Through the Looking-Glass of India’s Democratic Proxy War

In the Uttar Pradesh elections, the simple question of people wanting to create their own history shall remain buried along with democracy.

A BJP rally in Ahmedabad in 2014. Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters/Files

A BJP rally in Ahmedabad in 2014. Elections are proxy wars that have been shielding the real problems in the Indian democracy. Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters/Files

Elections in Uttar Pradesh are a time when the diversities and contradictions in peoples’ lives come into play. A majority of the state’s people are subsistence farmers and labourers, some small artisans and service providers working their own tools, mostly primitive – living in ‘subsistence time’. Then there are goons, thekedars and power brokers  who live in ‘money time’, with money as their religion. There are also others who inhabit ‘technology time’ – having imbibed the new modern technologies, ideas and action, of invention and experiment, of information and knowledge.

Between these ‘times’ are transitional times with hybrid characteristics, between which some people move freely. People living in different times think and act differently, and relate to society, economics and politics differently. Each time could be identified with a leading political actor of the present – Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav and Narendra Modi respectively. These ‘times’ are at war with one another in a manner where people participate in elections, as if to write their own destinies, but end up being figurative objects in a dramatic act where the perceived reality is a farce.

Subsistence time and the will for self determination

In subsistence time, people work their fields or their tools hoping to receive just enough for their family and a little for the one who passes by, said Kabir. This little, obtained from hard work, is seen as a gift of the divine. We may call this local time or durable time. Those living in advanced times need to see to believe. The Ganga-Jamuna doab is so well endowed that with one bigha (0.16 hectares) of land, and a cow or a buffalo, a small family ekes out its living, simple and happy. Thousands of devotees come to the sangam, stay in tents in the cold fog of the month of Magh, mid-January to mid-February for kalpwas, take a dip in the Ganga every morning and eat simple self cooked meals, and not the burgers and chips on sale at the periphery of the mela. They experience the stillness and silence in life in the cold sands of Ganga.

Historically, many farmers and artisans would not accumulate beyond their immediate requirements. When Babar came plundering their villages, he found that the costs of plunder far outweighed the loot. Not that these people were saints – they spent, wasted, celebrated festivities and sacrifices – but they were happy with the little of what they produced and exchanged. We have millions of such people in Uttar Pradesh even today.

Colonialism and post-independence capitalism took away the means of production from a broad swathe of these people. Still many of them have resisted the transformation into wage labour. By saying this, we mean that the feeble efforts of self-determination are not over and done with. Their spirits remain unconquered; even a cursory visit to the rallies of Mayawati would show streams of earthy people coming in to keep their spirits high.

In local or subsistence time, people had made and are still subjects of their own histories, their own songs, myths and memories –  howsoever unsung or maligned by others. They have amongst them people who would converse, and listen and deliberate, where a collective wisdom is continually formed, often ignored and even derided by people of the advanced times. Nevertheless, new forms of communication that mesmerise are overpowering peoples’ wisdom.

The BHIM button shall now record their little money histories. Money time is set to replace the local subsistence time.

Minting money, minting people

The spurt in industrialisation in the formal sector, both public and private, had almost come to a halt in Uttar Pradesh with the end of the somewhat stable governments of the Congress and the Rashtriya Janta Dal regimes by 1977. Thereafter, with rather unstable governments, ‘money time’ created goons who accumulated wealth at will. Many small and large farmers rented out their agricultural lands and became thekedars, both small and big. The smaller ones purchased tractor trolleys, the larger ones became commission agents for various government jobs.

