Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Needed: A New Politics in India

We have just seen the Tatas ousted from Singur by Mamata Bannerjee and her party, the Trinamool Congress. This, despite the fact that the Tata Nano project might have employed some of the farmers displaced by the creation of an SEZ in Singur.

There are two rights that clash here—the farmers’ right to retain ownership of cultivable land and the industrialists’ right to set up industries as and where they see fit. It is a difficult compromise to negotiate. The farmers feel that cultivable land is being taken over by industrialists, with the help of the state. And industrialists feel that politicians are using farmers’ real or perceived grievances to make it difficult for them to set up industries.

Of course, the ideal setup would be to let industrialists buy the land directly from farmers, and draw their labour from the locality itself. The state should only intercede to the extent that it indicates suitable uncultivable land that can be used for setting up factories. However, it is unlikely that politicians and bureaucrats will give up their power to this extent.

Indian politicians appear to live in a bubble—many of them begin their political careers while still in college. Very few have actual experience of holding down salaried jobs or trying to make two ends meet. There is no tradition of combining political work with regular employment—the lack of public transport and other civic amenities mean that most Indians, even professionals, concentrate on their work and home life to the exclusion of almost everything else. It is only in the last fifteen years or so that an alternative to the five-star culture of the preceding decades has emerged for a class of people who now earn a lot better than their parents. And the middle class has begun to acquire a certain amount of political clout, because of its involvement in demanding justice in landmark criminal cases, such as the Jessica Lall case or the Nitish Katara murder. It is likely that this might herald a return of the middle class to Indian politics, which was a field that it gradually abandoned after independence. This was because political work acquired a bad reputation in the seventies, because of its association with hooliganism and criminality. Several Indian politicians, including the CM of a state, have not only been accused of crimes but were actually let out of jail to vote in the recent confidence vote in Parliament. And the attitude that most politicians have towards criminal activity of any kind ranges from tolerance to outright encouragement—no less than a central government labour minister sympathized with a group of workers in Noida who had lynched their MD.

Industrialisation and the emergence of a powerful middle class, with its own values and world views, are essential for the survival and further development of democracy in India, since the middle class emphasizes a reliance on equality before the law. Most politicians, however, tend to see themselves above and beyond the law, rather like modern-day equivalents of the maharajas they deposed a few decades ago. They also tend to see themselves, not as Indians but as representatives of their caste or their region. In part, this is to gain votes in elections—and most Indian politicians are in permanent election mode. So it is not surprising that it is Mamata Bannerjee, and not the left parties (who are in power in West Bengal) who opposes an SEZ in Singur, ostensibly because she supports the cause of landless farmers, but actually because it gets her the media and popular attention she needs to remain in politics.

Indian politicians need to develop a national perspective and they need to look long-term at various policies. We need industries to take surplus labour off the land. We have surplus labour on the land because the handicrafts were practically destroyed during the colonial era and the unemployed craftsmen had no other recourse but to become farmers or farm labourers. Hence, a viable policy needs to be worked out where the needs of industrialists and farmers are met fairly.

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