Mainstream, VOL LII, No 17, April 19, 2014
Moneyfestos of the Plutocracy
Sunday 20 April 2014, by
Any attempt to make sense of the content and role of the manifestos issued by the various political parties would surely acquire a context for appraisal by means of at least a quick overview of the nature of the economic and political processes and forces which are the principal players shaping the main contentious issues placed before the electorate. It is a huge task but what we attempt here is to preface our main exercise by a quick overview of what appears to us to be the nature of India’s political economy at the present juncture as it may bear on the question under discussion.
The general election for the 16th Lok Sabha has degenerated into a bitter internecine struggle of the plutocracy, by the plutocracy and, of course, for the plutocracy. The main contenders are fighting quite expectedly with their vision glued firmly towards the magical number of 272 plus in the Lok Sabha. The facts that must be taken note of are: one, the plutocrats are fairly divided among themselves, but the tilt towards seeking a change of guard is fairly obvious.
Two, the huge privilege of presiding over the apparently “free“ economy as an enabling state with a demonstrated and in parts unquestioned potential for continued collection of astronomical sums as rents of authority both for the party and personal coffers seems to have become a forceful inducement to a no-holds-barred struggle to reach the top.
Three, there seems to have emerged a clear recognition regarding the political counterpart of the free market and open economy-based system engaged in creating conditions for sustained growth with political legitimacy flowing from people’s mandate. This leads to the task of devising and delivering a host of welfare measures for those who are marginally involved in the mainline economic activities. This morphs into a task which combines the creation of a fairly active and growing labour market and consumer market, conditions essential in order to sustain a highly disequalising growth without undue disruptions in the economic and political spheres, particularly in the face of growing insurgency and frequent slowdowns of the growth machine, especially in the manufacturing and external accounts sectors.
The answer presently sought to this kind of multiple task is by mounting and delivering a slew of welfare measures, their attractive packaging (either presenting grossly inadequate and faulty and token programmes as “rights-based” entitlements, the supposed high point of the Congress manifesto) or in the name of good and strong governance placed in the public domain by means of the time-worn phraseology of either the socialistic or statist era which was then presided over by and large by the Congress party (so abundantly visible in the long-winded BJP manifesto with the title “sabka saath, sabka vikas”). As supplements to the above addressed to the adversely affected, inadequately and sporadically included sections both the main parties’ documents are full of promises and programmes holding out the prospects for the aspiring middle classes keen to climb up the ladder of privileges and opportunities supposed to be offered by the market-led open economy’s pursuit of economic growth under the leadership of local and foreign corporate sectors.
These programmes and promises are essentially geared towards—in addition to the main immediate twin task of winning mass endorsement and manage the discontent flowing from the inevitable fiasco of the neo-liberal policies—ensuring regular supply of cheap, skilled and docile labour power (promised to the corporate bosses in the form of labour reforms) and at the same time at least a part of the home market in view of the demonstrated failure of the corporate-led growth to achieve sustained growth for want of a growing home market and a meaningful viability on the external account leading to frequent slow-downs and slump in the growth rate. The supposed basic identity of interests between the cronies in the corporate world and the huge political machines of the two major coalitions (of course with changing composition) may appear to be the uniting force in the great and unmistakable similarity between the two manifestos.
The basic mantra uniting the two manifestoes is a kind of relic of the past in operational terms. They both seem to stick in somewhat vague and subdued forms this time over to their major and basic thrust of more of the same as practised during the past when these two groups, the NDA and UPA, enjoyed their respective stints of power in Delhi and offered the next stage of what they market to the masses as ‘reforms’.
In order to avoid excessive or direct exposition of their main and basic and shared commitment to neo-liberal policies directed towards granting greater role and better terms to their crony plutocrats in the processes of ongoing accumulation and thus staking and ensuring their claims on a growing part of the resulting huge surpluses and profits accumulated by the corporate honchos and families, no measures to discipline, control and make them accountable and restrained are proposed. Actually a careful reading of the two main manifestos would reveal that what is carefully avoided is far more significant than the sins of commission visible in the two propaganda instruments. In these matters since so much has already been done, except in the arena of labour laws and opening up the farm sector fully to the global MNCs, vague language has been used for referring to these issues as though competition, infrastructure support, and so on are applicable equally to the vast informal sector, small entrepreneurs and the self-employed skilled and professional persons! Actually the question of good governance—a vague and flexible term which can mean whatever one likes to pack in it. One may note that good governance may include measures to trample down the hard-won few and so far ineffective democratic rights.
