Saturday, February 21, 2015

A new political optimism in India

Walking through the small stores of video games in Lajpat Rai Market in Old Delhi, one immediately notices the amount of goods lugged into one single shop. Cartridges of video games, Chinese PVPs, locally packaged SEGA hand games and countless pieces of abandoned gaming consoles are spread out in different parts of the shops. The tiny shops function as wholesalers of video games as well as repair places where different pieces of hardware come into use.

In May 2013, Rajat in his shop in Lajpat Rai Market was attaching the motherboard of an old video game to a large TV set. He and his assistant at his shop had built a wooden cabinet with a TV screen and controls to simulate the experience of playing arcade games. Halfway through his work, Rajat spoke to me about how markets such as this were sprawling with small-time innovators and traders ready to experiment with almost anything.

He said, "It is quite strange that even if India has a talented labor pool, in recent times, China and not India has emerged as a manufacturing giant. Permissions and licenses make it difficult for small businessmen to set up factories in India." In the same breadth he added, "I have hopes if BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] comes to power next year. The present Congress government is very corrupt and has not done much to use the resources at hand. The case with BJP is different. It has a clear vision in which direction India should go."

There was a certain idea of development that many like Rajat associated with the rise of the popularity of the BJP in 2013. BJP would put businesses such as them in the centre of the debate. It would put India in the same route of development that China had taken.

A number of traders in Lajpat Rai Market found it amusing that they were hugely dependent on China to import company and mostly cheap video games that catered to the mass consumer in India. The situation could largely change if the Indian government according to the traders adopted a similar type of flexible ethics that China had vis-a-vis small businesses.

The Chinese government according to them was not preoccupied with the fact that a business was run by legal channels of billed and company products. It, according to many of the traders, gave precedence to the lucrativeness of a business venture and did not pontificate on whether a venture was strictly legal.

The ideal situation that the traders perceived was to come to a point when the Indian government no longer targeted the mass electronic markets for selling pirated and knock-off commodities, but instead saw the role they played as innovators.

Every day in the market the traders maneuvered new technical fixes. A lot of the time the traders were able to understand the workings of hardware of video games in and out. The cracking of video gaming consoles, and dismembering old video games to give them a new life were part and parcel of the market.

The sentiment of the traders to make do with anything made someone like Rajat think what was missing in the India scene was a hands-on government, a government that would be able to see the potential that small traders had and trusted them to start their own manufacturing units.

BJP was precisely the party that was out there to fill up the vacuum. With its focus on developing India into a manufacturing powerhouse and reduce unnecessary regulations, Rajat amongst others in Lajpat Rai Market was seeing a change of scene in their favor if BJP were to come to power at the centre and in the state of Delhi.

Much has changed in India since 2013; BJP is almost a year into office at the center. I met Rajat again in early January 2015. As conversation traveled between different topics, I found Rajat soon talking about Indian politics. I was surprised to hear that he was planning to vote for AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) in the state elections in Delhi in early February. When I last spoke to him, AAP was nowhere close to his list of what would cut out to be a suitable political party paving a triumphant future for India as well as for him.

AAP is a party formed out of the Indian Against Corruption movement that gained massive momentum in Delhi in 2011. It came to power briefly in Delhi in the later half of 2013. The party led by Arvind Kejriwal decided to step down from office after 49 days in power when the much-anticipated anti-corruption law, the Jan Lokpal Bill, could not garner necessary support from other political parties.

A new party with a short stint in office and a resounding win by the BJP in 2014 national elections would make one think that AAP would be in the back burner. However, to hear that Rajat was deciding to vote for AAP and not BJP in the Delhi State Assembly Election was quite striking.

I wanted to know more. Rajat went on to talk about how BJP has not stood up to its election promises. Rather than build an overall congenial business environment, Rajat thought that BJP was working for the interest of the big business houses. In fact he believed that the market had slowed down since the time BJP came to power. Where he was expecting a reduction of regulations, they appeared to have doubled in a short span of time.

"It has become more difficult to import things from China. You know how things work in these markets; we all run by settings, for instance those nurtured with customs officials. And now suddenly everything is under scrutiny," Rajat said.

Somewhere the dreams shown by the BJP have proved expensive. In place of a government that gives free reign to different business actors, what the traders have now is a government that has a more institutional approach to development.

The pet project of newly appointed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, "Make in India", takes on board amongst other things a strong legal foundation. The United States emerges as a natural model to put in place a strong framework of intellectual property rights in India in a bid to welcome foreign as well as domestic investments. What the increasing legalization forebodes for the mass electronic markets teeming with small-time innovators is not difficult to imagine.

The small traders of video games, who dabble with pirated computer games, cracked gaming consoles and tampered barcodes are likely to be marginalized in a clean and controlled manufacturing environment. A change in the terms of support for the BJP shows that the common people in India are no longer going to be fooled by rhetoric and political charisma alone. The traders take charge of their present situation.

"We cannot remove corruption at one go in India. The way I see it now, some black money is necessary, especially for people like us. It gives us some sort of a safety net. We cannot make all our transactions transparent all of a sudden. We cannot have all our games imported through formal channels and bill each and every product. We don’t have that kind of money and connection. Change has to be gradual and democratic."

Rajat appeared to have lost his chance of a happy union with the BJP. With no major policies and assurance passed in favor of the small and medium-rung traders in Delhi and in India, he does not hope that much will change in the near future under the BJP.

"The case with AAP is entirely different. They think about the common people. They have more support base in the slums in Delhi than anywhere else," Rajat told me.

"I expect AAP to understand our problems much more than anyone else. I believe so. Their door-to-door campaigning give me much hope. What we need right now is a government that genuinely thinks about us and bring some quick positive changes."

I asked Rajat, "Have you gone through AAP’s political manifesto." He answered: "Its not important, I see the energy that the party brings to the house. Most importantly it lets me believe that even I can bring some change to the world around me, that’s something, isn’t it? I feel I have real power in my hands now."

In the wake of all the debates of political homophile and the mass in India existing as a passive political class, the actual and imagined role reversal of the "common people" in India is welcoming. Right from the time of Indian independence that was achieved by "dominance without hegemony", to times in independent India when the mass existed as target group of different welfare schemes, we see a turn in political events today.

This was made stunningly clear in the February 10 elections in Delhi, after my discussion with Rajat, when the AAP demolished the BJP by winning 67 of the 70 seats being contested; the BJP won a mere three. The Congress party candidates lost deposits in 63 of the 70 seats.

The mass in India is attaching itself to a different political symbolism. It is no longer satisfied with an egoistic role of being the vote bank of one or other political party. The common people want to be a game changer in the political landscape in India. And AAP is likely to be first amongst the many that address the mass in India as political actors in their own rights.

Maitrayee Deka is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Milan, Italy. Her doctoral research was on the mass electronic markets in Delhi titled "The Other Information Society: an Ethnography of Delhi's Electronic Bazaars".

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