Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Thinking About Babush

Mapping the terrains of the operation

On the 23rd of March 2009, despite opposition to 10 of the 11 seats being contested at the Panchayat elections, the panel floated by Atanasio Monserrate won all 11. How does one make sense of the results of the recently concluded elections to the Taleigão Panchayat? The dominant view within the opposition is that Monserrate is the embodiment of evil, and that all of Taleigão cowers in fear. Other views would argue that he has filled Taleigão with migrants who blindly vote in his favour. Others argue that some sold their vote for the gifts of a thousand rupees, a bicycle or a sewing machine. I believe that the story of Monserrate is a little more complex than this, and we need to necessarily rethink our evaluation of him.

Countering the allegations that he bribed the voters, Monserrate reportedly responded that we should not insult the voters. Monserrate makes a valid point here. As with any allegation of corruption, there is a certain political point that Monserrate’s opposition is trying to score. The point is to undermine the individual decisions of those persons who voted for Monserrate. The suggestion is that they are not free-thinking, concerned and responsible citizens. It is scornfully suggested that they are merely opportunists who will vote for the highest bidder. While I have no doubt that in fact money did exchange hands and that gifts of cycles and sewing machines, drink and chicken were in fact made, I would choose to look beyond the allegation that the votes of the people were purchased. The reason I choose to refute the argument that votes can be purchased is because this scornful position refuses to recognize that the persons who accepted these gifts were in fact making calculated political decisions. Just like the ‘apolitical’ stance taken by Goa and Taleigão Bachao Abhiyan, the argument that votes can be sold, refuses to appreciate and engage with the politics of the people.

To begin with, whose is this scorn? Clearly it is the scorn of those who do not need a thousand rupees a vote, or cycles or sewing machines. It is the scorn of the haves for the have-nots, the haves presuming that it is only they who well and truly appreciate what democracy is all about. The gifts were accepted because these gifts, as petty as some of us may consider them, did make a difference to the economy of the households that they were presented to. Further, the gift-taking is in fact a rather complex participation in democracy. The gift-takers recognize that the politician cares for them only to the extent of their votes, that the system will not address their condition. Thus, if they have to vote, they will vote only if you pay (gift) them to do so. It is thus, through this gift-giving, and their construction of themselves as a vote-bank, that they force the electoral process to in fact work. If they didn’t vote, then given the fact that most of the middle class does not vote, the electoral process would grind to a screeching halt! The scorn for the gift-taking therefore, is extremely problematic and ironically, politically naive!

This political naiveté is built on the incredulousness of the upper orders who are convinced of their own political maturity and the corresponding immaturity of the labouring classes. They reason that it is because these labouring classes, which often correspond with the Dalit-bahujan groups, are so immature that our democracy is today malfunctioning the way that it is. These orders refuse to see that these ‘malfunctionings’ of democracy are in fact the result of the deeply problematic socio-economic divides that persist in our society, and that we repeatedly refuse to address. It is because we refuse to recognize this fact, and persist in our confounded arrogance, that a good portion of the opposition to the development lobby in Goa is primarily engaged in ‘creating awareness’. These members of the upper orders of our society are firmly convinced that the only reason for the silence of the majority is because this majority is not aware. It is because we stubbornly refuse to consider the alternative, that they are politically astute individuals making carefully calibrated decisions that the tide we seek to stem continues to inundate us.

If we recognized the maturity of these gift takers and recognized that gifts are accepted because these gifts made a difference to the economies of the households that accepted them, our positions and our strategies would change instantly. We would recognize that the presence of ‘outsiders’ in our villages, and their transformation into vote-banks for the unscrupulous, can be addressed if, and when, we address the issue of the poverty of these outsiders. If we are able to ensure that their working conditions are better, the salaries they are paid are higher, and that social welfare extendable to any worker, we would see a significant drop in the arrival of these outsiders. This for two primary reasons; first, because it would make employing ‘external’ labour more expensive (especially if one is talking of housing migrant construction-labour); and secondly, with an increase in pay-scales and benefits, the Goan, who in facts demands a more mature work environment, would begin seeking employment within Goa. As is increasingly becoming clear to me though, much of the oppositional space in Goa is captured by elites, who do not want to see radical change, but want only a return to the status-quo. Secondly, when the non-elites among this opposition take charge, they unfortunately don’t seem to be able to articulate their demands in broader terms. On the contrary, they too get caught in the whirlpools of the discourse established by the elite. As a result, rather than seeing solidarity with the ‘outsider’, they too begin outsider-bashing. As a result, there is no substantial progress towards resolving Goa’s crisis.

