New Democracy

Unravelling in the wake of Corona

(Editorial, May 2020 New Democracy)

Consistent rejection of Science and Sense was designed to serve a purpose. There is a pretense of Sense having dawned but not before a mess had been made of everything around.

The Health Minister’s advice to the people that we have to learn to live with Corona, begets the question that why did it take so long for the Govt. to realize this when it was being so routinely talked of by Epidemiologists and Virologists. But the Govt. chose scientific advisors according to the advice it wanted i.e. which suited its purpose. Take the first phase, when the Corona epidemic was rampaging through China and WHO sounded the alarm.  Indian govt. fielded so-called experts to say that India need not worry so that Govt. could continue its minority bashing. Then with the spurt in Western countries came the second phase, when Govt. fielded another set of experts to proclaim that it will shut India’s borders to Corona, lock it out. Came on stage a set of advisors who claimed that what was needed was to suppress all gatherings, even with retrospective effect. Epidemic Diseases Act was pressed into service along with other draconian weapons in the arsenal. Victor Bruce (Viceroy in 1897) may learn if he could, a few lessons in using the Act. Large scale arrests of those who were indulging in protests and arresting of dissenters lest they undermine the resolve to fight Corona began. Every person afflicted with Corona, Muslim the better, became a lawful target of attack. Bravado was punctuated with theatrics so that effect of their ‘war’ was not lost on the people. Ignoring elementary science is the prerogative of the ‘chosen’ and the ‘blessed’.

Theatrics complemented the incompetence. This could be passé, a self-congratulatory exercise though totally undeserved. But the design in the madness is apparent with inclusion of police along with health workers for being lauded- what for? To have quelled dissent and arrested dissenters; to have beaten migrant workers black and blue; to have inhumanly treated the common people in the name of enforcing lockdown? Let there be no mistaking- thalis, diyas and petals were not primarily for health workers who wanted equipment and were hounded for wanting them; but for police and organs of repression. These were fascist exercises on the dates from the RSS calender to whip up support for suppression.

In this period, while RSS-BJP Govt. was feigning to fight Corona they were using it to build their “Hindu Rashtra”, crush dissent, persecute democratic rights activists, and most importantly, to deliver to Corporate those changes in labour laws which the latter had been demanding since the advent of New Economic Policies but which successive govts. had failed to deliver. Misery of the hundreds of millions of workers and peasants was but a small price for this heaven being built on earth. People asked to sacrifice, the only thing they are ever and always asked for, for the coming days of jobs galore and no want; all these akin to promises in after life.

Corona continued its spread. By now i.e. by 9th May, it has crossed sixty thousand cases and two thousand deaths. India has entered the club of Corona powers and may well be on the path to emerge a super-power like we already are in the case of a number of infectious diseases. And now come another set of experts saying that the country has to learn to live with Corona and serious cases are to be managed in hospitals. In the whole exercise of fighting Corona, the Epidemiologists and Virologists, who could be most useful, were not seen, rather ignored. Proximity to power and acceptability to Nagpur was the key and not ability in Science or standing in the field; even those with standing caved in to keep the bread of their careers buttered.

While spread of Corona is a function of factors relating to both agent and host, the mortalities resulting from it are largely related to the host i.e. health of the host & existence of co-morbidities and most importantly, the quality of medical care. It is here that the statement of the Health Minister assumes significance. He is preparing the people to accept large number of deaths. Despite so much time being available, the RSS-BJP govt. did neither prepare hospital facilities for the people particularly specialized care facilities on a wide scale, nor arrange appropriate equipment for health personnel. And now the Health Minister’s statement is a clear pointer that this Govt. has no intention of doing either. When Modi and Bhagwat talked of this pandemic having given lessons in self-reliance, what was meant was not end to dependence on foreign countries but that people will be left to their own devices.

While Corona tests the health status of an individual, the pandemic has tested the class/social fabric of society and the strength of its institutions. The effect was most glaring where the two coincided which explains varying response to Govt.’s acts of commission and omission. That there is little accountability of the Govt. and no attempt on the part of those who can hold it accountable in the immediate sense to do so, is largely due to these factors. People can do so and will do so but that is in the ultimate sense. The social groups that manage the state machinery are drawn from the sections who anyway practice social distancing; the classes whose interests this machinery serves are perpetuating and further strengthening economic distancing and the resultant political distancing from the people of the ruling parties. Strength of the institutions is a euphemism which stands for the otherwise weakness of these institutions, lacking any inherent strength like the classes they serve.

