wins full victory” while Hazare himself cautioned the ecstatic crowds that it was just a half-victory. He announced that he had suspended his fast; his agitation would continue until the Lokpal Bill was passed.

Although the media is still fraught with the Anna euphoria in the absence of some other ‘breaking news’, it is cooling-off on the episode and coming to terms with the fact that it is a long circuitous way to go for getting the Bill passed. In the process ahead whether the Lokpal Bill would really conform to the Jan Lokpal draft, is anybody’s guess. While Parliament’s commitment to the three conditions is of ‘moral’ nature, in the situational context it may be reasonably relied upon. However, since it is linked to the architecture suggested by the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is necessary the final Bill conforms to the latter. As of now there are already nine alternate drafts of the Lokpal Bill, and by the time the Standing Committee considers them, there shall be many more. They will all be considered by the Standing Committee. In all probability, the final Bill that will be put before the House would significantly differ from the Jan Lokpal Bill, architecturally as well as in contents. Will the entire episode then be repeated once more, after months? Going by Hazare’s resolve, the answer is yes; but will that not be dangerous?

Emboldened by the nationwide support he received, he has already announced his next step to take up electoral reforms in demanding inclusion of an option of ‘none-of-the-candidates’ to exert pressure on the system to have ‘good’ people in governance. There is no doubt that he would be hugely supported by the burgeoning middle classes in all his moves, now that they saw in him a second Gandhi. But the point is to ponder whether all these legislative reforms will really arrest the craving for accumulation in the dominant classes, legitimised by the neoliberal ethos; which class interests are driving them; and in what way they will serve those interests.

Government’s Game Plan

THE government’s flip-flops, nay, the series of blunders, has surely facilitated the movement. After tasting success in its high-handed demolition of the Baba Ramdev show at the Ramlila Ground, the government could use force against the crowds that showed up in support of Anna Hazare and possibly demolished it. But it did not do so. If one takes a cursory look at its behaviour right from the beginning of this movement, one could sense an astounding ineptitude of the government in handling it. To start with, it should not have driven Hazare to go on fast. Within hours of sitting on fast, the government began discussing with his team and made a volte-face on its foolish plea that drafting the Bill was the government’s prerogative, in making it a part of the joint drafting committee. If it was to be the joint drafting committee, it could have involved representatives of all political parties and pre-empted future hurdles in the process. Not only that it did not do it, but also it made another somersault by rudely abandoning the exercise, discarding the Jan Lokpal draft under discussion and forwarded its absurdly drafted Bill to the Standing Committee.

When Hazare declared his second spell of fast, the government could easily guess what was in store for it and plan its move in advance. But surprisingly, it became further ludicrous. The Delhi Police, which is controlled by the Central Government, putting unreasonable conditions for the agitators; arresting Hazare and then releasing him, both without any plausible reason; preparing the Ramlila Ground as the venue for his fast; and letting the people‘s frenzy all over the country reach its zenith over 10 long days, is certainly unbecoming of the government of such a large country. It was too foolish for the government to do so. But was it just foolish as it is seen by most people? It was not an isolated act or acts but a long series of foolish actions, which should prompt suspicion of some game- plan of the government. After all, could the experienced politicians like Pranab Mukherjee, Salman Khurshid, or even Kapil Sibal and Chidambaram, who may appear brash but are certainly not brainless, be so foolish collectively to let it happen? And that too under the leadership of our Oxford-Cambridge educated Prime Minister? It appears unlikely.

With hindsight though one can see this series of apparently foolish actions of the government has only served one purpose: allowing long enough time to build up hysteria all over the country against the political class and government. How could the political class or government scheme against themselves? What could be its possible utility to them? What possible purpose could it serve? One may guess, it serves a definite purpose of the government in building a strong public opinion in the country against the government and the political class dabbling in matters of economy, and therefore, in corollary, in favour of free-market reforms. The uncongenial context of the series of scams, untamed inflation, rising people’s movements against various kinds of land grabs, growing unemployment, and so on were exposing the anti-people character of the pro-elite neoliberal policies of the government. The government badly needed a strong voice from among the people that could overcome this anger of the masses and pave the way for further reforms for which the neoliberal Team Manmohan has been craving.

