The unyielding current of news reports, events and stories make little space for significant events (until they are personal) to last in our collective conscience. No sooner had Rohith Vemula’s suicide created a storm that the fracas at JNU seized the television channels. The revelations of the Panama papers hardly lasted a week before being swept aside for the BCCI’s annual revenue doubling carnival – the IPL. Such as it is, I would like to ponder in this essay on the national executive meet of the BJP which ended on the 20th of March, 2016.
The core agenda given the context of the events at JNU was on nationalism and freedom of expression. The Prime Minister (representing the party and the government) insisted that he was in favour of “political criticism of itself, but not of the nation.”In addition to a resolution which reiterated the party’s position to “firmly oppose any attempt to disrespect Bharat”; the Prime Minister also reportedly emphasized the need to focus on development by saying
Vikas or ‘Development’ it would appear is the solution to all evils and it is the one mantra that the BJP has since the General Elections, 2014 and even before (with the ‘Gujarat model of development’) associated Modi with.
However, as we see this ‘development’ model unfolding with its definition of nationalism, dietary habits and economic policies according to the ideology of the RSS; all of which have been addressed in great detail, we must also be aware of the fact that ‘development’ presented thus essentially serves to subvert our political sense of belonging; in other words it serves to ‘depoliticize’.
In order to elaborate on this argument, I recall the statements made by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and the Prime Minister following the Dadri lynching. Mr. Jaitley had this to say:
While the Prime Minister reiterated that
In examining the statements quoted above, we realise what we must really be concentrating on; the term which is allegedly the panacea to all ills – ‘development’. Yes, neither of the statements uses the term directly but it is palpably evident, ‘development’ is what we should be concentrating on and talking about instead of incidents of communal violence or goondaism, which we must understand as the government observed were either “accidents” or the “operation of fringe elements”.
It is undeniable that the neo-liberal age we live in seeks to substitute politics with economic rationality and abhors State intervention. Michel Foucault very rightly pointed out while State intervention may be viewed negatively in the economic realm, it is also fundamentally necessary in the juridical, social and demographic level.
In the neoliberal world we occupy we are told repeatedly that the only social policies acceptable are the ones which promote the increase of economic and individual growth and prosperity; thus every individual must be groomed as homo economicus, an entrepreneurial man (person/individual).
As its object therefore, ‘development’ has as its essential function the depoliticization of individuals; under neoliberalism this tendency is only accentuated a lot more. Just consider the statements made by Mohandas Pai in his article titled “Dear JNU Students, We Fund Your Studies, Not Your Politics” in which he makes it very clear that studies are being side-lined in the University in the midst of the students’ involvement in politics.
Pai also condemns the government’s response to the situation and raises questions on the legitimacy of the sedition law but concludes by saying,
‘Politics’ in India is already considered a dirty word by its simplistic reduction to electoral politics; unfortunately considering the way the events in JNU have been perceived as being anti-national (thus making it impossible to ignore and call it merely ‘unfortunate’) there is vehemently a demand made for disciplining and discouraging these students.
The nonchalance with which the Dadri incident was received was quite remarkable; it was questioned on its implications for the larger agenda of ‘development’ as it was seen as an unfortunate instance to divert public attention; as a ‘policy diversion’. With due credit to the government, their handling of the JNU issue in alliance with the Delhi Police, the “fringe elements” (the hyper-nationalist lawyer brigade) and finally some sections of the media by turning it into a debate over nationalism has led to a remarkable show of solidarity and support for JNU. However, it is necessary to understand these responses in the context of the debates around ‘development’.
James Ferguson in his classic book Anti Politics Machine, writing about his case study of ‘development’ projects in the Thaba-Tseka district of Lesotho provides a compelling account of why ‘development’ projects fundamentally fail. A central argument in the book is that the ‘development’ discourse tends to a have a ‘depoliticizing’ effect in its treatment of issues such as poverty as “technical problems” which can be solved in the process absolving the systematic conditions which give rise to it in the first place. Ferguson argues that the project of ‘development’ (state-led) is often understood in terms of merely policy decisions and statistics in the eyes of the World Bank. He goes on to observe that, in the World Bank’s view, an incremental or detrimental effect on the growth rates in Lesotho are mere consequences of the government’s policies; completely bereft of ground realities and the understanding of the very social space that ‘development’ planners seek to intervene in and usher in modernization. Significant as the work was back in 1990, it lends a much needed perspective on the current debates on the subject.
‘Development’ to the Indian citizen invokes the idea of the growth of science and technology, of dams and power plants, of urban cities and their skyscrapers and probably ‘Smart Cities’ and a ‘Digital India’ today. Modi’s grand designs draw largely from the modernizing imagery of the Nehruvian vision, although with one important qualification – the current vision is influenced by the overarching objective of establishing a Hindu Rashtra contrasted with the ‘idea of India’ (to borrow Sunil Khilnani’s excellent book of the same title), the Constitution makers envisioned. In other words the ideology of Hindutva is the pivot around which the current government’s visions of ‘development’ are based on.
How then is it that this seemingly obvious point is often forgotten?
The answer lies in the nature of the term itself. The extent to which the term has been employed effectively in the last general election (we all remember “sabka saath, sabka vikaas”) is telling of the effect it achieves. The poignancy of the term provided an easy and legitimate excuse to justify the election of the BJP in the lower house of the Parliament. This is not to deny that a pro-Hindutva sentiment prevails in the minds of the middle class Hindu citizenry of the country. But for once, they could (and still do) mask their affiliation to this ideology by justifying their vote for ‘development’. The operational logic to this class seems particularly straightforward, “as long as there is ‘development’ as Modi ji has promised (and is visiting foreign countries to that extent), we shouldn’t be troubled by marginal acts of violence or dissent.”
The association of Modi with ‘development’ has convinced this section of the populace of his moral high ground and divorce from the “fringe elements” that spark communal hatred; a realisation the PM very clearly cherishes. The arrogance of this government has only grown in the past year in spite of the growing tide of intolerance in the country. Isn’t this why the PM could retort pathetically by asking what the Central government was to do when State governments fail in maintaining law and order in the aftermath of Dadri?
The government would however have us believe that as long as ‘development’ (read as the ‘Gujarat model of development’) is achieved, we are on the right path. Our public opinion is framed by polarising opinions, almost all of which is devoid of the principles of reason and a rigorous understanding of any issue. The idea of ‘development’ (as it is popularly employed) and the vision of a better life it evokes are problematic in the first place; if anything, ‘development’ has pragmatically been the most significant failure of human undertaking and sadistically only further deepened power inequalities. It doesn’t mean infrastructural or technological advances without having as its primary consideration the human condition as the core ideal.
The human consideration cannot of course lie in a vacuum, it must for its fulfilment have the requisite ‘freedoms’ as Amartya Sen argues, in order to fulfil its potential. In this sense the modernizing vision of India was problematic too in its construction of large scale hydro-electric power projects which have displaced a number of people to the Green Revolution which has furthered rural inequality. Indian democracy suffered its darkest hour with the declaration of the Emergency and has been constantly pegged down in its progress with multiple incidents of communal violence since Independence. ‘Development’ cannot be achieved in an environment of intolerance, a restriction on free speech, expression, food, dress, a deterioration of institutions (be they social, educational, cultural or legal) guided by a theocratic model of the nation; no ‘development’ agenda can therefore afford to ignore what many from the ruling party have termed “accidents” and “diversions in policy” or most recently “irrelevant issues”: let us not make the mistake of disassociating ‘development’ from the ideology of the party in power. And secondly, let us also question the very term ‘development’ or ‘vikaas’ for starters.