It sounds somewhat pedantic, but there is no other way to describe the goings-on, in this election season, concerning the genuineness or otherwise of the “feel-good” factor: it is shadow-boxing, an intra-mural exchange between occupants of the same superstructure. The two main participants belong to the same side of the debate. For dear life, neither of them, that is, neither the Bharatiya Janata Party nor the Congress, can openly acknowledge this essential truth though.
Of course the nation’s rich never had it so good. The share market is booming. The government has withdrawn from major economic activities. Taxes have been slashed. Restrictions on big monopoly houses are gone. Foreign goods are flooding the market. The trade union movement is at low ebb. Legislation is on the anvil to give employees the prerogative to hire and fire labour at will.
This was the paradise the Congress had promised in 1991, when the serial killings, otherwise known as globalization, were announced. Milk and honey would start flowing in the country within the next three to four years, it was then stated by the Congress finance minister. The “miracle” has taken another full decade to come about. It is exclusively for the rich. So what, the Congress represents the affluent sections as much as the BJP does. The Hindutva party is however hogging the show; the Congress can only suck its thumb.
At the same time, the BJP too cannot be one hundred per cent comfortable while claiming exclusive credit for the good times that have apparently arrived. If the Congress had not taken courage in both hands to ditch the Nehruvian ideological clap-trap, the state of affairs would certainly have been different. True, on most issues involving globalization, the BJP, from the very beginning, had offered its steadfast support to the Congress: on bank de-nationalization, on the dismantling of industrial and trade controls, on opening the doors for foreign investors.
It had some initial reservations with regard to the World Trade Organization, the treaty for the setting up of which the Congress commerce minister had signed with such great alacrity in 1994. The BJP had in fact then supported the left parties and protested against the introduction of the patents amendment bill. The situation changed overnight with its assumption of office in 1998, and Parliament was made to endorse the patents amendment; with the Congress offering vociferous support from the wings. There is, in the circumstances, an aching in the heart for both parties. The Congress cannot have a share of the pie of the feel-good glory; the BJP cannot quite admit that it has merely followed the footsteps of the Congress.
Even in several other areas, the two parties have a large overlap. The Congress cannot exploit to the hilt the vacuity of the BJP’s pre-election promise to create a crore of additional jobs every year. Scan past documents, the Congress too was in the habit of making identical promises in its election manifestos in the era when it was in power in New Delhi.
Still, for the sake of appearances, the two parties have to engage in public brawls over their respective promises and achievements. It is no easy exercise, since the class base of the two parties is hardly dissimilar. As such, their rhetoric carefully skips mentioning three crucial elements of the economic reality: the average rate of growth in agriculture — the sector providing the livelihood of nearly two-thirds of the Indian people — has been less than the rate of growth of population in the country in the post-globalization period; the growth of output in the organized industrial sector in the post-globalization decade is less than one half of the growth attained in the decade immediately preceding globalization; whatever the rate of overall growth of national income worked out by official statisticians, for an overwhelmingly labour-surplus economy such as India, this growth is socially all but useless, because it has not led to any net increase in employment in the economy.
Despite the allure cast by the information technology, tourism, entertainment and similar other sectors, employment has shrunk over the past decade nearly everywhere. Neither the Congress nor the BJP can feel comfortable with the exposure of such facts of economic life; both are jointly responsible for this denouement.
The Vajpayee government, in a bind over mounting joblessness, retrenchment of workers and plant closures, has lately launched saturation publicity: it might not have provided one crore new employments annually, it has however created nearly a crore of new employment opportunities. This is hokum of a most superior order: the so-called job opportunities are an abstraction, not matched by actual creation of new jobs. But, then, nothing is unfair in love, war and election time.
To be candid, the principal objective of globalization has been the same the world over; it could not have been otherwise in the case of India: marginalizing the economic space occupied by the poor. The poor are inefficient since they remain outside the orbit of technology. The poor have no purchasing power, for they have so little income. The poor obviously have no relevance either on the supply side or on the demand side. They therefore deserved to be forgotten even if they happened to be the overwhelming majority of the national population.
Taking the cue from Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, India’s wealthy classes have now reached the point where they feel confident enough to tell the poor: we can do without you. Which is why land reforms are dropped from the agenda, public investment in the farm sector is abandoned, rampant imports keep sounding the death knell for peasants, factory hands and those trying to eke out a living through informal activities. The ambience is to the liking of foreigners, who are rushing in with their money, not however to contribute to India’s capital formation and thereby augmenting the scope for work and income for the nation’s poor and disadvantaged, but to notch up huge speculative profits in the share market.
Now that foreigners are also to take over the banks, the poor will be under a further squeeze. Foreign bankers hate to meander into the dirty Indian countryside where the poor are concentrated. Bank credit will henceforth be the monopoly of the rich. Few people are around who can warn the nation against living in a fool’s paradise, the present season of feel-goodness will terminate once the votes have been gathered in.
A Greek tragedy, let us admit, would never reach the excruciating catharsis it reaches were the Cassandras to stay away. The radical left could have filled this role. Unfortunately, in India, at this moment, the reality is different. It could be the elongated psychological shock of self-immolation by East European socialism, it could be bafflement induced by China’s high rate of growth engineered by a species of market socialism increasingly indistinguishable in several respects from market capitalism. The left are a-fluster in an ocean of confusion. They are against globalization, they want to avail of the crumb of opportunities offered by globalization.
The left are against the dominance of transnational corporations, but they cannot make up their mind whether to seek alliance with globalization-fighting resistance groups which are, either directly or through the device of laundering, funded by transnational corporations. The left are dead against George W. Bush and Tony Blair; they are however not sure whether development finance offered by regimes presided over by these two abominable characters is to be spurned or welcomed with grasping hands.
When it comes to making up accounts, neither the BJP nor the Congress will have any problem. Whichever of them wins, the rich will be on top, and, understandable, an exodus will take place either from the BJP to the Congress, or vice versa. Unless the left are able to carve out a distinct, principled programme of independent economic development for themselves, and are prepared to defend it without mental reservations, they will be the guest the Indian electorate will not miss.
Finally, let too much be not made of the non-communal nature of the Congress. The Pandora’s box the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi business has proved to be was opened in 1986 by a Congress prime minister. Besides, the BJP came to power in 1998 because the Congress withdrew support from the anti-BJP United Front government.