India’s Move to the Right

Pothik Ghosh

This is not a practical joke. Something really outrageous has happened. The overwhelming victory of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 15th Lok Sabha elections has meant an unqualified triumph for the sangh parivar’s ideological agenda. Of course, if one were to look for the emergence of an electoral centre consonant with such an ideological triumph – as the one symbolised by the Congress in the first two-and-a-half decades of Independence – one would find nothing to substantiate this. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is, with regard to the UPA, the second-largest coalition by far. One cannot, therefore, be faulted for dismissing the above claim as a product of an exaggeratedly apocalyptic imagination that loves to poop a glorious party.

But such, alas, is the irony of the situation that the BJP no longer needs to emerge as the leader of Parliament to culminate the sangh’s programme of establishing a majoritarian national political centre. And wasn’t this the RSS’s cherished dream after all, something that prevented it from seriously pursuing the project of backing a political party of its own for the first few decades of its inception? Well, that dream has come true when the sangh parivar least expected it, needless to say, despite the RSS and its political face.

No sense can, however, be discerned in this seemingly quixotic explanation unless the victory of liberalism, which the Congress’s thumping electoral win signifies, is located in its current historical moment. Otherwise, it would imply an uncritical acceptance of certain pre-given notions of liberalism. The Congress today, thanks to its current electoral revival as a strong centre of Indian polity, is similar to its post-Independence predecessor only in appearance. The consensus that has driven its current re-emergence is significantly and qualitatively different from the one that underpinned its earlier Nehruvian-liberal edition, and which collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions through the ’60s and’70s to unfold into Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and the Jayaprakash Narayan-led anti-Congress movement.

Development is the new shibboleth of the current Congress consensus and the liberal political centre it has purportedly propped up. And this new avatar of development has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in shaping the social content of this consensus, even as it leaves its political idiom of liberal-secular citizenship intact. The aggressively competitive political-economic ethos of this neo-liberal form of development – which is geared towards socio-economic restructuring through alienation of people from their assets that are their means of life and/or livelihood – has come to increasingly determine what this constitutionally-ordained idea of liberal-secular citizenship actually amounts to in the everyday lives of individuals.

This process of total commodification of hitherto non-commodified or semi-commodified sectors of society and economy through coercive politico-economic and legislative practices – which Marx termed primitive accumulation of capital and which American economic-geographer David Harvey has redefined for our late capitalist times as “accumulation by dispossession” – will continue to shape the inner socio-political contours of the ideology of liberalism with renewed political legitimacy. The secular idea of a culturally neutral citizenship will, in such circumstances, become even more contingent on who gains from, and therefore naturally backs, this kind of development.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that competitive identity politics, which has always driven electoral competition in Indian society but which has never received overt sanction in its liberal-democratic polity, has of late been turning into a politically legitimate impulse of neo-liberal development that thrives on and encourages competitive dispossession of some socio-political groups by others. For, how else does one explain myriad incidents of land acquisition, effected through legislative changes and other repressive means by various state and central governments that enjoy the support of certain configurations of socio-economic and cultural identities which gain from such development?

That, however, is not the only way in which competitive dispossession, which is the dominant spirit of the reigning neo-liberal orthodoxy, has played out in this country. More indirect and legislatively less ‘legitimate’ means, not directly attributable to governments and their developmental agenda, have also been in evidence. The impulse of certain sections of the Hindu middle class of Gujarat to loot and destroy Muslim businesses, with a little more than tacit support from the BJP-led state government, during the 2002 post-Godhra carnage can, for instance, be located in socio-political, economic and cultural anxieties fostered by an intensely competitive ethos of a preponderantly expropriative political economy of neo-liberal development.

Clearly, citizenship, and its entitlements, remain as culturally neutral and secular as before but the access to development that enables the acquisition of such liberal-secular credentials is paved, now more legitimately than ever, with the bloody bricks of socio-economic and cultural cleansing of some identities by others.

That even the struggles of those socio-cultural identities, which have been at the receiving end of such dehumanising development, have failed to transcend the logic of competition and expropriation intrinsic to this neo-liberal developmental programme, proves there has been no political questioning of that model of development. Their struggles, whenever they have had the opportunity to move beyond defensive positioning, have ended up being contests where the subalterns have vied with the elite social groups to corner the privilege the latter enjoy. Those struggles, even as they have been directed at privileged and socially dominant groups and identities, have failed to focus on the neo-liberal logic of development that such elite groups both embody and are a function of.

