Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Anger Mismanagement

Byline by M J Akbar: Anger Mismanagement

Winter is no longer the only season of discontent; April is going to be the cruellest month, and for the same reason. The big Indian story of 2007 is not the outcome of the elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh or even the contest for the next occupant of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The big story is the anger of the poor, and it is going to be an all-seasons rage. Elections are a derivative rather than a primary story, since results will be a consequence of the heat at the ground level of democracy.

The message is the same, whether from Singur and Nandigram in Bengal or Pune in Maharashtra, where a planned Special Economic Zone has been put in abeyance: the peasant will not permit economic development as his expense. Either the means will have to be found to make him a partner, or he will find the means to despoil the balance sheet. No brand, however sacred, is exempt. There cannot be another business house in India with a reputation for integrity as high as Tata. The Tata House has an enviable track record in the east, creating a major town, Jamshedpur, out of a steel factory and building a network of social services out of their business profits. In politics, there is certainly no brand more closely identified with the poor than the CPI(M), flag bearer of the Left. If Tata and CPI(M) are under siege in Bengal, what chance do others have? It is only a matter of time before the simmer in other states comes to a boil. Fire encourages fire. The poor are not interested in waiting for an election to give vent to their anger. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led his party to an unprecedented victory only a few months ago, but that triumph is already looking weary. One might point out that whoever wrote the destiny of Mamata Banerjee, now leading the Singur agitation, was not a benevolent god. Her popularity seems to peak just after an election, rather than just before one.

So what is the solution: to stop all car projects or Special Economic Zones? That is defeatist. Before we attempt an answer, it is necessary to understand the nature of the question.

Let us turn to Jharkhand, a state whose chief minister blandly admits that only three districts are under the government’s control (maybe this has dropped to two in the few weeks since he made the statement). The rest are more or less ruled by Naxalites, bolstered by support from tribals. The tribals have not moved towards the extreme overnight, or without cause. It was gradual progression. They were with the Congress in the Fifties, when Jawaharlal Nehru promised a tryst with destiny; and moved Left in the Sixties, when that tryst got postponed. They tried variations of the Left-band, from the CPI to the individual radicalism of a maverick like A.K. Roy. Then came the tribal-specific Jharkhand "revolutionary" parties, led by men like Sibu Soren, currently in both jail and Parliament: he has been convicted of murder but Parliament retains him as member because he belongs to the ruling alliance. The Maoist gun is a symbol of their despair with elective politics and the parties that have turned democracy into a corrupt oligarchy.

Jharkhand has a large Muslim population. Muslims in Bihar were early victims of economic development. It was not a deliberate attempt to victimise them. Their traditional crafts, like weaving, could not compete against the new machinery of cotton mills. This is a principal reason for the economic impoverishment of Muslims in the north. One of the trades which is still dominated by Muslims is the sale of meat, poultry and eggs. The new malls that are on the horizon will control costs and regulate standards by eliminating the middleman in food purchases. Once again, these are business decisions, not communal ones. But the consequence is that another means of income is going to be totally lost to a community with very little income. End result: Muslim youth have begun to drift towards Naxalites. You can get two meals a day, and chicken curry twice a week if you are a Naxalite cadre.

The answer would seem to be obvious: process management. You have to restore communities pushed back by economic advancement to financial and psychological space. I thought the government of Dr Manmohan Singh would have picked up a hint or two from the reasons for its victory in the general elections of 2004. But there has been no change in the winner-takes-all approach. We don’t have an economic policy. We have a sweepstakes.

Political parties enter elections still fixated on traditional group formations. While realities like caste and religion remain important determinants, there is a renewed, if not entirely new, identity emerging on a parallel track, an affiliation around poverty. The anger of those who will not accept injustice, or indifference, in the name of economic growth will cause the decisive swings in the elections of 2007. Discontent will not be dormant. Weakness at the top will encourage extremists of all kinds. The Ulfa terrorists of Assam, who killed 70 Biharis, were an omen of a more virulent future.

Government cannot remain static when the electoral earth is trembling, and Naxalite violence has made even the semblance of governance impossible in half the country. If the Central government does not remake itself, it will wither at gathering speed: stability is something more than the addition of numbers. Marxists have had their couple of years of joy, but power without responsibility will not work much longer. They will have to enter government, and demand fresh priorities in economic policy.

There isn’t much time. The key to Delhi lies in the outcome of the Assembly elections in Punjab in February and Uttar Pradesh in April, for an indirect reason: provincial MLAs have a vote in the elections for the President of India, scheduled for later this summer. A sharp defeat for the Congress, which is the principal UPA partner in the contest, will reduce the government vote. Final numbers will be known only after April, but they don’t look very comfortable for the government.

Dr Manmohan Singh’s alliance consists of family (the Congress, with all the plum jobs), brothers (like Lalu Yadav and the Marxists), distant cousins like Sharad Pawar and despised outcastes like Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party (SP). If the SP votes against the ruling UPA nominee, in a secret ballot, he could be defeated, making Dr Singh’s government untenable. Any pre-contest deal would necessitate a bargain, with Mulayam Singh and Amar Singh doing most of the talking. Logic suggests that the Prime Minister should invite this strong group of MPs to join his government, and Mulayam Singh is not going to be content with a marginal portfolio. At all events, a combination of agitation and unrest on the ground, and turbulence at the top will change the character of the government, even if it does not change the government itself.
Has this confused you? No one claimed Indian politics was easy to understand. Why do you think so many Indian politicians depend so heavily on astrologers to foretell the future? Because only astrologers can simplify sequence and consequence with such exemplary conviction. It is so much easier than working things out for yourself.

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