Restructuring the Indian enterprise


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THERE are two possible interpretations of ‘India-in-transition’ and two different strategies of intervening in its evolving future. According to one, the India one knew is in shambles, a tottering subcontinent, ill at ease with other states and nations on its peripheries, internally disintegrating both territorially and socially, unable to hold politically. Culturally too, even as a civilisation – which most people think will somehow survive, weathered as it has so many onslaughts – it is being subjected to multiple pressures that could well upset its traditional balance and staying power. Consumerism and globalisation on the one hand, and the internal tearing apart of its social fabric under the rising cult of violence unleashed by multiple confrontations, none of which are any longer amenable to the culture of mediation, compromise and negotiated settlements that were for long the forte of Indian democracy, on the other. The India that we know is then not just in ‘crisis’; it is entering a terminal phase.

But there is quite another way of interpreting the transition, namely, that a new India is struggling to be born. It is an India that is more complex and both multi-layered and multi-faceted, not amenable to neat and confident portrayal perhaps. But this may well be because of our failure intellectually to grasp, and socially to come to terms with and accept, a different kind of reality, bearing the impact of the rise of unorganised peripheries and the ‘vernacular elites’, having been so long used to looking at the country from the apex and all along looking for ‘order’ and ‘orderly change’.

This view is held by not just national politicians and bureaucrats and planners but academic and media dons too, perched on some ‘ivory tower’, some editorial window in a high-rise office, even social workers and activists occupying various NGO citadels from where so much social change is being engineered. All of them are caught up in a dense communications overload, with such a lot of information and knowledge yet so little understanding (information and knowledge too so distorted by class interests and elite insecurities).

There has been so much bemoaning by each of these high towers of public ‘concern’. We are told that no one obeys the law, long accepted public norms are continuously violated, there has been a big decline in moral standards, everyone seems to be flouting the basic framework of values and commitments enshrined in the Constitution. And yet, could this be because the issues the people at large have to face and grapple with are fundamentally different from the ones they faced and dealt with even 10 or 15 years ago? Aren’t they caught in a twilight zone, with one moral code no longer found relevant while a new code is yet to be born? The bemoaning comes from an elite that is too tied to a value system – and an order – that has lost its meaning for a majority of the people.



Underlying such anxiety lies an end of our self-confidence as a nation, till recently governed by an identifiable set of people – centrists and nationalists all of them – and according to set norms and predictable ways, in a world that appeared stable and was sustaining ‘growth’ and ‘development’ and the nation-state.

We face an end to not just confidence but hope too, of a chance for most people to make it in life (except the very down and excluded for whom few cared anyway; but even for them, there was hope that the development paradigm would one day lift them out of their situation). Of belonging to a nation that was somehow holding. Of minimum conditions of health, education and well-being, with all the indices showing up – life expectancy, decline in infant mortality, crossing the poverty line, stable prices, even literacy (slow as the upswing was), growth of cities which, with all their squalor and emptiness, still gave one a chance, the slow improvement in the condition of the ‘weaker sections’. Of new avenues for the enterprising – the new businesses, the marketing of crafts, the creative arts, the world of design and graphics, the wide range of experiments by scientists and others engaged in educating people in the mysteries of modern science. Much of this is still there and even growing but without that basic elan and confidence of it all being of a piece, together transforming the Indian landscape without falling apart. That coherence and confidence is no longer there.

There is, in particular, an end to the hope that everyone will share in the nation’s prosperity. There is a noticeably growing sense of insecurity among large sections of the people, from the poor to the middle classes, except for the filthy rich whose vulgar and highly callous ways add to the growing sense of injustice and alienation. There is also a growing feeling that those that can have it, have it and forget the rest.



This is particularly the case among the ‘upwardly mobile’ middle class professionals – not just the lawyers, doctors and the corrupt PWD engineers but also academics, journalists and NGO workers, and those that have access to either foreign jobs or foreign jaunts ad nauseum. But even in this hitherto upwardly mobile class there has started taking place a downward mobility, with the spectres of unemployment, inflation, high costs of luxury items like petrol and housing and decline of various services like education and health haunting them, unsetting their long-held assumptions about progress and the good life.

With this decline in confidence and optimism about one’s life chances, there is taking place a growing questioning of the ability of the state to deliver the goods and, alongside, an erosion of identities – national identity in particular but also a variety of institutional, professional and other secondary identities. There appears to be an increasing withdrawal from the national centre, from New Delhi and its majesty and authority, from deference to and regard for prime ministers and ministers and secretaries to the government and members of various commissions, the Planning Commission above all.

