Monday, January 25, 2010

A Tale of Two Chief Ministers

By Badri Raina

From Badri Raina's ZSpace Page, January 24, 2010



Long years ago, at the conclusion of my doctoral work in America, pressure was put on me to stay and teach there. Twice, in fact. Each time I made excuses. Pressed hard to explain I had the following to say:

--admittedly, staying on there would yield me every facility to write half a dozen books, but once outside the confines of academe, what would I be a part of? By ‘what' I meant what sort of active political involvement. It did seem to me that the "end of history" thesis justly applied to the United States. With few resistance movements on the ground, post-Vietnam, only centrist politics remained available. And who doesn't know that the Republicans and the Democrats are, all said and done, tweedledum and tweedledee, espousing at bottom one and the same class interest. There has rarely been an occasion when American history in the contemporary moment seemed to offer any major openings beyond what has always obtained—individualism, market economics, puritan exceptionalism, a commitment to "just" warfare, and a near-universal abhorrence of socialist thought and of any skepticism with respect to god's purposes.

In contrast, I pointed out, history in the Indian sub-continent is far from finished. In proportion to the myriad contestations—social, cultural, economic, political—agonisingly real choices confront thinking Indians, and even those that desire not to make them end up declaring choices one way or another. I shared the imperative I felt to be in the middle of those histories-in-the-making. And so I have remained.

One obvious evidence of what I mean is furnished by the ideological spectrum that organized Indian politics spans, even as in the last two decades strenuous official attempts have been made to say that, having liberalised the economy, history ought to be understood to have ended here as well. No amount of peroration to concomitantly reduce Indian politics, America-like, to a two -party system where the so-called two parties rotate as surrogates from election to election thus succeeds.

Notwithstanding the enlightened "nationalist" endeavours of ruling class ideologues to unite the nation around the market, and then around the global ruling class, contradictions within an acutely inegalitarian and plural Indian polity remain sharp and imbued with precipitate consequence. All that despite also the for-now decline in the electoral fortunes of the Indian Left.

Needless to emphasise that such a cauldron of contentions renders cosy concealments even among the beneficiaries of liberalization difficult. Often enough, as electronic talk shows often demonstrate, civility is shattered by the strength of challenge from the opposite camp, and stakes are foregrounded as fatally real. Dialogy is disfigured by contradiction, and the art of "conflict resolution" is rendered null. Habermas is everywhere relegated by Marx.

And, among the Intelligentsia there are those who seek a closure, and those who seek to push the frontiers of "consensus" to enable new histories to emerge and fructify.

That necessarily means that any standardized evaluations of public figures and their record in and out of office refuse to gel nicely into any trans-ideological or trans-national agreement. One man's meat remains another man's poison—within homes and neighbourhoods, social communities, professional and non-governmental organizations, reaching, however clandestinely, even into sections of the bureaucracy and the political power structures. What some laud, others vilify, and vice-versa, all according with where they find themselves placed.

Indeed, something of this contentiousness seems to have found expression in America only at the conclusion of a black man's ascension to the Presidency, as something of the riven content of Indian politics comes to afflict its composure. More of that another time.


The sharp polarization of stance among Indian opinion-makers has recently nowhere been more in evidence than in the way in which comment has been offered with respect to two contemporary political figures—Jyoti Basu and Narendra Modi., one a communist and the other a fascist, both obliged to do their life-work within a liberal-democratic Constitutional regime, interpreted severally by either.

Jyoti Basu, now sadly late (and the ‘sadly' should tell you where I stand on the issue), was elected to seven consecutive terms to the West Bengal Assembly, and headed as chief minister a coalition of twelve parties for an unprecedented 23 years in office.

So what did he achieve for his people (as you will see, there is no consensus on who constitute the "people" in question here) during that marathon stint as head of government?

