Sunday, July 23, 2006

Politics or Corporate War?

Politics of my home state, Tamil Nadu has reached an obnoxious state where ideologies no longer determine the contours of contestation. The two major parties and their organizational makeup reminds more of corporate bodies rather than political parties. The DMK is led by its patriarch Chief Minister M.Karunanidhi who flexes his political muscle increasingly through the propaganda machinery buttressed by a monopoly television network and media empire that virtually reins as the only news network in Tamil Nadu. Combine this clout with the fact that the Information and Broadcasting Minister of our country is part of Karunanidhi's extended family, you see business ruling politics clearly in the case of the DMK.

One promise by the DMK in the recent elections was the provision of a colour TV to every poor household. The economic rationality of this decision can be gauged easily...What other way of promoting your channel than this?

The AIADMK is not far behind in the corporate stakes. It has a propaganda channel of its own, an even more rabidly hagiographic Jaya TV named eponymously after its literal dictator, J.Jayalalithaa. If the DMK has an established patron-clientalistic setup that runs from top to bottom and had been built over the years through effective propaganda and the usage of identity politics, the AIADMK represents the apogee of the very same setup, extrapolated to the highest point of patron-clientalism.

Both these formations have steady votebanks among particular caste groups (which further are entrenched in hierarchical socio-economic positions in villages) and have consanguinous linkages with the regional bourgeosie, an ideal combination of semi-feudal and regional bourgeosie linkages in effect. The ability to forge alliances with other political units which are not part of the above setup makes the difference in elections.

Basically therefore nothing much separates these two formations in the issue of ideology. Both units were formed from the throes of the rationality movement that took a distinct caste identity basis as fundamental for political mobilization and social change. Identity politics in Tamil Nadu has indeed inflicted radical change in the composition and circulation of elites but the basic exploitative tendencies remain and abound even further to certain extent.

The space for parties subscribing to ideologies and clear class groups, and arguing for redistribution, has therefore been narrowed down because of the intermeshing of caste identity and class positions. Political Consciousness starts and ends with identification of patrons from respective identity groups and this explains the rather regressed political scenario in Tamil Nadu.

There is hope for change though. As inequalities have increased and the vagaries of the policies of appeasing the regional bourgeosie have created new contradictions, differentiations on class bases are being intensified. Even in the case of identity groups, the lowest order groups, the Dalits have faced even greater subjugation and exploitation under groups that were mobilized hitherto on the goal and basis of social transformation and rational reorganization of hierarchical society. Perhaps a class combination of the working population (who are getting immiserized by the regional bourgeoisie) and the Dalit people (who are increasingly being targetted and exploited by semifeudal/feudal elements of intermediate castes) could form the basis of the mobilization of the ideologically conscious political outfits in Tamil Nadu.

The latest elections saw the DMK form a minority government, an eventuality that has had no precedence in Tamil Nadu for a long time. This in itself represents a certain change in a new direction, albeit it can be red herring. Despite forming a minority government, the cohabition of the DMK as an alliance partner of great clout at the Centre has helped it retain the fervour that normally accompanies the ruling party in Tamil Nadu (which predominantly wins more than a majority of the seats in every scheduled election).

Friday, July 21, 2006

A Riposte to Surjit Bhalla's riposte

Surjit Bhalla had written a riposte to P.Sainath's article on The Outlook sometime ago. He had quoted data from Economic Survey to show that per capita food consumption had actually *increased* in the so called reform period rather than decreasing. His precise critique of Sainath's article rests on data from Economic Survey and here is the verbatim argument by Bhalla:

So Sainath’s point that foodgrain consumption declined in the 1990s would be consistent with the poor actually having higher incomes after the reforms! But his "fact" that per capita foodgrain consumption has actually declined to the average level prevailing in a famine year is a priori startling.

Actually not that startling, because Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen warned us that the Bengal famine was not due to a shortage of supply of foodgrains. Nevertheless, I do find Sainath’s claim as somewhat of a shocker.

Alas, none of Sainath’s two claims is anywhere near the truth. Per capita consumption (strictly speaking, availability) of foodgrains averaged 364 grams per capita per day in the 1950s, and 391, 398, 420, 441 and 419 in subsequent decades with the last number being for the period 2000 to 2003 (all data from the widely and easily available Government of India, 2004-05 Economic Survey, Table S-17).

