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Two Kinds of Politics

Power and Contestation: India since 1989 by Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam

january 31, 2009 EPW Economic & Political Weekly30book reviewTwo Kinds of PoliticsSanjay PalshikarPower and Contestation: India since 1989by Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam (First Published in India by Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan), 2008; pp xiv + 219, Rs 325.In Power and Contestation, Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam have attempted “to introduce general readers to the vast body of scholarship” on post-1989 India. To do this in about 200 pages is far from easy even though it is not a comprehensive review of literature that is presented here. The authors make a selective use of those works and argu-mentswhich are compatible with or have affinities with their own perspective. The result is a concise book that is even tem-pered, scrupulous, lucid, and a fine blend between a political orientation and academic discipline. Its focus is on concrete groups, classes and communities (and the many different voices from within each of these) and relations between them. There is no neat division of the society into the oppressors and the oppressed, no universal class, and no foundational social reality which gives content to all the power rela-tions. From this perspective, there is no single comprehensive pan-Indian account of the post-1989 period, but several inter-secting stories. First is the story of the “resurgence” of caste in Indian politics. Caste as a day-to-day social and political reality had never disappeared, so there is no question of its staging a regressive comeback, but caste, the authors say, had indeed been banished from the public discourse of independent India. This begins to change after the Janata government and more so after Mandal. In the period focused on in this book, there isnot only a significant entry into politics by the castes administratively called the other backward classes (OBCs), but caste also becomes part of the political language in India. New forces and new language go together. But pure, unmixed develop-ments rarely occur in politics. Along with the growing clout of some of these castes, there is also the grim reality of dalits in the countryside having to increasingly face attacks from them and the authors do not gloss over it. The same attention to complexity is seen in the next story they narrate, that ofthe rise of Hindutva in the 1990s. The authors identify the general features of the political ideology of Hindutva, then discuss briefly the main right wing organi-sations, and the groups they have succeed-ed in mobilising. Their discussion of this last aspect – groups mobilised – reveals an interesting tension: the authors are com-mitted to an anti-communal position but presumably they also want to avoid being paternalistic towards those subaltern groups which have allied themselves with Hindutva for pragmatic reasons. In spite of the disturbing trend of tribal participa-tion in communal violence, the authors reluctantly admit that for an utterly dis-possessed people, “affiliating with Hindu supremacists” might be an understandable option. But when it comes to the middle class urban women who participated in the 2002 Gujarat riots, the authors’ tone changes: “[In a television image] Hindu women laugh and chat in the winter sun on a roof top… as they make missiles and firebombs…Much as they might get to-gether to make pickles and papads at other times” (p 40). The change in the tone is probably because these women are not dispossessed and their participation in communal politics is not dictated by com-pulsions of material survival. But it leaves unclear where the authors stand on the question of what empowerment is – some-thing that I will return to later.‘Accumulation by Dispossession’The next two chapters are on globalisa-tion. The first of these is reminiscent of the section on primitive accumulation at the end of the first volume of Capital and is appropriately called, “Accumulation by Dispossession”. It is about the displace-ment caused by large projects and the blatant transfer of land from farmers to industrialists under the policy of promot-ing special economic zones. Governments led by right wing political parties did it, so did the governments formed by or sup-ported by the left. In pointing out this convergence not only among major political parties but also across the entire institu-tional apparatus of the Indian State, the authors argue that the judiciary’s response to the issues of the dispossessed, marked by innovation and sensitivity during the 1980s, begins to change in the 1990s. It refuses to intervene on behalf of the dis-placed in case of infrastructural projects but zealously responds to issues of urban pollution, encroachment of public spaces by slum-dwellers, transport, etc. The various high court and Supreme Court (SC) judgments of this period “protect…by omission or commission, the interests of the propertied classes and powerful sec-tions” (p 76). Even if this observation – a rare instance of bluntness – is valid, the contrast between the judicial response in the 1980s and that in the 1990s seems to be a bit overdrawn. We know what happened in the Olga Tellis case (1981). True, the court linked the issue of dwelling to right to life. It also acknowledged that it is “out of sheer necessity for a bare existence” that “the petitioners are driven to occupy the pave-ments and slums”. But this did not lead it to grant any relief. On the contrary, it stated categorically that pavements are for pedestrians and not for pavement dwellers. The court made similar observa-tions in the Bombay Hawkers’ Union case of 1983. In a case regarding illegal mining in Dehradun area (1983), the SC noted that development is necessary for economic growth of the country and spoke of the need to strike a balance between national interest and ecological considerations. (Significantly, the same judgment also spoke of defence interests and the need to save foreign exchange.) In the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) era that started in the early 1980s, the judiciary relaxed

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