Such seem to be both the written, spoken and implied high points of the two parties, of course with a much sharper alacrity by the party which finds waiting for over a decade, a bit too harsh an experience to bear with any longer. But it seems to be there, of course with a subdued slant, in an implied form by the party defending its track record of failures, disruptions and massive illegalities. But having been co-sharers of political, administrative and legis-lative powers in our federal polity, the similarity and sharing of the responsibility cannot be shirked, except by means of voluble and loud campaigning harping on the disastrous failures of policies and by painting the failures of the party, persons and leadership as also lack of the latter. What is surely missing is how to restrain the politico-administrative sharing of the corporate loot—these issues form a part of the two manifestos too vaguely and in general terms. For instance, without any effective means brought forward for curbing the menace of the black economy operating at every step in the corporate and organised sector, especially in its interface with the public systems at home, meaningless and vague promises are loudly made to bring back home the moneys stashed away abroad. This perhaps is the worst example of hoodwinking the electorate because it fails to understand the nature of the phenomena sought to be curbed.
This factor can be understood by recognising that the current plutocracy represents a kind of fusion of the top of the business or corporate spheres and the political and administrative sphere personnel and families. It emerges as an aftermath of the crony turn this system took at rather hyper levels of concentration of wealth and political power along with merger of the diverse elements of the political classes and corporate conglomerates for operational purposes as a single entity. What it means is that the plutocracy no longer consists solely of the corporate bosses and others commanding the towering heights of the economy. Many other categories of functionaries and occupations representing the interface of business, admini-stration and politics have joined the emerging plutocracy. It is in simple terms the sphere of the white-collar crime by the rich and the powerful in the normal course of their day-to day occupational operations in which the victims are the common people as voters, consumers and suppliers of labour power. Thus the latter has in its ranks by now a plentiful participation of the intermediaries between the national and global interests: they cause and flourish in the course of the plutocratic degeneration of India’s democratic polity.
This is not quite unexpected or unique to India. At least in retrospect it can be asserted with a fair degree of prima facie validity that the structures and processes we gave to ourselves seem to have overlooked the likelihood of such perversions. These resulted from transplanting as free a democracy as has been visualised in the Indian Constitution along with the continuation of the existing socio-economic, politico-administrative and financial structures and processes. To add further fire to these in-built infirmities in the name of mixed economic development, there was additional careful nurturing of the status quo under the largely public investment-led mixed economic growth of the GDP. This kind of a proxy for national development became in course of time its own nemesis.
What seems undeniable today is that the pre-1990 model, instead of its evaporation, has re-emerged in a changed and more ferocious and vicious but carefully camouflaged form. How can one build a rule-based fair system of market incentives and non-partisan, non-discretionary state regulation and nurturing of growth as a growth-enabling state without cleansing the economic and political spheres of the daily dirty practices and entrenched power and social capital bonds between the primary and major beneficiaries of the licence-quota-permit raj on both the sides of the market and the state? As a matter of fact, quite the opposite of what was sought to be achieved in the form of a rules—based competitive system started taking roots as the number of competitors was rather limited, mainly closely inter-connected cronies and buddies. This seems to have been because the mixed economic system of GDP growth was so blatantly unresponsive, in fact, inimical, to popular concerns and aspirations. In India, higher levels of GDP have so far meant reduced real purchasing power of the consumers’ rupee and greater wealth and power concentration. Actually this result of the higher per capita incomes outdoes every other effect of a higher level of GDP. That the growth mantra with its strong roots to the further strengthening of the status quo and what all it means for the common man in terms of exclusion and deprivation has come to become a permanent fixture of the policy statements and actions.
It is by foreclosing this part of the reality from one’s appraisal of the economy that the main political outfits have come out with their manifestos in order to market their stale wares. This kind of real politic, its effect on the election process and the effectively real constituencies addressed by the political classes while a lot of empty verbiage is dished out for wider public consumption are clearly visible in the real content of the official, public statements of the proposed and publicised agenda promised to be implemented if voted to power. Given the real thrust and élan of these documents by the two major political formations we are inclined to indulge in a bit of word play and call them moneyfestos. These documents seem to show, if one attempts to see what is hidden behind the veneer of populist verbosity, the real and unashamedly stated renewed commitment to those who have been so far the major beneficiaries of all the main activities of the state in diverse fields.