This criminality of the conduct of the callous, communal, caste chauvinist and corrupt ruling dispensation in managing the pandemic is largely due to some factors shared by India with other backward countries (despite Health Minister counting India among developed countries) and some factors unique to India. Executive is very powerful in India like in other countries with colonial past where state machinery was built to crush the people. The whole legal framework gives unbridled powers to the Executive with formal but in practice little actual rights of the people, only asserted to the extent people are willing to fight for and depending on the strength of that fight. Take any legal right, the ability to enforce it is crucially and critically dependent on the strength of the people seeking to enforce it. It is not accidental, it is inherent to the very structure. Pandemic has been used by rulers of all these backward countries to extend their powers and abrogate those of the people in these countries.

India further suffers from some factors which are unique to its features, some long lasting and some brought about by developments since 1947. The rise of media has been commensurate with the consolidation of the financial power of big capitalists who control the mainstream media. These sections may not have the kind of capital like in developed capitalist countries given the size of India, but its concentration is very high and it is able to exercise almost total control over the media. It defines the agenda and how the debate on the agenda is conducted. It controls not only the staple propaganda but also coverage of dissent. For its own credibility this media is forced to cover the sufferings of the people too, but here too the emphasis is only on rousing pathos but carefully avoiding any reference to what might be a pointer to the way ahead. The audience is assuaged and the ghost is exorcised. That this media is tightly controlled is borne out by a number of examples which need not be gone into here.

A very significant aspect of response in India is its social divisions which have been nurtured, deepened and forged as weapons for wielding power. The most important is communal – caste divisions in India, both interpenetrating and also overlapping. The socially dominant groups of majority community have been chauvinistically mobilized. The social divisions are being unleashed to prevent class solidarity and unity for which the ground is being increasingly prepared by increasing inequality, rising power of the super-rich. With policy framework increasingly favouring this course of development, ruling classes’ need is to rally social groups with talks of ancient glory to the exclusion of present misery, the former growing in proportion to the latter. That this ploy is getting increasingly rusted accounts for the increasing conspiracies of the rulers at deepening social divisions with a helping hand from those (knowingly for some and unknowingly for many) who would not see the real reasons behind these conspiracies; who would root for the past in the present but shut their eyes to the future in the present; who confine themselves to the ground prepared by the ruling classes and do not see the new emerging paradigm. There are however green shoots, attempts to foil the conspiracies of ruling classes and reclaim India.

The hard realities of the unfolding situation are making the situation increasingly pregnant with possibilities. Despite all might of the state, workers came out onto streets and forced their plight into recognition. (Walking Into The Frame: India’s Migrant Workers, ND, April 2020) The long marches undertaken by them, avoiding the roads (for the presence of police), dying due to hunger and exhaustion and also due to locomotives who would not take them anywhere in this world but do not mind ferrying them to netherworld. All these have forced them into the reckoning, evoking sympathy of the well meaning and irritation from some others. But these enforced long marches, covering thousands of kilometers, have many other things to tell. These long marches signified the growing lack of faith in the Govt. and growing conviction that they do not exist from it. But these long marches are also brimming with examples when villagers came out to give them food and rest. Peasants pitched themselves on the roadsides to provide food to those trudging their way homewards. These were not kawariyas for whom RSS would pitch tents and govts. will arrange stay. They were not ones for whom vehicles would be arranged to stand on, for what is meant to be essentially done by walking on foot. They were the ones who had no such holy purpose but were forced to walk as Govts. refused transport. This was pilgrims’ progress in reverse. The splendid examples of worker-peasant unity in action!

But return of migrant workers to their native villages has vast importance in other respects. They have not come back on leave or holidays but have been pushed out. Their contributions to the society have been totally ignored. Their coming back is also a rolling back of their option to migrate to cities for survival of their families. Their hopes of making two ends meet lie shattered. Their dreams of doing better in cities and toiling to improve the lot of their children, their future, lie crushed. More importantly, this migration acted as a safety valve for agrarian distress. Unwilling to brook any basic change in rural India, particularly in class and social relations which are stifling for the overwhelming majority of the people of the villages, the ruling classes did in fact encourage this option. While furnishing cheap labour for cities, for menial services, in unorganized sectors e.g. as construction labour, rickshaw pullers, loaders and sundry service providers, the migrant labourers also provided an outlet for the agrarian distress which has been a smoldering cauldron in India.