Akhilesh Yadav, Chief Minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and the son of Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, waves at his supporters during a Rath Yatra, or a chariot journey, as part of an election campaign in Lucknow, India November 3, 2016. REUTERS/Pawan Kumar/Files

Akhilesh Yadav, Chief Minister of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh and the son of Samajwadi Party (SP) chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lucknow, India November 3, 2016. Credit: Pawan Kumar/Reuters/Files

Akhilesh Yadav, as chief minister, tried to rein in the goons and faced a split in the party. He has made his presence felt, however, with expenditure on large and visible infrastructure and the distribution of laptops. During the assembly election campaign he has promised smart phones for the unemployed. In a sense, he has tried to steal the ‘development’ agenda from Modi. However, the agenda of Akhilesh is as fictitious as Modi’s. The role of governments in providing public goods is undisputed . The downside has been on the cultural front – epitomised by the Saifai cultural events, which became displays of vulgarity, reprised in ways big and small across the state by goons. A deculturisation of community has happened.

While this then is money time – the time for production to be sold in the market for money – this is also the industrial time of machines producing more machines, producing things, the time for fictitious commodities of labour and money to emerge, the time for finances to accumulate and for money to make more money. It is also the time when an ancient civilisation around the Ganga and Yamuna has to be made literate, has to be educated for industrialisation and the new India – the unskilled India – has to be readied for the market. The process of rationalisation and utilitarianism is still incomplete when millions throng to the sangam and other melas round the year or sit ‘idle’ at home.

The money times are characterised by people wanting money to survive and by those who have money wanting more. Those who don’t have money pull out their caste card and demand a job; tens of thousands spend years to  pass a competitive exam for jobs with the government. Here, both the good and the bad of money emerge. Demonetisation led to deprivation for a very large section in the informal sector and for migrant labour. The resentment is high among migrant workers and women who have nowhere to go. This seems to be their destiny. Not enough, this identity has to take the shape of plastic cards under strict surveillance of the new technology time. 

The real and the hyper-real

Uttar Pradesh is also home to ‘technology time’. This time is created and simulated using signs and images that flow through cable and satellite television, Facebook, Twitter and other aspects of the internet. The most popular image has been that of the prime minister whose imagery of India and manners and idioms appear to have captured the imagination of all, collapsing all boundaries of castes and class, but not perhaps religion. This is the image of a well dressed fakir, hunting for dollars abroad to build a strong India, installing factories of fighter jets and other armaments, and it is deployed through the media with other images to help shape our thoughts and behaviour. For Jean Baudrillard, this is the ecstasy of communication.

People are reduced to an entity in the hyper-real world. People would quarrel at the cashless ATM’s and they would die hailing demonetisation. The legitimacy of the move is unchallenged, people are seduced to thinks of themselves as martyrs in the war against black money – if jawans can bear the chill in Ladakh, so could the young people of India.

Images are appropriated for ‘the’ agenda. Gandhi, Patel, Ambedkar, are assigned roles of cleansing, surveillance and as a single button of the Bhim app. A new politics and a new culture are produced. The cynicism of the rule is multiplied by the cynical and seductive power of the media. A hegemon is created wherein the objects reign the subject, a move towards total control, a gift of globalisation. Undoubtedly, the youth of Uttar Pradesh, the unemployed in particular and the aspirant middle classes live in technology time, oblivious of being its victims. The youth constitute a little more than half of the total voters in the state.

Warring times

These three ‘times’ have been at war in the UP assembly election – a war of the real, the modern and the hyper-real, a war of identity, youth and sexuality, a war between the simple, the ordinary and the complex, a war between dignity, fictitious money and total control through deceit.

The war, however, is a proxy war. For example, the hidden agenda behind demonetisation is to increase tax revenue by recording transactions in the informal sector. Even a cup of tea from a street vendor, if paid using the Bhim app or a privately owned wallet app, will bring revenue to the government and returns to the private entity. A little less than half of the GDP originates in the informal sector and by and large avoids taxation. Even if this is justified, the means to bring this through excessive control over the money supply cannot be justified. The end does not justify the means.

Migration, especially from eastern Uttar Pradesh, became a means of survival. The highest number of labour migrants abroad  are now from Uttar Pradesh, and not Kerala. Subsistence and liberty are not necessarily amenable; when faced with starvation, people prefer security to liberty. And they did so in subsistence time, longing for security and state benefits.

