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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 35

Calibrating Change

Tuesday 19 August 2008, by Uttam Sen

Second thinking thrown up by recent discourse could be suggesting a consensual paradigm. This has to do with change in the political economy since the 1990s and its ingress into the nature of both contestation within and absorption into the system. Prior to that, the State (bureaucracy), landed property and industrial capital shared power with no one in possession of a decisive say over the other. Negotiation and contestation for representation were conducted through elections. However, after what was discernibly the liberalisation turning-point, corporate capital decisively plunged ahead, at least of the propertied category (mostly in the States, as compared with corporate power at the Centre). The Centre itself negotiated increasingly more with corporate capital and its pliability with global financial trends became evident in foreign investments into hitherto protected enclaves. Information Technology and telecommunications emerged in bold relief.

These events have been seen surrounding the circumstances of the unfazed Indian system that has not undergone a bourgeois revolution in the Western sense with an equilibrium obtaining between the objectified categories of the pre-1990s. Western mercantilism has been seen as the defining moment for social and economic emancipation. But in India, which a contemporary historian sees as straddling several periods simultaneously, the rural unity of the peasant’s means of production at the bottom of the ladder was being shattered by the primitive accumulation of capital. His pauperisation was discerned in an earlier Western setting when he had survived through migration. These conditions could be imagined in the cases of farmers’ suicides and Nandigram (that is, the virtual expendability of the economic fringe) even while a managerial-bureaucratic-led middle class elite embraced the weltanschauung of modern corporate growth. The paradigm shift has been detected here.

The peasant is no longer a disposable quantity. His security is being vouchsafed by governmental intervention or non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are locating him through, among others means, the modern media. He can be the focus of bargaining and contestation by political activists when he is not himself a party to organised action. A scheme like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme is seen as a typical government intervention, often aided by NGOs. The Right to Information Act gives him access to intelligence that could otherwise be employed to keep him in the dark. The whistle is being blown on the breeding of the “dangerous classes”. Even as the corporate sector eyes land (rather than labour because of the capital-intensive nature of its work) there will be no breaking point because unprompted forces will spring up to prevent it. The talked-about and theorised elimination of the rural class might be stayed because of the restoration of the “unity” between labour and its means of production. In any case, the perception of the classically isolated rural idyll had already been disturbed by the influx of men and material for essential services, public works, trade, marketing and other inputs that have long reached the remotest nooks of the country.

THIS could constitute a challenging proposition for political discourse at a time when terrorism tests human security in its most literal sense. Comment from cautious quarters is factoring in the infrastructure of terrorism from without in its calculus. The State and civil society are abreast of a condition that has large-scale implications, responding to which can reach discourse to the strategic realm. If despite the situation, public awareness has taken the system to such a stage that it reacts both spontaneously and institutionally to the plight of the marginalised, it is entitled to acclaim.

But it has some severe tests ahead. Unsettling possibilities are coming to light, including that of the NREGP being dismantled and cash being doled out to targeted beneficiaries. There are misgivings from some quarters that guaranteed employment and income is not enthusing the participants into making adequate contributions. It would be interesting to follow the course of the debate and its follow-up. Will public opinion be strong enough to prevent the dismantling of an enterprise that requires fine-tuning rather than disbandment and what of the interventions that are supposedly keeping a larger structure in place?

At another level, Indian and China closed ranks on safeguards for livelihood security, somewhat ironically threatened by import tariffs on developed world agri-products. The World Trade Organisation talks at Geneva broke down because the US was not agreeable to the India-led position. The devil turned out to be in the detail. The US is not in principle opposed to livelihood security but sees negotiation on the terms of agricultural trade as a commercial issue. The interesting point is that India and China were closer in their perceptions owing to their own objective conditions.

The consensual paradigm both at home and abroad depends for its success on the application of the virtues of fact or reality, that is, truth as we know it, through impartial logic to the circumstances of the moment. The market was supposed to rule on level playing fields where these conditions are assumed to have been established. The solutions are discernible but only elusively so because the premises are evidently not based on sufficient proof. A contemporary historian has dwelt at length on his insight that people in India co-exist at different civilisational stages. Conditions for some do not necessarily correspond with those among others within, arguably even when they do with societies outside. That would probably be the most credible way of explaining a position at home that is so near that of another player at a global dialogue where India happens to be at the receiving end. The widely-circulated reports of anarchy in India’s western neighbourhood and a ruling cabal’s persistence in exporting subversion to India are now a recognised part of the conundrum, meaning that socio-economic safekeeping is not the only security dimension either. Calibrating change in such a situation can be intricate and cuts out the task for the media as the disseminator of the process.

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