Chapter 13: The Emerging Political Scenario: the People’s Search For an Alternative

The Church’s Mission and Post-Modern Humanism
by M. M. Thomas

Chapter 13: The Emerging Political Scenario: the People’s Search For an Alternative

A paper presented at a Seminar organized in Delhi by the Delhi Forum on the topic.


“A global economic system does not just fade out. It will have to be replaced. But at the present a feasible global alternative does not exist. But then alternatives have to be contextually evolved rather than taken out of any ready made blue-print” (C.T.Kurien, Global Capitalism and Indian Economy p.84) Alternatives should be based on forces present in the existing situation. This is required by Realism as different from projecting Utopian blue-prints and imposing it on reality. Utopian vision is necessary but cannot be imposed without taking the contemporary social reality into account. In fact we have to grapple with the contemporary reality to realize a short-term alternative which will open a path to the long-term alternative.

The present international situation is marked by the domination of the “ideology” of the free-market economy. The ideologisation is seen in that the market with its sole criterion of economic growth is made to determine policies regarding other economic goals like liquidation of mass poverty, economic welfare and eco-justice, but also policies regarding directions in social educational and cultural life. Such ideologisation happened much later than the emergence of the market-mechanism in early capitalism for the limited purpose of maximizing production in the context of scarce resources. It is the ideology of the market that has been revived and enforced globally through the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization by the economic Powers in the uni-polar world. After the disintegration of socialist regimes in 1989, this ideology dominates the world and the Third World countries have fallen in line.

We have to reckon with the middle class who form the political community of the Third World countries increasingly supporting it, because it is in their class interests. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) drawn from the middle class and even the organized working class have imbibed the consumer culture and have fallen in line. They may also be believing the media’s pressurized propaganda that any present impoverishment of the weaker sections will be corrected in due course through economic growth or that in the present it is the price we pay for economic progress of the nation for the future.

Therefore it is quite unrealistic to build our hope on the expectation that market economy is moving to any inevitable doom or that we can count on the permanence of the democratic polity in India continuing to permit agitation of peoples’ movements against the present pattern of development. Capitalism has shown its resilience before; and if India’s ruling class feels seriously threatened by peoples’ movements or if the BJP comes to power, there is real possibility of democratic freedoms being restricted.

Rajan Gurukkal of the Social Sciences department of the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala gives his reasons why the leaders of counter-culture who are anticipating “a total breakdown of the market-friendly dimension of development in the wake of micro-movements which they see as part of the process of global transformation” are too optimistic and are likely to be disappointed. For, “political systems incapable of counter-balancing unusually swollen middle class, myriads of white collar jobs, non-local means of subsistence, irresistible passion for consumer goods and a social life making sense only in the idiom of science and technology hardly grant an easy walk-over for anti-development movements. Uprooted subjects colonized to the core, thinking and acting according to the rules of modern science, the larger public fails to recognize the myth of development that has been tantalizing over the decades. The capitalist enclave operating through the agency of the state bureaucracy combine goes on increasing middle class incentives through privatization and commercialization. A large majority of the educated commons are depending on the subsistence niches of supra-local economy of commercial interests. More and more of the rural populace are being drawn to urban complexes for non-traditional labour, making rural subsistence systems irrelevant. This is weakening the side of the marginal communities in the conflicts between commercial interests and survival needs”(”Ecological Perspective of Development” in Development and Politics of Survival, pp. 71 f).

The question is, will at least a good minority of the politically conscious community of India commit themselves to preserve democratic freedoms and identify, themselves with the cause of the victims of globalization and opt to oppose the policy in the name of the Nehru legacy of the welfare state? Not that Nehru’s concept of the socialist pattern had done much good in practice to the poor sections, but it provided room for it. Will there be a demand in the year of the General Elections that the State be democratic enough to respond to the peoples’ movements and discipline the market and the market-mechanism so that they may be de-ideologised so as to make room for objectives like social welfare and justice as well as national self-reliance and eco-justice. This is the short-tern political objective.

Among the movements opposed to the policy of globalization, the strongest are those aimed at protecting the ecological-biological structure of nature. Where these movements of eco-justice stand in isolation from the struggle against “capitalist infringements of communal rights to natural resources”, that is, from the struggle for social justice, they are likely to be of a purely middle class character and tend to get coopted by the ideology of market economy. But where they are so related they are a power for change. In fact the local struggles of the organized movements of dalits, tribals, fisherfolk and women, for living and for survival (some of which have been partly or temporarily successful), against specific expressions of market-directed pattern of development, have been a potent force to educate the middle class regarding the inhuman reality of the present development paradigm; such education is necessary to achieve even our short-term objective. However these movements are politically marginal until they get more power-political support from the organized working class and/or the political parties.