This failure of subaltern groups to transform the competitive nature of their challenge – which is how such challenges are bound to be posed to begin with – into a critique of the current political-economic system and its model of development has ended up shattering their initial anti-elite solidarity, evident right through the JP movement up to the Mandal period and the ascendancy of the V P Singh-led National Front government in 1989. That has led to the degeneration of their politics into a regressive battle of social domination among themselves. The ideological expression of such degeneration is, for instance, evident in recent popular cultural histories written by various Dalit and backward-caste intellectuals of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the service of their politics of assertion. Not only do those historical accounts – some of which have been collected by social historian Badri Narayan into a book called Upekshit Samudayon ka Atm Itihas (Self Histories of Marginalised Peoples) – not question the idea of structuring society around a strong centre, they seek to build such centres to assert their caste dignity through their supremacist historiographies. Worse, they do so by often enough adopting the traditional terms and idioms of the exclusivist and oppressive Brahminical social discourse.

The decline in politico-ideological independence or electoral fortunes of various lower-caste, minority and regional political forces – which also includes the CPI(M)-led Left Front – in this Lok Sabha election is merely a manifestation of this troubling competitive identity politics within the subaltern camp. That has led to the gravitation of some of those outfits, and the ‘natural’ support base of the others, towards either the Congress or the BJP. A strong bipolar tendency in Indian polity, which the decline of such third forces portends, is nothing but a disturbing sign of consolidation of the neo-liberal consensus.

The current ascendancy of the Congress, given that it coincides with the emergence of such a strong bipolar political tendency, is especially disturbing. Both the real and imagined victims of neo-liberal development under this new Congress-led dispensation would, in the absence of any strong current of independent subaltern politics, come to rely on the BJP to politically articulate their competitive quest for development. That, needless to say, would prompt the BJP to pose the idea of liberal-secular citizenship, and the question of access to expropriative neo-liberal development that frames this idea, in consonance with the competitive aspirations of social groups it would seek to represent. That the ideology the BJP would deploy at the grassroots to electorally mobilise its potential support base for this battle for modern development and secular citizenship would be cultural nationalism is a no-brainer. In fact, the shift in BJP’s political-ideological tack, post Babri, anticipated precisely this peculiar sort of rightward movement in Indian polity. Since the late nineties the party stopped posing the Muslim as a dangerous alien to the Hindu community of this country, and has instead taken to mounting a zealous defence of a culturally deracinated but majoritarian national identity, and a form of modern development that produces it, from the depredations of groups that it emphasises has originated from within certain “backward” cultural identities (jihad-backing Muslims or Maoist-supporting Dalit Christians of Orissa). It has obfuscated the real causes of socio-economic dispossession and politico-cultural disenfranchisement that underpin such phenomena. That the BJP has forged the secular/pseudo-secular distinction, appropriating the first category for itself while ascribing the second to its opponents, shows there need exist no contradiction between liberal theories and revanchist political practices today.

The electoral pressures that such politics of the BJP would inevitably generate for the Congress and other non-BJP forces in a system of representative democracy, especially one tending towards bipolarity, cannot be overstated. That would, among other things, bolster the ongoing process of socio-ideological homogenisation of policymaking and lawmaking, even as normative, party-based differences are belaboured ad nauseum. The eerie similarity in legislative and policy rhetoric across the political spectrum – especially vis-à-vis questions of development, “jihadi” terror and Maoist insurgency – shows how the BJP-sangh’s ideological project, with more than a little facilitation from the global neo-liberal programme and its local secular backers, has indeed been universalised.

In such a situation – where the current neo-liberal form of development is constitutive of a majoritarian conception of modern political identity that gets projected as democratic — politics conducted in terms of the traditional secular-communal divide is, at best, useless and, at worst, perilously misleading.

What India would see more and more now is aggressively competitive identity politics at the grassroots, often culminating in civil violence, and the winners of such amoral competition rising up to be legitimately welcomed by a normatively liberal-secular political centre as ‘authentic’ and ‘enterprising’ citizens of the nation. This is, doubtless, the epoch when fascism and liberalism not only come to each other’s rescue, as Gramsci had observed, in their respective moments of regulatory crises, but co-exist in harmonious complementarity in the same temporal moment at the social and political levels respectively.