Contrary to Sainath, per capita availability of foodgrains peaked in the decade of the reforms. What about the particular year Sainath mentions, 2002-03? It turns out that in that year the availability was a high 457 grams a day!

Utsa Patnaik has written a paper on the decrease in food consumption per capita and the link can be found at :

The quotable paragraph that shall effectively answer Bhalla's questions is as follows:

There is an estimated projection of commercial feed demand with respect to cereals in India made by three economists under the International Food Policy Research Institute, which we have used to obtain the net output figures in Table1. These figures are correspondingly lower than the net output figures in Table S-26 of the official annual Economic Survey which gives net output and availability every year. Per capita figures are obtained by dividing through by total population. We have used the 2001 Census total population estimate and, comparing it with the 1991 Census total, derived the annual compound growth rate of 1.85 per cent, from which the population of each inter-censal year is calculated.

The official figures of population in the Economic Survey are inaccurate; the same absolute figure of 16 million has been added every year up to 1998 starting with the 1991 Census figure; since the base was expanding but the same absolute number continued to be added, the implicit growth rate of population works out to 1.7 per cent, lower than the actual rate, and the actual effect on per capita output was to that extent understated. Since inconsistency arose, with the demographers predicting that India would cross the one billion mark in early 2000, presumably in order to adjust its figures we find that the Economic Survey suddenly added 23 million to the population in 1998 which was a peak agricultural output year, and then went back to adding 16 million the next year! It is surprising that these ad hoc and inaccurate methods have not attracted comment earlier.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Blasts from the present

I landed right in Mumbai after the exhaustive trip of "homeland". I wasn't around when a) the Shiv Sena lumpens went about their nonsensical rampage after their own maintained statue of Bal Thackeray's wife was supposedly desecrated.. and b) when yet another series of blasts rocked Mumbai and killed innocent citizens.

On b), first, I have nothing much to add to the reams of analysis that has already occupied and dissected the incident(s), yet, I can't resist adding some of my own thoughts to the issue in general.The blasts, most analysts said, exposed the soft underbelly of India's security and yet again showed the resilience of India's "Maximum City", Mumbai to recover quickly again from yet another disaster. Most of the analysts were right. The security situation in my country is weak indeed, not because of lack of effort/cogency among the agencies as such, but because of political reasons, I feel.

We have had religious riots happening before 1992, but nothing of this scale happened, to my knowledge like the Mumbai blasts, the bomb attacks at religious places etc. Much of this has had to do with the political legitimacy that has been gained by ultra-right, radical Islamist and other religious groups because of the vitiation of India's secular atmosphere. Many critics have questioned the stability of Nehruvian secularism and its contours, yet the redeeming factor about this form of secularism was that it kept the balance of peace intact rather much better than the current environment.

Eventhough mainstream India is still "secular" (the usage of the term is very particular to India in contrast to other democracies), the rise of Hindu nationalism (which is dialectically linked to the decline of patron-clientalistic Congress and centralization of power that preceded such a rise) has contributed to the breakage of that delicate balance. The Gujarat riots was a watershed..which precipitated the breakage.

Today, our citizens have been made vulnerable to terror, precisely because of what happened in Gujarat and in other places. Groups like the Lashkar, Jaish and other terrorist cults have drawn recruits within India among Indian citizens with ease since the pogrom. Secular India of the not so past, was able to politically counter this threat by providing the basic liberal tenet of minority protection and liberal rights to all; this fragile balance was wrecked by actions that had already reached an apogee on 6th December 1992.

Many analysts have alluded to the points mentioned above. Very few have added another important point, which I feel needs to be studied and mentioned.

