Sunday, 16 August 2015

How to render democracy harmless

How to render democracy harmless

Let public and private merge for effective stategraft

“Many of India's billionaires have made money by their proximity to govt.”
- Raghuram Rajan, Governor, RBI. He was Chief Economist of IMF in July 2010, when he made the remark in an interview to ToI.  

Raghuram Rajan spoke, in the same interview, of the “privatization, by stealth, of the State in India.” Privatization is the ruling mantra of the age of corporate totalitarianism that was inaugurated by American and global business elites with the uninhibited backing of powerful governments the world over after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. This takes a hundred forms - from the poaching of lucrative public assets by wealthy corporations when governments are fiscally stretched (often) to the ever growing frequency of use of the “revolving door”, whereby nobody finds conflict of interest objectionable as the public officials of last week become corporate bosses this week, or vice versa, a practice well-learned in this country from our imperial masters two oceans away.

A blatant instance of the phenomenon is illustrated by this image from 8 years ago. It shows Ratan Tata flying a US fighter jet at an air show in Bangalore in 2007:

I wrote about this image 8 years back. The best I can do here is to simply quote what I wrote then:

"Picture this. At an air-show in Los Angeles one of the biggest arms manufacturers in the world, British Aerospace, invites Mr. Bill Gates of Microsoft to have a go at flying one of the latest models of their Hawk fighter aircraft. Would the American media respond by flashing front-page images of a beaming Bill Gates waving to supporters as he was entering the cockpit of the Hawk, following them up with adulatory reports describing the elevated feelings felt by the unexpected new pilot as he conquered the sound barrier? Or would the event not generate a national scandal that a private businessman accepted the invitation to fly a military aircraft, which ordinarily can only be tested by pilots on public duty?

"More than likely the latter possibility would transpire. However, what happened in Bangalore last month was another story, as the Indian national media fell to new depths of celebrity “journalism”…

“…A private fantasy was gratified. Mr. Tata’s dream of flying a fighter jet came true.”

If you have 10 minutes, it may be worthwhile going through the 2000-word piece I wrote then:


If you wish to grasp the depth of our national illusions and ambitions today, please take a while to watch this video in full, which NDTV chose to show as one of its “Classics” in its silver jubilee year, 2014: 

The video not only shows  Ratan Tata in a jacket with the US flag emblazoned on its upper arm, it also shows him performing flying stunts at the Bangalore Air Show in 2007. For good measure, NDTV’s Vishnu Shome is also shown a good time by the US defence contractor firm, Lockheed Martin, eager to grow the potentially vast Indian market. He learns from the American test pilot that the aircraft he is flying has just arrived from combat duties in Iraq. He returns from the fighter jet ride with (in his own words) “a silly smile on his face.” Finally, much closer to reality, the video shows two accidents, one of a helicopter, the other of an aircraft, both manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, at the same air show. One of the pilots was killed during the show.

Public-private-partnerships under Indian corporate nationalism

What is going on here? Neither Ratan Tata nor Vishnu Shome nor any of the scores of media cameramen at the air show show any sign that they understand a distinction vital to the health of a democracy, or even a republic. The time-honoured distinction between the public and the private realm, so sacred to the making and maintenance of democracies across the world for many a century (and perhaps even more to the making of republics since the days of Greece and Rome), has blurred into invisibility. How can the promise of “transparency” or “accountability”, two of the abiding demands made on contemporary democracies, ever be fulfilled if private tyranny dovetails into State power so seamlessly? (I deal with the issue at greater length in the 2007 piece I wrote: or ) 

The problem is far more widespread and deep-seated than is commonly understood in public life in India. In this century, the “cloud elites” of global finance and the extractive elites in league with mining mafias have taken control of the State in more countries than one can think of. The Untidy State of America has pioneered the trail and conflict of interest has ceased to matter even in the high offices of the Western world, as the bailouts after the Great Crash of 2008 showed. Countries like India have followed the West blindly without pausing to ponder the consequences of such a collapse of the public into the private. 

Additionally, India has a further legacy issue to live with. In general, the Indian State is a soft version of its Western counterparts. The centre of gravity of Western societies is squarely within the domain of the State. If the State collapses, society gets wiped out in a matter of days. Such has never been the case in India, and is not the case even today. Mrs. Thatcher, who believed that “there is no such thing as society”, could not have won even a panchayat election in India with such a nihilist slogan, whose vacuousness would be transparent even to those below the age of voting in India.