It is nobody’s case that the Congress and the liberal Indian polity were innocent about the ways of identity politics in their post-Independence heyday. Identity management, through competitive and differential distribution of patronage at the societal grassroots by a liberal polity, was the hallmark of the Nehruvian Indian National Congress — which was supported by the Brahmin-Muslim-Harijan combine in UP and Bihar, and the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim coalition in Gujarat — till at least the advent of Emergency. But all grassroots Congress leaders, who emerged in legislative and parliamentary politics by dint of their victory in such identity struggles and the concomitant management of such intra-party competition, were ultimately tamed and chastened by the liberal-secular ethos of the party and polity. In other words, the identity loyalty of a particular leader that had launched him from the grassroots to the national polity was perforce sacrificed by him/her at the altar of liberal-secularism – still organic to the relatively more democratic culture of a pre-Independence, anti-colonial Congress – while participating in the business of policymaking and legislation. Clearly, competitive identity politics, and the differential distribution of patronage it entails, existed as the hypocritical and illegitimate unconscious of the Nehruvian Congress and its post-Independence polity. And it was precisely this contradiction – ineluctable in political liberalism, thanks to the political-economy of capitalism from which it emanates – that led to the collapse of the original Congress consensus.

Now, of course, it is a different story. The liberal ideas of culturally neutral citizenship and secularism are empty concepts into which any social content, no matter how illiberal, undemocratic or retrograde, can be poured and legitimised. Identity-based patronage politics, which had either been eyed with contempt or concealed shamefacedly by mainstream political parties, all of which practiced it, is now getting sanctified as inclusion (obviously differential and unequal) by its blessed contact with the neo-liberal dogma of competitive development. The competitiveness that is intrinsic to such politics is no longer an ugly and reactionary secret that liberal politics needs hide in its messy social closets. Given that globally acceptable neo-liberal development is driven by something similar, it is openly celebrated. Such competitiveness constitutes the developmental dynamic that shapes the internal configurations and contours of the liberal form. Unlike in the period of the Nehruvian Congress, caste- and community-based leaders, irrespective of their party affiliations, are not tamed by the liberal idea of secular citizenship. Instead, they fundamentally redefine that idea, with regard to policies and laws, in terms of the interests of the social groups they represent.

‘Democratic’ competition, in the absence of an impulse to socio-ideologically contest the status quo, ends up strengthening the system and its twin-logic of political domination and economic expropriation. That is particularly true in this neo-liberal epoch, which is determined by the operational primacy of finance capital. Before the onset of the neo-liberal era, a subaltern struggle, even if it was waged in the register of competitive identity politics, still had some fighting chance to posit a critique of the political economy of capitalism. Such competition for a slice of the developmental pie, by virtue of being directed at the state, automatically targeted the real sector of the economy that this state regulated. And considering that the real sector can respond more effectively to the autonomous needs of a society the less determined it is by the exigencies of international finance capital, the chances that competitive identity politics of subaltern groups in pre-neo-liberal times could democratise the socio-economic system by seeking to democratise the state and polity were much more than today.

Similar identity-based competitive struggles for a share in neo-liberal development have served to deepen systemic inequality and lack of democracy the more they have succeeded. That is because the real economy of India, ever since it started opening up to the world, has come to be increasingly subordinated to the speculative and profit-seeking demands of international finance capital. The intensified financialisation of the Indian economy this has resulted in has ensured the country’s real sector responds, not what members of Indian society would democratically and autonomously aspire to and demand, but what would yield profits in sectors on which international finance capital has placed its heaviest bets. As a consequence, the entire world of demand-and-supply, and the socio-economic realm of work and leisure constituted by it, has become totally administered, sometimes through repressive force but mostly through ideological production of consent. Development happens to be the mantra of that operation. In such a scenario, any social or political movement that seeks a share of such development cannot deepen democracy, not even objectively. It can only keep consolidating the system and its intrinsically undemocratic and inegalitarian political economy.

The Left – including its CPI(M)-led parliamentary bloc, and its various semi- and extra-parliamentary groups – has completely failed to recognise this peculiar impact of neo-liberalism and financialisation on Indian polity. Not surprisingly, they have continued to press ahead with their time-worn paradigms of politics. Subjective intervention by various Left groups, when it occurs through their pro-active engagement with the disaffections and aspirations of various dispossessed and disempowered socio-economic and cultural groups, can transform the competitive identitarian idiom of their struggles into a fundamental critique of the neo-liberal model of development. Only that, when it happens, can possibly yield, a real counter-hegemonic politics of resistance and restore to the Indian Left its lost political relevance.

