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The Indian Elections 2004: The Vote Against Corporate Globalisation


The world is stunned by the results of the Indian elections, both because of how the ruling BJP was wiped out at the polls in spite of its “India Shining” Campaign and its exclusivist “Hindutva” plank, but also because the majority of voters of this great country of 1 billion voted against both corporate globalisation which was the only shine in “India Shining”, as well as communalism and xenophobia which had been the ruling party’s political, ideological capital. In the BJP rule pseudo religious fundamentalism had combined with market fundamentalism. The people rejected both. The people of India voted for Sonia Gandhi and the Congress. They voted for secularism and self-reliance.

The Shining India campaign was designed by a U.S. ad agency, Grey Global group at a cost of $100 million. The ad agency, American style highlighted what it called a “feed good factor” through a campaign called “India Shining”.

The campaign was advertised non-stop on T.V. and in newspapers. Superhighways, fast cars, crass consumerism and recipes for ecological disasters like rerouting India’s rivers through the “river linking project” were the symbols of India Shining. These are also the articulations of the corporate globalisation agenda, not an indigenous development agenda. The people of India need Rozi-Roti — Livelihoods and food, not eight lane highways. The BJP offered an alien message, which served global capital, not the poor and excluded communities of India.

But for the peasants who were committing suicides due to rising debts, the women who were walking longer distances for water, and the youth facing unemployment, India shining became an arrogant and heartless statement of separation from the pains and needs of people. They resonated with the Congress Campaign with the simple question, “What did the Common Man get?

Sonia Gandhi’s direct contact with millions of excluded and forgotten people was the most important reason. The people of India voted for her. She traveled 60,000 km, addressed rallies and road shows to reach the public not depending on TV advertisements. The Congress emerged as the indigenous voice of the Indian people, the BJP as the foreign voice of “feel good” which ignored the burden of globalisation on the poor.

The phrase does not translate into any Indian language. Farmers are supposed to have said “Gane ke gur to patta hai, ye feel ka gur kya hai?” (We know sugarcane jaggery( gur), what is this jaggery made from “feel”)?

The vote against the BJP was a vote against trade liberalization and economic reform for global corporate welfare. It was a vote for self-reliance, basic needs, human dignity, economic justice. In Indian history, these values have been referred to as “Swadeshi”. The opposite of “Swadeshi” is economic dependency, of the kind we experienced during colonialism and are now experiencing through W.T.O., World Bank, IMF driven corporate globalisation which allows Monsanto’s profits to grow while Indian peasants get into debt which allows Suez to sell our sacred Ganges water to us.

Globalisation is generating social, economic and ecological insecurity on a global scale. It is undermining citizen freedoms. What we need is a new movement for freedom from corporate rule.

Central to India’s movement for freedom from colonialism were the concepts of `Swadeshi’ and `Swaraj’.

Swadeshi is the spirit of regeneration, a method of creative reconstruction in periods of dependency and colonization. According to the Swadeshi philosophy people possess both materially and morally what they need to evolve and design their society and economy and free themselves of oppressive structures. Economic freedom according to Swadeshi is based on endogenously driven development rather than externally controlled development.

Swadeshi for Gandhi was a positive concept based on building what a community has in terms of resources, skills, institutions and transforming them, where they were inadequate. Imposed resources, institutions and structures leave a people unfree and are non-sustainable. The collapse of the Nehruvian model based on import substitution rather than endogenous development shows how patterns of development which do not emerge from self-organization cannot be sustained.

Swadeshi for Gandhi was central to the creation of peace, freedom and sustainable development. Swadeshi is based on people’s economies and their ability to organise themselves. Swadeshi or self-organisation in economic affairs is the basis of economic freedom, and without economic freedom, there can be no political freedom, or self-governance and self-rule.

Swadeshi is not obsolete in today’s context. It is more relevant than ever before. It is the creative alternative to both the rule of the centralized national state under the Nehruvian model and the rule of global corporations and global institutions such as the W.T.O. Economic freedom requires reduced control of the state and reduced control of World Bank, IMF, W.T.O. and the G-7 and Global Corporations.

