Rise of the Right and the New Religion of ‘Development’

Satyaki Roy

verdict of the 2014 general elections marks an unprecedented rightward shift in
public opinion in post-Independence India. It was an emphatic victory for the
rightwing forces together with a decisive mandate for one party rule. It
appears to be a paradigm shift from coalition politics that defined political
combinations in the past three decades.
Parties and forces that lie at the
centre and left of the political spectrum are marginalized at historically low
levels in the face of this rise of the right. This is also accompanied by sky-rocketing
of stock prices and market going bullish with high expectations of inflow of
foreign finance that a pro-corporate government is likely to trigger. The
country not only voted against the UPA combine that failed to check corruption
and inflation but also with a hope of ‘good days to come’ that Modi campaign
has successfully transpired. At the national level in fact there had been
hardly any real challenge from opposing combinations barring a few tokenism in
bringing together loosely linked secular forces. In spite of the fact that in
the later phases of election in the northern India Modi did take resort to
communal symbolism, engineered opinions using the backlash of Muzaffarnagar
riots and invoked the issue of infiltration/migration eying to polls in
bordering districts of Bengal and Assam nevertheless essentially the campaign
was pitched on a ‘development’ and ‘governance’ plank that eventually
de-stabilized all caste and religion equations in north India. The ruling class
of India, the corporate elites could successfully integrate their dream of
decisive shift towards liberal reforms with that of ‘development’ of the poor
and middle classes in the course of the multi-crore campaign during the past
three months. The success of the campaign lies in selling of a dream that
touches the aspirations of all and could come out victorious by the art of
constructing consent. The irony is that people elected a political force that
explicitly vouched for corporate led reforms even though the public rage against
outgoing government was primarily against policies and outcomes that favoured
cronies of neoliberal policies.

Religion of Development

The rise
of the right this time is not a ride on Hindu jingoism as it happened earlier
rather it is a ride on a new religion namely ‘development’. In the course of
election debate there were hardly any reference to social structures such as
caste class and gender and it appeared that the promise of development would
satisfy all sections irrespective of their social status. The achchhe din would come to all. This
discourse of development has emerged as the shared religion of modernity
despite the fact that it is very difficult to objectively identify what it is
and what it is not. In other words it is a shared belief which relates to some
normative injunction but hardly amenable to some objective choice. Building
roads and bridges, providing drinking water, opening new schools and colleges,
reducing deficits and subsidies, reducing tariffs, promotion of competition and
markets, allowing foreign investment in retail, expanding public distribution
systems, dispossessing people from land, building new industries and many other
contesting claims can be silenced into single window solution of development. The
strength of ‘development’ discourse comes of its power to seduce; it fascinates
anyone and everyone and deceive the contesting terrains within society by promising
a sum of virtuous human aspirations. Durkheim gives a definition of religion
that does not invoke supernatural force. It rests on a collective belief on certain indisputable truths that
determine obligatory behaviour in such a way as to strengthen social cohesion.
Development is the new religion. One can privately dispute its implication but
like any religion it leaves little scope for public denial of such shared
truth. The discourse on development emerged as the religion of modernity.

The power of the discourse is that it brings to the
fore entirely a new problematic and as a result political positions need to be
redefined on the basis of this new challenge. Development paradigm is claimed
to be transitive in the sense that it acknowledges the possibility of ‘developing’
a space or enhance capabilities of people despite being historically
underdeveloped. It notionally recognizes everybody having equal potential to
grow and develop. There are in fact no structural reasons that create deep
rooted differences within societies. One who is poor today can easily become
rich tomorrow; a region underdeveloped is only the past image of a developed
region. Hence deprivation of various dimensions has to be looked in a continuity
rather than in a framework of causality and confrontation. Underdevelopment in
this discourse is nothing but signifying the incomplete state of development
and that has nothing to do with structural asymmetries that get reproduced over
time. Hence what is required is a technocratic solution to every social problem
leaving little space for political contestations. It is as if the goals are pre-defined
and immutable and the only job of a social engineer is to fix the problem
without invoking much debate. Modi emerges as a doer.