Thus the common man and woman had to remain content with the crumbs only under a reinvigorated system of intensely regressive public finance and plan investments and outlays. In the manifestos issued by the political classes organised under different banners there are verbal bounties galore but nothing to correct such blatant inequalities and perverse patterns of resource allocation. No time-frame is specified for the changes in the conditions wrapping the masses in severe social exclusion and multiple deprivations. This seems to be based on the profuse supply of the filthy lucre by the captains of industry, trade and contractors, crime syndicates, mafias and the whole array of the underworld, financial sector ponzi operators and the stock and commodity market sharks in order to rig the political and electoral processes.
Thus the 2014 elections are not planned by the political classes to be won on the strength of their manifestos—they have been sidelined by the verbal barrage of negative propaganda harping on the failures of the existing regime which the masses need not be told about as that has been the misfortune they have been dragged into. What has remained totally absent is how and why such a disastrous set of consequences continue to make life a long tale of suffering not sparing anyone, whether in Gujarat or in any other part of the country.
The powerful propaganda unleashed on the strength of a huge, undisclosed budget surpass all the previous records. This has been facilitated by the worthless laws and impotent enforce-ment agencies concerning our public finance, development planning and elections. All such factors and the absence of any effective political, social, intellectual and credible alternatives-based mobilisation by so many political and other entities operating in the country for long have resulted in the domination of various moneyed and crony and black wealth financed forces. But let it be recognised that the alternative-seekers themselves too have some-thing to explain.
True, the character of the current politics makes a mockery of the pompous and pious promises strewn together in the manifestos issued more in order to complete a certain kind of election related karmakand. What seems to have been activated and is operating in full force may well be termed the moneyfestos by the global and Indian stakeholders in the Indian growth story. The high levels of Sensex, strengthening of the Indian rupee, profuse inflow of FII and other funds in the Indian stock markets even in the face of largely negative and lacklustre performance of the neo-liberal economy and unabated mounting social tensions are indications, if one needs one, to realise the reality of the high stakes of the money power in the so-called democratic choice. One may hasten to add that it is not unlikely that as in the past so many of the investments in the politics of partisanship may go wrong and frustrate the moneybags and their political mouthpieces.
A remarkable feature this time over is the way blatant communal agenda has been stitched to the neo-liberal agenda in as open and sharp a manner as is dictated by the compulsion of attracting votes. Furthermore, it is supplemented by the word-of-mouth rumour-mongers and the control over the mass media by the hugely resourceful corporate houses. Paid news is no longer sufficient to describe the pollution of the media—a whole tribe of mercenary media—persons (thanks to the tradition of the likes of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi that many independent and pro-people mediapersons are reducing the impact of the orchestrated anti-people reports) are out to outdo each other. But the instinctive judgment by the people cannot be taken for granted even this time over when the main ruling party is so gripped with defeatism.
Under these circumstances and the new politics of crony capitalism and plutocracy, a large number of new instruments have been devised jointly by the divided plutocracies wearing different political hats or topis.. The experience of the countries with a presidential form of government seems to hold quite a few lessons for the plutocratic politics with a large number of hyper—rich billionaires lined up for an increasing use of political clout and favours among the effective instruments for boosting their accumulation processes geared towards joint pursuit of power, profits and prestige at the social, political and economic levels.
All these appear to reduce the manifestos to quite an insignificant place in the armoury of weapons relied upon in the electoral battles. Thus socialistic pattern, growth with equity, self—reliant development, inclusive development, just and equitable growth and all such popular slogans now find place only in the manifestos of the parties keen to capitalise on the unrest and despondency bred by the false and failed neo-liberal gods. The predominant operational character of the actually operating model of development by means of largely Central Government—led planning for national development is the growing distance between the stated and the declared in a fairly regularly observable manner in most of the aspects. The manifestos which are supposed to be the pledges advanced by the political outfits on the one hand and the actually operated largely divergent set of policies on the other, have been along established features of Indian democracy in the kind of social structure which is maintaining its anti-social thrust insofar as the huge majority of our people are concerned. Thus the need for a thorough overhaul of the existing democratic, regulatory structures and processes.
These spawned a huge and flourishing underground black economy under the statist policy regime prior to 1990 and subsequently under the freer run given to the capital of all hues, sizes, descriptions, origins, orientation and of business and political interface, contr-actors, fixers, carpetbaggers, contractors, fly-by-night operators, and the like because the political classes and the corporate classes with all their high order internal differentiation have become fused in one fairly indistinguishable entity but divided along political lines as the stakes, financial and in terms of power and pelf are so enormous. All kind of tricks, subterfuge and emotive appeals laced with promises of freebies and the descent of heaven on earth are in full play and the moneyfestos are full of them. Their respective departments of dirty tricks are operating overtime and clandestine distribution of money and other allurements seem to erode any distinction between fair and foul, truth and untruth, real and window-dressing.
