April 30, 2007

Allahabad is a microcosm of urban UP

At the Indian Coffee House in Allahabad's Civil Lines, men sit around rickety tables to sip coffee and talk politics. Until the 1980s, the city's influential intelligentsia met here to discuss politics and culture. What they thought and argued echoed in the public culture of the city, and across the Hindi heartland. It ought to be so since among the luminaries who would held durbar were politicians like Ram Manohar Lohia and writers like Firaq, Nirala, Sumitranandan Pant and Mahadevi Varma. Under the Congress umbrella, the city appeared to be at peace with itself.
Mandal and Masjid changed the discourse in Allahabad, and in UP, forever. Debates at the Coffee House have continued, but the Civil Lines has ceased to set the political and cultural agenda for the city. Political power has shifted elsewhere. The old cosmopolitanism of the city represented by the Civil Lines, where people discussed socialism at the Coffee House, watched Hollywood releases at the Palace cinema, bought the best European fiction from Wheelers, and heard masters of Hindustani classical music at Prayag Sangeet Samiti, is history. That twin-stranded cosmopolitanism — one that reflected the years of colonial rule and another that spoke for a Sanskritised and Hindustani cultural idiom — has faded. It failed to recognise the emergence of new classes and castes that had acquired wealth during the green revolution and political power in the aftermath of the Mandal campaign. There was a genuine need to democratise the political and cultural space, but the process towards it lacked the cultural imagination to build on the past. Allahabad University which was a fountainhead of the city's cosmopolitanism had over the years declined and failed to provide the intellectual leadership to the forces of change. The impact has been disastrous for the city. The old order is dead, the new order is yet to acquire legitimacy.
Ahead of the assembly elections, change is the buzz word in the city. Of course, people are unsure about the political agency that may ring in the change. However, it appears that there is a consensus for change, and the yearning for change does not include a demand to reverse the process of opening up the political and social spaces, despite its many failings. The increasing acceptance of Mayawati among non-Dalits, particularly among the young, is an indication of the new mindset. She has come to represent order in a middle-class sense. Mayawati is talked about as someone who can use the stick and get the bad boys to behave.
There appears to be an economic logic behind this cry for order. A new wave of 'cosmopolitanism' is slowly enveloping the city, in the form of malls and McDonald's. There is massive boom in real estate and credit outflow, symbolised by the hectic construction activity, ATMs, mobile phones, and the numerous vehicles on city roads. How does one explain the construction boom in the city? There is hardly any industry left in Allahabad. Chronic power shortages, decline of the public sector, and labour problems are cited to explain the death of Naini, the city's industrial hub situated across the Yamuna. However, people point to three sources of money in the city. One, the mafia (read politicians here) routing the wealth it has gained from government contracts and extortion into real estate. Two, corruption in the bureaucracy. State funds meant for development are siphoned off to personal accounts. Three, easy credit. Cheap loans and the service sector have developed a symbiotic relationship. Banks and the telecom sector have generated employment opportunities, mostly casual and contractual, which in turn are feeding the retail sector.
The forces of the market are also influencing social relations. A young journalist said the malls and upmarket eateries would survive, irrespective of the source of their capital, because there is no other public space in the city for youngsters with disposable income. Existing public spaces like parks have not shed their conservative character to welcome a new generation of boys and girls shaped by the cultural logic of the market. Similarly, the apartment complexes are changing the social matrix of the city.
Beneficiaries of these social changes want a political dispensation that can consolidate the emerging economy. The Samajwadi Party is perceived by many as having failed in this task. It has not helped SP that many people see party MP and local strongman, Atiq Ahmed, as the face of the city's underbelly. However, a mere change of government is unlikely to change the grammar of politics for the better. A public culture that doesn't confuse massification with democracy is required to facilitate a makeover of the political and civil society. The leader of a Left-wing cultural front mentioned the massive response to a cinema of resistance festival in the city. But, is any form of radical culture possible in a political economy that is dependent on the mafia? he wondered.
In the past, the successful politician in the city was known for oratorial skills, ability to command caste loyalty or raise funds. Now, money and muscle power have become the primary ingredients to court success. This 'neta' is the new political elite. He is disinterested in public debates or civic politics, his patronage network operates through the decentralisation of crime. Can he be the harbinger of change? Or will the people's will force him to change?
Today's Allahabad is an urban culture in the making. There is hope, nostalgia and despair in the narratives of those living in the city. These narratives are, perhaps, representative of the chaos and confusion reigning in UP's urban centres as people get ready to elect a new government.

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