we are all banias?
By Dr R. Balashankar
The debate on Retail FDI has exposed as never before, the narrow mindset of most of our celebrity hacks and economic writers. It was clearly not national interest that inspired their angst. Till now I did not know that economic reform in India had a caste outreach. Or that the aam bania is more powerful than the aam aadmi. I thought bania is one of the miniscule segments, in the perplexing phalanx of Hindu caste hierarchy, inhabiting in a few states of north India. It was after reading the never-say-die warriors of economic reform that I realised that anybody making a honourable living, instead of queuing up for a sarkari or private job, — who has a self sustaining mode of employment — are all clubbed as bania by our sundry economic writers.
I don’t know if the word is used as an abuse or a pejorative, or simply to run down a traditional approach. It is not flattering in any case particularly in the context these people are advancing. Is it such a big crime as to invite ridicule to oppose the FDI policy, especially in the light of the derived wisdom on globalisation after the 2008 recession which turned the capitalist world upside down?
The B-word, now we understand, is also the pseudonym for the BJP, India’s main opposition party—and also the entire community of people engaged in any kind of business activity. This is the second largest constituency in India after farmer, employing some 100 million people. But they are all dismissed derogatively by our elite commentators. And their middle men? As if they are not Indians. It is to eliminate this lot, we are told, from farm to fork, that they are inviting Walmart and its ilk. If because of making trade a profession, our people are banias, what will our reform writers call the western nations whose sole instinct is business? They come here to trade, profit and prosper. Are they not super banias?
These brown sahibs form the core of our social creamy layer. They are the products of globalisation, urbane, globe-trotting whiz kids making policy template and promoting Darwin economics, as the real holy cow of St.Market. The thought at the bottom of their argument is that Indians cannot do anything perfect. It is the same mindset that refuses to see the loot and damage Sonia Gandhi, a foreigner, is doing to India.
To refer to BJP by a caste name is a travesty. In fact, the party gets elected one of the largest contingents of OBC, SC, ST and Brahmin candidates in Parliament and state legislatures. In reality, there is only a tiny section of the party parliamentary strength that belongs to this caste group. None of its nine chief ministers belong to this caste denomination either. (Majority of them are OBC, by the way). But the BJP’s opposition to the FDI in retail is construed as a charge of the B-brigade. And its leaders are being warned that the young India will not forgive them, as if the only pastime of the young Indian is to shop at Walmart. The Congress described FDI in retail as anti-national in 2002. Did that stop the party from coming to power in 2004?
FDI in retail, for that matter any initiative on globalisation is no vote clincher. Rather it is a voter repellent. Economics is a political spring board. But our economic writers don’t understand politics. Because they spend all their time lobbying. Trade in India is not the preserve of any particular caste or community. In southern states, traditionally, it is mainly the Christians and Muslims who dominate trade. The presence of the bania community in trade in India is not so dominant if we analyse the caste based demographic distribution of economic activity. Yet why have our economic writers become so fanatically acerbic as to stoop to name calling on an issue which united all parties except the Congress under one banner, for the first time in two decades on an economic issue? Is it their claim that only the pink press and lobbying reform wags have all the economic wisdom in the country? Congress could not take even its allies on board and had to make a hasty, humbling retreat, which one economic paper described fumingly; “hyper inactive government freezes foreign hypermarkets” and termed it as a loss of face.
Politics in India is the instrument of change. Without the two pillars of social acceptability and economic rationale no reform can work. Despite all the media hype, Manmohan Singh has remained a political Lilliput because of this. Those who are familiar with the Indian political milieu will understand the concern behind the opposition to retail FDI. The retail FDI has no convincing economic logic for India. The pro-establishment media is never tired of telling us that the 2009 Congress gains were the endorsement vote for Dr. Manmohan Singh’s reform agenda. If Manmohan Singh is so popular, why is he not contesting an election to Lok Sabha instead of repeatedly going to Assam to get elected to Rajya Sabha? The only occasion he contested, at the height of his popularity, was in 1996 from the most elite constituency, South Delhi and lost. This was after five years of liberalisation under Narasimha Rao. That government was also mercilessly voted out.
The reform politicians in India have a short political inning. Chief Ministers like SM Krishna, Chandrababu Naidu and A K Antony who were hailed as reform friendly lost their next election. The consequence was not different for the BJP either. Its reform mascots were all from the Rajya Sabha during the NDA. The India Shinning and the reform plank did not work in the 2004 election. Those who are trying to remind the BJP that in 2002 the NDA had considered a 26 per cent FDI entry in retail are either being myopic or are not telling the truth.
After all, 2011 is not 2002. Much water has flown down the Mississippi, that the Washington Consensus, the precursor to globalisation is a haunting nightmare for the capitalist world. Congress should have anticipated the current opposition but for the cynically apolitical Prime Minister, who acts more on Washington diktat than national interest.
So the frustration of the lobbying class is understandable. They are mainly venture capital agents, investment and M&A promoters. The trouble is they try to lobby with political parties in the garb of political and economic commentators.
Interestingly, some of these gentlemen approached the BJP top brass with a suggestion that the party was committing hara-kiri by opposing the Walmart. The entire youth voter will desert the party, they argued. Their concern for the wellbeing of the BJP is like the Panchatantra tale of the wily wolf sympathising for sheep getting wet in the rain. Our super active reform jholawalas blindly ape anything that benefits the MNCs. And, they want, all that the US did and discarded should be given a rerun here till the country becomes totally sucked into the western economic matrix.