IT is not a mere coincidence that the turn towards a neoliberal economy and the movement for the liberation of the Ram Janmabhoomi (I prefer to call it communalisation of society) in Ayodhya took place simultaneously in the late 1980s, and Rajiv Gandhi provided a fillip to both. His decision to reverse the Supreme Court judgment in the Shah Bano case and to remove the locks of the Babri Masjid and permit shilanyas of the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya were great blunders, for which the Congress party has been paying a heavy price to this day. Additionally, the rise of identity politics, especially that rooted in caste dynamics (Mandalisation), was a phenomenon of the same period. Rajiv Gandhi remained ambivalent on this as well, which also cost the Congress dearly, at least in the north Indian Hindi belt.
The rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the late 1990s and, more particularly, since the Gujarat genocide in 2002 was accelerated because of its clever manoeuvring of all the above forces. Right from the days of its earlier avatar, namely, the Jana Sangh, it always championed the cause of an open market economy and the capitalist order.
The BJP’s Hindu identity politics has never been a secret. And despite its inherent abhorrence for constitutional reservation for the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (OBCs), it has always played the caste card quite strategically.
The history of the past nearly one hundred years since the early 20th century shows that whenever there was an economic crisis/slowdown, world politics (especially in “democracies”) always turned towards the Right. The Great Depression of the 1930s (which started with the stock market crash in October 1929) had a direct bearing on the rise of fascism in Europe and elsewhere.
Similarly, the 2007-08 financial crisis encouraged a rightward movement almost across the globe. Time magazine may have featured Narendra Modi as “India’s Divider in Chief” (May 20, 2019, issue) because he has torn the country’s social fabric right down the middle on religious grounds with his “national versus anti-national” discourse. But consider Manmohan Singh’s direct steering of the Indian economy for at least 15 years (both as Finance Minister under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and later as Prime Minister himself) as another great divider of the Indian people.
His policies of economic liberalisation and corporatisation, which contributed to crony capitalism (all under the diktat of the World Bank), were prescriptions for widening economic inequality. His resolute stand on the India-United States nuclear deal of 2008 (which was equally resolutely and rightly opposed by the Indian Left), for which he even threatened to resign, must be seen in this context. With the onset of the neoliberal economic order, India’s foreign policy was hitched on to the U.S.-Israel-India axis, which also shares growing Islamophobia.
The dangers India faces
In my understanding, India faces the following dangers:
[a] Growing Hindu identity politics, with the BJP moving rapidly towards establishing a Hindu Rashtra. It is difficult to ignore the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has completely given up any pretension of merely being a cultural body. Its ideology has never accepted the Indian Constitution or the national flag. The myth of Gujarat’s economic development model has been busted, but its political model is being replicated in several BJP-ruled States. When I visited several districts of Gujarat after the 2002 genocide, huge hoardings just outside Ahmedabad airport announced: “Welcome to India’s first Hindu Rajya.”
While the Congress has shown its muddled thinking on this issue—pandering to soft Hindutva—even the regional powers shouting slogans of “unity of secular forces” are not paying anything more than lip service to that cause. It does not surprise me that leaders of such forces seeing their ships sinking are able to jump on to the bandwagon of the BJP without any qualms.
Unfortunately, even the Left, in my opinion, faltered when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee became instrumental in throwing the Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen out of West Bengal, perhaps under pressure from the Manmohan Singh-led Congress government at the Centre. Modi’s proclamation after the 2019 election that “secularists” had run away and were hiding their faces cannot be dismissed easily. It is fraught with tremendous threat.
[b] The implementation of the neoliberal economic order, particularly from the days of Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister, is being continued not only by the BJP/National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments (both under A.B. Vajpayee and Modi) but even by the non-Congress, non-BJP/NDA-ruled States.
Even the last Left Front government in West Bengal tried to cosy up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, tried to help the Tata’s Nano venture in Singur and manipulated the sale of farmers’ lands for a chemical factory in Nandigram. Both these ventures (2007-08) put strains on Buddhadeb’s government, enabling Mamata Banerjee to wreak havoc in the name of peasants. The goodwill earned by the Left Front through land reforms (under Operation Barga implemented through the West Bengal Land Reforms (Amendment) Act in September 1977, 1.1 million acres of land was distributed amongst 1.4 million sharecroppers, who got inheritable rights on land they tilled) in its more than three-decades-old rule in West Bengal (since 1977) evaporated in no time! This was the beginning of the exit of the Left from West Bengal.
[c] The resurgence of caste identity politics. Ideally, one can hope to create a utopia of a caste-/class-less society. I was amused to hear Modi proclaiming after achieving a massive victory in the May 2019 parliamentary election that India had rejected caste politics and the days of Mandalisation were over. Nothing could be more hypocritical, for Amit Shah’s electoral strategy rested on dividing Dalits on the one hand and raising the spectre of OBC terror vis-a-vis Dalits on the other. In the Hindi belt, one can see an interesting upsurge of a combined force of Dalits and Muslims. The bottom line is that caste as a significant factor in India’s electoral democracy cannot be wished away.
[d] The BJP’s goal of “One people, one culture and one nation” is a direct threat to the diversity and pluralism of the “idea of India”. It also poses a big challenge to the federal structure envisaged in the Constitution.
How does India come out of this manifold crisis? The following are my assumptions:
[a] There cannot be space for two right-oriented political parties. Statements such as the Congress is the original exponent of the Right in its recent avatar (1980s onwards) or that the BJP is its carbon copy or that the BJP is the Congress + cow (as Arun Shourie described it at the beginning of the first Modi regime in 2014-15) will not take India very far. The prospect of a Congress revival is bleak.
