I spoke to scholars Swati Birla & Kuver Sinha to discuss ‘vaccine imperialism’ and the complicated politics of India’s Pharmaceutical Capitalism
This is part 1 of our conversation, part 2 will be released shortly.
Asia Art Tours: From scholars like Rodrigo Nunes, my understanding of fascists like Trump or Bolsonaro was that these politicians became MORE popular by speaking in a necropolitical language of Capitalism’s ‘winners and losers’, i.e: that only ‘Losers’ die from Covid.
What Fascist language is the BJP using to convince India’s citizen-workers to ignore all those forced off the social contract and into ‘Bare Life‘?
Swati Birla: In our essay published by Tempest you will see our affinities with the analyses of Nunes especially about the devastation during the pandemic and on their observations about the collusions between state and capital that bear direct responsibility for it. Setting aside the question of nationalism for the moment, let me address the question by placing the pandemic in context of other aspects of the political juncture in India and why I am hesitant to use the language of “bare life.”
Covid has been characterized as “singular catastrophic event” or “crisis.” The pharmaceutical industry continually works within this mode. For some regions/countries where Covid has been a rupture from the normal order, shifting relationship to work and consumption. But in several regions of the world from Brazil, Yemen, Sudan, South Asia, Covid is but one of many threats to life. For them the pandemic has been simultaneously ordinary and extreme.
Since the disastrous demonetization, now 5 years ago, the Indian state has steadily targeted the infrastructures of livelihood, healthcare, citizenship, and of ecologies and habitats. The much-circulated images of funeral pyres during India’s second wave were dramatic. They were preceded by the visuals of mass exodus of people dispossessed from livelihood and homes after the peremptory lockdown of 2020. Less visible has been the surge of suicides during this period. Alienated from all means of social reproduction on the long march home people abruptly and quietly exited the social and from life itself. Crisis has not been a momentary rupture. People are continually negotiating the pace of “slow death” by starvation with “quick death” by Covid and state violence (structural and repressive).
Look at where India stands on the Global Hunger Index, 94 among 107 countries. In 2019 deaths of about 1.67 million people are attributable to air pollution. Though these have largely disappeared from the headlines, conflicts over citizenship in the Northeastern parts of India (Asian highlands), arbitrary detentions and disappearances of people across the subcontinent, and the everyday struggles for survival, against police brutality, and against statelessness rendered by the citizenship amendment remain persistent across the country.
Alienated from all means of social reproduction on the long march home people abruptly and quietly exited the social and from life itself. Crisis has not been a momentary rupture. People are continually negotiating the pace of “slow death” by starvation with “quick death” by Covid and state violence (structural and repressive).
A map of the 2021 Global Hunger Index. Photo Credit: WIKIPEDIA
If we are to contend with the scale of deterioration, dispossession, and death caused by the policies and practices of the Indian state then the language of “bare life” is inadequate to the political task. Historically speaking the “concentration camp” in Agamben’s writing is the willed site of exception where human beings are transformed into “bare life” without rights. State power in this formulation lies in putting certain forms of human existence (life) out of the pale of state’s concerns. In India the pandemic has had devastating consequences but, it is by no means a state of exception. The language of “bare life” masks rather than reveals the nature of the state, the historical experiences of people, and the persistent legitimacy (and violent ambitions) of the project of Hindu rashtra (nation). For those caught in the alternating pace of “slow” and “quick” death, state power is experienced as the power to permit any given life to endure, or not.
Yet all efforts that seek to count and report the dead and the sick or the unemployed and starving are treated as subversive and as a threat to national security. This is very akin to the repression under Putin’s regime. Surveillance, harassment, and repression of any expression of grievance and of dissent has become the norm in everyday life. This expansive terrain of struggle and suspicion causes physical weariness and political melancholy; it also engenders different risk calculus when engaging with the state (and the pandemic!). In other words, it shapes the practicalities of resistance.
