ACHIN VANAIK | 18 APRIL, 2017
The election results predict a bleak future in which opposition parties and marginalized sections of society will be forced to survive. Among Muslims, the search for self-protection could go in two directions: many will decide to declare loyalty to the BJP, while others will become more attracted to radicalized Islam. While counterproductive, we cannot dismiss this development as inconceivable.
Meanwhile, membership in Sangh organizations will grow. Greater ideological agreement will account for some of this, but straightforward money-making and career-enhancing reasons will also swell the group’s membership. Certainly, the Sangh’s more dedicated foot soldiers will have greater freedom of action.
A number of factors will shape the responses of the political parties that rule non-BJP states. First, they will have to assess their confidence in their future prospects. The BJP made it clear immediately after the election that it would target the 120 LokSabha seats in the states where it has yet to gain a foothold, which include West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and the remaining states of the northeast.
Further, these opposition parties will have to determine how much they depend on central largesse to pursue policies that will strengthen their base. Their historical relationship with the BJP and their ambitions for the future will play an important role as well. Some have been content to remain purely regional forces and therefore are more open to reaching a modus vivendi with the BJP, while others have wanted to expand their presence and influence, which would demand some kind of confrontation.
The Congress, the BSP, the SP, and the mainstream left parties — the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M), the Communist Party of India (CPI),and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation (CPI-ML) — all have, for differing reasons, no choice but to come out in strong opposition to the BJP. Even the AAP may do so.
These forces could become the building blocks for a national opposition, but there are reasons to doubt that they can cooperate with each other, let alone bring in other allies. For one, they have regional rivalries. Furthermore, the elections have sparked serious internal tensions within the INC, SP, and BSP. The SP might split, while we can expect calls for leadership change in the other two parties. In all three, members will likely defect to join the BJP. Fear of a common opponent without a unifying platform does not offer much promise for a strong coalition.
The mainstream left faces another kind of crisis. The CPI-ML is the smallest party, with no parliamentary representation. It has an active student base in Delhi and parts of Bihar, but the other two parties do not take it seriously. The CPI and CPI (M) now have two kinds of members: those with little or no ideological commitment who will shift loyalties if material or political gains are available, and more ideologically committed members who now suffer from low morale. While no longer confident in their parties’ vision, they want to be active on the ground. If the leadership can guide them, they will engage seriously in grassroots struggles.
We now face not merely an interlude of BJP dominance; we must recognize that the party — and the Sangh more generally — has established a certain level of hegemony that is still expanding. The more immediate effort to defeat Modi’s party in the upcoming elections must be integrated into a long-term strategy to establish a more humane and progressive consensus.
The Modi regime’s neoliberal policies cannot provide the development that the prime minister promised. Undernourishment and malnourishment will remain at unacceptably high levels, calling into question his claims that absolute poverty is declining. As it is, the government measures this poverty level through household income surveys that do not include the cost of most basic requirements like education, health care, housing, and social security. Modi cannot meet, either quantitatively or qualitatively, the two needs that are the most demanded — decent jobs and public healthcare. Income inequality is rising rapidly, creating increasing frustration. These failures guarantee mass discontent, but how will this anger and frustration be channeled politically?
Party-level politics to defeat the BJP in the forthcoming elections will undoubtedly be pursued with very uncertain outcomes. To the extent that the Left and other progressive forces can contribute to this effort, fine. But we must also begin to construct a broader anti-neoliberal platform from which a newly rejuvenated left can emerge. Where this invigorated resistance comes from is a separate discussion.
For now, I’ll propose five concrete areas around which the mainstream left and other progressive organizations can build anti-BJP momentum.
1. Fight for rural employment
Modi has called the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) wasteful and proposed diminishing its scope of operation. Unable to completely repeal it, he had to retain its promise of 100 days of annual employment at guaranteed wages for all those demanding work.