The problem with such a discourse is its
totalitarian tendencies. It allows little space to question why regions or
certain groups of people are ‘underdeveloped’ in the first place, why some are
rich and some are poor and so on. It might talk of poverty alleviation and
design policies that improve relative positions of certain targeted groups but
leaves no space to create politics of confrontation that unveils the social
cause of poverty. And this is precisely the reason why Left should feel
suffocated in such a discourse. Radical politics is not about various designs
of ‘achche din’ to all but for a different regime altogether that could really
make change to the lives of the majority working people at the cost of curbing
freedom of profit that few people enjoys at the moment. And hence a radical
agenda has to be built upon a radical critique of the ‘religion of
development’. The collective belief on a vague notion has to be destroyed and
replaced by a collective praxis of creating wisdom that relies on evolving
combinations for shared goals of the working people. It is more about
commitment to defend the rights of the poor and the working people, the
peasantry, the workers in the formal and informal sectors, the petty producers
and self-employed the middle class employees who face the onslaught of
neo-liberal reforms.


Many talked about the rise of an aspirational India
in this election. Mainly the youth voters are impatient for change, aspiring
for a vibrant nation freed from ‘corruption’ and other vices; looks forward for
a vision that would provide not only more jobs and better earnings but also respect
and dignity. One can easily identify episodes of political turmoil in India in
the recent past mostly led by middle class urban youth that were focused on
demands having more or less universal appeal: anti-corruption, anti-rape,
pro-development and so on. But essentially these movements were articulating
rights and obligations of individuals at its core and a liberal normative discourse
emerged that one could hardly disagree to. The aspiration that transpired
across regions, caste and class is driven by the assertion of a consumer
identity submerged in a freedom of deriving pleasure of near homogeneous
nature. The emerging socio-cultural middle class is not necessarily at linear
relation to income levels. Smart phones, junk foods, satchels, style
statements, passions and pains, frustrations and desire of similar nature
telegraphs senses across towns, villages, cities, allow them to break barriers
of caste and class. These micro-derivatives of consumptions make the deep
fissures at the macro picture less visible. And this perhaps makes
‘development’ far more acceptable as a technocratic solution to aspirational
India especially when a long drawn motivated transcendental agenda has not been
visible in the horizon. It appears that aspirations are pitched at a lesser
goal but probably it is potent with a promise of a deeper change in Indian
polity. It denounces patron-client relationship in polity and aspires for
institutional reforms that would not be responsive to ascribed characteristics
brought down through relations and patronage. In other words young India
aspires for expanding the realm of civil society. And the apparent disgust to
political formations was not actually against politics per se but against a
system that highly values reciprocal relations driven by political clientele. Mainstream
politics in this context offers a technocratic solution to a socio-political
problem close to the idea of ‘development’ and that is the promise of ‘good
governance’. But what is actually required is a transparent system which is
democratic and accountable to people.

Relevance of
the Left

(Wo)men live on dreams and aspirations. And the
current phase of ups and downs in Indian politics would be characterized by
sharp fluctuations and opinion swings. Volatile opinions are on the rise
reflecting the instability of ruling combinations. Ruling combinations would
always prefer a bi-polar format under the broad rubric of ‘development’ so that
satisfactions of some and dissatisfaction of others would create premises of
pseudo-alternatives confined within the hegemonic discourse of development. The
relevance of left would be in re-creating the space of a radical agenda. It has
to decolonize the imagery of all-encompassing development. The left has to come
out with alternative people centric perceptions of well-being that not only
re-dresses the economic issues of scarcity but also issues related to
increasing risks that the current society and people faces. It has to get rid
of itself from the ‘productivist’ determinism and favour social collectives and
negotiations that confront big capital. It has to believe and propagate from
the core that living standards attained by the few could not be achieved by all
in any future society whatsoever might be because such a growth is simply
impossible and ecologically unsustainable. Hence restraint to use of energy as
well as priorities on social optimal good is an imperative for human societies
to come. It has to believe that misery of the working people is a crime that a
civilized society must not allow to happen and it should emerge as the voice of
the poor and the underprivileged. In other words it has to re-create the discourse
of class, reveal the real life contestations that one can hardly avoid and
propose concrete policies that unveil the ambiguity of the so called
development agenda. Society is increasingly getting democratized through
participatory modes and the left has to reclaim spaces for public opinion that
makes power accountable to people. It has to come out with a deep commitment of
change that others can hardly offer. In sum the relevance of Left in our
society unlike other political combinations depend upon how they are able to
create discomfort for the ruling dispensation, how they can voice the unheard, how
they can think beyond individual gains and losses; how they can create culture of
the collective, its immediate actions should also bear the imagery of a future
society of ‘associated producers’ that it aspires for. It has to come out with
creative possibilities that ensure the greatest good for the majority much beyond
what the deceptive religion of development can offer anytime.….and as illusions
of ‘development’ die out one would expect  the Left reclaiming the streets in the face of
the biggest fascistic onslaught of our time.

author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi.