A time to be 'populist'

A time to be

The experts indulge in sophisticated criticism of the State, in what the propaganda theorists call 'disinterested deliberation', even as they advise...

The experts indulge in sophisticated criticism of the State, in what the propaganda theorists call 'disinterested deliberation', even as they advise the government and the corporations behind the scenes through heavily funded organizations Budget debates on English news channels are fascinating. The rhetoric of the anchors and the super-elite of business and politics who surface on the shows and tell us what to think about the direction our economy is taking is something to look forward to. Each such discussion is a body scan of the political economy of our State � who is invited to give gyan, who has a token presence, who should shout and who should speak when spoken to! The panels claim to have representation from all segments of society, i.e., business, politics, people from powerful think tanks; most of whom have a direct axe to grind. Here, you will not find any one from people's organizations, Non-governmental organizations, or heterodox economics. What you may see on the shows, however, are the men and women on the street whose carefully picked statements will endorse the prevailing wisdom the channel wishes to buttress. In this round of budget, some of the channels have decided to pitch it as 'populism' versus 'pragmatism'. One of the much-watched anchors exclaimed: "A government says one year before an election � we don't want to be populist, we'll send a pragmatic message; we're not going to try and win vote banks; or make people happy!" The dictionary meaning of 'populist' is: A member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people; a person who holds, or who is concerned with, the views of ordinary people; a member of the Populist Party, a US political party formed in 1891 that advocated the interests of labour and farmers, free coinage of silver, a graduated income tax, and government control of monopolies. There are apparently various shades of populism: 'left-wing' populism, 'centrist' populism, and the Nazi-style populism which came to power in Germany cashing in on the rising dissatisfaction with the government and business that was prevalent there after the First World War using nationalist rhetoric. In most of our political or economic debates too, the policies that alleviate the conditions of poverty and social misery experienced by the ordinary poor in the country, whether by the centrist parties like the Congress or the left, are generally characterised as 'populist', 'with an eye on the next election'. The rhetoric of the right wing that's powered by jingoistic nationalism rarely merits this description in mainstream media. For instance, the politics and the development agenda of the Gujarat government are being touted as the new nationally replicable model of development for India. Being corporate- friendly is presented here as the most nationalistic position to take for an aspirational middle-class. This, both the big business and the big media peddle as 'pragmatism'. The context for this 'pragmatism' seems very much akin to the inter-war situation in Germany where there was widespread dissatisfaction with the government and the industrial capital, fuelled by a feeling of humiliation after the defeat in war; the nationalist rhetoric of the Nazis had a special appeal for the frustrated middle-classes. The severely constructed trope of 'efficiency and discipline' combined with a blinding definition of nationalism is invoked often to sell the Gujarat dream. Both the big media and the big business have hailed the finance minister for "bucking populism" and "not doing anything badly negative." One of the industrialists on a TV panel, Mr. Munjal said that the industry was expecting "all kinds of new duties and taxes � excise duty getting raised, estate duty coming in � at this stage if you do anything negative, it would make people negative and prevent any kind of growth coming back." Lord Meghnath Desai on the panel said, "Some of the NDA decisions were beneficial for the UPA. But the thrust of UPA was redistributive and not growth oriented. Because they are redistributive, that upset the balance and brought us to this (low) growth. This budget has restrained itself from redistribution and has been fiscally responsible." Ms Naina Kidwai who heads Assocham and is the Chairman of HSBC India said that she is happy about what is not in the budget rather than what is in the budget. She also said that instead of starting new banks, public sector banks should be largely privatized. The drift of the corporate opinion is quite clear that redistribution of resources is 'populism'; not taxing the corporations and handing over more of the major public sector institutions built on public money to the private sector is 'pragmatism'. This dichotomy is structured into a debate by the corporate media and one did not see any questioning of these assumptions on the panel. The rare left opinion that did find a place was severely outweighed by the spokespersons for right-wing political opinion and seemingly neutral experts from corporate think-tanks. The experts indulge in sophisticated criticism of the State, in what the propaganda theorists call 'disinterested deliberation', even as they advise the government and the corporations behind the scenes through heavily funded organizations. When Mr D Raja (CPI) raised the issue of revenue forgone and corporate concessions figures in the discussion, the anchor and the others on the panel vociferously interrupted him and he did not get the chance to raise the issue again. The deal between the big business and the government appears to be to maintain the status quo to tide over current difficulties, even as prices of fuel and essential commodities go up for the common man. During the budget season everyone seems to discard the pretence of calling India a democracy. That's only for election time. No one asked: What is wrong with populism if it benefits a large number of people? Is it not the duty of a popularly elected government to take care of people's demands? Is the popular mandate given to pander to corporate greed? The mainstream economic thought is supposed to believe in benefits trickling down to the poor. But the nexus between the government, big business and big media appears to be trickle-proofing the economy. No alternative voice was allowed to be heard. The big media are facilitating a culture of pragmatism that serves corporate interests, while repeatedly dismissing all pro-people initiatives as vote bank politics. Perhaps it is time to ask: If we consider ourselves a representative democracy, what is wrong if my representative fights for my entitlements? One would have thought it was their duty to do so. If they can get us a school, a hospital, a playground, a train, a regular bus, a ration card, a reservation, a pension, anything that makes life a little easier, it is welcome. Why would one want to elect someone who cannot even do this for his or her constituency? Election or no election, any time should be time for 'populism'.
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