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The Unrelenting Contrarian

 The Unrelenting Contrarian Anu Kumar The early 1980s saw several shifts: old images of the way India was perceived gave way to an airbrushed, surface glamorous sheen, symbolised best by the introduction of colour television; the domed ambassador on India

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The Unrelenting Contrarian

Anu Kumar

T
he early 1980s saw several shifts: old images of the way India was perceived gave way to an airbrushed, surface glamorous sheen, symbolised best by the introduction of colour television; the domed ambassador on India’s potholed streets finally had competition in shape of the sleeker, more compact Maruti. And these were only the first of many changes, turbulent, and also confusing, that India was to witness over the next two decades. Yet as Ashok Mitra (AM) tells us, it is easy to be taken in by the surface sheen, to remain ignorant of the contradictions, the skewed development such progress in fact implies. The changes India has witnessed, and as pointed out by many commentators, have sharpened the vacuity that underlies much of “India Shining”, but as AM warns, it has come at a price: most notably, in the loss of self-sufficiency in several sectors, the nation’s own self-respect and autonomy in policymaking.

In recent years, there have been several collections of Ashok Mitra’s published writings, culled from articles he has written in the course of a prolific writing career. As with several other similar collections, for instance, by the noted columnist, the late Sham Lal, these are not mere rambling reminiscences; in the absence of any serious work on Indian history post-independence (Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (Picador, 2007) appeared only in July last year), such collections form valuable accounts in their own right. And AM as an observer is ideally placed, having seen both sides. He has donned several avatars – as a political persona, in academia and as a fierce, independent critic.

Economic & Political Weekly January 5, 2008

The Protest Is Still On...by Ashok Mitra;

Emancipation, Kolkata, 2007, pp 256, Rs 300 (hardback).

The Protest Is Still On...is a collection of his articles published in The Telegraph, in the column called ‘Cutting Corners’ over the period 1981 to 2006. This was unarguably, a period of two decades that saw sweeping changes in India. The essays are largely on political economy, or more, reflections on economic policy and their impact on the polity. But in some instances, for some essays, the impact has to be gleaned, and may require a familiarity with events as they occurred over this period. The distribution of the essays over the decades is markedly skewed in favour of those that appeared post-2000, while essays set in the early and mid-1990s, when India made its “shift”, are sparse, which is disappointing. For a reader already acquainted with what India went through in this period, AM’s essays of these years serve as a valuable add-on.

AM, however, has been served unfairly by his publishers, which is a pity, considering the provocative and argumen tative character of the essays. The collection is marred by errors galore, especially in spellings; every chapter has its fair share of them and it does test a reader’s tolerance.

Political Disjuncture

AM may come across as too agitated; to an impatient reader he may even appear cantankerous, in his essays that deal with the prosaically economic. And while the essays are diverse in the subjects they deal with, they remain unequivocally true to certain premises that AM holds dear: especially the fact that economics must strive at all costs to serve and uplift human welfare, and that governments and the policies they espouse must in the end be aimed to help the common man, and alleviate his concerns. The very fact that policies appear to have moved away from such concerns and are more enamoured of and dependent on sta

tistical indicators, fancy buzzwords; that they have succumbed to the diktats of the Bretton Woods institutions also gives Mitra’s words their typically sardonic edge.

In his essay, one of the early ones in this collection, on the Asian Games of 1982, AM states that the country’s liability rose to Rs 1,000 crore. Defence spending around the same time shot up alarmingly, and yet the outlay on social services showed little improvement – a trend that continues till the present. These contradictions in official policy are highlighted in a later chapter that refer to the celebrations that followed the successful testing of a nuclear missile in Orissa’s undeveloped Chandipur village, even as that very year the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress government signed a document promising to cooperate in the curbing of nuclear missiles.

AM is equally incensed by the blatant cold-shouldering of constitutional principles as seen in all aspects of government policymaking. This seems to have increased in recent years, with the plethora of commissions and committees the present government seems so very fond of. One of the suggestions put forward by the National Commission on Farmers set up to understand the crisis in Indian agriculture and to formulate steps to alleviate the concerns of farmers, seeks placing agriculture on the Constitution’s concurrent list. As AM argues, this would not only impinge to a large degree on state autonomy, but would also ensure that the process of delineating land for special economic zones is made easier.

The federal character of the Constitution has been given the go-by in other ways as well, most notably in how the centre has sought to push the value added tax (VAT) through. In its keenness to implement the VAT, AM denounces the government’s

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eagerness to kowtow to suggestions put forward by the international financialinstitutions, as also its insistence in blithely bypassing constitutional procedures and its moves to undermine the federal character of the Indian polity, which the Constitution has always upheld. Though VAT is altogether different from the sales tax, which the former seeks to replace, the centre in a clever sleight of hand manoeuvre resorts to a change in terminology to ensure its acceptance rather than amending the Constitution, which is what is required. In a series of pieces – ‘Battered by VAT’ (February 2006), ‘Mixed up Values’ (April 2005), Great Train Robbery (May 2003), AM also describes how the states have been given short shrift in the course of implementation of VAT, but how in several instances, states too have been willing accomplices in this reduction of their autonomy.

The federal nature was also diluted in another case, which may not have been of significance then but does now. AM describes the nomination of Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, as a Congress candidate for the Rajya Sabha seat from Assam in 1996, to succeed the incumbent MP, David Ledger, who had defected from the Asom Gana Parishad to the Congress. Ledger had been rewarded for his services then by a Rajya Sabha seat in 1991 but by the completion of his term, he had evidently served his use. AM questions the constitutional appropriateness of the FM being nominated from Assam as he was not even a resident of the state. A more recent case where a similar unfamiliarity with the delicate constitutional balance that prevails between the centre and the states has been displayed, is over the project on river interlinking, a project that saw much television debate and agitated editorialising but has since been shelved – because of the immense logistical manoeuvres involved and the lack of prior feasibility studies. Yet, none thought to reflect on the repercussions such a move would have on states’ decision-making powers on water-sharing and allocation.

Statistical Fixations

As the essays move into the 1990s, AM cannot quite conceal his dismay at the fixation with statistical indicators, the delight

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in GDP growth figures and in the foreign exchange reserves; AM warns of the underlying realities behind these gloss-ridden indicators. For the growth, as he points out, has been in services, that it has been in many instances, “jobless growth” and that the increase in foreign exchange reserves is ephemeral for a large role is also played by fly by night financial operators, who park and exit with consummate ease from the nation’s stock exchanges. The fascination of the governing classes to adopt a quick-fix resolution in many instances is symbolised by the eagerness with which the centre and successive governments in Maharashtra, embraced Enron, accepting its many “conditionalities” that included the supply of captive power and the high price of power to be charged from consumers. Barely a decade later, Enron was soon to go bust and would also be indicted for its fraudulent accounting. Its power plant in Dabhol still stands, a cruelly forgotten and costly white elephant.

AM’s ire is also directed at the international financial institutions – the World

January 5, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in particular – and how they reduce a nation to subservience. This is not merely in how it chooses to advise a country over its monetary policies as well as its policies towards subsidies, but also in more subtle, insidious ways. As in the way AM points out, the agricultural credit committee was set up under the auspices of the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) in the late 1990s. The committee, that also included, quite inappropriately as AM points out, certain members from the Bank, advocated a tiered structure of credit to farmers. In other essays of a similar vein, AM points to the proposal to privatise the railways, the decision to sell the Videsh Sanchar Nigam (VSNL) and to offload 10 per cent stake in the Bharat Heavy Electricals (BHEL).

AM warns that the increasing dependency on the Fund-Bank institutions could come at a price, and in tangential ways, threaten India’s autonomy on foreign policy, though this Mitra again castigates is really arguable, as in the case of Kashmir.

