A Rejoinder to Chetan Bhagat’s Neoliberal Prescriptions

Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat’s article “Wanted: A bill to fix Indian manufacturing” – published on March 27, 2021 by “The Times of India” – is a paradigmatic example of neoliberal oversimplification. While the article ostensibly aims to prescribe the relevant measures to be taken to convert India into an economic powerhouse, it comes off as a ham-handed screed against perceived enemies.

The article begins with a facile comparison: “Sometimes, the things that are good for us are the ones people resist the most. Diet and exercise for instance. For a classroom full of kids, a baker distributing pastries is going to be far more popular than a doctor administering bitter medicine. And for voters, a government giving sops is more popular than a government taking tough decisions. However, we must diet and exercise. A doctor is more important than a baker. And a government must make tough decisions.”

Superficially appealing, Bhagat’s analogy deploys simplificatory techniques to drive home the point that a government – rather than listening to the people – should utilize its own technocratic and intellectual skills to decide what is good for the people. Deeply elitist, such a conception of democracy considers the electorate as wild, untamed and uneducated – totally incapable of understanding what is good for itself. In Bhagat’s la-la land of governance, only a small coterie of enlightened and highbrow people takes “hard” decisions for the uncouth and philistinic masses living in the country.

Not content with establishing a horrifically mauled framework of governance, Bhagat uses his brain-dead analogy to explain why India is behind China in terms of economic performance. According to him, becoming a global manufacturing hub like China “requires the doctor, and not the baker. It requires fixing things that are broken. It requires one big bill that will solve all the problems that Indian manufacturers face in the country. Yes, there will be protests. Left-wingers, the same guys who keep prodding the government for more jobs, will oppose this manufacturing bill that creates more jobs. People with wonderful, eloquent English but no real stakes in the economy will write articles on how ‘poor farmers’ will suffer and ‘poor labourers’ will be hurt, without actually ever suggesting a way on how the prefix poor can be removed from farmers and labourers. A few thousand people will block Delhi roads…Some will call it the murder of democracy (even though an elected government will pass the bill)…Opposition parties will rally poor people and try to convince them that ‘everything’ is being ‘taken’ away from them by rich capitalists.”

Three main points can be deduced from the text. First, Bhagat has a caustic contempt for the ordinary people. Writing as if only he has the ultimate “stake” in the economy, Bhagat brusquely silences the voices of those whom he considers unfit to comprehend the superb efficacy of his economic prescriptions. He himself acknowledges that there will be protests in the country due to his well-thought-out measures. However, these protests will be misinformed. How can we forget that only Bhagat knows what is good the people! Anyways, those uncivilized protesting masses need to be perennially tutored by knowledgeable intellectuals like him. To further buttress his exclusionary understanding of democracy, he says that the passage of a bill which goes against the interests of the people can’t be called the “murder of democracy” because it is passed by an elected government. Based on a purely procedural interpretation of democracy, this line of reasoning elevates legislative institutions to an unchallengeable level and ignores the fact that the crux of any democratic institution is constituted by a politico-social fabric. If citizens are opposed to a particular law, parliamentary representatives have to respect the people’s opinion and understand that they are only “representing” the people, not directing them. In Bhagat’s conceptual universe, lifeless institutions and representatives are given more importance than the emotions and sensibilities of the people.

In his absurdly fashioned denigration of “left-wingers”, Bhagat chastises them even for asking the government for jobs! What should unemployed citizens do then? Sit passively in the hope that the government will someday or the other take notice of their plight? A contorted perspective like this is a direct result of Bhagat’s inverted world-view where the large mass of humanity is ordered to wait silently for the leaders’ magical solutions.

Secondly, Bhagat remains under the delusion that he is the only person suggesting the measures to be undertaken for the eradication of poverty. As per him, those who support various kinds of people’s protests don’t have any ideas for economically strengthening India and – unlike Bhagat – they can only denounce various things. This is far from the truth. There are numerous individuals who have been suggesting concrete measures for the Indian economy. These measures are certainly more concrete than Bhagat’s quite abstract recommendation of a “one big manufacturing bill”. Two of the simplest measures are increase in social expenditure and wealth taxation. The latter also explains how the government – if we are to use Bhagat’s own lexicon – can give the people pastries instead of bitter medicine.

Thirdly, Bhagat thinks that the entire narrative about “rich capitalists” is some sort of conspiracy theory being used by the opposition to gain the support of the people. This is sheer ignorance of existing facts. The rich 1% of India own 73% of the country’s wealth. These inequalities have worsened during the pandemic. An Oxfam report says that in India, the wealth of billionaires increased by 35% during the lockdown and by 90% since 2009. To put this in context, according to Oxfam, “It would take an unskilled worker 10,000 years to make what Mukesh Ambani made in an hour during the pandemic and 3 years to make what he made in a second… Data shows what Ambani earned during the pandemic would keep the 40 crore informal workers that are at risk of falling into poverty due to COVID-19 above the poverty line for at least 5 months”. The concentration of so much economic power in the hands of the few results in the degradation of the political system into a system of oppression.

The political power of state is incapable of independently organizing production – property is private and the productive sectors of the economy are in the hands of private companies to whose activities the state has to continually react. In so far as the state is unable to construct a self-supporting productive base and depends on revenues from surplus extraction, its capacities are indirectly determined through private productivity and profitability. This means that politicians and officials have to strengthen capital accumulation to be able to exist within the state

Bhagat’s article is reflective of the neoliberal consensus prevalent all over the world. This consensus is anti-democratic in its essence, using highly warped ideas to justify the marketization of the entire society. While subscribing to this neoliberal tradition, Bhagat is distinctive in the sense that he combines a high degree of unabashed elitism with unfathomable proclivity for grotesquely crafted judgments and suggestions. His frank acknowledgement of the resistance and protests his suggestions would face when enacted is different from the sophisticated and glib talk of neoliberal ideologues. That is why it represents the apogee of neoliberal stupidity.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].



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