Communitarian identity, involving the biradiri (which could be seen variously as caste, region, language or religion, depending on time and place), is central to Indian social and political life to this day. Elections at all levels are conducted under this basic parameter. One reason for the corruption in offices high and low is that everyone’s first loyalty is to their communities and not to the ‘public’ that office-holders in government claim to represent, no matter that oaths are taken when they are inaugurated. Politicians of divergent ideologies are quite unashamed to sponge off public offices for the good of their communities, as they see them, the tax-payer be damned. In many cases, as we have seen in places as different as Bihar or Haryana, politicians are unafraid to admit this before the camera. 

These conditions in India are really a world apart from the situation in Western countries, where individual citizenship came of age many decades ago, and communities of the sort we are talking about eroded (for better and for worse) even farther back in history. 

So, in addition to the trend towards the privatisation of large areas of State activity going on in the West since the days of Thatcher and Reagan (the Second Gulf War saw the powerful re-emergence of private mercenary security companies and fighting units, essentially outsourcing and privatising warfare itself), the Indian polity has the additional issue of a long-standing conflation between the public and the private sphere of existence. In this,  Ratan Tata is closer in mentality to the rickshaw-wallah who spits on the street, than to Bill Gates. In India, unlike in the West of yester-years  public space is not sacrosanct. 

It is this colossally profound conflation and confusion between the private and the public realms that accounts for a thousand failures of Indian public life today. To list just a few here: the coal and spectrum scams of recent years, the way “public-private-partnerships” have created new avenues of graft, the manner in which SEZs were created by UPA-I to exempt corporate economic activity from the Indian Constitution, the manner in which governments have been acting as land brokers for private firms (ab)using the “public interest” clause in the Land Acquisition Act, the casualness with which companies are tasked with ‘self-monitoring’ in the critical areas of environmental regulation (like pollution of air or water) and labour standards. One could go on endlessly.

These are just a handful of the scams that have mushroomed in the last generation as a result of ever-growing intimacy between the State - which has mutated from being a ‘traffic-cop’ to being a ‘player’ in its own right - and India Inc. What we have today is what Ashish Kothari and I describe in our book Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India as an unabashed ‘corporate nationalism’, whose ideology of choice for masking its truth is ‘development’. Developmentality involves the “cultivated failures of cognition” we analyse in the Conclusion of our book as part and parcel of the systematic smoke and mirrors national self-deception needed to mask the enormity of the graft under way in this age of gluttonous power. ‘Development’ is by far our longest living national lie. It is our word for elite denial.

The consequences of the lack of understanding and acknowledgement of the roots of graft in Indian public life will continue to grow at alarming rates in years to come, as the ever-growing mafioso blood-trail in the recent Vyapam scam shows. The fact that social scientists show scant recognition of the location and depth of the ailment is only a sign that even the world of knowledge and the academy has been corrupted by the blinding global and national fog that has settled like a suffocating canopy over our times. 

At an event the other evening at the India International Centre, I brought up the point about Ratan Tata and the fighter jet before a large audience that had just heard a leading figure from the national commentariat trace India’s “aborted transitions” to successful modernity to the conflation of the public and the private realms. There was a hasty nod in response, but no attempt was made to see the invisible social thread that ties Ratan Tata and the rickshaw-wallah into the same spider’s web of living confusion.

This is not an India that anyone can be free, happy or safe in, no matter that ‘prosperity’ has mounted so visibly (and understandably!) in certain quarters. One can only expect rapidly growing business for security outfits and psychiatrists under the conditions of structural anxiety that have come to prevail. This is certainly not the India that the men and women who sacrificed so much so that we, their progeny, could be free, had dreamed of.

Yesterday, there was a mail from Flipkart in my inbox. It wished its customers “Appy Independence Day.” When happiness is no longer possible, or even believable in principle, the best item on the available menu is mobile ‘appiness’. Wah Bhai, India. Aaj Gandhiji zinda hote toh kitne prasann hote! 80 crore logon ke paas mobile phone ho gaye hain, desh duniya ke top investment destinations mein shaamil ho gaya hai, aur Amreeki gola-baarood banaane waali companies ko dher saaraa business de raha hai... 

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