Ajit Roy the editor of the independent Marxist Review from Calcutta thinks that Marxist thought has still great potential for defining the long-term alternative based on the power of the organized working class. He estimates that the organized working class will soon feel the pinch of a hi-tech development under TNC auspices which increasingly excludes them from sharing in the scheme of economic production and distribution. This potential needs to be explored.

On the whole however in the Third World in general and in India in particular, the leaders searching for alternative paradigms take a more neo-Gandhian approach emphasizing decentralization of political and economic power. This envisages microlevel sovereign communities of some sort, controlling their resources and shaping appropriate/indigenous technologies, and socially liberating themselves from traditional patriarchies and hierarchies, redefining without destroying their traditional community structures and values. This too is a form of modern development, only more humane than the present one under globalization.

S.L.Parmar an Indian economist who made a significant contribution to the thinking of the World Council of Churches on development issues, once spoke of the kind of technology that would help social development of people and protect nature. He said, “Since modern technology appears to be ecologically unsatisfactory, it needs to be replaced by a more appropriate technology that is in harmony with nature. Since it manifests inequalities and reduces participation and control.. .the need is to evolve technologies that are labour-using, capital-and energy-saving, small-scale and amenable to decentralization. These conditions can be largely met if technology is built primarily on natural human and renewable local resources, if it can be linked to traditional skills, crafts and techniques, and if it is geared to production that will meet the basic needs of the poor” (Faith Science and the Future. Geneva p.196).

It is significant that even Fukuyama who put forward the thesis that democratic capitalism may be the End of History, has recently said in a Press interview that modern institutions need the support of “pre-modern social structures like the community, religion and the family” and that with these structures disintegrating, “modern institutions were facing a crisis in the West” (quoted by Ajit Roy in the Marxist Review July 1995).

So the new alternative should be conceived not as a return to the traditional society as some would have it, but as going forward affirming both discontinuity with the oppressive ethos and continuity with the liberating culture of mutuality in the traditional society. It is not an anti-development paradigm but an alternative development paradigm.

We have in India the traditions of Gandhi-Vinoba-led Sarvodaya, Lohite Socialism, Jai Prakash’s Total Revolution and Ambedkar’s pattern of dalit struggle which can become resources for the new alternative. Many of our academics like Rajni Kothari, Ashish Nandy and Vandana Shiva have sought to formulate the new direction. They themselves recognize that the base of this alternative paradigm has to be the movements of peoples who are the victims of globalization. Elements of the new discourse have begun to “acquire forms of struggle and movements fast opening up avenues of integration for the teased and frustrated millions in the southern nations”. “Rooted in local cultures and directed to local problems, these are microlevel resistances with signs of world-wide solidarity”, says Gurukkal. In this context the large number of net-works of Social Action groups in India have a very important function in the discourse provided they have what Gramcie has called an “organic” relation to such peoples’ movements.

In this light, the new National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements in India has significance as having the potentiality to become the base of the long-term alternative in our country. It is too early to say. But the Alliance seems to have had a good beginning in their Bombay meeting under the leadership of Medha Patkar, Tom Kocheri and Banvari Lal Sarma. Bastian Wielenga of the Centre for Social Analysis says, “In peoples’ movements such as the National Fish-workers’ Forum (NFF), the Narmada Bachan Andolan, the Socialist Front, Jan Vikas Andolan, Chilika Bachao Andolan and the National Federation of Construction Labour which are cooperating in the NAPM, the victims of the dominant development politics are raising their voice and begin to project alternatives. Huge dams are affecting water cycle and bio-regions, pursseine trawlers are affecting marine food chains, both are destroying livelihood of people based on community control of resources. This type of development displaces people. Against that, the displaced people claim the right to life (Art 21 of the Constitution)...One of the aims of the struggle is to protect the material base for creative life-centred life-sustaining activities. The slogans, ‘protect water- protect life’ and ‘protect bio-diversity’ highlight what has to be done already now for the sake of a new society in the future. This is in the spirit of Shankar Guha Niyogi who emphasized that the agenda of peoples’ movement has to include simultaneously struggle and creative efforts”: (Life-centred Production-Practical Steps Towards a Feminist Eco-Socialism. Resource Centre for Peoples’ Education and Development).

In the midst of a largely gloomy Indian political scenario, there are many rays of hope.