Instead, there is a search for new identities, new relationships across existing identities, new under-standings of emerging shifts in relationships. Still unsure of the new understandings, with so much bickering and insecurity around, with an almost total lack of new leadership and even more of a new and relevant vision but still showing signs of some new sense and sensibility. A sense of becoming free of older constraints, though no doubt anxious about new constraints that may emerge and unsettle existing arrangements, including possible erosion and even chaos. A growing combination of both a sense of liberation from the old and fear of the new: the typical ‘fear of freedom’ syndrome, yet also the possibility of ‘freedom from fear’, fear that so far held back so many from exploring so much.



For a majority of the people the future is still uncertain and it seems futile to be either pessimistic or optimistic about it. There is a mood of deep ambivalence prevailing across the board – left or right, religious or ‘secular’, traditional or westernized. While not new for the Indian personality, the new ambivalence presents itself in a drastically changed social and political setting. Also, while there is a growing sense that institutions are no longer operating according to expectations, there seem to be basic differences on how to take it all. For the many who think things are falling apart, there are many others who see value in that happening. After all there isn’t much for them in the way things are!

This is particularly the case in urban areas, especially in the larger cities, described by some as post-modern nightmares. We have not yet realised the real import of the fast growing numbers of those living in the cities, of the fact that it is here that the growing turbulence will find new outlets and that completely new types of communities and new expressions of social diversity are likely to emerge. Our long neglect of the urban in a period of still greater neglect of rural areas and the environment which is forcing the active population to migrate to the cities is going to force on our attention a completely different set of issues that one did not ordinarily associate with ‘urbanisation’.

New configurations of caste and community identities will take shape, both within the large and growing backwaters of the ‘unorganised sector’ and the increasing presence within the migrant communities of the backwards, the dalits, the socially uprooted and increasingly defiant hordes and hordes of women and the literally millions of homeless children selling their labour and their bodies while at the same time defying conventional norms and experimenting with a new set of ideas and behaviour patterns.



As the contours of the new norms and patterns of behaviour are not clear, and as the new actors in the new social and spatial arenas – the young, the women from the poorer classes, traditional artisans and ‘artists’ finding wholly new opening – have no models to fall back on except the continuing hold of caste and family, and as religious beliefs prove less and less useful in facing the new challenges, we are likely to encounter wholly new contexts given to economic life and new structures provided to secular politics and the composition of civil society.

The ‘Mandal phenomenon’ has far more to it than mere job reservations or the economic threats to the middle class. It signifies the political and social assertion of the poor at a time when both the economic policy of liberalisation and the social challenge of ‘Hindutva’ are threatening their very survival but are both likely to fail. Needless to say, the India of today has little to offer this new configuration of social forces which is bound to ask for a new definition of both secular identity and the democratic process.



It was Indira Gandhi who had said that the two majorities of India were the poor and the young. While the claims of the poor are increasingly pushed aside and the moral sensitivity of the middle classes has suffered erosion, when the majority of the poor happen to be young they are destined to become a force to reckon with even if their growing assertions tend to be increasingly turbulent and unsettling for established structures. In any case, for any appraisal of the future to be adequate it must take full account of the younger generation, its motifs and cultural contours, its internal composition – with respect to both class and community – and the various cross-currents to which it is likely to be subjected.

Here one finds a scenario of intense tension and conflict within this generation. On the one hand one is likely to witness a growing appeal of yuppie-style consumerism, drugs and the rise of wayward peer groups beyond families and ‘homes’, given to new thresholds of crime aimed at increasing acquisition of material goods or displays of power through street vandalism and violence against oneself (as with self-immolations). On the other hand the poor among the young are also prone to be swayed by the enticements of the markets and the mass media but are more likely to respond by wanting to occupy spaces within the system, even if this means being children of the street or offering themselves as child labour.

As the system is not likely to open out to them and as it is in any case going to be shrinking (less jobs, more jealousies and suspicions), out of the very failure of the project to get integrated into an external colonising force may emerge a new regeneration, a new identity or at least an active search for one. There may also emerge a new coalition of interests, drawing on an emerging ‘movement’ of both class and ethnicity, and fashioning new ones based on a new hunger for ‘education’, apprenticeship for new styles of communication. Perhaps the existing liberal paradigm will prove unable to respond to their strivings and they may discover new styles of fulfiling their own search for ‘more democracy’.



It is against this backdrop of the emerging interface of class, youth, gender and ethnicity that the real challenge of restructuring the Indian enterprise1 will be faced in the years and decades to come. As the state abdicates its role in ensuring justice and providing the social minima of welfare (even in things like education and health, housing and basic amenities), new institutional models will be needed, new self-help collectives in the form of a new genre of cooperatives and ‘workers’ control’ devised (the Kamani experiment providing only one among many models), leading to new structuring of the spaces provided by civil society which was till now dominated by a centralized state and a colonial bureaucracy but which is now likely to get a new lease of life, a new ‘liberation’.

