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Magical Realism in the Fabulous World of the Indian Economy


Vijay Prashad

Magical

Realism is an Indian habitus discovered accidentally by Latin American fiction.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, may his recent illness be as painless as possible, wrote

in a style that evokes for me the social relations of the Indian subcontinent.

No wonder, then, that his technique is so freely, and profitably, used (most

mimetically) by Salman Rushdie and (only partly) by Arundhati Roy.

Consider

two small examples. For almost eight decades, a fire has raged under several

square miles of Jharkhand (formerly southern Bihar). This fire, in Jharia, began

in an unsafe colliery run by British capital and it has burned, uncontrolled to

this day. Over the past three decades the Indian government has relocated about

2500 families (and even considered the wholesale transfer of Jharia town). But

13,500 families remain on the hot surface, with callused feet to carry them each

day over the insatiable inferno. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away in Nuapada,

Orissa, in the early 1980s, agencies committed to ‘development’ castrated the

local, and very resilient, Khariar bull. Cows in the district, according to

journalist P. Sainath, were impregnated with imported Jersey semen. Two years

later, after expending millions of rupees, the several cows only produced eight

calves of poor health. The diary farmers in this drought prone district suffered

the presence now of worthless cows and the rumor of a fabulous, but now extinct,

bull. Magical realism on the backs of the working-class and peasantry.

Foreign

tourists to India often are amused by the sheer density of experiences, as they

overload with sensory data. We Indians in the US take on a bemused tone when

confronted with the enthusiasm of the liberal tourist. India seems to do things

in excess: too many spices, too many colors, too much noise. Magical realist

fiction thrives on this vision of an overripe India. I suspect that after you’ve

brushed off the orientalist (and sometimes racist) overtones of this reaction

there is a germ of truth to it. South Asian cultures are decidedly

non-puritanical when it comes to public space and there is a sense of revelry in

the north Indian marketplaces with which I am familiar. If the subcontinent has

a tendency to excess, our local fascistic movement is not to let us down on this

score. The Hindu Right is flamboyant in its cultural outrageousness and almost

camp-like in its subservience to the logic of capital. No author of magical

realist fiction would dream of opening a Ministry for Disinvestment. Only in

IndiaI

And

who is the Minister of State for Disinvestment? Arun Shourie, the arch

conservative journalist and author who toes the line of cruel cultural

nationalism. Why is this brutal writer seconded to the primary task of

neoliberalism — to cut down the welfare state? Because, like Nixon in China,

only he can do it on behalf of transnational capital and the big Indian

bourgeoisie. Like many states after the two oil shocks, the bourgeois-landlord

Indian state came under pressure in the 1970s to undertake IMF conditionalities

to earn foreign exchange from commercial lenders. The agent for IMFundamentalism

at that time was the old behemoth, the Congress Party. But the Congress had

created its legitimacy as the force of anti-imperialist patriotism, even if it

had long abandoned its core precepts that put the people before capital.

Import-substitution allowed the Congress to retain its position as a patriotic

force despite its active partisanship on behalf of the big bourgeoisie and

kulaks. With the turn to neoliberalism, the Congress lost its claim to the

national-patriotic as regional bourgeois forces rose to fill the gap, alongside

the gradual rise of the Hindu Right.

The

Hindu Right emerged in the 1980s as the national heir of the Congress, as the

bulwark against the ‘foreign.’ The ‘foreign,’ for the Hindu Right, was not

finance capital and transnational firms, but Muslims, Christians, oppressed

castes and others. Arun Shourie was one of the main propagandists against the

composite nature of Indian nationality, and one of those who promoted the idea

that the Hindu Right would protect the national culture of India. When it came

to power, first in 1996 (for thirteen days) and then in 1998, the Hindu Right

has kept up this posture of cultural nationalism (mainly in its pogroms against

Muslims, Christians and missionaries, and selective elements of ‘foreign

culture’);. At the same time, it has been a champion of neoliberalism, first with

its welcome to transnational private power companies (like Enron) and then in

its ruthless destruction of the regulated economy in favor of cowboy capitalism.

The Budget of 2001, announced last month, is a sign that the Hindu Right has

pushed forward the agenda of neoliberalism: not as stewards of the IMF, but as

agents for the dominant classes who are ravenous for state assets that they can

translate into speculative capital (M-C-M’ on speed).

The

budget of the Finance Minister of the Hindu Right, Yashwant Sinha, was notable

for three magically barbarous moments. First, he proposed that the Ministry of

Disinvestment continue its work with alacrity. State assets worth $550 million

will be put on the auction block — most of these are vastly undervalued

industrial units whose real estate itself merits the sale price. Second, the

state will divest itself of the task of increasing agrarian produce and seeing

to it that food stuff reach the poor at controlled prices. The Public

Distribution System was set up to offer Minimum Support Prices to the peasantry

and to mobilize foodgrain for the poor. But the Finance Ministry will now only

trouble itself to ‘maintaining food security reserves,’ hardly the task of a

social democratic regime on the other side of imperialism. Furthermore, farmers

short of agro-businesses will face the threat of cheap imports of agricultural

commodities once WTO rules come into effect. Third, the state casts out of

regulation all workers who toil in enterprises that employ less than a thousand

workers. Most studies show that these small scale manufacturing units already

function under the radar of governmental regulation, but now they will do so

with impunity. The amended Industrial Dispute Act will allow small

industrialists to ‘hire and fire’ workers at will. This comes at the same time

as the government puts the small scale sector at the mercy of foreign industry,

with an end to excise taxes. Therefore a constrained small scale sector will

certainly employ ruthless tactics to eke out an existence as pressure from

imports mounts against them: the unregulated factory will become ghastly for its

workforce.

Those

who incidentally mouth off about the death of the state should think twice about

that position. The state remains the horizon of our democratic aspirations, just

as we fight for inter-state solidarity. Nationalism of the culturalist form is

bankrupt, but patriotic statism is still necessary to engender democracy. The

state remains the only form available to ensure some measure of accountability:

but not a state in the hands of the dominant classes. To abjure the state as the

horizon of our struggles is to play into the hands of those who want to

dismantle the state in the service of other forms of entrenched power: the state

is the principle forum for the class struggle.

In

1982, Salman Rushdie wrote that Marquez’s magical realism is not ‘an invented,

self-referential, closed system.’ Rather Marquez (and Rushdie himself) writes of

those societies ‘in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow

more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called "North,"

where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of

what’s really going on.’ Here, in the relative comfort of the United States,

even the working-poor can comfort themselves with the chimera of American

exceptionalism, with the sense that the Dollar which they hold in their hand can

clobber the daylights out of any other currency. In far off India, a government

tenders a budget that is an act of magic against its own people. But the magic

trick is no mystery to everyone. The Left has been agile in its critique and in

its mass mobilization. The Communist parties in India have planned to hold mass

demonstrations across the country from 12-18 March to counter the ‘naked display

of the pro-big business and pro-Multinational Corporation approach of the BJP-led

government.’ The bad guy is not only the IMF, but decisively IMFundamentalism

sired not simply by the Washington Consensus, but also by the cultural

nationalist, but neoliberal Hindu Right.

 

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