Transactionalism: Or Why Some People Don’t Care if 5 Million People Died
Consider this series of unfortunate incidents in India:
In September 2020, the Government of India pushed through three farm laws in Parliament, triggering a massive farmers’ protest in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and (parts of) Uttar Pradesh. In Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stormed back to power in May 2021 despite analyses claiming a “subaltern Hindutva” wave would wash away her Trinamool Congress Party. On April 25, 2021, Amit Jaiswal, a dedicated fan of Prime Minister Modi died of Covid in Agra, his desperate calls for help on social media ignored by those he adored and trusted.  On April 30, 2021 well-known news anchor Rohit Sardana succumbed to Covid during India’s brutal second wave of the pandemic.
As a novelist, juxtaposing disparate occurrences offers the possibility of creative fiction writing. As a historian, the connective tissue between these developments provides a concrete pattern to analyze. Seemingly a sequence of disparate events, a common thread nonetheless connects the incidents I listed above: transactionalism.
It’s important to understand the many areas in which transactionalism operates in order to repair the damage it has caused to civil society. Defined as an attitude treating all relationships as negotiable, purchasable and up for grabs (and definitely not to be confused with the Weberian theory of rational-legal leadership), transactionalism materializes during political mobilization, becomes monetizable performativity in digital spaces, and is embedded in narratives of opportunism vocalized as “pragmatism.”
Boris Johnson is famously transactional even in his social life . Donald Trump’s cynical extraction of wealth from his low-income supporters is another case in point, as is the British government’s callous handling of the United Kingdom’s Covid-19 emergency last year. It is a feature, not a bug, of rightwing politics worldwide.
The transactionalist trait in rightwing Indian politics is no less noteworthy than that of the European or American right. While all political outfits in India follow the transactional principle to different degrees — members come and go through a revolving door of opportunism — the rightwing brand of transactionalism is distinctive in its ruthless indifference to the wellbeing of even its diehard supporters. With a carefully calculated contempt for people at its base, transactional politics is the logical outcome of a longstanding narrative of cynicism, driven by a calculated opportunism and amplified by social media.
Rather than focusing exclusively on political parties and leaders on whom there is already considerable reportage, I trace here the broad contours of the impersonal opportunism that defines rightwing politics in India. Transactionalism was a strength during the right’s rapid growth in India leading up to Prime Minister Modi’s 2014 election victory. With the slow decay of the Congress party in the 2000s and the steady decline of the organized left as a political force, political configurations changed shape. The emphasis shifted from a sense of collective identity to ever-changing alliances of convenience as a mode of politics. Rightwing political parties, notably the BJP, exploited this shifting terrain tactically, allying with parties rooted in different traditions like the Akali Dal and the Bahujan Samaj Party to seed their own growth.
Transactionalism also fell on receptive social soil in a changing India. Rural migrants to big cities led transient lives, left to fend for themselves in the daily struggle to survive. In the world of white collar work, professional relationships are underpinned with a hardheaded calculation of benefits and losses. Transplants from smaller towns, whose numbers swelled in the 2000s, often felt alienated in metropolitan localities where neighborliness might be lacking (and sometimes even civility). The toxicity of anti-minority politics, an omnipresent undercurrent until now, became normalized in this political and socio-economic context of anomie.
The transactionalist calculation at the heart of the ongoing farmers protest in India needs a bit more explanation. The expansion of the BJP, currently the world’s largest political party by membership, would not have been possible without the agrarian classes of the north Indian states joining its electoral base in the past ten years. Rooted in the history of the political mobilization of agrarian India, mobilization of agrarian classes and lower castes is not new in Indian politics. Farming castes have been mobilized before — by Gandhian politics in the 1920s and 1930s, and by socialist and left parties in the 1960s and 1970s. Dalits have been mobilized by both the Congress and Dalit-led parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party, usually centering social justice or inclusivity as the rallying call. When the right, in its turn, began to mobilize the agrarian classes and Dalits it offered no ideological justification except “othering” the Muslim, a single-minded tactic to gain power. Using communal divisions to consolidate the votes of farming caste Hindu voters such as Jats and Gujjars, the BJP came to power in 2017 in a vast wave against the socialist Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.
The transactionalist siren call, however, proved hard to resist for the right, whose Achilles heel has always been its weakness for a quick buck. When the financialization of the agrarian economy became a more attractive goal than broadening the party’s social base, all pieties of social engineering were swiftly sacrificed on the altar of transactionalism. Once in power, the BJP turned ruthlessly on its agrarian voters. The farm laws were pushed through during a global health emergency in the teeth of opposition from those in whose name the laws were enacted. Transactionalism being a double-edged sword, though, many agrarian classes of western Uttar Pradesh have now turned furiously against the ruling party at the center.