The Anna movement actually has come as a blessing in disguise for the government to accomplish this. Do not make any mistake, the Lokpal is nothing but essentially a regulator which is prescribed by the neoliberal framework to ensure that the free market operates by certain guidelines. This regulator could be conceived to regulate the political and bureaucrat market so as to keep it attuned to the process of deepening neoliberal reforms. As such Manmohan Singh is not averse to the idea of a Lokpal; he would genuinely want it. It is not because he is concerned about corruption; rather, he is not at all. People were bewildered at his silence when scam after scam unfolded and stunned the country. They do not know that for a hardcore neoliberal, corruption is not an issue at all. It is the grease that lubricates the economic growth machine. After all, it is a part of the market mechanism. If people paid some bribe to get 2G licences and caused the ‘notional’ loss to the exchequer of Rs 176,000 crores, it was the perceived price the licensees were prepared to pay for the 2G spectrum in the existing market.

The monumental ineptitude exhibited by the government may only be understood by this possible game-plan. The longer the frenzy over the Lokpal lasts, the better it is to create and deepen the resentment against the politically driven staus quo and pave the way for the market driven reforms. The government is only worried about creating any structure that would impede these reforms and would surely ensure its will prevails even in the face of euphoric demands. It is not really worried or scared of the Lokpal, because it very well knows that that will just be another wheel for its applecart, which will not change its direction. It is only worried that it should not slow it down.

BJP the Net Gainer

THE beauty of India’s parliamentary system is that there is essential similarity between all ruling class parties on most core policy matters and behaviours, whether it is economic reforms or foreign policy or secularism and communalism. They differ at the most in shade. In class terms it may thus be called political oligopoly. They would, however, fight against each other to the hilt to capture power. In the current contention between the ‘civil society’ and the government, the BJP sensed a great opportunity to embarrass the Congress-led UPA and score political points. The pathetic performance of the UPA-II has enlivened its hopes of winning the next elections. On corruption, however, it was not in a position to come clear because of the fear of skeletons tumbling out from its own cupboards, notwithstanding its apologetic defences. It was amusing to watch the TV debates in the wake of this Lokpal imbroglio with the Congress and BJP spokesmen hurling accusations at each other. That rather truly reflected the state of the nation, where corruption is no more an absolute evil but a relative measure. Other regional parties also having tasted meat in some form or other, did not fare any better.

The BJP used every opportunity skilfully in the debate over the Lokpal drafts to embarrass the government, without opening its cards. When Anna Hazare came out on the road, it actively supported him. During his fasts at Jantar Mantar, Raj Ghat and lastly Ramlila, its progenitor, the Sangh Parivar, took an active part in mobilising people. Many people had commented upon its imprint in the picture of Bharat-mata in the form of a Hindu goddess that constituted the backdrop at the Jantar Mantar, strikingly similar to
the one used by the Sangh Parivar in their programmes. Although the organisers belonging to India against Corruption might have had Hindutva proclivities (and some people did accuse a few individuals of that) that led them to put up the Bharat mata there, Team Anna by then had incorporated progressive people like Prashant Bhushan, whose secular credentials could not be suspect. The fact that the comments emerged from outsiders and not from the motley crowd is also significant in understanding the character of the crowd. The slogans of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai and many others reflected the influence of the Sangh Parivar on the crowd.

Although they carried on with their apologetic explanation that the picture of the goddess put up on the stage was actually of mother India and not that of the Hindu goddess, the organisers were embarrassed enough to change it to the picture of Gandhi at the Ramlila Ground. The government’s mishandling came handy for the BJP to embarrass the government. The commen-tators, sans touch with the ground reality, did not see the Anna movement being actively driven by the Sangh Parivar but with every BJP person speaking in unison of her/his support to the movement halfway through testifies to this truth. At many places people have noted the Sangh pracharaks actively mobilising people to participate in their processions and demons-trations. Ashok Singhal of the VHP proudly claimed that they had provided free food to the people gathered at the Ramlila Ground. Insofar as the BJP aimed at embarrassing the government, it accomplished it in full measure. Both ways, in terms of preparing the general public opinion in favour of further neoliberal reforms as the government perhaps wanted, and in the process causing embarrassment to the government, the BJP was the gainer.