[b] Most of the regional powers are interested only in being in power by hook or by crook. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party or Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (in Uttar Pradesh) or Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (in West Bengal) or K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi (in Telangana) or Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress or Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (in Andhra Pradesh) or Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (in Odisha) or Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) or Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (in Bihar) or any such satrap elsewhere is neither capable of nor wants to offer any alternative model of economic development for the common people. None of them has any inclination to stand up against corporatisation or the neoliberal economic agenda. Even these parties’ commitment to save “secular” India cannot be taken for granted as was seen most recently in their support (the RJD was the exception) for the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A in Jammu and Kashmir.
[c] It would be futile to conjure up a “national government” of all political parties as was done for a few years immediately after Independence. India does not have statesmen of the calibre of Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Today’s politicians are selfish and not professionals.
[d] The idea of the “Third Front” (of parties maintaining equidistance from both the Congress and the BJP) has been discredited.
[e] The Indian polity should move towards two political formations with clearly identifiable alternative paths for economic development: right of centre and left of centre.
Given the aforesaid situation, I cannot think of any alternative other than for the Left to take the lead, prepare itself to plough its own furrow and be in it for the long haul (as distinct from falling for short-term and short-sighted “strategic” electoral arrangements/understandings either with opportunist parties or with ideologically right-oriented formations). It is an unpalatable irony that the appeal of the Left is gradually declining in a country where (i) more than 80 per cent of the people live miserable lives, (ii) agrarian unrest kills peasants and cultivators, (iii) unemployment has reached an all-time high, (iv) health care and education facilities are in a shambles and (v) the overall economy is in tatters.
The present-day highly splintered Left, to begin with, must rise above the egos of several individuals and amalgamate into a single formation, preferably with a new name inclusive of peasants and workers and in keeping with the goals of the Constitution. I suggest that the new formation may be called the Democratic, Secular and Socialist Party of India.
Common minimum programme
In the past several decades, one has often heard the Left talk about a “common minimum programme” (CMP), which is generally made after an election. The time has come for the extant splintered Left to get together to set its own agenda and go to the people for their direct support (colloquially bas ek mauka) for their distinctive CMP. This programme must give a clear message about the Left’s position on caste dynamics and the role of religion (read dharma) in a people’s political dispensation. Theoretically, too, doctrinaire thinking on these issues makes the Left’s acceptability difficult. The message of the Left’s position on the Supreme Court judgment in the Sabarimala case in Kerala needs to be spread across larger geographical spaces. Further, clarity is needed on the caste-class continuum in an idiom that is intelligible to common people.
The Left must present to the people its own policy framework about economic development of common people. The strategy to confront the existing corporate hold on social and economic policies and to invigorate the constantly dented public sector must be spelt out. Gandhi’s Talisman (caring for the last man in the queue) should form the basis for working out a pragmatic turn against the neoliberal market-oriented economic developmental path.
The Left should spell out policies for (i) growth with jobs and social justice, (ii) long-term care of farmers’ interests, (iii) increasing both agricultural and industrial production and manufacturing and (iv) greater public investment in education (not less than 10 per cent of the gross domestic product) and health. The focus should not be on stopping “privatisation” in these domains but on increasing state spending in them. The state should also not become a facilitator of “private enterprise”.
It is one of the biggest ironies that the land of apostles of ahimsa (non-violence) such as the Buddha, Mahavira and Gandhi is the biggest importer of arms and ammunition in the world and that a no-war zone such as Jammu and Kashmir (including Ladakh) is the most militarised region of the world. Can there be a case for phased reduction of expenditure on the military establishment? It would be easy to fall for nationalistic jingoism, but the issue must be pondered over and public debate on this must be initiated.
Battle against people’s perception
The Left has also to fight a big battle against people’s perception, which is based on ignorance and, more importantly, manufactured by the media. Take, for example, the situation immediately after the declaration of the results of the parliamentary election in 2004 (the 14th Lok Sabha). It had become clear that with the Left’s strength of 59 seats, it would be a big influence on the formation of the government (United Progressive Alliance-1). Immediately, the media (both electronic and print), standing up for capital-oriented market forces, carried out a hysterical blitzkrieg by raising the “spectre of communism”. People perceive “communism” as a violent and anti-democratic ideology. It is also accused of not caring for religion and the culture of India. Persistent efforts will have to be made to dispel people’s doubts and suspicions on these fronts.
The spirit of the Inter-State Council has to be rejuvenated to make the functioning of the federal structure more real. The recent conversion of the State of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories is symptomatic of the serious dent in the structure of Centre-State relations as envisaged in the Constitution and further spelt out in the recommendations of the Justice R.S. Sarkaria Commission (1983-87). Further, the present NDA government has just initiated a move to make States share the expenditure on defence and national security (which are unambiguously the Centre’s responsibility) and that too without letting them have any say in the matter.
The Left must give up its sectarian orientation and cast its net much wider for fresh membership. Various public movements are working for people’s civil liberties, women’s emancipation and social and cultural upliftment of Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities. Spaces should be created for such people within the organisational structure of the new political formation.
The Left should also consider working on a ghar wapasi of a different kind in its CMP. The distinctive cultural identities of Adivasis, Dalits and other deprived sections of the society should be kept in focus. There should be greater focus on non-Brahmanical cultural traditions from all over India, that is, the divine world of those sections has to be “debrahmanised”. It has to be a full-fledged 365 x 24 work programme and not just a Congress-style soft-Hindutva type activity at election time.
Battles are to be fought on the ground and not in TVstudios, the latter in any case have no space for the present-day Left. Fighting the communal onslaught on the well-known idea of India (diverse and plural) and the neoliberal economic order cannot be an either/or programme. Nor can this fight be prioritised, that is, fighting one before the other. The fight has to be simultaneous because the two phenomena are interlinked.
K.M. Shrimali is a former professor of history at the University of Delhi.