A Neoliberal Earthquake

earthquake As the BJP dipped below hundred seats in the recently concluded election in Gujarat, it was nervousness and not a sense of triumph that absorbed the party supporters at large. The word ‘vikas’ was wilfully abandoned during the campaigns and ‘Gujarat model’ was convincingly voted out in rural Gujarat.  A lot has been rightly said about the glaring limitations of this ‘successful’ model. Perhaps, what hasn’t been spoken more about is the period from which this narrative has boomed to its current monstrosity of hype. Many readers trace this trajectory to the elevation of Narendra Modi in 2002, as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. At the same time, the devastating earthquake that occurred in Bhuj in 2001 was in many ways the genesis of this grandiose model of development. Edward Simpson in his book The Political Biography Of An Earthquake : Aftermath and Amnesia ( 2013 ) seeks to move beyond the usual dissection of an earthquake through its consequences by posing a set of disturbing questions that dismantles our very foundational understanding of something that looks very ‘natural’. As he points out in the very first line of the synopsis of his book, ” Earthquakes are opportunities to intervene”. This innocuous sounding humanitarian intervention becomes a perfect breeding ground to covertly inject hegemonic ideas and the allurement of material benefits at a time of desperate chaos and confusion. The vested interests of sundry parties under the name of addressing the havoc and destruction sees the opportune bourgeoning of industrial capitalism,  incubation of religious fundamentalism and the reconfiguration of the State at the local level. The ‘Gujarat Model’ of today is built on the base combining these three foundations which have been carefully nurtured over the years.

The Aftermath of the earthquake becomes a bigger SHOCK than the original shock to deal with. Industrialization intervenes in the everyday life by reorganising  the existing social life. As J.S. Mill argues, Disasters are the moments of hyper-consumption. Extending the logic of the age old adage of Capitalism thriving because of wars, the triad of Disaster-State-Survivors experiences a massive shift of power relations which now get asymmetrically  shared with the alien private parties. Just as the plea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ is based on specious arguments, the intervention by private entities to ‘adopt’ a village for instance is also far from being gullible or natural. The author provides a range of inputs to discern the deliberate rupturing caused by these private players with an unabashed connivance of the state apparatus. It is intriguing to see how an earthquake conveniently becomes  an excuse to make a push for general reforms for not just the area concerned but for the entire financial sector. A well planned out quid pro quo of some sorts wherein the aid agencies, both domestic and international, pump in capital in order to realise subsidies from the state in terms of soft loans and insurance policies. The illiterate masses are deemed unworthy for charting out a plan for the beautification and reconstruction of their town. Among other things, there is a always a mismatch in what is provided and what is needed on a day to day basis, a horrifying dissonance that has largely been normalised at the administration level. As Henri Lefebvre’s statement quoted in the book will tell us, it is the dominant ideology of bureaucratic capitalism that numbs any possible signs of outrage by submerging it under the vagaries of everyday life.

This deliberate urge for reforming also includes dubious terms on which domestic capital markets and commercial banks would be given access. The changing nature of government bodies like the Gujarat  Urban Development Company, in cahoots with the old and new private entities and their shared power relations over the years is a case in point. There is no better opportune moment for the State to abdicate its constitutional obligations to an untested and unaccountable private cohort. As Simpson incisively puts it, ‘ Disaster is an accelerated entropy’ where privatising common lands, cheapening the terms of trade and foregoing state revenues becomes the uncontested ruling norm. In a period of high possibility and immense potential, the unformed and featureless mind, as John Locke would say, get further pushed out into obscurity. A desperate cosmopolitanism is enforced which further reifies old boundaries of rural land and industrial landscapes, not just in economic terms but more so in social and cultural ways. As Jan Breman says, fragmentation of the working class has possibly been the most notorious development of the much touted ‘Gujarat Model’. The pauperised  lot naturally get swayed by the seductive language of hope. As the purported development model sees a vertiginous rise in its universal acclamation, the depopulation strategies and the proximate and intimate lifestyles giving way to mechanically drawn grids of  houses fails to compensate for virtually dismantling the cultural fabric of the landscape. Is modernization then really the cause or the consequence of an earthquake?

As the neoliberal agenda slowly casted its effect on the quotidian life world of people, another development in the aftermath, which seems more demonic than even before, is the increasing role of religious fanaticism. Like the opportunity seized by a the neo-corporatist elements, fundamentalist groups were quick to pounce on the palimpsest of anguish in a more sophisticated manner. The intensive weaving of dominant religious narratives is done  by not just reinforcing people’s position in the social hierarchy but also by redefining the social grammar of syncretism that existed before the opportune moment. For instance, the political hegemony of a cultural organisation like the RSS can be seen in their consistent material succour being provided through the spiritual wrappings of ritual service. The construction of phantasmogorical images of the devilish ‘other’ gets perpetuated in the politics of rumour- mongering helmed by the benign cultural brigades. Gujarat has a long history of preying on the fear, confusion and desperation of the affected people by such brigades, especially in the aftermath of major riots that have happened in the state since 1969. The collective forgetting of the aftermath is surreptitiously used to implant psychological violence. Stoking communal conflagration by deceptive tactics has been the hallmark of their inferiority complex. It is deceptive because the ‘mourning spaces’, as the author says, get converted into ‘ devotional spaces’, as the umbrella religion of Hinduism is to be consolidated against a manufactured enemy.