To return to this matter of respecting the voter though, while Monserrate’s objection may have helped us see a valid point, he too is guilty of disrespecting the voter. There is a certain perversity, when one hands scraps to the needy, even as the socio-economic and ecological base of these needy are being destroyed. In addition, it is clear that while Monserrate may share scraps, it is a lion’s share that he keeps for himself.

What I will try to elaborate in the next segment is how, while Monserrate has offered his constituency a political dream that they can identify with, in reality he offers them only a mirage, one that will never be realized substantially. What clinches the deal for him however, is the fact that he has managed to offer concrete glimpses of this mirage. This is enough for the hopefuls of our land. On the other hand though, his opposition offers no dream at all. It offers only a return to a fast-disappearing status-quo. And NO-ONE wants to return to that, except the elite. If the opposition to Monserrate (and the rest of the brokering political establishment) are serious, then they need to not only present to the people of Goa a dream, but put their actions where their talk is and working toward presenting a concrete example of the dream that they offer.

The Dream that Won Babush the Election

Persist to think of Babush Monserrate as the embodiment of evil, and it will be impossible to understand the reasons for his victory in the recently concluded Panchayat elections. If one is to provide a counter to him, then one has to come up with another, more plausible explanation for the victory. Demonizing him serves no purpose other than to blindly hate him and provide a bonding among the various groups opposed to him for their own varied reasons. In the previous segment of these reflections, I had suggested that the key to Monserrate’s victory was not the fear that he allegedly instills in the people of Taleigão, but because he is in congress with them for reasons of a dream that he offers them. One cannot capture votes merely by handing out gifts. One has to also capture the imaginations of the people one is gifting. Monserrate seems to have done exactly this. He offers the people of Taleigão a dream. He offers them the dream, and the promise (even if it is a false promise) of modernity.
This modernity is has a definite physical location, and that location is the city. More particularly, it is the city of Bombay. As the Delegate of Fundacao Oriente, Paulo Varela Gomes, has convincingly demonstrated on a number of occasions, Bombay has, at least since the mid-nineteenth century, been the goal for the Goan, and especially for the Goan dalit-bahujan. It was the city that promised them employment, the city where their culture blossomed and found mature expression, it was the location where they were able to escape the vice-like grip of their village and feudal elite, and if not wholly escape it, contest these elites on a somewhat equal footing. The city, with its broad avenues and high-rise buildings, offers not just the chic aesthetics of modernity, and we have to recognize that Monserrate has oodles of oomph [style] as evidenced from the public works carried out under his stamp, but also the promise of liberation through the destruction of the landscape and hierarchies of the village and the introduction of the anonymity of the urban environment.
What dream does his opposition, the forces that cry 'Save Goa' have to offer instead? By and large, they offer the people of Taleigão, and Goa, the dream of the village. They do not point to them the way forward, but look back with fondness to the aesthetics and relationships of the village. What 'Save Goa' offers them is a return to the status-quo. But as is clear from the voices of the people in Taleigão, the people don't want a status quo, they want change, and they will grab at change any which way they get it.
The village is not necessarily the ideal place we imagine it to be. To the vast majority of people it is a place marked by the absence of facilities and most importantly glitz. In addition, it is a place that is intimidating for anyone who is Queer. It is a suffocating location for the wife who refuses to be raped by her drunken husband and returns single and pregnant to her parents' home, the homosexual son or daughter, the unemployed person who refuses to have employment if it means his daily humiliation, a member of the former ‘servant castes’ who chafes at the attitude of the former dominant castes. I have written much about the need for a revolution in Goa. Silly me, I didn’t recognize the revolution when I saw it. Babush Monserrate and his ilk represent the revolution and they have with them the masses of the people. Unfortunately however, Monserrate does not represent the revolution which I imbue with the positive notions of establishing a commonwealth. His agenda represents what I have earlier termed a fitna, an upheaval without the necessary renewal of society. Which is why, the task before the opposition to Monserrate and his ilk is not merely the presentation of the dream of the village, but the dream of the village radically renewed.
Thankfully however, the opposition to the politico-business lobby is not all composed of the elites interested in a return to the status-quo. Some of us are opposed to this desertification through concrete, and hold up the model of a village because we are animated by the knowledge that the concrete industrial city that has become the model for Goa promises only a temporary relief from oppression. It breaks the bonds of village hierarchies, but simultaneously creates oppressions of other sorts. It destroys ecological independence. In a few years time, there will be no fields in Taleigão capable of producing food. The hills of Dona Paula covered with constructions will no longer soak up rainwater; the village wells will run dry or turn saline. Others will be fed by raw sewage rather than fresh water. The rich will be able to up and leave; what of the poor? Where will they get water from? Will they be able to purchase food at exorbitant prices? Monserrate’s strategy may destroy the spatial and social relationships of the village, but it is not producing sustainable employment. Lastly, the concrete city destroys intimate bonds of the village to create the anonymous spaces and relationships of the city that encourage crime. How many of the faces in São Paulo – Taleigão’s market area- do we recognize anymore? The liberation of the city that Monserrate offers therefore, is in fact a mirage. It promises a liberation that it cannot in fact deliver. At some level, I doubt that Monserrate even realizes the damage he is doing. As I will elaborate in the last segment of this series, it is possible that he too, as a member of the society he leads, shares in the misplaced assumption that the trappings of modernity (the roads, high-rises and conspicuous consumption) alone, rather than a concomitant commitment to the social values of modernity, will ensure deliverance from the curse of our caste-bound society. It is therefore quite possible, that Monserrate actually believes that his vision will bring deliverance and liberation.
It is for this reason that I have been arguing for long that we need a revolution, an inquilab in Goa. We don’t require a return to the village of old, or the creation of the concrete industrial city, but a radical re-founding of our communities. We need to present to the citizenry of Goa, which now clings piteously to the promises of the false prophets of our age, tangible and material evidence of what this new commonwealth will look like. It calls for a change in the way in which we do and imagine politics and associations. It calls for a demonstration of the possibilities of eco-friendly and community-friendly business ventures. At present the elite groups who lead the opposition both in Taleigão and in Goa seem rather reluctant to commit themselves to this radical refounding. It is not that they don’t have the imagination, but that they refuse to entertain any scheme that will radically change the status-quo. They too are committed to a fitna, a mere superficial management of society.
It is this vacuum then, which Monserrate has filled, and will continue to fill until such time as we are ready to talk equity and equality. Until such time as we are ready to establish a radically equal society in Goa, the biblical New Jerusalem, Sant Tukaram’s Pandharpur, or St. Augustine’s City of God, the city of Monserrate will be the paradise which the citizenry of Taleigão and Goa will determinedly walk toward. And I can’t say that I blame them.