Of course, the rejection of the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s authoritarianism by the electorates of Kerala, and particularly West Bengal, which brought its Lok Sabha tally down from 60 in 2004 to 24 this time around, must be hailed, especially since it has also failed to pose an alternative political-economic model of development to the current neo-liberal one, which it has all but normatively accepted. Yet, what must not be lost sight of is the LF’s political degeneration has been challenged and supplanted, not by tendencies from within the progressive tradition of working class politics, but by the Trinmool Congress-Congress coalition, which will be an integral part of the next Union government. In such circumstances, the electoral decimation of the CPI(M)-led Stalinist Left has only accelerated and strengthened Indian polity’s right-ward move.

Such a working-class challenge to the CPI(M) and its front is still desperately awaited to wipe out whatever remains of this degenerate Left, so that revolutionary politics can once again reclaim the trust of the broader toiling masses and mobilise them for an anti-neo-liberal, anti-capitalist battle. But for such a politics to emerge, genuine working-class forces, many of whom are still part of the LF constituents, need to be clear-sighted about what actually went wrong with the CPI(M)-led Left Front. The reactive anti-CPI(M) position, which many Left groups and individuals hold, would be of little help on that score.

We must, for starters, understand that the LF’s attempt to aggregate various anti-Congress, anti-BJP forces in the run-up to the 15th Lok Sabha polls, contrary to what the neo-liberal spinmeisters of our mainstream media have been contending, was not opportunist per se. The challenge, no matter how transient, posed by some caste and regional parties against the two principal political protagonists in question is actually a reflection of the disaffection of social identities that have been rendered provisionally subaltern, vis-à-vis the more privileged social groups patronised by those two parties. Considering that those privileged groups represent socio-economic and cultural domination – which the neo-liberal developmental agenda engendered by a political system hegemonised by the Congress and the BJP has created – any competitive challenge posed to them and their two parties by the provisional subalterns and their outfits is, to begin with, also an immanent and implicit critique of the hegemony of the entire system, and the competitive and expropriative political-economic logic of development that constitutes it. Such implicit critique posits the possibility of producing a rupture in the given neo-liberal conjuncture and thereby effect a complete social transformation.

However, if the immanence of this critique is not recognised and it is not consciously expressed by the movements that pose them, it ceases being the first unavoidable step towards counter-hegemonic politics, and ends up consolidating the hegemonic logic of competition, domination and monopolistic centre-building. The LF’s failure to engage with such implicit critiques so that they can be taken to their logical anti-systemic denouement, has always been responsible for delivering one or the other of these anti-Congress, anti-BJP outfits to either the Congress-led UPA or the BJP-led NDA as a client or junior partner, depending upon the pragmatic calculus of immediate interests and benefits such forces embody. It is this failure of the LF that has always rendered all its attempts to forge an anti-Congress, anti-BJP front opportunistic. And the failure stems from the LF’s fatally inverted mode of politics. Its tactics of sewing up such a third front would be electorally brilliant only if it was preceded by serious struggles that engaged with the disaffection of the subaltern support bases of anti-Congress, anti-BJP political forces and enabled them to articulate them in an anti-systemic and critical idiom of social and political transformation. Such an engagement would, as a matter of fact, make such front-building politically redundant for the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s political advance.

The LF, however, seems obsessed with the absurd idea of driving social change through electoral politics and alliance-building for votes. And that, very clearly, is a symptom of its social-democratic malaise, which it contracted nearly three decades ago when it decided to give up the strong immunity of working-class struggles. It is this social-democratic degeneration that has prevented the LF to envision development as something that needs to fundamentally transform society and its constitutive political-economic logic by re-imagining the hierarchical and alienating configurations of power that are both envisaged and embodied by the modern state in all its different forms, including the liberal-democratic.

The LF’s social-democratic cretinism — constitutive of the process of institutionalisation of the various working-class movements from which it emerged — is manifest not only in the growing authoritarianism with which its constituent parties and state governments are run, but also in its excessive reliance on a broad-based system of dispensing patronage to keep those governments going. Such wide, cadre-based distribution of political patronage is an inevitable regression of the social-democratic imagination. One that envisages social progress and the well-being of the working people and the poor essentially as a question of distributive justice, which it believes is achievable by merely regulating equitable distribution of a given basket of socio-economic entitlements. In such a ‘Leftist’ scheme there is no place for interventionist and transformative politics because the state, which is the instrument of such efficient regulation and equitable redistribution, is treated as a passive and neutral entity that only needs to be controlled.

The upholders of such social-democratic Leftism make no attempt, as a consequence, to rethink and transform the structure of the modern state through a process of constant critique and struggle directed against the political economy that makes such an alienated and coercive institution of power possible. From there to neo-liberalism it is, as we have seen, merely one small step. And what use can working-class politics possibly have for such ‘Leftists’ or their ‘Leftism’?