craig jeffery directors note

Director’s Note: Ordinary Politics

craig jeffery directors noteWhen I was working in Meerut in Uttar Pradesh there was an unemployed young man called Girish Singh who was the constant butt of jokes. Sharp and energetic, Girish used to spend his mornings organising high profile anti-corruption campaigns against the corrupt university administration. But in the afternoons, he did secret corrupt deals with the Vice Chancellor of Meerut University. “Craig”, he said once over chai, “That’s just ordinary politics” (using the English phrase).

Patronage and corruption remain a major problem in India, and especially among jobless youth. Kanchan Chandra and Saroj Nagi have just written about the worrying links between the failure of the Indian economy to generate work for young people – literate youth are more likely than other sections of the population to be unemployed – and the rise of patronage and populist politics.

They observe that unemployment encourages young people to find niches in the Indian economy where they extract corrupt side incomes. This promotes personalised politics in which politicians bid for support via promises of future patronage. As I read the story, I couldn’t help thinking of Girish.

The work of some of my students and colleagues has filled out this picture of widespread joblessness and consequent youth involvement in corruption. Dr. Satendra Kumar and Professor Stephen Young have visited Meerut recently to interview some of the young men whom I met there 12 years ago. They found that educated youth had escaped joblessness, but only by becoming involved in the provision of poor-quality – and sometimes wholly bogus – private education. These young people had become complicit in reproducing the system that produced them as unemployed youth.

A former student of mine, Akanksha Awal, has been examining some of the implications of such corrupt activity in terms of gender, again working in Meerut. She is encountering troubling evidence of deep-seated sex-based inequalities within the youth population in terms of access to opportunities for patronage. Young women are unable to engage in the type of hustle characteristic of Girish. In addition, young male corruption reproduces aggressive masculine cultures.

But even after reading Chandra and Nagi’s analysis and hearing these reports from others of pernicious youth corruption and patronage, I’m left with questions: How are we to interpret the other aspects of Girish’s daily work? Was his anti-corruption activity just posturing or should we believe him when he told me that he engages in corruption only “for the time being”? Ultimately, he said, he wants to build a better, different future for himself and society. He certainly doesn’t want his future children to be involved in his type of politicking.

Another former student, Dr. Andrea Koelbel, studied young people in a university in Kathmandu, Nepal. She showed that many of the ‘educated unemployed’ were optimistic and spent a great deal of time assisting their households and neighbourhoods. Dr. Jane Dyson and I have made similar points in a recent article in Economy and Society on youth in the village of Bemni, in Uttarakhand.

We showed that educated unemployed youth were key social actors in the region and were also developing a rich philosophy of activism based on the idea of “being the change that you want to see in the world”.

Young people often reproduce pernicious systems. But they also undermine them. And they frequently do both at the same time. Moreover, even forms of political action that can be ushered quite quickly into the categories of ‘progressive’ or ‘retrogressive’ often contain within them contradictory impulses and potentials.

This anthropological perspective not only provides a complement to the work of Chandra and Nagi, it encourages comparative reflection on ordinary politics as it’s practised around the world.