India’s Puzzled Vendors of Washington Consensus




Ever since the crisis originating on Wall Street has spread far and wide like a contagion, the clamour for state intervention to save the global economy in general and financial institutions in particular has become vociferous. Those who, till the other day, were decrying the role of state in the running of economy and were singing the virtues of the Washington Consensus-based globalization have gone into hibernation. Nobody now talks of ‘the magic of the marketplace’ and of great sermons by Hayek and Milton Friedman. In India, Gurcharan Das, Surajit Bhalla, Raghuram Rajan, Kaushik Basu and company seem so demoralized that they are no longer thundering against rural loan waiver, NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), the so-called Hindu rate of growth, ‘disastrous acts’ like nationalization of commercial banks by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and the initiation of economic planning by Nehru. Strangely enough, the recommendations by the Raghuram Rajan Committee like privatization of nationalized banks and bringing in convertibility of the rupee on capital account and making pension funds available to the players on the bourse are no longer talked about. Nobody is cautioning against moral hazard when the government is announcing one measure after another for rescuing financial institutions while, till the other day, it was frequently being mentioned for mobilizing opposition to rural loan waiver. Please recall how Kaushik Basu was pontificating in the columns of The Hindustan Times that NREGS would encourage laziness.

It seems strange that most of these gentlemen who have been lambasting economic strategy of the Nehru-Indira Gandhi regimes have become suddenly speechless. Had banks and other financial institutions not been nationalized and state-regulated, India would have been in a miserable plight. India escaped in the 1990s and has largely escaped now from the contagion, thanks to Nehru-Indira Gandhi strategy of economic development, loudly decried by Gurcharan Das in his book which has been lauded by the corporate-controlled press. Thanks to the much abused Left, reforms like capital account convertibility of the rupee, privatization of public sector financial institutions, smashing the organized labour movement and making pension funds available to casino players could not go ahead. Thus it was not without reason that a great relief was felt by the corporate world and the media controlled by it when the Left parted company with the UPA government and it was hoped that the chariot of reforms would go ahead at a break-neck speed without any hindrance. Alas! this has not happened nor is any possibility of its happening in the near future.

Most of these vendors have their hawking confined only to the English-knowing middle class. The only person that has been effectively peddling the Washington Consensus-based globalization among the poor and the downtrodden in India has been Chandrabhan Prasad, a smart journalist from the most populous state of India, Uttar Pradesh. He writes in both English and Hindi with seemingly logical arguments. He takes part in discussions on both electronic media and other public forums. It goes to his credit that leaders and people, cutting across the ideological divide, are enchanted with him. He writes regularly for the pro-BJP daily The Pioneer and was recently taken to America by, Ram Vilas Paswan, a minister in the central government, who claims to be secular.

Chandrabhan Prasad’s importance as a vendor of the Washington Consensus-based globalization has been underlined by The New York Times (August 30) correspondent Ms Somini Sengupta in her article entitled "Crusader Sees Wealth as Cure for India Caste Bias". The same piece has been carried by its global edition, The International Herald Tribune (IHT), in its September 1 issue, under a new heading, "Even untouchables get a taste of the New India: Economic growth shatters caste order". The IHT is printed in Hyderabad and reaches the doorsteps of its Indian readers every morning.

The dispatch filed by Ms Sengupta is from his native village, Gaddopur, of Azamgarh district in U.P. with two large photographs, one of them prominently displaying his picture. Chandrabhan Prasad holds that, Dalits (formerly untouchables, comprising the lowest rung of the Hindu society) can better their lot and get rid of their age-old social and economic sufferings, exploitation and neglect by embracing the Washington Consensus-based globalization as this will lead to a decisive improvement in their educational, cultural and economic position. Very soon they will be able to come on par with non-Dalits.

Whenever he "visits his ancestral village in … feudal badlands of northern India," he tells "his fellow untouchables: Get rid of your cattle, because the care of animals demands children’s labor. Invest in your children’s education instead of jewelry or land. Cities are good for Dalit outcastes like us, and so is India’s new capitalism." A chain-smoking Chandrabhan Prasad, now in his forties, was once a Maoist, always carrying a pistol and recruiting followers always ready to kill upper caste landlords, but now he is a completely changed man. He has now come to the conclusion that the salvation of the Dalits does not lie in Maoism but in "new capitalism" that has been growing in India since 1991 and he firmly believes that "economic liberalization in India is about to do the unthinkable: Destroy the caste system." It has already enabled a large number of Dalits who have migrated to urban areas since 1991 to "escape hunger and humiliation." Thus Ms Sengupta of The New York Times comments: "At a time of tremendous upheaval in India, Prasad is a lightning rod for one of the country’s most wrenching debates: Has India’s embrace of economic reforms really uplifted those who were consigned for centuries to the bottom of the social ladder?"

