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Kaam aadmi politics

Rahul Gandhi can and should rewrite poverty-politics rules

Written by Saubhik Chakrabarti |
September 10, 2010 1:02:17 am

It’s not just the frequency of its appearance in Rahul Gandhi’s increasingly frequent and pointed political messages that argues for our paying renewed attention to the “rich India/poor India” phrase. There’s abundant evidence that Gandhi has a serious political programme and there’s no doubt that the electorate’s assessment of him will play a large part in shaping the politics of the near future. Therefore,despite the fact that a political strategy based — wholly or partly — on claims of soldiering credentials for the poor is unremarkable in India,Gandhi’s use of it deserves fresh scrutiny.

From what he has said in public so far it would appear that Gandhi is taking two,related positions. First,that the poor have insufficient representation of the kind that matters when dealing with policy-inspired changes. Second,that he can deliver that substantive representation. Both claims can be objectively examined. But,let’s for the sake of the more important and interesting argument agree with both claims. The question then is what kind of representation is Gandhi offering and what kind should he offer; assuming there’s a difference.

What he should offer,what any intelligent politician should offer in today’s India,is that scarce commodity in poverty-politics: the ability to play the pragmatic negotiator for the poor. When,for example,land has to be acquired for roads/factories /mines or when a dam has to be built,there’s always a three-variable complex equation: public good (road,industry,etc. are good for the public),private profit (the entrepreneurs’ calculations) and private adjustment (those who will be displaced).

The maximalist “pro-people” solution to this equation is basically saying “this land is our land”,end of the argument,and the project. The maximalist “pro-project” solution is that big investment is its own reward. Governments,at the Centre and states,are struggling to provide a convincing solution. The reason is not only that India is home to sophisticated,organised activism. Political representation of the potentially “displaced” is playing right into the hands of maximalist activists.

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The poor,as Raghuram Rajan has pointed out with the most intellectual coherence in recent times,have an informal social contract with the politician: you deliver some minimal services I should have got but don’t get from the state and I will not always judge you on all the stuff that,say,agitates the middle class.

This contract,though,is anti-public good in a big project/big change/big activism (let’s call it B3) scenario. In fact,as Rajan pointed out,such contracts incentivise the status quo in so far as change can eliminate/reduce the need for this political service. Most political representation of the poor in B3 scenarios happens under such an informal contract — I,the politician,will help you not to get displaced,for example — and that’s fine for both routine politicians and all activists.

But that shouldn’t be fine for the intelligent politician. He/she should work on a new informal contract: I,the politician,will get you the best deal you can get in a B3 situation because I know the state and the rich guys running the project aren’t doing it,although they should. This,too,is a service the poor should have got anyway but frequently don’t,but in this contract,the politician has an additional job: he has to explain,and bat for the future benefit. Getting a ration card for a poor Indian is a no-explanation service. Fighting to ensure that there’s enough private investment on social infrastructure and for local project-related jobs is an explanation-heavy service. You have to convince the poor that project-related private adjustment will credibly lead to project-related private benefits.


In Niyamgiri in Orissa,the ruling BJD made virtually no attempt to do this locally. That was foolish. But it is fairly typical of B3 politics in India. The intelligent politician should spot this market gap and occupy it.

And it’s not an impossible undertaking. Go to any B3 site where there’s very little evidence of what we understand by minimal modern facilities and even if you feel that its tradition and pristine nature should be preserved for the next millennium,ask the locals whether they want jobs that pay regularly and schools that feel like schools. The answer will be yes. But the problem is fear — fear of the poor about change because they are usually right to think that they will be written out of the future. The intelligent politician must address this fear by saying I will intermediate in this process.

Problems? Of course. This approach robs you of easy oppositional politics at local levels. Relatedly,it makes local party units unhappy. It also means understanding and communicating details. But this last thing is done by maximalist activists all the time. They do it well. Why can’t a major politician not do it,and/or not have people to do it? The key thing is taking the call — I,the politician,will offer a different contract to the poor.


This is not what Rahul Gandhi appears to be doing,going by his political work recently. His Niyamgiri stand seemed to be this: the project must stop,no land to be given for mining. But given that the BJD had left a political vacuum locally,was it impossible for Gandhi to have represented the local poor by using his political weight to question Vedanta and the state government,while not taking the maximalist stand? Both Vedanta and the state government made a poor case for change. There would have been votes for someone making a credible case,by promising political representation geared towards getting a better deal.

This of course puts such a politician in conflict with activists — and that’s one of the most desired outcomes of intelligent poverty-politics. Activists can’t promise to negotiate credibly for local jobs. Intelligent politicians can. Activists’ space then shrinks. Negotiation can replace “struggle”. The most basic reality of poor India is lack of regular work — the aam aadmi wants to become the kaam aadmi.

Given where he is in his political career and given who he is,Gandhi has the advantage that he can write a few new rules,start on the process of trying to write a new contract with the poor. He doesn’t appear to be. But he can and should.

One thing more: consistency in the dictionary sense may not necessarily be a virtue in politics. But in intelligent poverty-politics,some consistency is necessary. Gandhi on the Polavaram dam project in Congress-ruled Andhra is very different from Gandhi on Niyamgiri in BJD-ruled Orissa. That the environment ministry has green-signalled Polavaram,and not Niyamgiri,is besides the point for ground level poverty-politics. The activists are making very similar arguments in Andhra.

This can be a problem for Gandhi’s poverty-politics — unless his politics offers that different contract to the poor,then which party rules which state doesn’t matter that much. He can be less inconsistent. That’s the virtue of kaam aadmi politics.

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First published on: 10-09-2010 at 01:02:17 am
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