Similarly, the word “transactional” occurs several times as an explanation for the alliance of convenience in Bengal between lower caste subalterns and upper caste Hindu elites against Muslims. Here too, the transactional offer was the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in return for votes. “Subaltern Hindutva” — one of the analytical casualties of the Bengal election — was supposed to bring large numbers of low-caste Hindus to the BJP fold in Bengal in the 2021 state elections. Low caste communities were, the theory suggested, migrating to the political right as part of a continuous process of active and agentive identity construction against Muslims. It remains to be seen how the lower caste Matuas, Rajbongshis and other Namasudras view transactional political offers in light of the BJP’s track record of dropping ruthlessly even the oldest allies in pursuit of a short term financial or political goal.
The relation between social media performativity and transactionalism is quite well chronicled. Performativity in the attention economy is the shortest route to revenues as the boundaries between political speech and commercial speech become blurred. Many YouTubers, Instagrammers and Facebook page operators generate reams of bigotry for the oldest reason in the world: money. Several social media performers of hate openly solicit funds ostensibly to finance a pet project like anti-interfaith relationship campaigns (the so-called love jihad) but since no one’s auditing these drives no one knows where the money actually goes. It is not improbable that the attention merchants monetizing right wing bigotry online may also be posting liberal content elsewhere to maximize their profit, much in the same manner, but more crudely, as broadcast media moguls run both conservative channels and at least one pseudo-liberal channel.
Often rationalized as “pragmatism” the transactional turn is not, however, an extension of the old “realpolitik” except in the limited sense of privileging state power over individual liberty. The rhetoric of pragmatism is a convenient shroud for the opportunism at the core of today’s rightwing politics. Votaries of transactionalism narrativize it with glib quotes like “no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.” Transactionalism wraps the relationship between rightwing parties and supporters, people and government, workplace and workers, digital media and influencers like an invasive vine.
Participants and eager followers — or useful idiots as their leaders think of them — often assume that they are participating in a sharing economy of interaction and engagement. This feeling is accentuated by the illusion of a direct interface with top leaders on social media. Unlike the relationship between Rama and Hanuman where, as Badri Narayan reminds us, “Rama had forsaken everyone but not Hanuman and kept him by his side throughout his life” there is, however, neither love nor loyalty in the transactional relationships of the contemporary right.
In reality, the relationship is that of mesmerized children to the Pied Piper, the doomed children as dispensable as the rats in the story. This transactionalist stance also explains the microhistories of individual loyalists like Amit Jaiswal of Agra and the newscaster I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. They died begging for help from those they admired.. They both received no help from those whom they supported ardently all their short lives.
This lack of care, a ruthless detachment from the personal tragedies of individuals and their families, has stunned many among the faithful. They are all for India not being a soft state anymore — whatever that term means to them — but are shocked when a transactional administration disregards their needs equally callously. As the 2015 viral tweet put it: “I never thought leopards would eat MY face,” sobs the woman who voted for the Leopard Eating People’s Faces Party.” The transactionalists approve of amoral policies in Middle East diplomacy, for example, against Palestinians (a pleasure the Indian External Affairs Ministry denied them, incidentally). But, the same votaries of harsh governance — prison camps for refugees, mandatory family size restrictions, punitive personal laws — are now dazed when transactionalism returns as blowback affecting their own welfare. Many of the wavering faithful and legions of the diehard have started to rationalize like Stalin, arguing that 5 million dead is not much in a nation of a billion people.
Since historians are often accused of not offering solutions — it’s really not our job — I will conclude by presenting some actionable alternatives to this politics of transactionalism. The opposite of transactionalism is a politics of loyalty — take care of those whom you lead, take care of those whom you love, take care of the country. It is what professional soldiers recognize immediately — care for your wounded, fight mightily to carry them back with you, move mountains to take care of your own. It is what those who really wished to help did for others in distress — they procured oxygen concentrators and cylinders, cooked meals for the afflicted, paid someone’s overdue school fees, located a hospital bed for a desperately ill patient.
Loyalty in this sense is not a holdover of feudalism. It is an active energy, a source of motivation, a politics of doing. Loyalty is a framework of caring that spans the home, the nation, and the world. The notion of loyalty gives an affective depth to what others have called a politics of solidarity. It must be the base of “building back better” in the post-pandemic era. It is the only way out of the normative dead end that is transactionalism. This applies not just to India but to the whole world.
 https://theprint.in/india/rss-worker-modi-followed-on-twitter-dies-of-covid-pm-didnt-help-despite-plea-family-cries/656948/ . Amit Jaiswal was also a great admirer of Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/04/world/asia/india-gandhi-nathuram-godse.html
 Badri Narayan, Fascinating Hindutva: Saffron Politics and Dalit Mobilisation (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009), 30.