Thursday, 20 July 2017

POLITICAL PARTIES AND THE RHETORIC OF PARTIAL TRUTHS



Much too often, the statements of political parties and the rhetoric that accompanies it hides more than it reveals. It obscures the issues faced by the people in the interest of maintaining one party’s legitimacy to continue to rule. Alternately, facts and truth are selectively used by the opposition to turn the heat on those who are in power.

In this context, let us consider some recent statements made by members of political parties. As reported in an English-language daily, Curtorim MLA, Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenço claimed that beef was not banned during the Congress regime in Goa. His reason for the claim was that, except for the meat of female cattle (or cow), other bovine meat was available to the Goan people for consumption. Lourenço was reacting to the recent statement made by BJP’s Amit Shah, who said that the beef-ban was in existence in Goa before prior to the BJP and added that “it was there when the Congress government was in power, but no one posed questions to the Congress”.

In the jostle between Messrs. Lourenço and Shah, or Congress and BJP, one thing appears to be sadly true: both are partially right. Lourenço is right in saying that the consumption of the meat of the female bovine was prohibited, just like Shah is in claiming that the ban on cow-slaughter pre-dated the BJP; it also predates the Congress, for it was the MGP government that brought in the legislation in the 1970s, making Goa one of the first states (then a Union Territory) to bring in a ban. However, when the Congress came to power, it introduced a law which, in addition to maintaining the prohibition on the slaughter of female bovines, also created a license raj around the sale and consumption of cattle meat.

Writing in O Heraldo some time back, Albertina Almeida made a critical observation, “But then came the Goa Animal Preservation Act, 1995, enacted during the Congress rule in Goa. This was in the aftermath of the Ayodhya dispute when Congress was looking to playing the B team of the BJP after being on the verge of losing its majority on account of the political traction BJP was being able to gain by playing the Hindutva card”. One can argue that this legislation played neatly into the hands of Hindu majoritarianism.

Surprisingly, one would expect that someone like Lourenço would recognize that a part of the blame lies in Congress policies. Especially since Lourenço has been one of the few politicians to be vocal against Hindutva in recent times. Is it simply a matter of safeguarding party interests from its rivals, or do the finer nuances of how fascist politics operates escape many politicians, not only Lourenço? It certainly seems so, given his assertion that the cow was sacred to Hindus and hence, out of respect, Goans refrained from slaughtering the female bovine (or the cow). Effectively, Lourenço suggests that the issue of cow-slaughter should be solely seen through the lens of upper-caste Hindu morality. How is this position any different from that of the BJP?

As has been time and again pointed out by many commentators, the issue of the beef-ban or cow-slaughter affects laboring caste and class persons more than it does those who only consume beef, or those who solely worship the cow. What happens to the finances of a farmer, already a member of an economically precarious group, who is saddled with the burden of maintaining a non-productive cow?

The Chief Minister, Manohar Parrikar’s comments following the Central Government’s new rules to regulate cattle markets is another example of how members of political parties indulge in the rhetoric of partial truth. Goa, he said, did not have a cattle market and hence the rules did not apply. However, such an assertion masked the fact that the livelihoods of hundreds of Goans, not to mention the nourishment of thousands, were endangered. The inhuman laws that have been introduced by various governments have, in fact, created difficulties for the laboring poor. Who will own up to these mistakes?

One thing is very clear, spokespersons of political parties perpetually evade any blame for the problems caused by the ideology of their respective parties. In such an appalling political culture, where ‘blame game’ and ‘whataboutery’ dominate, one is reminded of the proverb: ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’. Indeed, the issues pertaining to the lives, and livelihoods of people as well as the issues of environmental degradation remain unaddressed.

In recent times, Goans have witnessed a ‘blame game’ on various issues. If we know for sure that an environmental disaster is imminent, owing to the skewed developmental policies, is it really a question of conflicting ideologies of political parties? Will evading responsibility or blaming the other political party for the failure of governance help in preventing an environmental disaster? The same applies to preventing a growing humanitarian crisis, wherein lowered-caste and minoritized groups are routinely lynched and killed. Eventually, the bickering of political parties whitewashes the horrors that people have to face on a daily basis.