Moving the ‘Devil’ from out of the shadows, into the Light of the Faith

The express intention of the Thinking About Babush series was to move away from the position that demonizes Babush Monserrate. The intention was not to essay an uncritical celebration of the legislator from Taleigão, but to present a hypothesis that would allow us to better understand the dynamics at work in the constituency. To demonize Monserrate goes beyond doing him a disservice; it prevents us from recognizing the socio-economic and political conditions of the constituencies that he manages to represent.

In the first part of the series I suggested that the eyes that demonize Monserrate were in part, also eyes of the elite that refused to see the political motivations of those they alleged were either bribed, or were blindly voting for him. The second segment suggested that in addition to lavish gifts to his constituents, Monserrate also presented them with a vision. This vision was one of the City where the hierarchies of the village would be dissolved, and all would be able to participate in a genuinely modern existence. In this segment, I would like to suggest that in many ways Monserrate is trapped within his modus operandi, both for reasons of his own personal location in society, as well as the kind of society he lives in. However, I would suggest that for these reasons, he is also a possible repository of hope for the future.

As I suggested earlier, Goan society can be very punishing, if you don’t fit the rules it lays down. Despite his nominal position among the landlords and gãocars of Taleigão, the vicious whispered rumours about his ancestry give Monserrate a just and understandable reason to want to destroy the social hierarchies of the village. As discussed in the last column, one way to destroy these hierarchies is through the fashioning of the village into the city. What I am suggesting therefore, is that the dream that Monserrate peddles could be more than an evil plan he has for lining his nest at the expense of the people of Taleigão. He could actually be emotionally invested in it, believing that it would provide deliverance as much as the others who believe in this dream.