There are also other essays, set in other countries, some of these tongue in cheek, as if AM were seeking to point to the squeamishness of the Indian government in standing up to international organisations. There is a piece on the Dutch government’s decision to counter outsourcing by employing prisoners in its state run penitentiaries. AM also praises Peru’s decision under its then president Alan Garcia (he is now president again) to stop its international debt repayments much to the chagrin of the Bretton Woods institutions. A boycott on further development loans was threatened but this was a bluff soon called. A reflection of India’s deteriorating commitment to its social services is also seen in Bush’s moves to reduce financial support to social security. AM describes the invasion of “calamity imperialism”, that set in most countries affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami, where in the guise of development assistance, and pro mises of recovery aid, many countries were compelled to accept the entry of western multinationals, and lower their own protection barriers.

There are a couple of interesting essays that may not appear politically convincing however, and have to do with the great

Economic & Political Weekly January 5, 2008

“what if” questions in history, and both are related to Iraq. AM asks why India chooses not to end its expensive dependency on foreign oil imports by importing oil from Iraq, and in turn aiding that benighted country with its surplus foodgrain production. AM argues that India would be well served by this, even if it implied going against the UN-US imposed sanctions on the then Saddam Hussein regime under the crippling food-for-oil programme that led to a deterioration of Iraq’s once healthy social indicators. But then the Indian government, AM scoffs, is too “afraid to be free”. In a later piece (‘The Great Leveller’, January 6, 1999), AM refers to then US president Bill Clinton’s statement calling for Saddam Hussein to step down as a first condition for the removal of sanctions. This is not only usurpation by the US of the UN’s prerogative, but constituted a blatant interference in another country’s matters; this was also a move that Clinton hoped would gloss over his own improprieties, for at that very time Clinton was facing impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Another essay is especially memorable for it reveals where AM’s concerns really rest (‘Please Pay for Non-Development’, January 14, 1981), his anger is directed at the manner in which the government hopes to raise its revenues by hiking bank charges and money order rates. The money order economy sustained a growing number of migrant families and they would be especially hard hit if such a move were implemented, yet this was in keeping with adapting to the winds of liberalisation that were soon to take on added force in the next two decades.

For those familiar with AM’s other writings, his essays in this collection, that are argumentative and pugnacious in equal measure, are however missing that liveliness, the sardonic or even puckish humour, his perceptive gaze (as evident in his other recent collections, The Prattler’s Tale, for instance), evident when he indulges in his fascination with people and social history. But at least in two essays, his astute clear-eyed and empathetic observation comes through.

The Idealistic Few

One is his tribute piece to Paul Sweezy, one of the founding editors of the Monthly Review, who passed away in early 2004.

This makes up strangely the last essay in the book, which disrupts the reverse chronological order of the book but it is a rewarding read nevertheless. Sweezy, born of wealthy East Coast parents, was a committed socialist, a brave individual who stood up to and braved government censure and bullying all through the McCarthy years (‘The Other Americans’, March 22, 2004). And there is, a personal favourite, AM’s piece on Amit Bhaduri, the economist, and his short book that eloquently argues the case for an universal national employment guarantee programme, Development with Dignity: A Case for Full Employment. Though such a programme requires sustained financial outlays and commitment from all levels of government, Bhaduri troubled by increasing and unabated economic distress among the poor, advocates the issue of securities by the Reserve Bank of India, to fund such a programme. In turn, the rise in employment that would be generated, would create its own market thereby ensuring self-sustaining economic development for the country.

Though such arguments go against the grain of current financial thinking, where fiscal irresponsibility is more often than not the global norm, and that such commitments as suggested by Bhaduri, would horrify the IMF and the World Bank, Bhaduri’s, AM argues, is a measured, reasoned, and passionately made argument. It is his very idealism that sets Bhaduri apart. AM also mentions Amit Bhaduri’s earlier paper on the futility of defence spending for this does not in any measure assure a nation’s security as rivalry between nations ensures a continuous increase in defence spending, in an unending game of one-upmanship.

AM’s is not a cajoling, gentle voice. He is argumentative and combative, yet he makes one think through issues. Reading these essays is also a necessary exercise, if a reader wishes to understand much that lies beneath the often glamorous picture. AM’s is a vital and necessary voice; we may choose to ignore him but at our own ignorance and peril.

Email: anu.epw@gmail.com

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