On the idea of ‘the people’

[First published in Biblio: A Review of Books, October-December, 2020]

am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass.

The title of political theorist and anthropologist Partha Chatterjee’s latest book invokes an imagery of the masses as described by Sandburg’s poem of the same title. But the book is not about those people per se, but an exploration rather of the phrase. Summoned by many a political aspirant on the election campaign dais, ‘the people’ is an ambiguous construct after all, whose constituency keeps shifting depending on the expediency of the moment of its invocation.

What Chatterjee does in this book is to trace a history of the idea of “the people”, providing an overview of the rise of populist politics, focussing, largely on the Indian experience. He draws amply upon the works of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Ernesto Laclau in the process, demonstrating the manner in which the meanings conveyed through the phrase have shifted since the end of the Second World War, and also prescribing ways in which a counterhegemonic strategy could be devised to address the current crisis of liberal democracy. Based on the Ruth Benedict lecture series he delivered at Columbia University in 2018, this book builds upon the academic’s previous oeuvre on nationalism and colonial history that foregrounded the postcolonial experience of southern nations. Chatterjee contends that “various features that are characteristic of democracies in Africa or Asia are now being seen in Europe and the United States because of underlying structural relations that have long tied metropolitan centers to their colonial and postcolonial peripheries” (preface). His central argument is that while in the West, populism emerged as a result of the contraction of the integral state, in India, it has been a survival tactic for political parties expanding along with the reach of the state.

Read the rest of the essay here: https://www.academia.edu/44754168/On_the_idea_of_the_people

India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy

In late August, I filed an RTI application seeking various details of the charitable trust under which the PM-CARES Fund had been registered, and which state regulatory authority was monitoring the trust. But I was refused information on the grounds that the fund was not a public authority.

Vidya Venkat, SOAS, University of London

Since India overtook Brazil in September to become the country with the second largest number of coronavirus cases in the world (after the US), the response of the government of Narendra Modi has come under even tighter scrutiny.

In late March, Prime Minister Modi announced the formation of a special fund to address the emergency situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Called the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM-CARES Fund), it has attracted controversy right from the start.

According to its official website, the fund was set up to collect donations from India and abroad to “undertake and support relief or assistance of any kind relating to a public health emergency or any other kind of emergency”. The website says the fund will provide financial assistance and grants to affected populations.

But the prime minister’s office has refused to provide exact details of donations made to the fund or make public decisions about how the donations are being used.

Several information seekers, including me, have tried to use India’s Right to Information (RTI) Act, which facilitates access to government files and records, to find out more details about the fund. We have been blocked, with a number of requests for information turned down by Modi’s office on the grounds that the fund is a public charitable trust and not a “public authority” as defined under the RTI act.

Continue reading “India: why secrecy over Narendra Modi’s COVID-19 relief fund damages democracy”

आधा चाँद

बचपन में रात को रेल की खिड़की की ओर बैठकर

आसमान में आधा चाँद ताकना याद है मुझे.

आश्चर्य होता था, चाहे कितनी ही गति से क्यों न

रेल का चाक चल रहा हो, पटरियों को घिसते, चीखते,

रात को आकुल करते हुए, मगर वो आधा सा चाँद

वहीँ एक तस्वीर की तरह आसमान में चिपका रहता था.

तुम उस आधे चाँद की तरह हो. मेरी पृथ्वी भले ही तुमसे

दूर क्यों न हो मगर तुम्हारी स्मृति मेरी हर रात को

अपनी नर्म रौशनी से सहलाती रहती है…

Green Revolution architect M.S. Swaminathan talks about the crisis in Indian agriculture

Unfortunately, all policies today are related to corporate powers. What about food security and 50 crore farmers?

M.S. Swaminathan. Photo: The Hindu

First published in The Hindu dated August 16, 2017 

It is 11 years since agronomist M.S. Swaminathan handed over his recommendations for improving the state of agriculture in India to the former United Progressive Alliance government, at the height of the Vidarbha farmer suicides crisis, but they are still to be implemented. To address the agrarian crisis and farmers’ unrest across the country, he urged the government to take steps to secure farmers’ income. As India marks 50 years of the Green Revolution this year, the architect of the movement tells VIDYA VENKAT sustainability is the greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture. Excerpts:

The greatest challenge facing Indian agriculture 50 years back was achieving self-sufficiency in food grain production. What is the greatest challenge today?