Alienation of Masses

WHILE the crowds surged with every passing day in support of Anna, it was mainly drawn from the middle class segment of the population, which could be described as urbane, English- educated, upper-caste, upwardly mobile young people. The frontal organisations of the Sangh Parivar also significantly contributed to the swelling crowd. This is the neoliberal generation of India, most of them having grown up during the last two decades, seeing the Indian economy growing at an impressive rate. They do not share the shame and apology for India that their elders had because of her so-called Hindu rate of growth which refused to transcend the 3.5 per cent marker and visible poverty. The times this generation lived through was marked by the ‘licence-permit raj’, domination of the public sector, rise of the backward castes, and cultural build-up of the lowest strata of Dalits. Although the government policy had systematically been driven towards capitalist development without in anyway denting the feudal classes, and in the interests of bourgeoisie, the Nehruvian rhetoric had succeeded in creating an impression that it was pursuing a socialist path. During the Cold War period, its association with the USSR and consequent annoyance of the US camp also strengthened this impression. The Nehruvian project did aspire to see India emerge as a modern nation shunning its decadent traditions and customs. People tended to intellectually believe that India needed to change its belief-system and culture, and carried a sense of apology for the past. Although it did not make much dent to the practice, nobody, except the hardline Hindu, could dare to justify the caste system, communalism, religious rituals, gods and godmen in public.

The neoliberal era began informally with Indira Gandhi taking the then biggest loan from the IMF of $ 5 billion immediately after her second coming, that was soon identified with Rajiv Gandhi after her assassination, and formally in July 1991 under the Narasimha Rao Government which brought in a systematic reversal in the previous trend. The ‘free-market’ propaganda of the global capital appeared sensible in rescuing the world economy in crisis, which was associated with the statist blockade. The decline of the socialist regimes also boosted the belief. The Indian economy generally began looking up with visible markers of ‘development’ like foreign brands being freely available in the Indian market, foreign models of cars appearing on roads. The reversal of the economic trend created reversal of the apologetic thinking of India. India’s emergence as a major player in the IT sector, Indian professionals in the US gaining prominence, whether as a cause or consequence, rather enhanced the pride in ‘India’. The young people generally blamed their parents’ generation and the ideological baggage of socialism for the recent past and believed in the intrinsic superiority of India, along with all its customs, tradition and belief-system. Caste, communalism, religious rituals, culture and tradition, which were being apologetically spoken about, began to be openly justified in public. This reversal overlapped with the Hindutva ideology. This has been one of the major factors behind the BJP’s rise from oblivion to political power in the 1990s.

These policies being inherently elitist, they helped the typical upper-caste, English and technical educated youth of cities and towns in constituting a rising middle class. It imagined India as an emerging superpower and in its superficial ways identified political and bureaucratic corruption, the overall system of governance, and perhaps the Constitution that dampened ‘meritocracy’ as hurdles in its path. The huge support that the Jan Lokpal campaign received from this segment could be understood in this manner. While they would like freeing India from these evils, this segment, true to its class character, cannot stomach the idea of thorough overhaul of the system, a la a revolution that, say, the Maoists want to bring about. The Maoists also speak in the name of the people, the vast majority of the toiling people who are rendered invisible by the neoliberal onslaught. The social engineering, non-violence, civil society, people’s power are the typical wordy armour of this class which tend to exclude those who are not part of them. It is natural that the lower strata, certainly the Dalits, Adivasis, minorities and artisan castes untied to the dominant castes, do not identify with their show and rather would oppose it even in an aberrant manner.

It is not that they favour the current governance or like corruption. Being the biggest victims of these evils, they would rather want them to be rooted out. But they do see the campaign being driven with class interests inimical to theirs and not particularly aimed at eradication of these evils. The legislation of Acts has been a veritable means to pacify them at various times. Take, for instance, the enactment of the Atrocity Act, which aimed at curbing the incidence of caste atrocities against SCs and STs. What is the reality? Since its enactment, the caste atrocities have rather consistently risen. Take another case of the much acclaimed Right to Education Act. This Act in reality has taken away the inherent constitutional right of the poor children to get education in common schools and rather legitimised the multi-layered education system that was introduced under the neoliberal ethos. The result of it will be soon seen in the huge disempowerment of the entire rural people in general and the SCs and STs in particular. The crowds at Ramlila thought (indeed it is reported as such in a section of the press) that these ‘undeserving’ people do not have brains. They shouted provocative slogans and held placards that reservations were the root cause of all corruption. Some of their key leaders were reported to have been associated with the anti-reservation campaigns. An editor of one Hindi periodical, ‘Diamond India’, Bhanwar Meghawanshi has listed many such provocations in his article ‘Why Are Dalits Not Enthusiastic About Anna’s Movement?’ Provocation apart, there has not been any remote reference to the caste culture which could be easily discerned as the mother of moral corruption or the neoliberal policies of the government which can be directly linked to the kind of corruption that provoked the campaign. The complete tone and tenor of the campaign was slanted against the lower strata of the society which, though invisible on TV channels, constitute the vast majority of this country. Team Anna wanted to dispel this impression in a symbolical manner, again ironically borrowed from the Sangh Parivar’s repertoire, by being offered coconut water to break his fast through two girls, one a Dalit and the other a Muslim. It needed to know that alienation of these communities has gone a little deeper to be dispelled by such a stereotypical symbolism.

Lokpal as a Saviour

NOBODY can oppose the need to strengthen the mechanism to curb corruption in the country. But to believe that something like the new oligarchic set-up of Lokpal will do the magic, just because it worked in Scandinavia and other such countries, is unjustified. Most Acts in most countries are essentially similar but the result they produce is drastically different. It has to do with the cultural paradigm in which they work. There is a case to take cognisance of these issues at this stage. Corruption can be seen as the outcome of the power asymmetry in society; unlike other societies it appears qualitatively endemic to our caste culture with its rigid hierarchies. This culture has produced the doublespeak of the elite, expressing altruistic concern for the people but at the same time continuing with their exploitation. It is an integral part of our culture that distinguishes us as arguably the most corrupt people in the world. India’s corruption ranking by Transparency International also does not catch this reality. The African countries that appear more corrupt than us by those ranks were also basically taught corruption by the Indian migrants. The Swiss Banking Association report of 2008 had indicated (mysteriously it is not being mentioned anymore these days) a whooping $ 1891 billion of Indian black money deposits in the Swiss bank, more than all the black money deposits of all countries in the world. This perhaps best portrays our character. The remedy therefore becomes eradicating socio-economic inequality from the society. The Lokpal prescription does not reflect this diagnosis of the disease and instead focuses on the mere symptom.

Anna and his team believe that 50-60 per cent of corruption can be eliminated if their Lokpal is installed. The entire premise of the campaign is on creating an independent and incorruptible agency, which will curb corruption from the entire political class and bureaucracy. Theoreti-cally speaking, constitution of such an agency itself is next to impossible because in our culture those in public prominence, from amongst whom such a selection would be made, cannot be conceived to be beyond corruption; the honest and sincere people having been thrown out of the arena. Paradoxically, they may be found in Indian jails charged under the Sedition Act. Many people have raised genuine issues in regard to its practicability and efficacy and they cannot be just ignored. The Lokpal or Jan Lokpal will be one more oligarchic institution to be borne by the toiling masses of this country. Take, for example, any of the recent scams and ask a simple question: would the Lokpal have really deterred these scamsters? Would this Bill have prevented the CWG scam, the NTRO scam, the CVC appointment or any of the recent embarra-ssments? Only the incorrigible optimist might answer the question in the affirmative.

