Middle class needs heroes
Durga Shakti Nagpal has caught the imagination of the Indian middle class. Newspapers like ‘Times of India’ and the electronic media, that mainly cater to the middle class have done their bit in establishing this lady as an icon. It has been proven yet again that the Indian middle class has an unlimited appetite for superheroes created either by Bollywood or the media. This ‘Captain America’ syndrome is by no means unique to India; middle class by its nature pines for unrelenting and valiant warriors sacrificing all to wage a war against evil. Skeptical of all mass movements, deeply pessimistic of any genuine change and reluctant to take any kind of risks whatsoever, the middle class is always on the lookout for superheroes who may rise above mere mortals and crush all evils. It is due to this desire for mighty vanquishers of evils that in most of the mass movements supported by the middle class, the hero becomes larger than life, larger than the masses and on occasions larger than the cause itself.
The selfish middle class
This piece is not a denunciation of Durga Shakti Nagpal as an individual. This lady might be a brave individual; it is also possible that she is ready to take a lot of risk to establish the ‘rule of law’. But this fact, in itself does not explain the middle class fascination with her struggle. Times of India reported that she was in fact fighting for a ‘popular cause’, because the villagers affected by the sand mafia too are rallying around her and waging a struggle despite her suspension. What is significant about these reports is that the fact of her struggle being a ‘popular’ one was mentioned only post-festum, almost as an after-thought, in the nature of the ‘yet another cause’ for why she is a hero. Her icon status neither stands nor does it fall with how the villagers react to her suspension. So here’s the irony, the people for whom she is purportedly waging the struggle become secondary whereas the lady herself, Durga Shakti Nagpal, a name that evokes the image of a goddess vanquishing the evil, becomes larger than life, India’s own ‘Captain America.’ To some of my detractors this formulation might seem rather far-fetched, but let me ask; when was the last time the middle class rallied around an issue that affects the poor either in the villages or the cities? POSCO, Niyamgiri, Singur, Nandigram etc are some names that immediately cross one’s mind as sites of pitched battles between the rural poor driven to the wall and waging a life-death battle against the state agencies. I would not at all feel surprised if most of my readers stare blank at their screens and wonder what these names really represent. The matter of fact is that the middle class hardly ever cares about the fate of the poor; it only evokes the plight of the oppressed and the downtrodden when it is in search for allies for its own movements, led by its superheroes.
What is a mafia?
‘Rule of law’, is what the middle class cherishes and celebrates as the ultimate objective of all mass movements. Narendra Modi, Anna Hazare and Kejriwal, almost all of the new middle class’s favorite icons come across as ethical heroes who would rescue the nation from the specter of corruption and crony capitalism. It is ironical that despite that fact that most of the major cases of corruption involve two parties: the corporate houses and the political elite, the target of middle class wrath is always the latter. The corporate India, which incidentally happens to be the employer of the majority of the new Indian middle class, is painted as a victim of selfishness and venality of the netas. It is hardly ever noticed that corporate India or many occasions actively promotes corruption and on occasions even resorts to coercion of honest bureaucrats to acquiesce. Big capitalist class has an ambiguous relationship to corruption, as a class they want to end crony capitalism and ensure free competition in the market, but as individual firms they are always on the lookout for advantageous deals with the political elite. Seen in the light of this argument, the money paid to the netas to sanction corruption is nothing but a rent paid by an individual firm to keep competition out and secure super profits over other firms. And whenever such a thing happens, the rest of the firms rally together and cry out for the rule of law. A mafia, the kind Durga Shakti Nagpal was trying to curb, is nothing apart from a firm that pays ‘rent’ to the political parties to keep competition out and earn super profits.
The legal corruption
Unlike what most of the middle class seems to believe, the ‘rule of law’ is a not a permanent guarantee of justice for all. The law is not eternal; in a parliamentary democracy, it is subject to change in accordance with the pressures that the state might face from different pressure groups and classes. The corporate India, the class of big capitalists, is more often than not able to have its say in the framing of the laws, which then honest IAS officers like Durga Shakti Nagpal own up as their bounden duties to uphold. One example that may be cited here is the laws regarding SEZs (Special Economic Zones). In India it was illegal for the firms to violate the labor laws, to avoid paying the taxes due to the state etc. So the political elite and the big business got together and got the laws changed. Suspension of labor laws and exemption from taxes for the corporate houses throughout the country would have created widespread furore, so SEZs were created as zones within the country where the ‘rule of law’ was suspended legally, i.e. the corporate houses and the political elite came up with the bright idea of changing the laws to circumvent the ‘rule of law’. As a result of this the guardians of the middle class, like Durga Shakti Nagpal, who till a few years ago would have been ensuring punishment to the individual firms violating the labor laws, would now be thrust with the sacred duty of arresting all the workers ‘guilty’ of trying to organize against big capital, and this would be in accordance with the ‘rule of law’.‘Honesty’ and ‘rule of law’ are not self evident virtues, they can only be judged within the larger matrix of conflicting class interests. In some contexts even the oppressed might benefit from the rule of law, whereas within other contexts the rule of law might translate into untold sufferings for the downtrodden. Unfortunately in our society, so heavily dominated by the moneyed interests, laws are framed in a manner that mostly benefit the rich and the powerful. Legality and illegality are but mere words that mean little to the toiling masses of the country waging struggles for survival and dignity. They neither need superheroes to rescue them nor do they make a fetish out the slogan of ‘rule of law’, doing so is a quintessential middle class trait.