These are all having a field day in order to woo the country’s 800 million plus voters. Obviously the most important weapon of the no-holds-barred battle deployed by the two main political rivals and their sidekicks (whether openly aligned prior to polls or waiting for the results to make their choice after the game and the terms of alignment can be clichéd clearly without risk) is the money power—a power that is the mother of all the powers mobilised in the form of mafias, media, muscle, misinformation and what have you.
It is understandable that the plutocrats fall back upon their greatest weapon—the most profusely flowing weapon which they have accumulated both during the pre-1990 and more so during the post-1990 eras, that is, the massive accumulation of money. Hence it has become an election of moneyfestos rather than contested on the strength and merits of the conventional manifestos.
Apart from what we have discussed above, there are manifestos promulgated by some of our other non-major, identifiable political parties with clear history and sufficiently articulate and partly successful existence and periods of control and identifiable political-administrative presence as significant parts of our post-independence electoral battles and co-sharers of administrative authority and privileges. One is obviously talking of mainly the grand old Left parties—parties whose pro-people credentials are by and large not questioned even by their opponents. One wonders whether these other manifestos (leaving aside the prospects of their reaching the threshold of implementation in the current political scene) have reasonable, even identifiable backing of meaningful, constantly ongoing mobilisation, commensurate political action internal debates and discussions involving regularly and directly any groups outside formal party-related organs, among the concerned interests or they are the a priori products of party headquarters.
On the other hand the bulky but substantively empty manifestos of the big parties offer mainly so much verbiage and mirage of phony inclusion and such like gaseous promises not found unacceptable by the highly differentiated deshi and firangi plutocrats. This is happening with the line diving them getting thinner as the two major components of corporate capital are getting closer in many dimensions, as can possibly be inferred from the revolving door movements of their leaders from one party to another. This covers both business and admini-strative organisations through the involvement of the agencies such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO and even the Western media. As we have seen above, the whole emphasis in the internecine political rivalry of the two major coalition groupings is on packaging and repackaging their time-worn and fiasco-ridden packages both at the levels of the Centre and the States and negative characterisation of the major political opponentet without referring at all to their identical policy and legal enactments-based packages and the pattern of resource allocation and redoubled reliance on the agency function in terms of the public and corporate sector bureaucracies. They are instead making meaningless noise about governance, as though replacement of one set of personnel and
public organisations in the political and administrative fields to carry on with the same policies and programmes can deliver a qualitatively different kind of outcome closer to the interests and aspirations of the common people!
What is sadly failing to be addressed and critically and in ways more than simply nominally even by the ideologies and organi-sations which uphold the banner of a different worldview is our grave concern. The politically and socially excluded components of our society are the under-classes, subalterns, living in the rural areas and the urban slums, who are, at the most, adversely affected and sporadically included, that is, the highly differentiated groups populating our vast and growing informal sectors, except the informal and small surrogates created by the rich and the powerful to retain and operationalise their illegalities largely outside their formal organisations. Their criti-cality is manifest as they are willy-nilly getting recognised lately by the dominant political parties as the neo-middle classes, which have just been able to reach the top of the ladder called BPL people and such like nomenclature. We are talking of those at the margins of our tiny but disproportionately well-entrenched and well-equipped and cared-for organised sectors, living largely in our urban habitats, including urbanised villages, which numerically as well as in terms of social and ideological influence are fairly critical components of India as a political society. These vast sections of emerging modern India with aspiration levels justly jumping sky-high (though with a tinge of corrupt and sickening consumerism), along with entirelyuncared-for and excluded people who constitute the vast majority of our people, seem to be easy preys of the game-plans of the plutocracy with its vast and camouflaged networks of organisations with many misleading labels. On a prima facie level it seems these vast uncared-for and disarticulated sections have by and large remained organised by the political ideologies and organisations vociferously opposing but confined mainly to verbal opposition.
A really sad but presently inevitable part of the whole money, legal and illegal practices-based electoral battle by the two main wings of the plutocracy is that most of the direct and indirect beneficiaries of the freely flowing money in the Lok Sabha constituencies are different wings of mainly the services sector, organised business-sectors and their personnel. What the slogan-shouting, cheering and jeering crowds, the vast number mobilised with and without monetary payment who are carted to the rallies to Mody-fy the election outcomes, negatively or positively, get hardly the crumbs—the touts, the thekedars, the local pradhans and the like, of course various mafias and crowd—pulling celebrities manage to get home with hefty collections as hired or mercenary or glorified dignitaries.
