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.

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