Economic freedom is more freedom for the people of India to have secure livelihoods, to have control over the policies and resources that make their livelihoods. The contemporary discourse on `Swadeshi’ and `Swaraj’ has however been severely distorted by the discourse on globalisation.

The BJP Government which had won elections on the anti-globalisation and Swadeshi plank has made a rapid turn around and announced that Swadeshi is not anti-globalisation. The Commerce Ministry removed restrictions from 336 items in its Export-Import policy, including black pepper and shrimp and said this was Swadeshi. The Industry Ministry stated that he would implement TRIPS and this was not inconsistent with `Swadeshi’.

Whether it is the BJP or Congress, Swadeshi and Swaraj are being used rhetorically, but not for economic policy.

BJP allowed the privatisation of water, the patenting of life, the corporatisation of agriculture, even though these violate Swadeshi and Swaraj. And Swadeshi is now being redefined not on the basis of economic policy and self-reliance but xenophobia.

The election of 2004 in India was fought not on the BJP’s Hindutva agenda of minority baiting, but on the globalisation agenda of “India Shining” through mega-infrastructure projects such as super highways and river diversions. The poor who were paying the price for globalisation voted the BJP out and Congress in, with Sonia Gandhi poised to be Prime Minister.

The BJP immediately returned to its xenophobic campaign of foreign origins, even though the Supreme Court had ruled that Sonia Gandhi as a citizen of India could not be prevented from occupying the highest electoral office in the country. The Indian Constitutions stipulates that “No citizen shall be eligible for, or discriminated against in respect of, any employment or office under the state on grounds of religion, race or place of birth.”

The people of India voted for the Congress and Sonia Gandhi. For the people, Indian “civilization” was about inclusiveness — the inclusive of Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam, which allowed Margaret Noble to become Sister Nivedita, an associate of Swami Vivekanand and Mirra Alfanso to become the Mother of Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram in Pondicherry. Gandhi’s close associate in the struggle against British imperialism was Annie Besant. His later associates Mira Ben and Sarla Ben were also foreigners who continued to play an important role after independence and were in fact the inspiration for the Chipko movement – India’s first contemporary ecology movement.

When Sonia Gandhi withdrew from Prime Ministership, she was celebrated as upholding India’s highest traditions of sacrifice (tapasya) and detachment from power and reward (Nishkama Karma). Indianness was being defined as absence of greed and self-seeking behaviour. However, at the peak of the “Shining India” campaign which celebrate the new consumerist India, a book ‘”Being Indian” had confidently stated,

“Indians are extraordinarily sensitive to the calculus of power. they consider the pursuit of power an end itself…..Indian have never been, and will never be “other-worldly”. They hanker for the material goods that this world has to offer, and look up to the wealthy. They pursue profit more tenaciously than most.

“….Policies based on false assumptions about the character and traits of a people are likely to be subverted in practice, and will fail to achieve desired national goals. A basic mistake by policy makers in India was to assume an underlying idealism in the people, a commitment to some large `public good’. Law makers sought to construct, and act upon, a transcendent set of desired goods, without focusing on the intricate web of narrow `personal’ interests that actively motivate Indian society.

“A more honest self-estimation would have directed policy making to laws that rewarded ingenuity rather than equity, resourcefulness rather than compassion, profit rather than welfare, and the private rather than the public sector. (Ref: Pavan Varma, “Being Indian”, Penguin, 2004, p13-15)”

The essentialising of greed as a inherent trait is a product of the dominant context of corporate globalisation. Greed like compassion are cultivated by the context, and policies create the context. The human potential for sacrifice as embodied in Sonia Gandhi’s stepping aside from Prime Ministership of India is cultivated by a cultural context, just like the human potential of Indian voters for inclusiveness when they chose her democratically as one of them. Human qualities are potentials, not essentials. That is why the context is so important. And globalisation creates the context for greed, consumerism, insecurity and exclusion.

Globalisation lost at the polls. It failed the test of democracy. We have now to see if those who profit from it keep it alive undemocratically.

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