In hierarchical societies beset by disparities of political economy, proximity to the seat of power has its rewards and risks. Advantages accrue to the propertied class while the impoverished have to bear the brunt of a sudden surge in the cost of living and a simultaneous slide in the quality of life.
Closeness to New Delhi has transformed Meerut, a historic city in Uttar Pradesh, into a commuter settlement of the Indian capital. The proposed eight-lane expressway is yet to be completed and traffic at Modinagar and Gajiabad can be frustrating. But that hasn’t stopped investors of Delhi from speculating in the booming real estate market of the satellite city at the eastern fringes of the National Capital Region.
Widening of the highway has transformed fertile wheat and sugarcane fields—once lush and green from the fresh waters of Ganga canals—into commercial sites for shopping malls, entertainment multiplexes and cloistered ‘colonies’ where gated communities live in clusters of caste, region and religion. Conversion of agricultural land into urban property has produced overnight millionaires among local landowners. Unaccustomed to astronomical sums that real estate deals fetch, beneficiaries of windfall earnings have become big spenders. It reflects most noticeably in five-star weddings that transform marriage seasons into periods of economic boom.
The lifestyle press—infotainment television channels, gossipy FM radios and glossy publications—feeds the desire of the middleclass to live lavishly at a level at least a notch higher than what is affordable. Bankers have found that lending for consumption is far more rewarding than investing in industries. Bouncers are good enough for small defaulters while political interference and judicial injunctions can make recovery procedures of big loans cumbersome.
Multinationals have discovered that just as disciplined workforce made China the most cost-effective processing center for primary resources exploited from Africa and Americas, the unfettered population of the Indian subcontinent holds the promise of being the most lucrative market on the planet for manufactured goods and value-added services. The size of the market in Ganga plains alone—bigger than Europe in extent and almost as uniform in aspirations, taste and preferences as large swathes of China—is huge enough to make multinationals salivate.
Entry into virgin territories, however, is fraught with pitfalls. Locals have ‘unrealistic expectations’ such as adequate compensation, job opportunity, social security and an enhancement in living conditions. All such expenses add to the recurring cost of businesses. For long-term profitability of an enterprise, it’s much cheaper to hire services of intermediaries to reduce future commitments.
The utility of Baburam-led coalition for Indian commercial interests is over. But firm instructions from New Delhi are unlikely until a docile but effective replacement is found.
Fixers go by many names—public relation firms, lobbyists, agents, facilitators, subcontractors, consultants, and even activists in some cases—but their functions are almost identical, which is to help investors reduce the cost of doing business by minimizing royalty, revenue or social welfare obligations. Competitions between fixers of rival groups sometimes bring big deals into limelight, as happened with mega-scams over 2G and 3G spectrum or coalfield allotment controversies. But by and large the Indian intelligentsia has decided that kickbacks are inescapable part of kicking a sustenance economy into the commercial orbit.
The political fallout of ‘growth at all cost’ choice has begun to unfold in what the son-in-law of Sonia Gandhi recently derided on a Facebook post as the writhing of “Mango people in banana republic”.
With a gym-sculpted body, beautician-smoothened face and designer-attired looks, the son-in-law of the First Political Family of India is definitely not one of the “Mango People” that populate much of the Subcontinent. However, the attitude is symptomatic of the parasitic elite that makes its living on the basis of connections rather than invention, effort or enterprise. Perhaps it can be termed ‘Banana Outlook and Approach’ or Boa for short. The Boa elite loves to ridicule “cattle class” of commercial airlines and mocks “holy cows” in politics that talk about austerity. Adherents of the belief that technology determines history and free markets bring prosperity, these technophiles style themselves as ushers of future in public life.
Lobbyists in the US collaborate to manufacture bipartisanship when interests of bankers, builders, carmakers or arms dealers are at stake. The task gets slightly more complicated when multiple players are involved. No matter how accommodative, “multi-partisanship” still leaves some spoilers out of its ambit. Lobbyists are necessary but not sufficient in markets as complex as India. The germinators and disseminators of ideas—writers, artistes, filmmakers and journalists—complement the effort of fixers and agents.
Nehruvian socialism (planned economy combined with accommodative democracy of Jawaharlal Nehru) of the Establishment and the Lohiate socialism (retributive policies and revolutionary politics of Rammanohar Lohia) of the Opposition till the late-seventies prevented communists from penetrating into the Hindi heartland from their bases in Kerala and West Bengal. Capitalistic politics tends to push the marginalized into the open arms of rightwing extremism and leftwing militancy.
Of the “manufacturing aristocracy” in the US, Alexis De Tocqueville has warned, “… if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate into the world, it may be predicted that this is the channel by which they will enter”. After establishing itself firmly on the home ground of universal empire, the new nobility has begun to conquer the world through a network of agents, intermediaries and vanguard in academia, media, and intelligentsia. India maintains its façade of being the largest electoral democracy in the world. Increasingly, it has come to be managed by skilful manipulators operating on behalf of multinationals and their domestic collaborators. Analogous to Tocqueville’s manufacturing aristocracy, a Fixing Plutocracy has emerged in the Indian capital that influences everything from fiscal issues to foreign policy.
Once he realized that he had been manoeuvred into doing the bidding of powerful geopolitical interests in the name of geographical and demographic planning, Harka Gurung complained bitterly that multiplicity of donors had turned Nepal into a development laboratory to test their usually outlandish and often conflicting ideas. Some contemporary critics continue to allege that Scandinavians are using the republican order in the country to test the efficacy of identity politics in countering the lure of communists. It is too early to pass a judgement on such hypotheses. But ‘Boa Predators’ of New Delhi have certainly begun to manipulate Indian foreign policy towards Nepal.
In absolute terms, Nepal is not large enough to interest big Indian multinationals. However, it is still lucrative enough a market for some business houses to engage ‘Boa Predators’ in influencing Indian foreign policy. There was a time when Jawaharlal Nehru took personal interest in affairs of Nepal. Indira Gandhi began to assign such responsibilities to politicos connected with Shah Monarchy. Non-Congress leaders such as Atal Behari Vajpai, Bishwanath Pratap Singh and Chandrashekhar dealt with Kathmandu on a personal basis.
Non-Nehru premiers of Indian National Congress handed over the charge of Nepal affairs to security agencies. Post-BIPPA, the task seems to have been farmed out to professional intermediaries and policy consultants on the payrolls of Indian multinationals operating in Nepal. The New Delhi grapevines appeared to suggest that after disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of Maoist combatants, the utility of Baburam-led coalition government for Indian commercial stakeholders in Kathmandu is now over. As long as they do not make up their mind about a suitably docile but sufficiently effective replacement, firm instructions from New Delhi are unlikely to emanate. That is an opportunity as well as threat for the political class of Nepal.