The kind of corruption Team Anna speaks about also has its identifiable source but it scrupulously avoided speaking about it. The Global Financial Integrity (GFI) study titled “The drivers and dynamics of illicit financial flows from India: 1948-2008” by economist Dev Kar estimates that out of $ 462 billion siphoned out of India during the last 61-year period, 68 per cent is attributable to the post-reform period of just 18 years. There are many such country studies and acknowledgement from the prota-gonists of neoliberalism itself that confirm that neoliberal policies have caused the new genre of corruption. Instead of pointing at this source, the Lokpal campaign rather effectively diverted the people’s attention from it. Let Anna undertake fast unto death for stopping the economic reforms of the government in order to curb corruption and then see how many people come to Ramlila and what way the state reacts! Instead of identifying the prevailing structure and system as the source of corruption, the campaign is focusing on individuals, forgetting the funda-mental dictum that individual behaviour is largely of the situation and less of the self. This country has been after saviours for far too long. We had many saviours; every caste and community has its own. The middle classes found their saviour in Anna Hazare to cleanse this country of evils. They propose the saviour in the Lokpal. Saviours have come and gone; the only thing that they did was to damage the consciousness of the people that it is they who are the harbingers of change.

Conclusion

ANNA HAZARE, a simple old man, that benevolent chieftain of sorts from a remote village, who has earned a certain reputation by pursuing causes that he believed in steadfastly, has come up at the national level as a miracle man through this movement. But the credit for the miracle halfway through must go to the media that worked relentlessly to build up and project his image. The media, which easily adopts a holier than thou kind of attitude, can itself be marked for corruption in its omissions and commissions. That it is a business, pure and simple, conducted with certain business strategy is a settled question. Even in earlier times, notwithstanding its pretentions to responsibility and ethics, it was a business. But then the business strategy had a dimension called the ‘long term’ which impelled the media to establish its credibility and ethical image, ignoring the lures of the short term. Now, the product life-cycles have become so small that this long term has almost disappeared from the strategy consideration and the short term has overtaken everything. The media therefore unabashedly seeks revenue maximisation through TRP and for that goes to any extent manufacturing news. Taking its social consequences, this very process itself can be condemned as corruption. But who will say this to whom when the media controls the entire communication in our age? The enormous power the media wields can easily create miracles of the kind out of practically anything, if it finds the potential to serve its own interests.

As discussed above, this movement has steered clear of the root causes of the disease of corruption and pitched its prescriptions around corruption as a symptom. It is also indicated that if it had done the former, it would have never got the kind of support it received. Such simplistic and superficial diagnosis of social matters is characteristic of the neoliberal ideology and fits well with the class character of the middle classes who like just a patch-work solution that can bring them incremental benefits while preserving what they already have. Instinctively they are scared of going to the roots of the problem because that would demand a radical overhaul of the system which could threaten their own possession. Taking the aspirations and frustrations of this class, this movement had just the right mix to attract it. Their perception of corruption is constricted; it is limited to the politicians and bureaucracy. They would not, even by mistake, touch the corporations and businessmen who are the main feeders, the fountainhead of this corruption. They would not similarly touch NGOs of various hues that are conduits of the neoliberal ideology and yes, the media.

The greatest success of the movement lies in galvanising the neoliberal middle class, which generally remained apathetic to politics, to make a statement on the road. They have effectively created an illusion that the system could be ‘revolutionised’ by introducing legislative reforms like the Lokpal and changes in the election system or bringing in ‘good’ people in place of bad ones. They attempt to thwart the possibility of revolt which the situation is fast driving people to. The campaign has already prevented people from seeing the real rot in the system; the nature of the disease and diverted their attention to the symptom. Many people called it a revolution, not knowing what stuff revolutions are made of. Well, if it qualifies to be a revolution, we may as well have to call it a neoliberal revolution!

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