States of Emergency


The Late Indira Gandhi started the venerable tradition in Indian politics of pointing to the external forces that were trying to destabilize India. The only way to remain coherent as India, it was claimed was to vote for the gai bachhda (the Cow and Calf election symbol) and leave the rest to Mrs Gandhi’s wisdom. As the climax to the Singur controversy appears to be over, we can wait for the denouement, so we are beginning to hear voices now to wrap it all up. It appears that the CPIM is the only hope for the dalits and Muslims and anything that questions the manner in which the CPIM crafts its political and economic agendas and implements them is going to open the doors for the ‘right’ that is the BJP.

These arguments deserve to be considered in all seriousness. The trouble is not with the economic model, nor with human rights violations nor with plain old electoral and ideological rivalries. The trouble in very simple words is with the way the CPIM’s electoral base has changed. The party lost the votes of agricultural wage laborers and industrial working class and the Muslims in Bengal while gaining rural salaried and rural rich and urban middle class votes. This shift in its class base has serious implications for the party itself. The party more than anyone else knows what this means right down to the scale of the polling booth.

The question then is how is the party intending to recover these votes? It has several options to do this: as has been done in many states where aggressive reforms were pursued, these voters or at least their mobilizers in the form of party cadres can be bribed with various government schemes where everyone gets a small cut in the pie. This works very well in the short run. But beyond one or two elections the novelty wears off. It could look for newly mobilized social classes to join its support base, by mobilizing women, sections of Muslims, carve out new segments from old categories and provide them sops to switch their loyalties. If the party looks beyond the immediate electoral calculations, then the contours of the political and economic challenge ahead would look very different. But we can return to it later because for the moment, the main concern appears to be how to remain in power.

The trouble with framing the problem as one of how to keep the CPIM in power is that it simply jumps the gun by assuming that the only way to do politics is to get into the seat of power. So, we begin to assume from here on that the only way to keep the BJP in check is for the CPIM to get in power. But let us look at what the real dynamics of that would be. The only way for the CPIM to get into power was to cut into the BJP’s social base which is the middle class. But having done that, can the CPIM then speak to its middle class constituents about what is good economic policy? Or will it be driven by the desires and aspirations of that class?

Singur is an excellent example of those desires and aspirations. We have not seen such condensation of desire over any other object in public view since the Mandir. The Chief Minister says we cannot go back on this because “I persuaded Tata like anything and now I will not be able to raise my head again”. Tata says, “If someone holds a gun to my head he has to shoot or take away the gun, I am not going to move my head”. How did things come to such an emotional head? Is it that the deviant left is conspiring with right to derail legitimate and correct path to ‘socialism’ or is it that the opposition from multiple sources actually bring into sharper focus the nascent middle class desire for a better life at whatever cost?

Industrialization, economic growth, development, these are empty words. Their content is political, emotional and social and thus has to be struggled over. The CPIM in Bengal tried to take the short cut and run into rough weather. Whether the party has the capacity to learn from the experience and think over how to fight these battles in a progressive way is for history to decide. Personally I wouldn’t worry too much about whether fighting the CPIM on this issue is going to help the BJP. Because seriously communalism is not the only game in town. The majority of the massacres of Dalits in India happened under regimes to which the CPIM in no way provided any credible threat. Bihar under Laloo Prasad Yadav, Andhra under NTR and Chandrababu Naidu have been remarkably riot free. In fact it was the internal power struggles of the Congress that resulted in the most horrific riots in Hyderabad and that is the party which is in power at the center now thanks to the CPIM. The point I am making here is not that we are worse off under the Congress than under the BJP. But that the dynamics of communal violence is too complex to be reduced to party banners and rhetorics.

In my view, the big political challenge before the left in India today is that there are all sorts of crazy dynamics unfolding in places which are beyond the pale of the state to resolve. Thus one possibility is that progressive parliamentary political parties which are a product of that state have to work hard to stretch their imaginations to play a critical role in non-state domains. But that calls for a radical reengineering of the party organizational structures themselves. This has happened to a miniscule extent in Kerala although it ended up in intense power struggles within the party.

The other possibility is that the unrest and turmoil in the non-state domain will find its own leadership and goals and at least for the moment, it will appear to be completely incoherent. Now it will appear to bring together Medha and Mamata and Rajnath Singh and Dipankar Bhattacharya, and then again it could bring together a group of tribals and NGOs and a parochial movement for a smaller state in another region.

Mrs. Gandhi’s invoked the external foe, precisely at the moment when the first rumblings of the centrifugal forces from the regions began to be heard in Indian politics and responded to it by declaring external emergency and soon followed it up with declaration of the internal emergency. Now as these regional centrifugal forces get entangled in the global dynamics, there will be more such inventions of external and internal emergencies and the state responses will be much more complicated. History, it seems, has a way of repeating itself, but will the second time be a mere farce or a worse tragedy than the first time, depends entirely on us.

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