The programmes initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the US, between 1933-39, during the Great Depression, enabled the US to recover.
The New Deal programmes brought a statisation of institutions. The aim was to rebuild people’s lives by providing them with jobs and putting money into their hands, through public work programmes as well as financial reform.
The theme was ‘relief, reform and recovery’.
Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indian economy is in a situation similar to the US during the Great Depression. However, what the Narendra Modi government-RSS combine has initiated as a reform to tackle the staggering economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis can be called the Old Deal at best. It is the complete opposite of Roosevelt’s New Deal.
This deal seems to have been written at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur. The idea seems to be to create a grandiose model of an empire (based on the so-called golden age of the Guptas).
Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman is being asked to play the role of Goddess Lakshmi, who is expected to put more and more money into the private sector, led by heavyweights like the Ambanis and Adanis. The way the Rs 20 lakh crore economic stimulus was announced by her, signalling the de-statisation of defence and other key sectors, tells the real story of the COVID-19 stimulus package.
The finance minister seems to be asking the tillers of land, harvesters, cattle-rearers, artisans and millions of migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres to reach their villages, to serve the new industrial lords. The idea behind the stimulus package is to shore up the time-honoured parampara (tradition) of varnadharma economy and also wealth distribution – those who toil with their hands should serve the varnadharma samaj as their duty; they are not to look at the work they do as a job with a dignified wage. Those who walked, starved, and died in lockdown did so in the service of the nation. This is part of the parampara.
A present-day ‘golden age’ is being sought to be established by shifting state properties to the private realm – just as the ‘golden age’ of the Guptas in ancient India heralded the decline of the productive society of the Indian shudra. In the Gupta’s ‘golden age’ the shudra was pushed back to the iron age. That is the scenario which is going to be replicated in post-COVID-19 India as ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat‘.
Why did Modi give just a four-hour notice for the lockdown to a nation of 1.3 billion people, of which at least 200-250 million people are migrant workers from remote corners of India working, not living, in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Surat, and so on? If an advance notice of four or five days had been given to the nation, employers and employees could have come to an agreement and the workers would have reached their remote villages with some food in their stomach and without the coronavirus in their lungs.
Trains, buses and taxis were still in operation. The way the prime minister announced the lockdown on May 24 struck fear among the people that death by the coronavirus would visit the people much like an earthquake. There was no employer-employee relationship after March 24 because that bond was snapped at midnight. Construction workers could not speak to their contractors; workers in small factories or grocery and cloth shops had no way of meeting their employers and asking for their wages for the days they had worked until then.
Millions of migrant workers did not know where to stay, how to live and what to eat. They came out on to the roads – men, women and children – and started walking on the national highways hoping to reach their villages, without water, food and sometimes even footwear. By the evening of March 25, there were incidents of workers falling unconscious on the roads. Children dying of starvation, of heat and of exhaustion became the ‘new normal’.
There was no sign that members of the Modi government were getting disturbed by these heart-rending scenes and tragedies. Media networks fell over themselves to praise Modi’s announcement of a nationwide lockdown as a ‘bold’ decision, declaring to the world that independent India had a strong leader like at no other time in 70-odd years.
What a bold decision by a bold leader – to make millions walk in the burning sun, starve, parents pulling suitcases on which children had laid down their heads to sleep. It is this labour that is expected to take on China under the Old Deal Programme.
Why was such a decision taken in such a manner, using the pandemic crisis? It is a fact that the struggles, sorrows and deaths of labourers have never pained the BJP government and RSS combine, industrialists and rich sections that support them. They are the other – the Dalit/Shudra/OBC/Adivasi. Their life is not valuable; only their labour is valuable, and it should be available either cheap or for free.
Why is it that the Centre has not put money in their hands? One view is that after reaching their villages in a half-dead state, they should face enough starvation to be propelled back to the urban centres to sell their labour cheaper than before. Indian industrialists seem to have dictated this agenda to the BJP government – there’s the financing of the 2024 elections to think of, after all.
If money is put in the hands of labourers to live in the village, they will not go back to cities, which are seen by the labour forces as estranged places. That is the reason why every minister is worried about workers going back to cities from their villages. Had the workers been given five days’ notice to reach their villages, they would not have carried the virus with them as it spread in cities like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Hyderabad only later. But now many of them have carried the virus to their homes and villages – the chain has not been broken; it has connected with the human chain of labourers.
The RSS and the BJP have a dream that it is this unorganised, cheap migrant labour, which will compete with China and take over their share of the global market, a dream peddled by ‘nationalist’ media networks. It’s a joke, to say the least. But the mainstream media does not think so. It believes that once the lockdown is lifted Indian goods will flood the global market, the Chinese dragon will slink away only to see the lotus bloom in foreign markets.
The mainstream media is all too ready to believe that with the announcement of the Old Deal, the arrival of a golden age, anchored by monopoly capitalists, is inevitable.
A fundamental question is could the Chinese government, with one-party rule under the leadership of a man like Xi Jinping, have declared a nationwide lockdown at a four hours’ notice? Their labour is not in miserable bondage to contractors as ours, and they would not have needed to starve and walk home even if a lockdown had been imposed at such short notice. Even then if Xi had tried it, that would have been the end of him. But look at the way the Indian media protected the BJP government, with the opposition reduced to the status of mere spectators.
This Old Deal is going to destroy India’s entire rural economy. Post-coronavirus India will face conditions worse than the Great Depression. The only way to get out of that economic crisis would have been by statising many institutions and sectors that were de-statised post-1991, in the flush of globalisation and liberalisation.
The irony is that at a time when globalisation is dying, the emphasis is not on statisation. Quite the contrary – the Old Deal is going ahead with more privatisation. It will not bring about relief, reform and recovery for those who are most affected by the COVID-19 crisis. It will destroy them.
The regional political parties, apart from farmers and labour, must understand that once everything is privatised, India will go back to the golden age of the Guptas. There will be no place for them in that empire. The Old Deal is the whole deal.
Kancha Ilaih Shepherd is political theorist, social activist and author.