Thus the need to move beyond formal, election-eve manifestos to politics of a qualitatively different kind. Luckily some elements of such alternative politics are surfacing. While a certain degree of popular enthusiasm about such beginnings is visible, the manner and extent to which these beginnings are greeted by brickbats by the sponsored and misled political hirelings is certainly a sign of the potential this kind of politics holds. However, much depends on the way this politics is carried forward post-election. For instance, a modicum of openness and willingness for appropriate learning by doing would make a world of difference to the idiom of Indian politics. With sustained backing of the direct mobilisation of people at various levels, much after and prior to any election, may go a distance in unravelling and undoing the mischief of the moneyfestos of the cronies and plutocracy.
Let us conclude by highlighting just one aspect which is basically common to the two manifestos. The way the external economic relations are proposed to continue along the path trodden so far with the exception of FDI in retail if the BJP group is able to muster majority, finds a clear expression in the BJP manifesto. What it portends is that the current account deficit—CAD—would be allowed to deteriorate by letting the WTO stipulations have a full play and the country would have to continue enticing FDI inflows to manage the external-orientation of the organised sector and Indian corporate sector as partners of the global capital.
We simply point out some of the inevitable consequences of this discarding of swadeshi, otherwise so loudly proclaimed by the sister outfits of the BJP, such as the Swadeshi Jagaran March people or those marketing Swaabhiman.
For one, luxury and environment-hostile consumerism, an offshoot of letting disparities grow in the name of full-throated adoption of the Swatantra Party agenda of the 1960s, would remain the driving force of growth and faltering manufacturing growth. This is going to be the outcome owing to our narrow home market and high import-intensity of the consumption pattern and technological choices implied by the lifestyles of the super-rich. These latter are the likes of the people who make huge killing each time they do profit-booking in the volatile stock and commodity futures markets or collect, via their clandestine accounts in the tax havens, illegal gratification from their cronies. The fact that such processes give highly employment, environment-hostile and adverse exclusion-fostering outcomes or pattern of growth would give added impetus to the processes of dispossession and exclusion. No amount of anti-poverty programmes implemented by the iron hand of good governance can outweigh the market-led anti-poor consequences of such blind external orientation. These are the built-in components of the WTO-directed/stipulated methods of meeting the external account deficit.
The adverse socio-economic consequences of the continued dependence on FDI inflows would visit the farm sector too as the land market, real estate market and the bullion imports and black money hyper growth are inevitable conseque-nces of the present type of asymmetric globalisation in which India, a country peopled mostly by the farm-based communities but in which the life-sustaining occupation, that is, agriculture would continue its already active tendency to lose its relative salience in the occupational structure of India—over 50 per cent population dependent on farming in one way or another would account for a little more than 10 per cent of the GDP and the services sector would expand beyond its about two-thirds share of the GDP with its share in the occupational structure a tiny part of the working population.
In such an emerging scenario the bid to set up 100 modern cities would be a harsh blow to further deprive the villagers of their rightful share in the infrastructure investments already heavily tilted in favour of urban India and its upper crust. Those who are opting for a ‘strong leader’ apparently would have a lot to repent about if the corporate game-plan about the 2014 elections succeeds. One need not spend more space to such like consequences which have been sugar-coated by people-friendly, emotive or communalism/secularism-surcharged ter-minology in the two manifestos or are packaged in the so-called rights—based entitlements.
So long as disparities are not contained and the overall public and private investment is not directed towards the needs, aspirations and rights of over 80 crore Indians marginalised to varying extents, by the policies of the past—particularly those followed after 1990—are given their rightful democratic space, the market processes would remain tilted against the people. With such constant feeding of the processes of plutocracy and the empowerment of the super capitalists—a sure outcome if either of the two manifestos is implemented—both these sets of policies would fortify the forces which continue their campaigns to pervert the democratic electoral processes by throwing in billions of rupees to rig the elections. A relatively new method adopted by them is by means of propping up leaderships deeply committed to their interests, particularly ones gifted with high decibel gift-of-the-gab, full of colourful invectives, half-truths and outright falsehood. It is time the 2014 election campaign rings the alarm bells.
A noted economist, the author was a Professor of Economic Development and Decentralised Planning holding the Malcolm S. Adiseshiah Chair at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.