It is also significant that these migrant workers are drawn from social sections which had been in the struggle for change in the countryside. These are areas of relatively stagnant agrarian relations where even the employment of capitalist methods of agriculture has not been qualitatively significant. Added to the rural stagnation was lack of any industrial employment, even the City of Joy losing all joy. Mostly eastern states of India, marked by backward agriculture and declining or absent manufacture, have been the source of migrants e.g. Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, UP (mainly eastern part), Assam and MP. Some other states have sent migrant workers but largely to developed countries and Gulf, contributing to relatively better paid migrant labourers, referred to in more respectable terms. The internal migrants contribute to the economy of their native states which are now reluctant to take them back, and to that of the states where they toil and who have anyway insulted the migrants’ contribution to their economies denying them wages, food and shelter. Their utility is not recognized as contributors to the wellbeing of the state they work in but only as a source of cheap labour, many of these states trying to force them to remain there to provide labour even on more onerous terms. Both these sections are after all grades of labourers, distinct from the traders and professional groups living abroad, who are respectfully called NRIs who crowd Howdy Modi but contribute relatively little to the country.

Unraveling of the dreams and crushing of the hopes is not only a personal tragedy for hundreds of millions of migrant workers, and the tragedy of social groups from which they hail and to members of whom they represented an outlet from the subhuman existence in villages, where they lack both social dignity and economic survival. This will have a profound effect on deepening agrarian distress. It will intensify contradictions in rural areas of major part of India. It is this India which is the key to change of India and it is this India which will march on. Their modest dreams have been taken away and they may as well target the immodest dreams of the growing list of super-rich rooted in growing inequality in the country with the richest 1% cornering 73% of the wealth added last year.

Corona may have an unintended effect. While it is medically ravaging the cities particularly the important centres of trade, it may have the most ravaging political impact on the countryside. Corona pandemic has got into a crisis ridden country and has greatly intensified all its contradictions. How these contradictions will play out, how the various political forces intervene, will determine not only the immediate situation in the countryside but even the longterm implications of the pandemic. The developments may take time to mature but assert they will and leave their imprint. It is too good a pandemic to be wasted!

Besides making clear how much the ruling classes care for their toiling millions, the unfolding situation once again puts a question mark on the model of development particularly its regional spread. A crisis like Corona pandemic has exposed all the talk of great national unity overshadowing regional differences. India is home to several nationalities and Corona crisis has brought that home in sanguine terms. Movement of migrants might has been reported to be on the scale similar to the migration of the people during Partition. In fact many commentators have drawn similarities between the two, with the stream of people with their belonging on their heads, children in tow trudging along pathways through fields. One difference is that then the people were driven away from what were their homes, and now they are driven from where they wished to make their homes.

As a matter of principle, this model of development should be seriously rethought. Every region must be developed. Building of financial islands and industrial clusters in select pockets is not the way forward for multinational diverse India. We have seen attacks on migrant workers and those seeking employment. On the one hand are those on whose soil these industries and institutions are built and hence their expectation to be absorbed in them. On the other hand, are the multitudes who contribute to building these islands not only through labour but also through resources which are drawn from all over India. A Delhi or a Mumbai is not built with resources of that region alone. A more balanced development covering all regions, where national oppression is not added to class oppression, where capitalist greed for maximizing profit does not ride roughshod over the realities of India, shortcuts are not preferred over long term plans. Big capital may thrive on cheap labour and on fomenting contradictions between local and migrant workers, but that cannot be the way forward for India. It is not totally surprising that mainstream media thriving on corporate support and operating under their control has not even touched this aspect. These drum beaters of national chauvinism have brushed under the carpet the plight of Indians in India itself.

While India suffers, RSS-BJP Govt. is happy in its drum beating. These modern day Neros have created havoc and are relishing it. Every opportunity is a good opportunity for them to fleece the people. While industrial activity is at a standstill, they are intent on robbing the people. Recently Central Govt. has increased excise duties of diesel and petrol by Rs. 10 and Rs. 13 per litre. In the process they are going to raise Rs. 2.85 lakh crores. Contrast this to a mere Rs. 15000 crores they are spending on health care needs for tackling Corona or a mere Rs. 1.74 lakh crores they have announced as financial package (some part of it recycling of already budgeted expenditure and some others which they have announced without any intent to spend). They are looting the people as if there is no tomorrow. With prices of crude oil declining to one third in the international market (from nearly US$ 69 per barrel to nearly US$ 28 per barrel) the decline is more than accounted for by increase in taxes, with states joining in with increased VAT and prices increasing. All economists favour reduction in prices of diesel and petrol to spur economy and reduction in prices to spur consumption, but Modi Govt. follows Nagpur school of economics in which people’s material wellbeing is adversely proportional to their spiritual wellbeing except for those who can afford yatras in modern raths.

Any hope that there will be any return to Sense and Science, is in vain. Pretension to it may be useful for the gullible. But respecting Science and unleashing people’s initiative in tackling Corona pandemic is the last thing on the minds of mandarins of Nagpur.