Asia Art Tours: I find scholar Aditya Bahl’s analysis in The New Left Review to be illuminating:
Last year, during the first wave of the pandemic, Narendra Modi unveiled the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, a grand national plan for self-reliance. This sparked a brief surge of panic in the business community, with many noting the uncanny echoes of Nehru’s ‘socialist’ vision of atmanirbharta. Fears of a return of ‘import substitution’ and ‘license raj’ though quickly subsided when the government announced plans to boost private sector investment in social infrastructure, and to open several other sectors, including defence, space, and mining, for private investment.
Modi’s rhetoric was in fact only pastiche: it was not the country but the people who were to be made self-reliant, by systematically weaning them off their dependence on the Indian state, while, in turn, making the state itself more dependent on private corporations.
Within the ‘source code’ of Hindutva would one see a propaganda of ‘Winners and Losers’? And how is Hindutva nationalism still viable, when so many of Modi’s supporters have suffered during Covid?
Swati Birla: The roots of fascism in India are deep and historical. In other words, a critical mass of people’s hopes and desires are intensely invested in the idea of a strong Hindu state with enormous military and capital power on the world stage. What is sought is not merely the capture of state power but also the expansion of India’s current imperial reach within the subcontinent. It also seeks to re-compose the Republic and as you point out the nature of the social contract. The appeal of the BJP and its ideological consorts arises from the delusion of grandeur shared by a large section of middle classes, middle castes, intelligentsia, and media. In turn the BJP and its affiliate groups support this mass base and expand it through propaganda and serialized violence and pogroms.
On the question of the shift in state discourses, you may find the work of political scientists Jean Martelli and Christophe Jaffrelot who analyzed the corpus of speeches given by the Prime Minister Modi interesting. They note how Modi’s language “cultivates an image of unchallenged authority while simultaneously emphasising humility, victimisation and social harmony. Similarly, he activates anti-minorities readings of his decisions, accompanying an otherwise positive discourse.” The ruling party has certainly worked to collapse the distinction between political party, the State. And within the personhood of Modi is the incarnation of sovereignty: I am the people. But we need to be aware that without the people there would have been no Modi or BJP or RSS. The BJP is the instantiation of long Hindu revival politics since the 18thC.
The language of “bare life” masks rather than reveals the nature of the state, the historical experiences of people, and the persistent legitimacy (and violent ambitions) of the project of Hindu rashtra (nation). For those caught in the alternating pace of “slow” and “quick” death, state power is experienced as the power to permit any given life to endure, or not.
There is a lot of work done on how the mass base for fascism was consolidated over the past several decades. Jairus Banaji’s essays and lectures are particularly insightful. While I cannot do justice to this here, roughly speaking I would say we need to understand the different historical processes that went into what we can call the making of the Indian Union and the fault lines between the polity that emerged since the 1970s in response to anti-caste struggles on one hand and politics of market on the other.
Over the last 6 years despite the shifts in political ethos and the state-social repression there have been spaces of blunt refusal and confrontation like the farmer’s movement (that you have covered), student/youth struggles. Over the pandemic governance there is also a nascent and quiet resistance to pharmaceutical capital and state authoritarianism drawing on the legacies of People’s health movement, the Rationalist movement, and People’s science movements. One important critique to note has been the rational and ethical questioning of the vaccine drive based on concerns about its adverse effects experienced by people. Under the name of “crisis governance” there has been a push back against any reasonable questioning of pharma capital.
However, since India has been a hub of clinical trials, there is enough past experience of ethical violations especially of the underclasses that has created a people’s demand for accountability of pharma. In the past trials Gates foundation and companies like Merck, Pfizer have been found guilty of exploiting the laxity of laws in India to take ethical shortcuts. In the current campism of pro- and anti-vax there is a danger to not take account of this critique. To give this resistance direction however I see the need for a situated engagement with the current historical conjuncture. Historically speaking this form of resistance has deep roots within the Indian context emerging from very different political streams from Gandhian politics, scientific resistance to the tuberculosis vaccine from the likes of A.V. Raman, to a more amorphous indigenous politics that shares the idioms of Hindutva politics, as you can imagine a dangerous combination.
