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Street theatre

Paradoxes are intriguing to begin with, but when they become the default position to explain political expediency, then it appears rather ludicrous.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2006 01:04 IST

Paradoxes are intriguing to begin with, but when they become the default position to explain political expediency, then it appears rather ludicrous. The Left’s anger demonstrated through a crippling of passenger services at airports would imply that defence of its opposition to foreign direct investment in modernisation of airports by the privatisation route is a matter of the highest priority, even more so than for instance the cuts in food subsidy routed through the Public Distribution System and the Antyodaya Anna Yojana which affect millions of below poverty line families.

Odder is that despite its grand gesture of including the core sectors recently liberalised, the Left has selectively neglected to focus its anger on the other bits that will in its impact have far reaching consequences, such as changing the rules to allow for FDI in the manufacture of dirty chemicals or in mining is rather suspicious. While a battery of economists and picky proselytisers have marshalled a set of reasons for directing the Left’s attack against liberalisation in retail, it would seem, that choosing airport modernisation-privatisation is intentional and diversionary tactics.

On ‘the terrain of the conjectural’, there is the lurking possibility that the goal is to buy time and create the space to enable the forces of opposition to mobilise. By keeping Wal-Mart at bay, the Left, it seems, is buying time for Indian entrepreneurs to get their act together to launch their version of the mega-marts and retail chains. For the argument against FDI in retail centres around precisely this — profits which equal savings will be recycled within the Indian economy as investment instead of flowing out under the banner of free trade.

If the Marxists had been upfront about their preferences and their ultimate objectives it would have been a rather more convincing opposition and vastly healthier and transparent, for the effort of opposing FDI in retail is linked to the long-term goal of cobbling together assorted groups so that the strength of the flock ‘united under a hegemonic banner’ is greatly augmented. There can be no doubt about the Left’s final ambitions, which is to do what Gramsci recommended for the revolutionary forces:- “Usurp the dominant or prevailing hegemony” by crafting its own counter-hegemony.

By co-opting the small retailer and the local shopkeeper through a bleeding-heart defence, the Left is paying up its premium for a risk coverage, that of building a coalition of oppositional groups. For be it an Indian entrepreneur or FDI, conventional wisdom indicates mega-marts would hurt the local retailer. Unconventional thinking of the wildly optimistic variety, however, insists that the size of a rising economy would have the capability to generate enormous demand and that matching supplies to keep up with it would tax the ingenuity and the resources of shops of all sizes and sorts.

Conservative estimates, such as reports put together by global consultants McKinsey predict that though India has the potential to grow into a $400 billion retail market by 2010, making it the world’s fifth biggest. If MNCs want to succeed in this market, they have to localise — instead of waiting for Indian tastes and preferences to globalise — and the products and prices have to be doctored to allow households with limited budgets to enjoy the fruits of the free market. All of this thinking is based on the behaviour of the urbanised middle-class, whereas the market is bigger — much bigger if the rest of the population which constitutes the majority is taken into account.

Wayward political fortune having enabled the CPI(M) and its Left partners to effortlessly assume the role of the only sustainable opposition group. It is not queering the pitch for the liberalisers and reformers out of misdirected ideological convictions. The Left is working its way towards an alternative model of liberalisation and reform. That there are inherent contradictions within its preferred positions is a cost that the Left will have to factor in the closer it gets to firmly establishing its place within the national political space.

The conflict over FDI in retail provides an excellent example of the sort of hot water that the Left is boiling up for itself. Shooting down FDI in retail does not imply that the Left is against mega-marts. In the long- run, the Left will have to sort out where its ill-concealed — if not ill-conceived — preference for Indian retailers, as a matter of nationalist sentiment, leads. The Left will also have to resolve the contradiction of encouraging FDI in IT, wooing foreign investors with technological superiority in realty and its opposition to FDI in retail. This is not to argue that FDI in retail is a worthwhile cause to embrace, but to question the logic of the Left.

If repatriation of profit is what makes FDI in retail obnoxious, then by the same measure FDI in any other activity ought to invite the same sort of aversion. Economic logic suggests that capital, whatever its country of origin, behaves in much the same way and ends up exploiting the wage-earner. The Left chooses to believe that there is a real, rather than a fine, distinction between forced trade and its version of free trade to defend the position it has taken on FDI in retail.

Given the Left’s ambition of sooner-rather-than-later defeating the ‘dominant hegemony’ — in the limited political sense of leading the race to the top — it makes eminent sense for it to forge as broad a coalition as it possibly can, shielded as it currently is by a Congress whose prime minister, Manmohan Singh, at least in public maintains that criticism and opposition create room for introspection. Bravely academic as this description of the Left’s role in partnership appears to be, it conceals the level of political dependence within the relationship. For nobody within the Congress has been allowed to break line and shoot, even if only blanks, at the Left.

In some ways, the dependence is more desperate than within the CPI(M). There were at least three different versions of what the politburo thought about FDI in retail and airport modernisation-privatisation, and there may have been other opinions within the party. Political expediency or clever tactical gambit — whichever way it is perceived — the differences in emphasis imply that there are a myriad constituencies to whom the CPI(M) wishes to appear appealing.

Finding popular ‘causes’ that enable it to connect to ‘working people’ everywhere furthers its goal of nurturing the forces that will create the necessary and sufficient conditions for the Left to accomplish its self-selected historical task of taking over the State and running its own show.

The pity is that the Left’s lack of skills as a high-wire artiste and its fears of falling are manifest in the manner in which it selects its tactics to reach its short and long-term goals. If its imperative is to accomplish its ‘historical tasks’, including precipitate a crisis to ‘create a terrain more favourable’, then it needs to be less elliptical and more direct.