There are two major challenges before Indian agriculture today: ecological and economical. The conservation of our basic agricultural assets such as land, water, and biodiversity is a major challenge. How to make agriculture sustainable is the challenge. Increasing productivity in perpetuity without ecological harm is the need of the hour. In Punjab, and in other Green Revolution States, the water table has gone down and become saline. Further, during the Green Revolution the population was about 400-500 million; now it is 1,300 million and it is predicted to be 1.5 billion by 2030. The growing population pressure has made it pertinent to increase crop yield.

Also, the economics of farming will have to be made profitable to address the current situation. We have to devise ways to lower the cost of production and reduce the risks involved in agriculture such as pests, pathogens, and weeds. Today, the expected return in agriculture is adverse to farmers. That’s why they are unable to repay loans. Addressing the ecological challenge requires more technology while the economics requires more public policy interventions. In my 2006 report, I had recommended a formula for calculating Minimum Support Price, C2+50% (50% more than the weighted average cost of production, classified as C2 by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices). This would raise the current MSP and has now become the clamour of farmers and the nightmare of policymakers.

The NDA government has said it wants to double farmers’ incomes by 2022. But they haven’t implemented the recommendations of the Swaminathan Commission Report that you submitted to the UPA government in 2006.

Yes. All kinds of excuses have been given by governments for not implementing this recommendation like food price inflation. But the question is, do the farmers of this country, who constitute nearly half of the working population, also not need to eat? The government is willing to pay Seventh Pay Commission salaries to insulate government servants from inflation, but they cannot provide a higher income for farmers to improve their lot? If you really look at what is happening now, farm loan waivers are posing a bigger burden on the government exchequer compared to what higher pay for farm produce will incur. But the government is not prepared to give the ₹20,000 crore or so for farmers by way of higher MSP. In 2009, the UPA government gave ₹72,000 crore as farm loan waiver, but no government is prepared to take long-term steps to ensure the economic viability of farming.

Continue reading “Green Revolution architect M.S. Swaminathan talks about the crisis in Indian agriculture”

Leslee Udwin speaks on the ban on ‘India’s Daughter’, her documentary on rape

By filming the rapist and getting him to speak his mind, the documentary aims to reveal to us the mindset of the rapist and what got him to behave this way.


Leslee Udwin. Photo: The Hindu

First published in The Hindu dated August 13, 2016

Leslee Udwin , award-winning filmmaker and producer of the documentary, India’s Daughter, spoke to VIDYA VENKAT about the hypocrisy inherent in continuing the ban on it. Last week, the Delhi High Court refused to interfere with the one-and-a-half-year-old ban on the programme that was based on the December 16, 2012 Delhi gang rape case, saying the issue was pending before the trial court. In a Skype interaction from London, she challenged the claims made in favour of the ban, saying it was an open assault on freedom of expression. Excerpts:

The Delhi High Court last week dismissed the case challenging the ban on India’s Daughter. What are the hurdles before you in ensuring that the documentary is screened in India?

India’s Daughter has already been screened in well over 60 countries. Unfortunately in India, because of the ban, it has not been possible to screen the documentary at all. The documentary is about the global pandemic of violence against women and uses the case of the Delhi gang rape to illustrate the point about the mindsets that are responsible for, and even encourage such human rights violations.

I have read the High Court ruling dismissing the Public Interest litigation pleas to lift the ban, and frankly I find it hard to understand what the judges are thinking of. The High Court has argued that the trial court is still hearing “the matter” based on the judicial orders of March, 2015 (presumably the case against the ban?), so it can’t do anything. I would like to ask the learned judges: “the matter of the ban, where is it being heard?” I do not understand their reasoning. It is the matter of the sentencing and conviction of the rapists that is still being heard (in the Supreme Court, not the trial court) and this has nothing to do with the matter of the ban which was before the High Court last week. What shocks me also is that the judges refused to even consider the matter of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) advisory, arguing that since it was “an advisory” it wasn’t necessary to examine it. But don’t the learned judges know that if the TV channels showed this documentary against the advisory of the MIB, they would lose their licenses? That is why they dare not screen the documentary! I feel this whole business of the ban is like a parallel universe – it is Kafkaesque. But my problem is with the very legitimacy of the ban orders that were issued in the first place.

The only positive outcome of the ban has been that everyone has seen the documentary. But then they are seeing the wrong, leaked version of the documentary.

Continue reading “Leslee Udwin speaks on the ban on ‘India’s Daughter’, her documentary on rape”