He has not fulfilled this promise, and corruption among the officials assigned to oversee its implementation remains widespread. Since the scheme was democratically enacted, the situation offers a perfect opportunity for mainstream left parties — which have both the material and human resources — to intervene. They should audit its implementation and mobilize the beneficiaries to make sure its provisions are carried out. This engagement would directly connect the Left with the poor and downtrodden, win their support, and geographically extend its base.
Today, a few progressive civil society groups and local movements perform what little auditing is done. They would surely welcome an infusion of effort, which would also regenerate activism and enthusiasm among grassroots workers and cadres.
2. Build coalitions with social movements
A host of progressive movements, which by their very nature oppose the Sangh’s ethnic orientation and development plans, would benefit from Left engagement. These organizations operate all over the country. Some work on specific issues, others on the concerns of particular sections of the population, including tribal groups, lower castes, women, fisherfolk, and those displaced by dams and other big infrastructure projects.
The Left has the capacity, even without the support of the other non-BJP parties, to bring these movements together andcoordinate their struggles. Over time, this network could develop a common platform that all its constituents would own. This would represent a major political breakthrough with national resonance.
3. Engage with Dalit activists
The Dalit question remains fundamental. The reservation policies’ dead end means that more young Dalit leaders recognize the need to go beyond the old politics of recognition and move toward redistribution. To do so, they will need to strike wider alliances with other lower castes, with deprived classes, with besieged minorities (religious and tribal), and with left and progressive forces. The rising popularity of Jignesh Mevani, a young Dalit lawyer in Gujarat who has called for land reform for Dalits (many of whom are landless workers),reflects this new reality.
The Left has many opportunities and openings to explore. But, since even the ordinary cadres of these parties are steeped in caste practices, the leadership must model how to make connections that transform the interactions between their members and those of Dalit organizations.
4. Preserve civil liberties
The Left can unite with other non-BJP parties around protecting civil liberties. Repeated, large-scale extra-parliamentary agitations will matter more here than any legislative opposition. Drafting a joint Charter of Rights through public discussion would be one way to start.
Further, this coalition could attack one of the BJP’s weakest points. Like most right-wing and far-right neoliberal forces, the Hindu nationalist party has depoliticized the notion of human flourishing by presenting marketed pleasures as the route to self-fulfillment. This brings the principle of lifestyle freedoms — such as sexual orientation and partnership choices — with it. Growing numbers of educated, young Indians of both genders believe in sexual freedom, and it could become the basis for strong resistance to the Sangh’s “love jihads” — their crude attempt to portray young Muslim males as sexual predators. The opposition can highlight not so much the Muslim-Hindu interface but simply the right to love for all, including for gays and lesbians.
The media features many liberal commentators who oppose these restrictive laws, but no party has felt comfortable enough to support, let alone plan, street protests around these issues. A pro-love movement would rile Hindutva forces and find support even among the educated, young voters otherwise sympathetic to the BJP and its affiliates.
Further, women’s political activity is growing, as reflected in their rising turnout at elections. Progressive forces should capture this momentum. Women have always participated in struggles around everyday problems of livelihood. The mobile revolution has made it easier for women to organize around gendered issues — all the more reason for the Left to focus on such concerns.
5. Change the discourse
Finally, the terms of public discourse will not change unless a counter-hegemonic strategy challenges what now prevails. There must be a continuing battle of ideas. In fact, the intellectual challenge to the BJP and Sangh has often seemed more successful than the political one.
Certainly, the Sangh understands the importance of this terrain, which is why it has fought to transform education, but left, liberal, feminist, and Dalit students have organized demonstrations and confronted the Sangh. To be sure, the battle of ideas will never be the decisive lever that brings about a hegemonic shift, but it will play an important role. Without gaining ground here, electoral and political defeats for the BJP — no matter how severe — will not produce a more just national consensus.
Struggles on the terrain of discourse should take up four broad themes: a more humane nationalism, a more democratic India, a greater commitment to social justice, and a wholesale rejection of neoliberalism.
For all of nationalism’s limitations and its inherently two-faced character, the left must challenge the Hindutva version with its own. The nation state remains the principal political unit in which ordinary people feel politically empowered; they are at least the legitimizers, if not the exercisers, of power. Opposition forces must present a secular and democratic vision of the nation to oppose the Sangh’s exclusivist and authoritarian Hindu nationalism.
Indeed, secularism is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. Seeing that no country is as culturally diverse as India, there is no reason to believe that a particular Hindu order lies at the heart of Indian identity. The Left’s central message has to be that there are different ways of being and feeling Indian, which can only happen once all citizens’ cultures, languages, and religions are respected and their material needs and concerns impartially addressed. Only then can India construct a nationalism that gets its strength from its humaneness and democracy.
Indeed, Hindutva ideology poses a serious threat to democracy. The Left must find ways to stop this erosion and to further strengthen Indian institutions. Here two issues must come to fore: first, we must reject any attempt by this or future governments to synchronize elections. Almost all the non-BJP parties should be able to agree on this and mobilize against it because they fear losing any electoral ground. But this is a narrow and self-serving reason.
More fundamentally, synchronization will erode Indian federalism’s distinctive nature and thereby weaken the nation’s democracy. Unlike in the United States, the distribution of powers between the federal and state governments favors centralized power, making the potential for authoritarianism greater. State legislatures and judiciaries do not have the same freedom in India as they do in the United States to counter, for example, Trump’s white nationalist agenda.
To further strengthen democracy, the opposition parties should support replacing first-past-the-post polling with proportional representation. The non-BJP parties will need to be convinced, as doing so will lessen their chances of winning majority rule in the provinces. But because the fear of overall domination by the BJP at both the provincial and central levels is growing, some parties might come around. Regardless, making this change will establish a crucial institutional barrier to Hindutva political domination.
By any standard of basic democratic principles, the first-past-the-post system is a disgrace. The main argument for it has been that it provides stability of rule. Not only is this not itself an indisputable virtue, but there is little evidence to support this claim. The Indian experience has shown that the system does not necessarily produce a two- or three-party system. Further, coalition governments in India and elsewhere can and do enjoy stable power.
Ending first-past-the-post would require a constitutional amendment, with two-thirds of both houses in support — something that is far from today’s reality. But the time has come to begin serious public discussion about it and about ways to strengthen the democratic character of the polity.
Third, India needs much greater social justice. Here the issue of caste is paramount. While continuing to defend different forms of affirmative action, we must now fight to empower the lower castes and to completely destroy the caste system.
Here again, a strong momentum to achieve this would strike a body blow to the forces of Hindutva, which must retain a Brahminized version of the religion. Howsoever loosely accommodative this Brahminism might be, it would remain fundamentally inimical to Ambedkar’s project and hopes.
The project would start with a constitutional amendment outlawing caste itself, refusing to be satisfied with the existing clause that only bans discrimination. This provision endorses the belief that a non-discriminatory caste system is possible and would be acceptable — an absurdity that has never been sufficiently attacked. Modi and the Sangh are trying to appropriate Ambedkar’s legacy, and they should not be allowed to get away with this.
Lastly, the Left must oppose the neoliberal policy framework, arguing as forcefully as possible that it has proven to be a comprehensive failure on economic, social, political, and ecological grounds. Simply, it does not address basic needs; it has already created and will continue to create unacceptable levels of income inequality, an affront to the principle of basic dignity for all. Equal basic liberties without equal basic sufficiencies hollows out democracy, while growing economic disparities result in plutocrats’ rising influence in the corridors of political power.
Ecologically, the single-minded obsession with achieving and sustaining the highest possible average growth rates spells disaster. Steadily retreating natural forest cover, expanding desertification, declining water table levels, soil erosion, phosphate poisoning, greater air pollution, and diminishing biodiversity are all processes in motion.
If avoiding these future disasters through an alternative development path to that of neoliberal capitalism remains in doubt, the necessity of fighting for one has never been clearer.
(This article first appeared in Jacobin)
(Achin Vanaik is a writer and social activist, a former professor at the University of Delhi and Delhi-based Fellow of the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam.)