He does not attach much value to the government-run welfare programmes aimed at ameliorating the conditions of the Dalits nor is the affirmative action going to be effective in getting many jobs to them. He wants them to have devotion to "the Dalit goddess," i.e., English language which can go a long way to help their liberation. He looks down upon socialism and "has moved to the right" and is vociferously "contemptuous of leftists, and delights in taunting them."

As a sign of progress by the Dalits under the new dispensation, he points out that in his own district now almost all Dalit bridegrooms ride cars rather than horses to their weddings as compared to just 27 per cent in 1990, a year before the era of Washington Consensus-based globalization was heralded by Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh duo. Only a few decades ago, the upper caste-dominated Hindu society would not have allowed Dalit bridegrooms to ride even horses to their weddings. The credit for this change goes largely to a booming economy. In his own words, "It has pulled them out of the acute poverty they were in and the day-to-day humiliation of working for a landlord."

There are around 200 million Dalits in India. Chandrabhan Prasad, with a generous financial grant from the University of Pennsylvania, is conducting a sample survey of 20,000 Dalit households in order to know how their daily life has been impacted by economic liberalization since 1991. The preliminary results, he says, indicate that the change is for the better and Dalits are giving up their traditional caste occupations.

The horde of both Indian and foreign journalists taken by Chandrabhan Prasad, just a few weeks before the global financial melt down set in, to show the changing face of the Dalit society under Washington Consensus-based globalization was not convinced. To quote Ms Somini Sengupta, "On a journey across these villages with Prasad, it is difficult to square the utter destitution of his people with Dalit empowerment. The government health center has collapsed into a pile of bricks. Few homes have toilets. Children run barefoot."

In his own village itself, "the Dalit neighborhood still sits on the edge of the village—so as not to pollute the others, the thinking goes—and in the monsoon, when the fields are flooded, the only way to reach the Dalits’ homes is to tramp ankle deep in mud. The land that leads to the Dalit enclave is owned by intermediate castes, and they have not allowed for it to be used to build a proper brick lane."

Thus, obviously, there is a divergence between the reality and the myth propagated by him. There is no doubt that substantial benefits of economic development since the 1950s have trickled down to Dalits but they have been cornered largely by the upper segments of the Dalits that include newly-emerged politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen.

If Dalits follow the advice of Chandrabhan Prasad and sell off whatever meager property they have and migrate to urban areas, most of them will be compelled to live in slums and work as casual labourers. In the absence of any movable or immovable property they will not be able to raise funds to set up and carry on their own enterprises. In the present state of the slums, it will not be easy for most of their children to get proper education and training to secure good jobs nor will they live a healthy life. As the Australian journalist, Gregory David Roberts has in his widely read novel Shantaram has depicted, the slums are dens of crimes and once a person lands in them, it is difficult for him to get out. In fact, Chandrabhan Prasad is trying to encourage a new enclosure movement whereby Dalits and other lower class people leave their villages to migrate to urban areas to provide a pool of cheap unorganized labour without any protection as regards terms and conditions of work. In the villages deserted by them contract farming and SEZs (Special Economic Zones) by the corporate sector can prosper without any local resistance. It is needless to say whose interests he intends to serve.

Ever since neo-liberal globalization has started taking roots in India, people like him have been singing its praise. He, as compared with others, has seemingly greater credibility because he comes from Dalit community and this is the reason that he has become an icon for the corporate-controlled media and gullible intellectuals. Theodore Dreiser in his novel An American Tragedy and Arthur Miller in his play Death of A Salesman, long ago, demonstrated that the much touted American dream was more of a myth than reality. In recent times, Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel prize winning economist, has underlined that American dream is nothing but a mirage. Rarely a person goes up in socio-economic hierarchy mainly by dint of his intelligence, hard work and efficiency.

In Indian cities only a tiny proportion of Dalit children are able to go beyond primary schools. Every morning one finds a large number of children from slums collecting garbage or begging in the name of some god or goddess. For them Chandrabhan Prasad’s prescription is meaningless. Even in America, as Nobel laureate Saul Bellow’s son Adam Bellow in his book In Defense of Nepotism has demonstrated, family background and connections are big factors in the rise of a person in socio-economic hierarchy. Washington Consensus-based globalization is not for equitable distribution of the gains but advocates only the "trickle-down strategy". Obviously, Chandrabhan Prasad’s expectations are misplaced. The recent turn of events has put a big question mark before Washington Consensus-based globalization, thus rubbishing all the assertions of Chandrabhan Prasad.

gmishra@girishmishra.com

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