Non-Aligned India was able to cache in on a sort of balance of power that reaped some dividends by keeping India in the green generally with the superpowers and also with other third world countries. (Contrary to perception, despite the OIC being overwhelmingly loaded with Pakistan friendly countries, on Kashmir and other issues, many countries in the OIC were with us). The drift in foreign policy of late (what is called "Crossing the Rubicon" by C. Raja Mohan in his seminal eponymous book), that has entailed a bandwagoning with the US (ostensibly to balance China, according to realists like Rajamohan), has drawn India into the battleground that has largely been a creation of the US. Dangerously, after West Asia, South Asia, with India in the fulcrum is emerging as the new geopolitical zone of American Influence. The policy of neoconservative America to project the American imperialism project in West Asia as a clash of civilizations between "Christian" developed America and "Islamist" non-modern countries and the growing tendency of India to bandwagon with this form of unilateral America is making India more vulnerable, I feel.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hop, Skip, Travel and Ruminate

The past one month has entailed hectic travel for me. From Delhi to Mumbai to Chennai to in and around the Northern part of Tamil Nadu and the Southern part of Andhra Pradesh...the going has been swift and has been never ending.

My yearly/once-in-two-years jaunt to the state of my roots, Tamil Nadu always brings two aspects, nostalgic memories and beams of ideas about what to do in the future. The pull of my roots is an invariable force that goes along with my peripatetic life. The force reaches irrestible proportions when I reach my ancestral village(s).

This visit to my ancestral village(s) was different in a way, because now I was a social scientist with a 2 year gestation period of learning Political Science (apart from tinges of working economics, history and sociology). Hence this time, my eyes were keenly observing patterns ...such as the kind of political parties that were dominant in these areas..the structure of caste hierarchy that was so clearly visible...the decline of the rural economy and the obvious patterns of migration that seemed so apparent. Tamil Nadu's flourishing trading and service economy was also visible...

The decline of the rural economy was the most distressing aspect that could be discerned from this visit. Clearly farmers and agrarian workers were looking for opportunities beyond rural areas and were migrating in numbers to the flourishing urban areas and getting integrated with the service economy. Urban settlers (for a longer period of time) were in the meantime sending their children to the innumerable engineering and medical colleges and they are in turn joining the software sector in droves. Perhaps a longer stay could help me discern the status of the much vaunted manufacturing sector in Tamil Nadu.

The efficacy of the state as a service provider in the transport sector however has remained intact. Tamil Nadu still looks among the best in roads, essential bus services, a kudos that was always reserved for it for a long time. The education sector also seems vibrant. The explosion of technical and professional colleges seems continual despite reaching critical mass. Perhaps a study of the impact of private college education also needs to be done, the back-of-my-mind keeps reminding me.

Meanwhile the frequent train travel on second class berths across the breadth of the country toward and from Delhi/Mumbai/Chennai is teaching me several aspects too. My interactions with my co-passengers (mostly from the lower middle, middle and lower classes) have earned me rich insights. For example, a talk with a trader in Delhi told me how small traders (the typical constituency of the BJP) were facing trouble due to globalization! A 1 hour talkathon with a retailer put things about FDI in retail in perspective. Listening to woes of co-passenger textile workers in Mumbai gave me inputs about the lives of skilled artisans in the unorganized sector.

A few encomiums to the Indian Railways are also necessitated. Fares on the Indian Railways are very much affordable. The fact that the IR has attained surplus profits without any concomitant increase in fares is telling on how essential social services can be effected in tandem with sound business. An India Today survey on ministers ranks Laloo Yadav high. A IIM A Professor confesses to recommending privatization for the IR, which was heading toward doom in his opinion and is now whisking students to the Railway Bhawan to learn new lessons from the success story of this PSU. Concomitantly, an article appears in the Hindu on the PSU story and the role of the Ideological state apparatus in creating a negative aura about Public sector units.

A fifteen day hiatus in the constant travelling is used to help out with pamphleteering for the reservation campaign. This was perhaps my last contribution to student activism in the role of an insider. Personally, this past two months have been tough on my gray cells. Decisions on what to do in the future have occupied most of the time. From questions on my career goals (whether to remain an activist academician grad student in line to enter politics or become an academician grad student with options to pursue in the future), to the invariable pressures and pulls from friends and family on what to do next, mental stress has never been this tough. In the end, I have caved in to popular pressure and have taken the easier pursue graduate education in the country I that loathe for its international policies, the United States and land up in academics and pedagogy back in my country after completing grad education. The redeeming factor is that there are as much serious and intelligent dissenters about policy making in the United States whom I adore as much there are outside. Perhaps I can make the best out of this decision and keep my heart and mind equally happy.