In the electoral realm there has been an insistent push back from regional political formations in large parts of southern and eastern states of contemporary India (case in point the “No to BJP” campaign that Kuver mentions below). During the last two years there have also been interesting efforts that seek to counter youth unemployment. These nascent alliances between rural and urban youth are pushing for deepening existing urban-rural employment schemes, generating employment, and securing better work conditions. The resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (2020) more than any other movements in the recent few years has fundamentally recast political life. It has given us new political grammar of resistance by taking on not just the state but also the consensus around the making of the Indian republic.
These struggles do not seek to seize state power instead they refuse to be seized by it. At this juncture it is more meaningful to reflect on these openings created by people’s resistances and to work towards more imaginative language and forms of resistance.
Since India has been a hub of clinical trials, there is enough past experience of ethical violations especially of the underclasses that has created a people’s demand for accountability of pharma. In the past trials Gates foundation and companies like Merck, Pfizer have been found guilty of exploiting the laxity of laws in India to take ethical shortcuts
A ‘Vote No to BJP’ Rally. Photo Credit: Kisan Ekta Morcha
Kuver Sinha: I’ll offer my qualified support to the NLR article you’ve mentioned. There is no question that the public health infrastructure has been decimated, as we have highlighted in our article in Tempest magazine. Even more broadly, we have identified four zones of assault under the current regime: land, infrastructures of care, wages, and spaces of resistance. Land is something that is hardly mentioned in the context of Covid. India’s leading vaccine capital, the SII (Serum Institute of India), is located in a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) – a sort of extraction haven where the government ensures labor laws and taxes are basically non-existent. The SEZ Act of 2005 led to the widespread grab of prime agricultural and coastal land for extraction by capital. These zones are an enormous burden on the Indian people, offering corporations subsidized land, electricity and huge tax exemptions. Millions of people have been displaced by them, leading to fierce resistance.
One should note that the parliamentary CPIM – whose declining fortunes are mentioned wistfully by the NLR article – was one of the leading champions of SEZs in its home state of West Bengal, and fired on and killed poor peasants in the infamous incident in Nandigram in 2007. When these parliamentary Communists sided with billion-dollar corporations and fired on poor peasants, and then got voted out by these same peasants and are now politically extinct – that shows you the trajectory of many lukewarm so-called social democratic compromises the world over. In its post-mortem reports over the ensuing decade, far from pursuing pro-people mass politics and engaging in self-criticism, the CPIM has only reaffirmed its commitment to land-grab in West Bengal, and attributed its electoral misfortunes there to a web of conspiracy theories – there is no self-evaluation at the level of ideology. I personally think that there is nothing to mourn there and Lenin’s pig sty is the only apt description.
In any case, India’s leading vaccine capital, the SII, is based on an SEZ in the state of Maharashtra, which the Poonawalla family secured with $100 million investment in 2006. These same people are price gouging for vaccines, charging prices for poor people in India and Bangladesh that exceed the prices it charges in the EU or the US. That’s the kind of extraction that happens in the sphere of land – where on the one hand the Indian people gift land and tax breaks to vaccine capital and on the other have to pay enormous prices for vaccines manufactured on that very same land. Everybody should be talking about this.
India’s leading vaccine capital, the SII, is based on an SEZ in the state of Maharashtra, which the Poonawalla family secured with $100 million investment in 2006. These same people are price gouging for vaccines, charging prices for poor people in India and Bangladesh that exceed the prices it charges in the EU or the US.
That said, does the characterization of the Indian economy as “neoliberal” capture the full reality? That’s probably where I would offer my qualifications. There are clearly some differences in the way the economy is run by the Modi government from the way it was conducted by the previous Congress government, even if one were to house them both in the “neoliberal” label. How does demonetization – which dealt a major blow to the growth trajectory of India’s economy – fit into the usual neoliberal economic growth model? Neoliberalization under the Congress was characterized by high growth and worsening inequality. The features under the Modi government are different. While both share the characteristics of mass dispossession and extraction, the explicit pursuit of Hindutva – through citizenship requirements, immense repression of minorities and hollowing out of institutions – has certain new features. I guess what I would caution against is thinking of the current regime as an ideological continuation of the previous one, even purely in the economic realm.
