WHILE flagging off the first train run on the 351-km New Delhi-New Khurja section of the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor, PM Narendra Modi demanded that political parties should put development above politics. The turn of phrase — development above politics — is significant. In 1994, development had been typed as the quintessential ‘anti-politics machine’ by noted anthropologist James Ferguson. Leaders across the postcolonial world continue to flag the political vocabulary of development as value-free and apolitical, as a binary opposite to politics as contestation over power.
Politics is not only about the accumulation of power by elites. Politics is about the way people, inexorably stripped of the capacity to make their own lives, speak back to power. What we call the political is contested, challenged, mediated, modified, curtailed and expanded. It is a battlefield of disputed ideas, beliefs, worldviews, perspectives, ideologies and even mere opinions. Some ideologies win, but for the moment. Others loom on the margins sometimes as alternatives, sometimes as affirmation, and sometimes as critique.
The idea of the political as contestation allows political theorists to dream of a democratic state as one that intends to better the lives of people. If philosophy tells us how to lead a good life, political theory tells us that a good life cannot be lived unless we live in a good society. But a good society can only be institutionalised if the holders of power set out to create the preconditions of such a life by respecting rights to freedom, equality, justice, citizenship, dignity and social goods. Importantly, the democratic state must do so under the watchful and critical eye of the political public. Politics is by its very nature contested, even if the state of politics in the country is heavily dependent upon the politics of the state.
What then of development that is positioned against the notion of politics as contestation? Is development apolitical? Since Independence, thousands of Indians have been displaced from their habitats, their workplaces and their hearths by so-called development projects. These may be railroads, pollution-spewing power plants, toxic nuclear installations, environmentally unsound big dams, luxury hotels, malls and farm houses. The belief of the political elite that nothing should stop the juggernaut of development has led to the suspension of civil liberties and the right to hold the holders of state power responsible and accountable. How can we then abstract development from politics as contestation?
The depoliticisation of development accomplishes a major political objective: that of de-legitimising protest against big projects. This diminishes the political status of citizens. From agents who have the political competence to hold elected governments accountable, the people of India are reduced to consumers of opaque decisions arrived at in insulated corridors of power. But development is not above politics, it cannot be. For the living, breathing, pulsating right of citizens to a life worth living is neutralised by the anti-politics machine of development.
Consider the political tragedies wrought by this machine. Two to three generations of farmers in Punjab and Haryana have worked overtime to develop agricultural productivity and transform these two states into the celebrated grain bowl of India. Today, when farmers agitate against discriminatory laws, they are dismissed and denigrated in peculiarly uncivil terms. In August 2019, the Home Minister of India piloted two special resolutions and a Bill in the Rajya Sabha. Together, these hollowed out the constitutional status of Article 370, and carved up the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the two Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh. Terrorism, said Shah, cannot end in the state as long as Articles 370 and 35A endure. These two articles, he further stated, are an obstacle to development. In the aftermath of the terrible Hathras tragedy earlier this year, when a young woman was brutally raped and murdered, the Uttar Pradesh government hardly spoke of arresting rapists and bringing them to justice. It preferred to set up a probe into a mythical international conspiracy hatched in foreign climes to defame the government and instigate caste violence. The chief minister alleged that those who do not ‘like’ development want to incite caste and communal riots in the state.
Discourses of development in independent India bear an uncanny resemblance to offensive slogans adopted by the colonial government. The legitimising refrain of colonialism was the ‘civilising mission’, the legitimising mantra of post-independence governments is development. The first slogan assumed that the colonised were savages and needed to be civilised. The second presumes that citizens are passive and inert subjects of a merciless process called development. Both slogans embody absolute power. Both are contemptuous of human beings.
The postcolonial discourse on development is a little more sophisticated. It narrates wishful stories of how societies can move in a linear fashion towards progress only if governments harness natural resources, build infrastructure, and ensure economic growth. People are told that they will find development instead of un-development or under-development only vide reductionist beliefs in simple-minded economic theories. The naïve belief in development persists despite the truths of history, and the lesson of mythology that societies regress. By now, we know that societies follow the path set by the figure in Greek mythology, Sisyphus.
Sisyphus, the cunning and deceitful ruler of Corinth, was sentenced by the Greek god Zeus to roll a boulder up the hill in the underworld. Each time he reached the top of the hill, the boulder would roll down, forcing Sisyphus to begin his labour all over again. Similarly, societies progress and regress, become independent and are colonised once again, institutionalise democracy but democracy continues to elude them.
In the 2020 Global Democracy Index Report compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, India slipped 10 places from the 2019 ranking to 51st place. The report attributed the primary cause of democratic regression to the erosion of civil liberties in the country, downgrading of Article 370, deployment of massive troops in Jammu and Kashmir, arrest of Kashmiri leaders, ban on the internet, and security related measures. The National Register of Citizens exercise in Assam led to the identification of 1.9 million citizens as aliens. Above all, the decline in India’s democratic status is attributed to the infamous Citizenship Amendment Act. Admittedly, the government focuses on building infrastructure. This is necessary, but is it enough? Does it make people’s lives better? Hardly! India has slipped one position to 131 out of 189 countries in the 2020 Human Development Index of the UN Human Development Report.
The political paradox: Development but unsteady democracy gives us the right to ask disruptive questions. What exactly is it that development achieves? Who benefits? Who loses out? Splitting development from politics obfuscates its profoundly political role, of garnering power for elites at the expense of the people. Very few processes that affect the lives of Indians, often adversely, at rare times beneficially, are apolitical. They cannot be. Every practice, every institution, every word in the vocabulary of development, has to be contested. We have to bring back development into our understanding of politics as contestation every time a tribal community is alienated from its habitat, and every time a poor person’s hut or shanty town is demolished in the name of development.
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