The rhetoric of partial truths simultaneously hides and reveals the truth (or truths). But what it hides is far more important – and has greater consequences – than what it reveals. It creates an aura in which issues seem to be debated and discussed, as in a democratic setup. The manner in which the rhetoric of partial truths hides certain facts, it also excludes certain people. The facts that are hidden by rhetoric indicate that real people are affected by state policies and ideological politics. It is precisely in the nature of the rhetoric of partial truths to create a discourse that marginalizes groups to the extent that they are disenfranchised.

(An edited version was first published in O Heraldo, dt: 20 July, 2017)

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

AMORAL ECONOMY: TRICKLE-DOWN POLITICS AND ELECTIONS



The dust kicked up during the recently held Panchayat elections in Goa has almost settled down. As in all elections, this Panchayat election also witnessed massive power struggles. While it is true that the way power operates would continue in ways that destroy Goa’s natural and human resources, yet in the meanwhile, we can still think why the system stays the way it does. One thing is very clear, a large number of people by participating in ‘grass-roots democracy’ are staking their claim for power – power that is otherwise concentrated  in the hands of a few. One of the commonest reasons given for such power struggles, and the fair and foul means employed to gain power, is greed of the people. But is there more to the story? Can there be another explanation for the way the masses behave as they do?

The British labor historian, E. P. Thompson wrote extensively about labor movements in Britain. Of his many celebrated works, his essay on ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’ (1971) has some relevance when we talk about the nature of how power is brokered through an economy of gifts and favors. Thompson spoke about the public disturbances involving the working class and peasants, and argued that rather than viewing such violence as riots, they were in fact demands to safeguard customary and other rights that the state had failed to protect. Thus, the term ‘moral economy’ as understood by Thompson referred to the unwritten codes that bound the masses and the authorities in a system of recognizing the basic rights to food and fair prices.

As far as elections in Goa – as in many other parts of India – are concerned, one can suggest that there exists an ‘amoral economy’. While Thompson’s moral economy can be considered as political action against authoritarianism, an amoral economy can be considered to do the opposite. In an amoral economy dominant power cannot be easily subverted. Though flawed in its very structure, such an economy promotes a form of power that gets concentrated in the hands of the few. The masses that participate in this economy or are drawn in this economy are not necessarily the ones who control the reins of power. At the lowest level, say the Panchayat level, it is a person who, for various reasons, has a decent amount of ‘supporters’. This hierarchy progresses upwards to Zilla Parishad members, municipality councilors, MLAs, Ministers, and other community leaders who are present at each of these levels. At all levels, the position of leadership and influence depends on one’s caste and class location and in some cases, on the financial resources available to negotiate this hierarchical game of power.The person who wants to be at the top of this hierarchy has to ensure that he has the backing of persons at each level of political representation. This is basically trickle-down politics!

What happens once elections are announced is that the masses, hitherto left out from power and influence, suddenly acquire a value because they can cast their vote. The vote, therefore, becomes a tangible resource that can be exchanged for short term gains and alliances. How this economy works for a large part of the masses – those that fall outside the boundary of the political class – can be gleaned from Sujay Gupta’s article on how favors were exchanged in four localities of Goa prior to the recently-concluded Panchayat polls.

In this article we hear about a candidate who feasts his supporters or potential supporters at a village tavern, as is the case in several other elections in the past. The next day this candidate approaches a “middle level but influential politician” for a hefty sum of a couple of lakhs, which he receives as “a grant or a loan”. Similarly, other candidates either seeking a re-election or a fresh mandate were reported to have purchased a large number of electronic items, such as LCD TVs, phones, tablets, and refrigerators. One thing is very clear, gifts and favors need to be exchanged. However, it is not necessary that the person at the lower level (for instance) will have the required resources and as such this person has to approach someone (mostly a few levels higher than him) to ensure that the unwritten codes are followed. On the other hand the person(s) at the higher levels receive the support from those at the lower level, as the latter owes a favor to the former.

I do not want to offer a sanitized picture of a well-tuned economy in which political and social relations exist in harmony. However, one needs to ask how does one survive, and in fact negotiate one’s basic aspirations – jobs, clean water, electricity etc, if one is stuck in an economy of unequal power relations. If there are multiple levels through which power is negotiated and brokered then the individual is often held hostage to the multiple levels of power. So the way towards gaining power and fulfilling aspirations for those at the lower levels of this hierarchy is a tortuous and winding one.

There is, I think, an element of greed in the amoral economy. But the further one goes down the hierarchy it isn’t so much about greed but about survival, and ensuring that certain expectations and aspirations in life – such as accessing basic amenities – are fulfilled.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 5 July, 2017)