The three times represent various stages of alternation wherein people are no longer able to march with history and history goes beyond their control. People in Uttar Pradesh had scripted the history of the national movement, and showed the potential of being the fastest growing state in the country. That was then. As fate would have it, the traditional crafts died out but industry – other than that in the public sector – remained largely a non-starter, except in clusters of the informal sector.  

Subjects of their destiny became objects for others’ destiny as labour was commodified either as wage labour or in government service against a quota.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the inauguration ceremony of the 'Make In India' week in Mumbai, February 13, 2016. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters/Files

Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks during the inauguration ceremony of the ‘Make In India’ week in Mumbai, February 13, 2016. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters/Files

What remains buried

The technology time of the hegemon makes the prisoner love his cell because he knows nothing else. Those who understand the images and the illusions and dare to speak in public are ridiculed and branded as traitors.

The Congress had laid the foundation stones for all the three times – the subsistence or local time with Gandhi, the money time or industrial time with Nehru, Patel and Ambedkar, and the technology time with Sam Pitroda and Manmohan Singh. The mentors of local time have been appropriated by Modi and put to good use. Nehru became meaningless after Singh ushered technology, market, tourism, information and homogenisation with globalisation. The hegemon uses skeletons of the old Congress leaders to bring about a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, which also means an end to the universally known values of human rights, liberty, culture, respect for nature and difference and democracy. The foundation stones are unsung. The pinnacles of glory are admired.

The illusions of the pinnacles are appreciated and revered and sustained by repetition in various forms, ad nauseam. An image is created and before its impact is fully comprehended, a new one emerges: ghar wapsi, beef eating, surgical strike, notebandi, Modi settling an arms deal abroad, or spinning the charkha, to name a few. There seems to be a kaleidoscope where images are created and multiplied making difficult for everyone to differentiate the real and the hyper-real. Modi has excelled in this art in the technology time, creating the illusion of want and fulfilment at the same time.

Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas is the soul of Uttar Pradesh. Here, Rama says, it is not difficult to win over Ravana, it is difficult to win the Ravana inside us. Sadly, this is not on the agenda of any political party. Besides, it was Rama who could see through the maya or illusions created by Ravana. Shall real people with Rama in their heart break through the illusions of the hegemon or wait for Kalki?

In the illusions and the deafening noise of the hegemon, where are the times of stillness, of silence and of wisdom asks T.S. Eliot in ‘Choruses from The Rock’.

“All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God…
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.”

“Where is the Life, we have lost in living”? This question begs an answer.

As political parties exchange blows, make alliances, invoke caste affiliations, charms, rituals, lures and snares, the simple question of people wanting to create their own history shall remain buried along with democracy. Come what may, however, the farce of 2017 will still be described as historic.

Pradeep Bhargava is director and Anant Ram Mishra is associate professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad

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  • K. Dutt

    It is not possible to wake up a person who is not asleep. From their narrative, it appears that Director Bhargava and Prof. Mishra are perfectly happy to pretend to be asleep and ignore the sixty years calamity India (and UP is part of India, to help you stay in the picture) has had to endure under administrations from Nehru to Manmohan Singh (the fake one). All the so-called ‘times’ you refer to,from Nehru to Monmohan with all their progenies, cronies and hangers on, have but one purpose, to keep India in the same bondage without the British, and remain available for looting. And you two talk about human rights. They were never near any God and did their best to keep us in the dust. All the values-human rights, liberty, culture, etc. that you attached to those administrations, are your fanciful conception. It has not historical support; it has no basis in reality.
    Yet, you proceed to condemn the current administration, in office for less than three years and trying break the chains of bondage of history and self-government as well as the purposeful grid-locks and impatient country yearning to grow and live. “Where is the Life, we have lost in living” that begs for an answer, is in your narrative. Where were (collective)you? Timid professors and howling students do not contribute anything but farce. At best, they feed “Ravanas”.