As an approving voice, I would list the following:

--that he truly became a lodestar for secular politics in India, translating the stipulations of the Constitution into realized reality on the ground; not a single Sikh in West Bengal was harmed after the carnage that took place in Delhi, Kanpur and many other cities following the murder of Indira Gandhi at the hands of her Sikh body guards whom she had refused to change for non-Sikhs despite advice to the contrary; not a single Muslim was touched likewise after either the Babri Mosque demolition in 1992 when anti-Muslim killings spread like wild fire, or at the time of the Gujarat massacre of 2002;

--that he implemented agrarian reforms of an unprecended scale and finality, giving ownership or permanent tenancy rights to millions of peasants and share-croppers over millions of acres of farm land previously owned by Bengali Jotedars; as a consequence, raising agricultural output by an unheard of 7.4% and turning West Bengal into a food surplus state, and taking "people" in the hinterland away from any temptation to go the Naxal way;

--achieving grass-roots democracy through the Panchayati Raj system, a dispensation that enthused the late Rajiv Gandhi enough to adopt the measure as an all-India innovation through amendments (73rd and 74th) to the Constitution; although, to this day, only in West Bengal have elections to the Panchayats been held with unflinching regularity;

--setting an example of probity in office that remains without parallel, a rather mind-bogling achievement when you think how power corrupts, especially in India, and over 23 years at the helm;

--enhancing power generation from an abysmal low to a near-surplus status;

--respecting labour laws and the rights of labour even at the cost of disenchanting investors.

And, yet, it is possible for other opinion-makers to say that Jyoti Basu ruined West Bengal. And you can guess why: because his tenure saw the flight of industry from the state, since his governance over the years made the demand that statutory labour laws be protected, which include the right to strike.

Clearly, in this estimation, the people who returned him to office interminably over two decades or more do not here constitute "West Bengal" or qualify as custodians of its welfare. Only the urban elite are seen to represent West Bengal, and however miniscule they may be, to the extent that he did not go out of his way to pamper their dreams, Jyoti Basu unambiguously ruined his state.

That said, secularism, prosperity on the farms, social stability and harmony, grass-roots democracy, or the stunning fact that Dalits in West Bengal own some 54% of the land—none of these can be counted as achievements. Indeed it is said that farmland prosperity has been one of the worst outcomes of his reign, since Bengali farmers will not part with their fertile land for industrial purposes.

Besides, you do not get to see impressive, world-class roads in Kolkata, or shopping malls that may justly compare with those in other cities. And does it matter that those other metropolises may have become dens of crime and sectarian violence, and nightmares for the commuter? Or rape capitals of the world? Looked at from some distance, they do shine after all.

Remarkably, the disapproving voice does not pick on two indices where Jyoti Basu's rule may justly be seen to have failed, namely, in educational and health reform. But, even if his record here had been as outstanding as in the areas I have listed, it is to be doubted that the disapproving voice would have been much dented. Who cares for education and health for the masses anyway?

In the ultimate analysis, it is the good of the profit maximiser that matters, stupid. And nothing good can be said about governance that does not keep him foremost.


Which is, after all, why Narendra Modi in Gujarat draws the approval of the voices that disapprove of Jyoti Basu!

--Does it matter that the Modi regime has the blood of some thousand innocent Muslim lives on its hands?

--does it matter that Modi has torn the secular principle of the state (mandated by the Supreme Court of India as an unamendable, "basic" feature of the Constitution) to smithereens?

--does it matter that Gujarat's cities and towns have effectively been riven and partitioned into dominant Hindu majority metropolitan areas and decrepit and frightened Muslim ghettoes?

--does if matter that Gujarati Muslims after the carnage of 2002 are often obliged to masquerade under Hindu names to have any hope of obtaining jobs?

--does it matter that Modi's police force has been provenly engaged in fake encounters of innocent Muslims, dime a dozen?

--does it matter that the Modi government has done everything to vitiate and stymie the labours of sundry investigative agencies, including those set up directly under the aegis of the Supreme Court of India, to bring the guilty men to book?

--does it matter that Human Rights activists and agents have often to fear for their lives at the hands of Modi's goons?