From this may well emerge a new and different political structure too. There is already underway an incremental withdrawal from New Delhi on the part of not just movements of ethnic identity and regional self-determination but also those of social and economic justice. Be it Mandalism or tribal struggles against displacement and forced evictions. Or the completely new kinds of assertion of feminine personality (deeply ingrained in the revolts against indigenous structures of oppression) than found in the struggles of metropolitan and global-oriented feminists (the latter no doubt opening up spaces for the former). Or the re-assertion of ‘Bharat’, not just as schematized by Sharad Joshi (on behalf of so-called progressive farmers) but rather as laid out by a real and genuine search for grassroots democracy as found in the struggles of tribal and various indigenous peoples, the yearnings of traditional artisan communities struggling against urban and ‘global’ tycoons trying to export Indian crafts and culture, as also of artists and activists and ‘alternate media’ exponents seeking a new identity for themselves as well as for the country.



As all this will together militate against the new ‘special interests’ or professionals and business groups lobbying the corridors of power and – more pertinently – against new collaborators with foreign interests masquerading as ‘nationalist’ (chastising real movements of cultures and nationalities as ‘anti-national’), and as it will also find it difficult to gulp the old socialist rhetoric (which had generated so many expectations which were just let down), a completely new alignment of forces is likely to find fruition.

How does it all sound? At once unsettling for the present generation and yet opening up new possibilities, new hopes, that may well move the country towards fresh thresholds of democratic self-realisation. This will entail drawing upon social segments that were so far forced to remain on the margins of this ‘developing’ society but which are now poised to take on new roles and, by so doing, provide the basis of a new comprehension, a new cohesion. Despite so much uncertainty, so many conflicts, so much ambiguity.



One of the continuing cultural traits of Indian civilization has all along been in terms of its high tolerance of ambiguity. Only the modern hi-tech elite wants to regulate things, ‘resolve’ contradictions along some rationalist calculus, live by the logic of the excluded middle. The age of these modernists – and their ‘post-modern’ inheritors – is fast coming to a close, here and elsewhere in the world. This does not mean a return to some pristine past as if such a ‘past’ was ever there for us to ‘revive’.

Hence the renewed acceptance of diversity as a natural state for a society like ours, of ambiguity as a cultural predisposition, of plural identities as a basis for the state in its emergent incarnation. A civilisation without a single centre. And yet provided by a new ‘elite’ – authoritative but not authoritarian – that could interpret an uncertain reality by reference to a new set of notions of right and wrong, of dharma, of ‘my duties by my own people,’ of diverse peoples, a new confederative perception of unity from the bottom upwards.

This then is the ambience of a new awakening, a redefinition of Indian identity, one that is at once so uncertain about what lies in store and so pregnant with possibilities. One cannot simply return to a decentralised socio-political existence as it is supposed to have once obtained in this ancient land. What is more germaine to the emerging reality is the reactivation of a cultural ethos that is appropriate to a multi-centred structure of a ‘state’. This will call for a series of conceptual efforts – reconstructing national identity, restructuring the ‘state’, rediscovering the cultural and civilizational entity called India (beyond Nehru and Radhakrishnan), refashioning the concept of unity – territorial, social, cultural, psychological and aesthetic. And through all that, at once decentering and re-centering the federal polity. Federating from below, federating regionally (that being the challenge of Punjab and Kashmir and Tamil Nadu) and federating socially (that being the challenge of Mandal), with a deep ecological content (that being the challenge of Narmada) and an extensive economic rationale (that being the challenge of the struggle against globalization). Together creating a new and refashioned democratic structure, drawing on both fresh convulsions in the social fabric and antecedent cultural pre-dispositions that had enabled India to opt for a democratic path to begin with.2



It is through such a conception of ‘a new India (that) is struggling to be born’, that we can have some glimpses of a future that could take shape. Provided there is at once an adequate intellectual grasp of the new forces that are shaping and a new political capacity to build on such a mandate of history. Hopefully such a combination of cerebral and activist engagements can be fashioned on the basis of a timely sense of how to respond to a historical reality, and to enable the right actors to so respond. Both the proclivity to drift along and the temptation to pre-empt initiative and action should be avoided at all costs. Prudence lies in a combination of concern and detachment, opening up spaces without occupying them.


* Reproduced from ‘India 1992’, Seminar 401, January 1993.



1. See my ‘The Indian Enterprise Today’, Daedalus 118(4), Fall 1989.

2. See my ‘Why Has India Been Democratic?’ in State Against Democracy, Ajanta, New Delhi, 1988.