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How do state governments sustain the illusion of governance even when they fail their people?

N Kalyan Raman

With the reforms initiated in 1991, India adopted a neo-liberal economic regime, which has been extended ever since by successive governments. Critiques of its impact on the functioning of the state and our democracy have also emerged during the same period. An accurate description of these changes can be found in The Face You Were Afraid to See (2009), a collection of essays on the Indian economy by Amit Bhaduri, distinguished teacher and intellectual of our times. Bhaduri writes of our living “under the illusion that… high rate of growth in output is synonymous with the development of the country and its people; that if high economic growth can somehow be sustained for a reasonably long period, economic development would follow automatically as its byproduct.”

According to Bhaduri, the manufacture of such illusions becomes the main job of our politicians and, “more often than not, the illusions are created to help big business, and big business naturally helps in turn with big money and their control of the media to further the illusions. A mutually beneficial symbiosis develops between big business and political leadership which has become a defining characteristic of our democracy.” The result is “the miraculous growth of prosperity of the political class along with many billionaires mushrooming in business in a very poor country, supported by a talented cast [of opinion-makers and image-builders] in the background playing the orchestra to keep up the illusion.”

Bhaduri points out that ‘the rules of the game are such that the majority of our citizens have to be left out, or are accepted only marginally and temporarily in times of elections…Political parties and leaders of various descriptions come and go but lack of hope for a better life for the majority, subhuman poverty and destitution persist unabated.” In conclusion, Bhaduri writes that ‘…none of the political parties [elected to power in different states] has the capability, perhaps not even any serious intention of bringing economic democracy closer to political democracy for the majority of our citizens.”

Journalist M Rajshekhar’s Despite the State, the book under review, is an attempt to understand the ground realities at the state-level, in the backdrop of the conditions that Prof. Bhaduri had described so accurately back in 2009. To that end, during 2014-16 he spent 33 months on a field-reporting project across six states, chosen specifically to represent different social and material conditions: Mizoram (remote, hilly terrain), Orissa (mineral rich, but poor), Punjab (irrigated agriculture), Bihar (rain-fed farming), Tamil Nadu (industrialized, in the south) and Gujarat (industrialized, in the west). The reporter’s declared intent was not just to understand and report on events as he saw them, but also to study the structures and processes that shaped such events. Involving long-duration stays and extensive travel in each state, the methodology of data collection – covering government agencies, businesses, education and healthcare delivery systems, agricultural practices, political parties, elections, social tensions, individual households, and so on – loosely resembles what anthropologists used to call the holistic method of studying a community, aimed at understanding the dynamics of the interaction between its various constituents over time.

Conventional journalism is designed to focus on a particular event or phenomenon at a time. Even when the story is meticulously researched and contextualised, it can only yield a partial account of the larger social reality, touching very seldom on the confluence of external forces and conditions that could have led to the event. Going well beyond the limitations of such conventional frameworks, Despite the State strives for an understanding of the factors that enable governments and political parties to function in a way that is seemingly hostile to the interests of the very public they have been elected to serve, a gross anomaly in an electoral democracy. The book also tracks the various ways in which ordinary people - peasants, workers, small business owners, the ever-swelling ranks of the ‘self-employed’ – cope with these conditions of precarious employment and livelihoods, and even more uncertain futures in the light of consistently poor delivery of education and healthcare services by the state.

Rajshekhar’s reportage on each state contains several individual stories that coalesce into a narrative of how democratic functioning of the state is undermined by means of certain entrenched processes and tendencies. As scholar-activist V Geetha puts it in her Afterword, it is ‘reportage that combines fieldwork, research and argument, and transforms them into an extended essay.’ In the course of a brief review, it is hard to do justice to the flow of “fieldwork, research and argument” in each chapter by citing individual stories piecemeal. It’s an experience best accessed directly by the reader. I shall limit myself to saying that the reportage is always comprehensive and to the point, the research meticulous and relevant, the questions and arguments always in the cause of democracy, and the insights vital and illuminating. Now we will turn our attention to a few of those insights.

Since we are definitely living in a turbo version of the neoliberal regime outlined by Prof Bhaduri in 2009, it is no surprise to find that, according to the study, all the states “failed to deliver health, education and justice; in all of them, there was concentration of political power, and a politically connected elite had gained much more than everyone else…People fell back on caste or religious identities as they tried to cope.”

How does the state get away with such failure? Rajshekhar characterises the traits common to political parties across the six states: extractive, dominant, centralised and clientilist. By collecting rent on every job/service/permits provided the state, the party accumulates money at the same time as it abridges the tax revenue available for providing essential services to the citizens. The money extracted is used to buy votes, turning citizens with rights into clients, subverting elections as an expression of the popular will. The money is also used to establish other means of extraction, such as private engineering colleges set up by party associates. A political party in power gains dominance over its rivals by setting up a nexus with the biggest businesses, exchanging concessions for funds. Within the party, the power is centralised in the hands of the top leadership, so that any checks and balances within the party are eliminated.

How does a malfunctioning state foster the illusion of development and fair play in the light of egregious failures? From his analysis of field observations, Rajshekhar identifies six factors: denial (through manipulation of data), diversion (through blaming external forces or addressing unrelated non-economic ‘crises’), leadership cult (through an extreme degree of centralisation and image building), elections (through using favourable outcomes to gloss over failures), and endorsements (by religious leaders, media and the judiciary). While all these tactics are familiar and in constant use, the realisation of what we are up against on a daily basis is still startling.

Equally riveting is the account of the ‘Gujarat model’ of gaining control over the state by the BJP. The first is identification of the party with a particular religion and its endorsement by religious heads. Second, fear-mongering about minority communities, through communal riots if need be, and positing the party as the true defender of the faith. Third, bias towards big business groups so that a mutually profitable nexus can be established, leading to sound financial health of the party. Fourth, extreme centralisation of power and decision-making, engendering a climate of sycophancy in which no dissent is likely to arise or will be tolerated. Fifth, fostering a majoritarian climate which justifies hostility towards an imaginary enemy and transform bigotry into a ‘just cause’. Sixth, highlighting every achievement of the state as the leader’s in a well-orchestrated form of cult worship.

In brief, Despite the State marshals the fragmentary evidence of our failed democracy into a cohesive whole that helps us in “understanding not only what is happening but also why.” Though there have been other commendable efforts in the past, by writer-journalists, to portray complex and rapidly changing social realities—Pankaj Mishra’s Butter Chikcen in Ludhiana (1995) and Vijay Nambisan’s Bihar is in the Eye of the Beholder (2001) come to mind—Despite the State, a work of professional reportage informed by a political imagination, will likely set a new standard for Indian journalism and indeed for public discourse in India on society and politics.

The illusions referred to by Prof Bhaduri are many and various, as are their social origins. There are several that would merit examination in the light of actually existing realities. The primacy accorded to English as the language of learning for our society as a whole is one such. Is the state right in abandoning all efforts to develop epistemic capacities in Indian languages, knowing what we know about the efficacy of learning in mother tongues? How is ‘English for all’ actually working out in terms of learning outcomes or employment? Has e-Governance been the panacea it’s cracked up to be, eliminating administrative corruption and empowering the citizen? Only committed journalism can provide the answers to these vital questions. In all such endeavours, and let us hope there will be many, I am sure Despite the State will remain a sterling example to learn from.

Review published in Scroll.in on March 20, 2021


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