It is hard to deny the importance of something that goes by the name “development”. But we are beginning to resort to “development” as a rhetorical narcotic: An all-purpose solution to all problems. Lack of development is a diagnosis that can explain every problem, from agitating Patels to rampaging males. And the coming of development will solve most problems. The prime minister sees development as a solution to problems; intellectuals will generally point to failure of development as a root cause for nearly everything. Development has become the theodicy of contemporary politics.
Development and the things associated with it — overcoming poverty, jobs, education, infrastructure — are undeniably important. They are forces for social churning. And we feel safer with a politics focused on these, rather than bloodlusts of identity politics. But our resort to development as a catch-all hope has become a symptom of our lack of imagination, our refusal to see the inner conflicts that development itself generates.
Two kinds of conflicts regarding development are well recognised. First, there are conflicts over how the process of development is imagined, and we still cannot seem to get adequate consensus on where we want to head. Second, that development has victims: For all its potential as a liberator, the process can impose horrendous costs on some groups and individuals. But more subtle tensions, internal to our imagination of development, also need to be recognised.
If one were forced to define the morals of contemporary India in a phrase, then “hyper-instrumentalism” is as good a candidate as any. Any activity that produces material advancement is good, untethered to any sense of piety. For a society that was rigid and ritual-oriented, a prisoner of form and absolutism, this instrumental attitude can itself have overtones of rebellion, elevated to a new cultural form. Ekta Kapoor’s serials or their real-life correlate saga of the Mukerjeas, with their ultimate instrumentalisation of that last bastion of piety, the family, are more acute sociological barometers of hyper-instrumentalism than most sociology tomes.
But we should also remind ourselves of the joke about pragmatism — that it does not work in practice. For this hyper-instrumentalism has also corroded all the fixed points. Institutions and norms have also become transactional. The economist’s language of incentives has not just narrowed our understanding of human motivation; its institutionalisation as a common sense of development discourse can often corrode other forms of intrinsic motivations our society needs. Every institution is increasingly in the grip of instrumentalism and purely transactional. But the internal tension of development rhetoric, where instrumentalism is the means of advancement but also the corrosive power that denudes legitimacy from all institutions, will have to be addressed by a new imagination.
The second internal tension is that development is both the promise of inclusion and equal opportunity on the one hand, and the rhetoric of competition and relative advancement on the other. We want inclusive development. And there is a sense in which this phrase is understandable. And yet, in its institutional form, development prizes a rat race and getting ahead. It is not an accident that the greatest political threats in a developing society do not come from those who are utterly excluded. They usually come from those who lose out in the process of competition. The challenge that scores of young Jats, Patels, Rajputs or even Gujjars face is often not lack of access; their alienation comes from a sense of losing out. We can often re-diagnose this malaise: We say they don’t really have access; they have degrees but no real skills, formal education but no jobs.
But the fact is that the process of competitive advancement will leave large numbers of young people looking to explain away what is perceived as “failure”. Movements like the Patel agitation are not just about failure of development; they are about anxieties of competition. It is not an accident they don’t agitate for better schools, better agrarian policies, less corruption. There is a debate to be had about reservations. But it is not an accident that reservations, even for Dalits, are resented. It is the psychological prop anyone who does not get entry will seize upon. Development, even if inclusive, is hyper-competitive. India will have millions of young men looking for scapegoats for being left behind. The allure of deliberate victimhood is that it gives psychological comfort.
The third internal tension is around gender. There is truth to the claim that all development is about gender. But here again, the imagination of development has left two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, there is promise of women’s emancipation, and just the strides in education suggest that this is a revolution in the making. This competition alone will generate a crisis of masculinity and male roles. On the other, there is also the liberation of the economy of desire, which can also take the form of asserting a new need to dominate. There is a promise of freedom, but no resources to understand the internal disciplining new freedom requires.
It is not an accident that states that have done well developmentally — Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Haryana — are in the grip of politics marked by these tensions. Development has not produced healthy politics. Development has not produced an institutional discourse that rises above the transactional. The pressures of a competitive society have generated a new crisis of self-esteem that take people back to the comforts of identity narratives. The murderous politics over Lingayat identity, or Shivaji and the Marathas, or Patels, or Jats, are not just contests over orthodoxy and dissent, they are also responses to the anxiety of mobility. And the crisis of masculinity is apparent in the kinds of mobilisation we see in places like Mangalore and Mumbai.
The language of development in India speaks a transactional language of goods and services, of individual advancement. It does not speak the language of freedom and citizenship, the restraints of reciprocity. It has no means of conceptualising the tensions inherent to development. So, by all means, applaud whenever a politician promises development. But also wonder whether our use of development as a catch-all also represents a shrinking of the imagination; a refusal to conceptualise anything beyond the instrumental and the transactional.