Moreover, the neoliberal diagnosis also forces the language of resistance to some extent, into avenues like demanding more public investments (for example the parliamentary Left in India has demanded that the government revive the moribund public vaccine manufacturing sector), greater spending by the State to ameliorate suffering and guarantee rights to food, health, education etc. (Prabhat Patnaik has recently argued that doing so “would require raising additional resources amounting to 7 percent of the GDP”), and the provision of free vaccines for all (a demand now echoed by the Congress Party).
These demands or similar ones have been raised by the parliamentary Left, populists, and whatever Party happens to be in the opposition for the last three decades. Well – look where we are. Over 3 million Indians died last year. Shouldn’t the demands be slightly more militant or at least different?
Asia Art Tours: Are those marginalized and displaced by capitalism in India (or globally) being pushed further into ‘Bare Life’? And how are those pushed into bare life being trained by the state to accept this as the new normal?
Kuver Sinha: I think there is in fact an immense amount of popular anger, and people are not accepting their fate. There have been huge protests from workers and farmers, some of which you have covered on your website. It is true that the BJP has retained a lock on national elections, although whether that remains true after Covid is to be seen. But one could also say that under capitalism, the electoral project is the last place to go looking for a Left alternative politics. Liberal democracies could boast, according to Amartya Sen, of never having allowed a famine. But India just allowed over 3 million Covid deaths in a year and is ready to host millions more next year, as the vaccine drought continues, all under a duly elected democratic government. Whither democracy, then?
Incidentally, it should be noted that the “No vote to BJP” slogan mentioned in the NLR article, which was raised by autonomous Marxists, activists, and the non-parliamentary left trends in West Bengal, faced its biggest opposition from the parliamentary Left party – the CPIM. The CPIM for many years had diagnosed not the fascist BJP but the regional party of Mamata Banerjee as its main adversary. Tacitly and openly it had encouraged voting for the BJP as a tactic to defeat Mamata Banerjee. This is unsurprising for a party that has not only perpetrated enormous displacement of the peasantry in West Bengal to make way for real estate (the mass dislocation in Rajarhat for example) but sold off the state’s healthcare to the biggest private entities. Even its so-called commitment to secularism is transactional at best, as can be seen from its recent electoral gymnastics.
Liberal democracies could boast, according to Amartya Sen, of never having allowed a famine. But India just allowed over 3 million Covid deaths in a year and is ready to host millions more next year, as the vaccine drought continues, all under a duly elected democratic government. Whither democracy, then?
A Map of India’s Special Economic Zones in 2021. PHOTO CREDIT: India Briefing
I’ll give another example. The Aam Aadmi Party, which has been in power in the capital Delhi for several years, was voted in on an anti-corruption platform, with an outwardly secular sheen. This same party is now obsequiously bowing to Modi’s fundamentalism, and allowed the Delhi pogrom of Muslims to happen in 2019-2020, looking the other way. So again, I think Lenin’s pig sty is the apt description here.
If there is to be the future of a non-BJP mass Left politics, the places to look for it, at least in West Bengal, will be platforms such as the Bengal Opposed to the Fascist RSS-BJP which has brought together the creators of the slogan and huge numbers of activists. Across India, there is a broad spectrum of Marxist-Leninist and Maoist parties of various sizes which have offered ferocious resistance to displacement: those would be places for a non-BJP Left politics. There are labor movements led by workers belonging to autonomous labor unions. There is increasing sharing of space and ideological interaction between communists and Dalit movements – this is work in urgent progress, and could be the site of a new politics. There are feminist movements, women’s resistance, for example in the farmer’s movement, in the labor movement, and in many other spheres – those would be the sites of a new Left politics.
There’s an interesting thing you’ll notice if you look at the map of India and where the extractive SEZs are located and where they’re absent. It turns out that the huge geographical extents where they’ve been staved off are the same geographies where there are active Left insurgencies. I’ll let you draw your own lessons from that.
This concludes part one of our interview with Swati Birla & Kuver Sinha. Part 2 will be published shortly.