--does it matter that, thanks to piling evidence, the skeletons in Modi's murderous cupboard are now reaching for his throat, no less, as he is due to be summoned for questioning?

--does it matter that most of his claims of having brought water and development to the hinterland have been shown to be fake?

--does it matter that, far from encouraging inclusive democracy at the grass roots, his own party men and women accuse him of ruling like a czar, to the disregard of party mechanisms?

No siree; none of this matters, you see. What does matter is that a line of profit maximisers are gleeful at investing in Gujarat because no impediments exist—no unions, no labour laws, no bureaucratic bottle necks, no hindrance to appropriating fertile farm lands, no social unrest; the most perfect peace of the graveyard, such as made even the exemplary Rattan Tata say in 2007, "you are stupid if you are not here." The deader the skeletons the better fodder they make.

And the other day, the great Amitabh Bacchan, India's most successful popular film icon, found himself saying after his recent meeting with Modi that no, none of all that matters so long as Modi grants him tax exemption for his latest film. Besides, having seen broad roads and lush greenery, it is clear that Gujarat, as a part of the Indian story of advancement, is doing more than its share.

And, more honest and upfront approvers say that in having consolidated the politics of aggressive Hindutva, Modi has contributed greatly to strengthening Indian "nationalism" and in warding off "Islamic Jihad" and "terrorism" thereof. Does it matter that no country thinks Modi fit enough to be given a visa for travel abroad?

Remarkably, whereas Jyoti Basu's secular Bengal hardly ever saw any "terrorist" onslaught, Modi's strongly Hindu Gujarat has been a repeated victim! The He-Man Modi notwithstanding.


Behind these evaluations and counterevaluations, then, lies the story of India's unfinished nationhood and un-concluded democracy. The finishers are unable to finish it enough, and those that would open it up to embrace the "people" (some two-third or more Indians who spend less than a dollar a day) remain engaged in a mortal struggle to question its presiding definitions and claims, and to force it to acknowledge the betrayals of its promise.

A fascinating, even if much of the time, brutal contest unfolds each passing day—on the street, in offices, courts, and among the dispossessed in the "hinterland."

Where greed propels a rapacious minority to appropriate governance every which way they can, need awakens millions to make breaches in that sonsolidation.

Depending on which side your bread be buttered, you are either with Jyoti Basu or with Narendra Modi.

And no syllables of impeccable, convent school English can for now paper over that combat.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why do extremes unsettle our comfortable middle ground?

By Badri Raina

(Excerpts from Badri Raina's Znet Article)

Reading what our well-intentioned prime minister said in his address the other day to Speakers of sundry parliaments from the Commonwealth countries, the Bard sprang to my mind, as he so often does in so many contemporary contexts.

To wit, the otherwise piety-ridden Manmohan Singh expressed deep apprehension at the vile attempts of some "extremists" to cause unacceptable imbalances and dethronements in the orderly project of the peaceful enhancement of mainline developmental concerns, piloted no doubt by men in power who know best.

So it struck me, not for the first time, how little a part of that enhancement seemed, despite politic pronouncements from time to time, meant to touch the lives of the "poor naked wretches" of whom India still comprises some two thirds of its population.

It struck me that none of those politic pronouncements ever carry the agonized charge of Lear's "O, I have taken too little care of this!" Or the least resolve to "take physic" inorder to "feel what wretches feel."

It also struck me how negligible a recognition obtains in our power structure of the "extreme" nature of the mainline model of development so dear to our prime minister, since what else but "extreme" would you call a model that fattens the fat all the time and impoverishes the impoverished all the time as well? For example, just today's bitter news in India: sugar will now sell at Rs.50/- a kilogram! So no longer even the comfort of that warm and sweet cup of tea for some 70 or more percent of Indians as the cold solidifies into needles and pins.


Friday, January 8, 2010

A Yuppie entrepreneur chides his old teacher

By M. L. Raina

All my rage is just an encrustation,
On the basic fact of my frustration.
So lectures my muse without even a comma,
That I am suffering from an infantile trauma.
I fancied a car, a house and a kitty,
But never could acquire them, O what a pity.
That is why I rave, and scowl and sulk,
To see my neighbour’s prosperous hulk.
For his well-earned riches and his wife I pine,
He thinks I’m a scavenging upstart, swine.
Instead of wallowing in jealousy’s shit,
Can’t I do what he did to make myself fit?
Into his circle of the ‘honest’ and the ‘pure’,
By simply taking to Darwin’s cure.
Damn my Freud, my cussed dirty Marx,
The likes of me are nothing but petty, petty sharks.
He wants me to rise above pettiness and hate
And see for myself how little I create
To keep me alive, a whiny old crone,
An ungrateful grumbler, a parasitic drone.

An aggrandizing critic, a probing prying rat,
An intellectual worm with vision of a bat.
Discontented natterer, disaffected bore,
A tubercular loud-mouth, syphilitic whore.
If I must reproach him, I should be polite,
Pickle into humour all my spite.
Be a little indulgent; turn a Nelson’s eye,
Remember he is pampered by the old man in the sky.
He sends him all his bounties, and I am being crass,
Not to love his chosen, the privileged middle class.
He is marching forward, he is forging ahead,
And I mourn for life that my wishes never led.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Culture, Now

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

(The following is a reconstruction, and translation from Punjabi, of the lecture given on 20 November 2009 at a seminar organized by Pragativaadi Sabhyacharak Manch, Chandigarh)

When I received the programme chart for this seminar a few days ago , I discovered that its theme would be India's current policy on culture. I wondered if I was qualified in any way to speak on such a matter. The wonder has by no means lessened, but it has prompted me to formulate a few basic questions.

The first question, expectedly, is whether India currently has any policy on culture. Assuming that it has, and assuming also that by India's policy is meant the government's policy, one may ask whether it fairly and adequately represents the wishes and needs of the Indian people at this moment of history. One may go further and even ask whether culture should at all be subject to policy-making.

On the other hand, the brute fact is that whether or not there is a formulated policy on culture, the existence of a government policy - unstated, fragmentary, virtual, but for all that no less real - cannot be denied. Hence, the most important question must be located in the nature of the relationship between culture and government policy. And I think that question could be phrased thus: Is the government's ostensible policy on culture to be treated as expressive of the government's real stance on culture or as a disavowal of its real stance? Within the larger embrace of this question, one may also ask whether or not, and to what extent, the official policy on culture might actually function as a screen for interventions, both active and passive, of an altogether different order and complexion.

How should culture be thought? Should it be thought the way it has been thought, and continues to be thought, in the terms of Western anthropology, as something out there with more or less clearly marked boundaries and available as an identifiable set of practices, values, beliefs, attitudes, etc? As our very own other with reference to which we identify, flatter and curse ourselves? Or should we take Fredric Jameson's way and move on along that way? Is it not time to dump the old imperial-anthropological notion of culture when, driven by the fantasy of a global empire, capitalism now invades all culture? Urban planning, rural decay, management practices, corporate finance, land use policy, media spectacle, accountability of public servants, and extreme complication to the point of opacity in the spheres of law, finance and technology – can these be any longer kept out of considerations of culture?

We have been witness to universities mindlessly renouncing their true vocation, the pursuit of critical thinking, and reinventing themselves instead as factories of 'human resources' for an economy hurtling from crisis to crisis. More recently, projects have been undertaken to 'conserve' the Punjabi cultural heritage by video-recording the folk dances and songs (it is another matter if the dancers and singers happen to be university students). Do not such attempts to 'conserve' culture constitute a disavowal of the imperative to think culture in these difficult times? Moreover, by taking recourse to such conservation projects, do we not confine culture to enclaves? If we believe we can 'save' our culture by consigning it to the magnetic/laser tracks on discs, we are being cowardly and dishonest in the face of the challenge to think. Loads of disks may bury our guilt but cannot deliver us from it. Archiving cultures in transition, documenting histories in the making demands much more than making casual and fragmentary recordings of the simulacra of heritage for consumption in the global market of cultural exotica (which includes 'roots').

The urge to musealize culture can be an evasion of the obligation to understand culture as history-in-the-making. By musealizing culture, we could be gleefully cooling our feverish conscience even as we continue to look away from the reality that is happening and changing all around us.

Jalal Toufiq, the thinking film-maker from Lebanon, speaks of the withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster. What if in our case culture has withdrawn past a long and subtle, and not so subtle, but surpassing colonial and postcolonial disaster? Could it be that we have failed to apprehend the withdrawal and so continue to make such a song and dance about a culture that may actually be only a 'counterfeit' culture, without our even beginning to be aware of it? Perhaps our obsession with a 'counterfeit' culture has something to do with our wish to sleep through the disaster. Why else should we locate culture in the past alone? Are France, Britain, Italy and US cultural orphans?

We must approach culture as our contemporary moment, which of course does not preclude history. History has an inevitable bearing on the present, but that bearing is far from self-evident. What we arguably need to practice, with all possible rigour, is an archeology of culture,which may not only enable us to understand our contemporary moment but also make us its true contemporaries. And only then shall we be able to appreciate why culture matters so much today.

As Paolo Virno has indicated, the defining tendencies of culture in these times are performativity and virtuosity. Capitalism has already arrived at the point where it uses technology to source our physiological, cognitive and affective faculties. Martin Heidegger's dark prophecy that technology would one day make the human being its “standing reserve” is being more than realized as our very faculties become the materials of production and reproduction with finance capitalism transforming into posthuman capitalism. Both inner and outer space are being reterritorialized under the new empire of global capital. Amidst such a scenario, when culture becomes the most profit-laden resource, what does an obsession with culture as something located in the past and musealized in sacred enclaves signify, if it does not signify strategies of deflection and self-deception?

It is interesting, and perturbing, that even resistance is being harnessed as a resource by global capital. The spaces of genuine dissent shrink as 'private' media yields to corporate media which, in actual practice, is only the unofficial and obverse face of official media. The confusion and erasure of boundaries can be seen in the media professionals donning the costume of the public intellectual on the one hand and, on the other, some 'intellectuals' flirting promiscuously with the media in the managed carnival of the spectacle. Of course, digital spaces of resistance are also emerging, but in a country like ours, they remain – at least for now – enclaves of a counter-elite, which is not the same as non-elite or subaltern. As a result, the range and human depth of public discourse are shrinking even as channels and blogs proliferate wildly. Maybe we could take that seriously as an index of the crisis of thinking.

Hence the imperative to problematize culture as a practice and as a conceptual category. Culture is not a given. It is not an entity, but a becoming, a process, an apparatus in perpetual mobility. And today more than ever, it is a critical becoming, achieved – though always precariously – through a becoming-critical. We must beware of doing anything that would culturally disenfranchise anyone, much less whole groups of people or entire periods of time. Indeed, the whole question of the relationship between culture and community requires to be revisited. The lessons of fascism are yet to be assimilated even intellectually in our part of the world. Our intellectuals continue to sing worshipfully of their ideas, howsoever muddled, of culture as some perfumed enigma at the inscrutable of particular communities while they turn a willfully deaf ear to inspired interrogations of the received ideas of the community such as in the writings of Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Roberto Esposito and Jean-Luc Nancy. The tendency to read community, polity and poetry as synonyms must be combated by investing critical knowledges in the field of culture and by pursuing a rigorous lucidity. If at all culture must be located, it can only be in the chimerical spaces between the individual and the community, and between the temporalities of the past, the present and the future and that which bears down from outside the thinkable temporalities. Culture is a space of possibilities – not just in terms of the future but also in terms of the past and the present. As such, it is also a space of 'impossibilities' that await realization in other orders of things.