India’s encounter with modernity is peculiar. Rather than being understood to be the values of equality and respect, reasoned acceptance as opposed to acceptance by diktat, modernity has been understood primarily as the acquisition of technology, the material benefits that come with it, and the associated aesthetic styles. The intellectual foundations of modernity have been rejected in favour of the purely material. In focusing primarily on the material, it is possible to spin the web of meritocracy and argue that if one does not gain the material benefits of modernity, it is because one has not worked hard enough for it. Thus only the upper-castes and classes benefit from modernity, while the rest slave under it. Even worse, the myth of meritocracy, destroys tendencies toward solidarity with the marginalised and allows the creation of a (slum)dog eat dog world, where it is each one for oneself. To gain respect in this faux modern world, one has to garner as much wealth as one possibly can. In the process, one must necessarily cut personal ties to climb the ladder of achievement. As a result our interests are now seen to lie with those who are already in the big game, not with those one is leaving behind. In India, this automatically has caste implications. The caste implications are at their most stark when we expect Dalit leaders to somehow be Colossi of morality, while other leaders who feather their nests are somehow exempt from this harsh social judgment. A perfect example would be the vicious criticism that has so often been leveled against Mayawati, the leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party, for her alleged corruption even as others get away relatively easily.

It is in this context that I would like to see Monserrate. In addition to the social agenda he may have, he is also as hostage to the skewed understanding of modernity as the rest of us. Thus in his race for respect, feathering his own nest is but a natural outcome. While this is under no circumstances excusable, the question we should ask is why we reserve such scorn for the acquisitions of Monserrate, or indeed the similar figure of Churchill Alemão, even as we excuse the sins of others in the political establishment. Why for example are we more accepting of the tactics of the Rane establishment, in particular the father? It has always been rumoured that it was he that initiated the land scams with the late R. N. Ray when the latter was Chief Town Planner. Is it his ‘noble’ birth and cultivated charm that allows us to look the other way, not investigate these rumours? Perhaps. It is therefore, in the social exclusions and hypocrisy practiced by our society that the only route open to Monserrate is to continue to line his own nest, and open up his own path for a radically different social order.

It is this and other reasons then that are at the basis of our demonizing of Babush Monserrate. We fear the social reality whose coming he represents. We would prefer to keep him and the classes he represents entirely out of our perfumed consciousness.

In addition to this though, there is another, possibly communal angle to the whole game. I don’t believe that it is entirely by accident that Monserrate, like Alemão, is demonized, is Catholic, and effectively occupies the lower-caste, bahujan position in our society. This has been a pattern of our society, where among the Catholics, only the upper-caste is feted and the rest of them are expected to just follow suit. Thus when J. B Gonsalves had a chance at being Chief Minister, the glitterati on Panjim scoffed, ‘the baker wants to be Chief Minister!’ In recent times the communalization of our society has taken a more serious turn. As unchallenged Rei de Taleigão, the demonization and destruction of this man, theoretically opens up the way for the unchallenged romp of the BJP into the village.

There are therefore multiple reasons for us to view with suspicion the demonization of Babush Monserrate. And yet, none of this should be taken to endorse the manner in which he funds his agenda. In the final sum, his modus operandi is going to give us only skin-deep modernity and a resulting social, political, economic and ecological mess. With so much power in his hands, undoubted access to cultivated minds (as his urban projects show, he definitely has talented architects working with him) Monserrate’s failure to engineer a more egalitarian and sensitive politics cannot be condoned. Our opposition to Monserrate’s modus, real estate funded social change, must therefore continue. It must, however, be a principled opposition. Principled opposition is not a notional, do-nothing, and think much opposition. Firm and unyielding when no quarter can be given, it is also cognizant of the benefits he may possibly bring. It is necessarily marked by action. In the long run, such an unyielding but principled opposition will force him to necessarily adopt, even if in slow and reluctant measures, a more sustainable route toward the agenda that we support. A neighbour of mine prays for the conversion of Babush just like Sta. Monica did for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine, who would go on to become a Doctor of the Church. In many ways, I join her in her prayers. I do so because I believe that such a conversion is possible; Monserrate does in fact have what it takes to be the Augustine of our age. Until such conversion however, this principled opposition, the physical evidence of our prayers, in favour of the village refounded must continue.

(This post is the consolidated version of a three piece op-ed that was first published in the Gomantak Times in April 2009)

No comments: