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Theatre of the (Tragic) Absurd

The drama over the bribe operations and buying of MPs had all the characteristics of a third rate comedy. Except that, it is turning out to be tragic.

COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 9, 200835The incidents in Nandigram and Singur are the fallout of that mindset. And this is a legacy that the left had internalised in its thoughts from the experience of the Soviet Union in its heydays. That bag-gage will have to be discarded by the left parties if their quest for a third front is to be realised in any meaningful manner. In other words, the left parties must agree to define the socialist alternative as one where the rights of the human being in the political, cultural, social and economic sense of the term is internalised as non-negotiable. That is, the idea that social-ism is not just about a change in the men at the helm of affairs and is instead a brand new alternate vision to capitalism will have to constitute the very basis of their existence as a political party. For the left’s claims to forge an alternative, to make sense, it will have to locate that process and that project in these various struggles against the liberalisation-privati-sation-globalisation agenda as well as the undemocratic options that the existing regimes are resorting to against the people and their organisations. In conclusion, it is relevant here to re-call what Frederich Engels had to say in his own times about the communist project. Referring to the experience of the Paris commune, where the working class for the first time held political power for two whole months, Engels wrote another preface to the Communist Manifesto in 1888. And in that, Marx’s intimate friend and collaborator said: “One thing especially was proved by the commune, viz, that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”. Well, a third front or anything else that the communists attempt will have to have the revolutionary transfor-mation of the lives of the toiling people as its strategic end and that cannot be served by mere tinkering of the set-up that we now have. Theatre of the (Tragic) AbsurdGPDThe drama over the bribe operations and buying ofMPs had all the characteristics of a third rate comedy. Except that, it is turning out to be tragic.If you, like us, find the Indian Lok Sabha and the debates there, such as they are, immensely amusing, we are sure that you spent hours on end (load shedding permitting), listening to the inaudible debate on the trust motion moved by the prime minister. In the Vedas there is a description of the brahmans reciting the verses from the Vedas. They have been likened there to hundreds of frogs croaking collectively. Earlier we always wondered howthe noise of the reciting human frogs would have sounded and what the point of such collective noise was. We are sure you too have wondered. Now we know. On July 21and 22,we understood. Such a din would have ensured that the honourable members would have heard only their own voice. It must have been great for the members as they in any case do not like to hear anyone except their own dis-tinguished selves. There is no elixir like one’s own voice mouthing principles and morality. Never had we heard impossible-to-decipher-noise being so completely meaningful. It was a coalition democracy at work. Coalition democracy is all about noise levels.At the end of the tiring noise for two days one discovered that 15 or so defections settled the issue. It is obvious that these defections could not have been the effect of the inaudible persuasions. As is the Indian political practice their defections are superstructure created through a solid and substantial material base. Consider-ing that it was the United Progressive Alli-ance (UPA) government that survived the confidence motion it is not difficult to see who provided the material base. To be fair to the Congress-ledUPA, the material base they provided was certainly more success-ful than what the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) might have had to offer. In other words UPA was not alone in creating new standards of democratic behaviour. The difference is that the largesse they had to offer was greater and more reliable than the one offered by the other party. The whole business began with the left parties withdrawing their support (from outside) to the Manmohan Singh govern-ment on the question of the nuke deal with the Bush (soon to be Obama or McCain) land. We suffer from certain technology blindness. We were therefore never able to say if the technical matters involved in our arrangements with the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were ipso facto against the national interest. This matter is so technical that theMPs could not have possibly debated it, as indeed they could not. Technically the treaty need not have been debated in the Lok Sabha. But there were understandable references to the proposed treaty. GPD (gpdesh@vsnl.com) is a well known commentator on literary and political affairs.

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COMMENTARYEconomic & Political Weekly EPW august 9, 200837the parting of the ways with the left. Its more seasoned members knew that ap-pearing to be anti-left is not good for its own image. So Manmohan Singh thought of taking the initiative and announcing over the heads of his cabinet colleagues that India was going ahead with the initia-tive with theIAEA. This resulted in the predictable move of the left. It could not have continued supporting the UPA govern-ment without sacrificing basic credibility. It had no option but to quit and quit it did. It did not vote withA or B. It simply took the only way that was open to it, not nec-essarily a bad thing to happen. Yet it is important to see that it was a Congress game plan with the quiet blessing of the Americans. One need not celebrate or regret the outcome. One should however record that there was nothing bizarre about it, to use P Chidambaram’s descri-ption of voting behaviour in the House. So further steps on the nuke deal will be taken fast, credit for the deal would be in the Congress coffers before the new elections are scheduled. Congress will at least have one (what it considers to be) achievement to show. It seems to believe that it will work.It is nevertheless true that the drama over the bribe operations and buying of MPs had all the characteristics of a third rate comedy. That was bizarre except that the finance minister was unwilling to see it. As if that absurd theatre was not enough a member of the central committee ofthe Communist Party of India (Marxist) nar-rated the story of Somnath Chatterji’s re-quest to get the party nomination for president. (In the event the party had pro-posed Pranab’s name, he was apparently willing to settle for vice-presidentship.) Nothing worked. Now the reports say that the prime minister has offered him some-thing. This was when he went to greet Chatterji on his 80th birthday. That indeed is bizarre. All this is absurd theatre, except that it is turning out to be tragic.Is Higher Demand for Biofuels Fuelling Food Prices? Anil SharmaOne reason for the increase in world food prices is that of food consumption, especially in developing countries. Another is the demand for cereals and food crops to produce biofuels. Which is the more dominant factor that can explain this surge? Against the mounting evidence that expansion of biofuels from food crops such as corn, rapeseed, soy-bean and even wheat and other coarse grains has been one of the key drivers of food prices during recent years, policy-makers in both the United States (US) as well as European Union (EU) are trying to sidetrack attention by putting forward ar-guments that increasing demand for food in developing countries is the dominant factor pushing up food prices. While it is true that increased consumption of food in developing countries is an important factor, it has been so for some time now and is not a recent development. It is the sudden and phenomenal rise of biofuel production that has to be properly under-stood to make a fair judgment on the importance of food or fuel demand in pushing food prices. Though the subject of “food versus fuel” has been debated for a while, the gravity of this vexed issue has still not been examined and understood properly. It is the lack of understanding that explains why most of the commentators on this issue have been giving more prominence to other factors over increased production of biofuels. Therefore, the objective of this article is to provide more clarity on this subject. To understand this objectively, we first review the factors triggering increases in food prices that have been identified by various international organisations. Then, we take up the issue of increased demand for bio-fuel production and rising consumption of food in developing countries including China and India to make clear so as to which is the more dominant factor that explains the recent rise in food prices. What Has Triggered the Rise?Commentary on factors that have led to pressures on supplies of food that seem to have contributed to the current price rise is already available from various international agencies including the World Bank, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), Food and Agricul-ture Organisation (FAO) and Asian Deve-lopment Bank (ADB). The World Bank (2008) says that demand for biofuels, needs of the increasing popu-lation, growing middle class in India and China with increasing purchasing power and erratic weather are among the rea-sons that have pushed food prices. The EBRD andFAO (2008) are of the view that a part of the price increases is the result of temporary supply problems, such as droughts (including those that occurred in south-eastern Europe in mid-2007) and diseases.Anil Sharma (aksharma@ncaer.org) is at the National Council of Applied Research, New Delhi.

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