The political aesthetics of the blood is crucial to bolster their core idea of militant nationalism. It is the single most effective ploy to  recreate the discourse around the already amorphous categories of contestation, memory and martyrdom. The militant nature also finds life in redeveloping historical cults, whereby inventing new traditions of old customs, the cultural groups rewrite history according to their whims and fancies of the present. The chapters on Shyamji Krishnaverma and the rise of agressive Hinduism as opposed to Gandhi’s gentile version of the same bring out this ominous development with ample clarity. Quite simply, the religiously prescribed services, for a spiritual recovery in the horrific aftermath is meant to generate new political subjectivities who will have to acquiesce to this economic growth cum fundamentalist model in order to not invite social ostracism and not fall behind in the supposed path to prosperity. The constant sustenance of fear pays rich dividends as the Hindu elites begin to represent the ‘whole’, which also sees a reassertion of the structures of kinship. Undoubtedly, this churning has to come from the rooted ‘saints’ and not from ‘reformers’, as the author rightly points out the former has a sense of the local whereas the latter with its universalist image, is hopelessly divorced from the peculiar local spiritual concerns. The VHP, Bachanoswami Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha ( BAPS ) are some of them whose roles have been analysed in the book in terms of making layouts and designs for new temples, educational services, training for priests etcetera. The biggest problem with this religious overdose is that it gives no heed to the fact that a village is not a single sociological, geographical entity wherein all villagers are ‘model citizens’. The intrusion, of mostly upper caste rituals wipes out the hybrid dynamism of the locale. Political Hinduism in this way succeeds in proffering a neatly planned planning paradigm which seamlessly jells with the neoliberal doctrine mentioned above.

This sinister fusion of a cavalier neo-corporatist agenda and a subdued form of militant nationalism has left indelible scars on the minds of ordinary people. Add to that an active display of political will of amnesia renders the very purpose of existence meaningless. The cocktail of emotions like hope, anger, despair, suffering is captured perfectly by the author by referring to Immanuel Kant’s notion of the ‘Analytic of the Sublime’. The feeling of how the level of physical impotence after reaching the point of sublime turns into self-admiration through reason, in order to overpower that  feeling of wretchedness is deeply poignant and relevant to understanding any such emotions in contemporary times. To overcome this feeling of suffering through realising the superiority of reason, one also has to acknowledge the ‘failing of the self’. If one  fails to do this i.e. to acknowledge that all the wrongdoings have been happening because of one’s own karma, it will be tantamount to be giving too much superior leverage and legitimacy to the Gods of the ‘others’ . Needless to say, the one thing this feeling does is to exacerbate the already widening chasm between Hindus and Muslims. Religious polarisation also sees a distinct geographically  invariant treatment meted out to the prosperous urban and the regressive rural.

This psychology pervades even between communities as the traditional rural castes are made to be seen as hot blooded and sturdy while the trading urban castes are seen as more disciplined and cultured of the lot. The latter defines the very ethos of the development paradigm of the Gujarat model. This constructed sociological patterns of behaviour reigns supreme as an ‘illusion of order is always better than the trauma of disorderliness’. The surge toward a more modern, globalised lifestyle creates a farce of the denudation of caste as the other material fruits of the suburbanisation process are treated as the stepping stone of shedding the shibboleths on one hand and realizing the glamour of modernization in the process. The rural-urban divide over here is perpetuated by the patronising idea of the primitive people of Kutch being taught about how to be civilised by the urban elites. Region as a socio-historical idea and not merely as a geographical one is treated as superfluous in the anticipation of the larger mirage of an integrated whole.

In this way, Edward Simpson highlights a multitude of disturbing facets of an evolving hegemonic narrative – the covert usage of powers of bureaucracy than an overt conspiracy of interests;  the uniformity of monetary compensation failing to satiate the variegated needs of a diverse populace; the unhindered deepening of communalism; the politics of renaming and adopting villages and the lack of genuinely open space to discuss the rights and wrongs of industrialization. All of these developments define the Gujrat model of the present. Anthropology, philosophy and psychology are all diligently made use of while focusing on the complexities at the macro level without losing sight of the local. This book published in 2013 is an immensely important contribution that confronts the rosy picture coming from outside by giving a peek into the perilous darkness from within. There is indeed so much more to Gujarat than the media induced crass hedonism on display. As the author says in some context, ” Success has buyers only when evoked far from the epicentre of disaster”.

Suraj Kumar Thube has an MA in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is interested in Indian politics and Indian political thought. He spends most of his time reading books, playing football and listening to Hindustani classical music.


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