Mainstream, VOL LII No 26, June 21, 2014
Left and Liberals Failed to Address Modi’s Constituencies
Saturday 21 June 2014
by Biswajit Roy
Now that Narendra Modi has become the Prime Minister of India, it’s high time for some honest introspection by the Left and liberals of all hues on our collective failure to offer even a semblance of resistance to the corporate class and its media’s poll-time mythmaking around him. Fellow commentators like Nirmalangshu Mukherjee, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Mukul Dube have rightly pointed out that Modi has come to power with just 31 per cent of polled votes (21 per cent of the electorate, 14 per cent of the population). But this is hardly a solace for what has happened.
I am yet to come across any insight into his success to entice overwhelming sections of the urban and semi-urban youth and the burgeo-ning middle class by virtually promising them an El Dorado in the name of development. In caste paradigms too, the huge transfer of OBC and Dalit as well as tribal votes to the Modified BJP, apart from his accomplishment in consolidating the upper-caste Hindu votes in the Hindi heartland States and elsewhere, also demands rigorous scrutiny. No doubt, Modi has harvested the hope generated by harping on the ‘aspirations’ of young India, their digital-era dreams and increasingly global networking.
The outreach of Modi’s mammoth propaganda machine to the increasing army of Internet and mobile users as well as interactive social media has been unmatched. He has linked his corporate-backed growth agendas of massive and rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and digitalisation to job generation for the educated and semi-educated youth who comprise more than 60 per cent of our total population. These wannabe youth and their middle class parents have become Modi’s natural constituency.
Gone are the decades of the sixties and seventies when the anti-establishment angst of the educated middle class youth had rocked India (and the world) that became germane to the Naxalite movement and later, the Nav Nirman movement. The economic and political scenarios have changed drastically since then. One fallout is the great disconnect between the aspirations today’s middle class youth and the resistances against neo-liberal plunders by tribals, workers, farmers, marginal communities and the struggle for survival of the poorest of the poor. The scourges of unemployment and job insecurities are still there while corruption and inflation have registered a phenomenal upswing. But the economy is now compara-tively more able to absorb a good number of youth, mainly in the market-dominated service sector and unorganised sectors, while alluring a tiny section of the educated to the globally-connected IT sector and high-tech white-colour jobs.
In the meantime, criminalisation of politics has been extended to the corporate use of the lumpenised youth, who work as musclemen for land sharks, recovery agents for banks and sundry dirty jobs for tycoons that defuses their anger against the power elites and turns them against the Aam Aadmi. The general food crisis and other aspects of sustenance blues are no more the fact of daily life for the upwardly mobile section of the middle class while its stakes in the present polity have increased substantially. Hatred against the political class is greater than before but its cutting edge has been lost, both because of the absence of ideological motivation for fundamental changes, widespread cynicism against idealism and the socio-economic cushion still available.
Modi has also played the pied piper to the fast emerging ‘new middle class’ in big cities and numerous small towns, which is not poor per se but yet to secure a firm foothold in the regular middle class milieu as the BJP manifesto had articulated. After having cultivated the same social strata in Gujarat for long, Modi appears to have managed to expand his support base among these people in other parts of the country. It has fetched a double dividend for him since many of these aspiring people belong to the OBCs. The anti-Muslim Gujarat pogrom in 2002 had revealed the Sangh Parivar’s penetration among the OBCs, Dalits and tribals and its success in saffronising a good section of them. The tribal fronts of the Sangh Parivar, including the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram, have been active among the tribals across the country fomenting hatred against the Christian tribals and Muslims.
According to the National Election Study, conducted by the CSDS-Lokniti team, the BJP has increased its OBC vote-share by 12 points in the last five years, 22 per cent in 2009 to 34 per cent in 2014. Further, It has polled 42 per cent of the lower OBC votes as against 30 per cent of the upper OBCs. Since OBCs count for around 41 per cent of the national population, a thorough study into their voting patterns in the latest general election and the reasons behind their preferences for the BJP would shed light on Modi’s success in social engineering. The same study also revealed that the BJP gained a 14 per cent hike in the overall Hindu support, from 22 per cent in 2009 to 36 per cent in 2014 while its upper-caste vote share has shot up by 18 per cent, from 29 per cent in 2009 to 47 per cent this time. Another interesting finding is that the BJP’s share of Muslim votes has gone up to eight per cent at the national level while the Congress and its allies’ share of Muslim votes remained at 38 per cent since 2009.
The New Challenges
In this backdrop, not only the corrupt and discredited Congress but also the confused and compromised Left as well as dispirited liberals, both those who are close to the Congress and its critics together have failed to address Modi’s development constituencies. The task to demystify Modi’s growth fundamentalism and its corollary trickle-down theory remained unattended despite worldwide empirical evidences against the fairy-tale of free market and its automatic distribution of income and wealth. This has contributed in extending and consolidating support for him in addition to his success in communal polarisation in some key States and partially in Bengal too.
Now that Modi is in saddle, how do the Left—both parliamentary and non-parliamentary (that is revolutionary)—plan to win back the middle class youth who have apparently converted to the Modi-mantra? How to reconnect to their different layers as well as bridge the gap between their aspirations and that of the basic masses? How to negotiate with the pro-development popular constituency of Modi, who is now being hailed as the harbinger of Reaganomics or Thatcherite politics in India? How to connect the urbanised youth, at least make them sensitive to various people’s movements against the grabbing of jal-jangal-zameen, evictions and dispossessions for private industries, mining, dams, nuclear or hydel power stations, highways or highrises and malls—in short, the neo-liberal development agenda? How to make them concerned about the attacks on labour rights, civil rights and livelihood rights of millions?
Should we dump the middle class youth and their parents as self-serving betrayers to the disadvantaged majority or wait for another great depression, another bubble burst a la American sub-prime crisis or accumulation of anger a la Greece and Brazil? Or, the Left, both parliamentary and radical, would examine their hypocritical, barren and unimaginative res-ponses to neoliberalism and ponder over the new strategies and tactics for the broadest possible social-political mobilisation against it?
Is it not the ripe time to make distinct strategies to fight for ground-level demands for development in rural and semi-urban areas— schools-colleges, hospitals, better roads and transport, water and power supply, telecomm-unication facilities, in short, bijli-pani-sadak issues while opposing corporate-touted elitist develop-ment? Of course, there are areas of convergences and divergences between the interests of the middle class and basic masses, which we need to deal deftly. The government-corporate nexus often succeeds in selling their agendas to the middle class and even to the poor by divisive propaganda and politics. They turn the rest of the population hostile to movements against land acquisition, evictions and inundation for dams and power plants by accusing the project-affected communities as the obstacles to development for greater societal interests.
Many movements, from the anti-nuclear plant movement in Kudankulam to the anti-eviction agitations in Kolkata have suffered isolation and hostility because of this dubious politics. Should it not trouble the anti-neoliberal forces that we need to crack the siege and reach out to the opponent’s constituency though counter-cam-paigns and inclusive demands? The old rhetoric of uniting the middle class and poor won’t suffice. Some new paradigms and imaginative practices must be evolved for forging an alliance of the 99 per cent against the ruling oligarchy.
So it is time to reorient the organised labour, farmer as well as student movements in tune with the changed times. We need to refresh the old Left agendas and gel with the new Left concerns that include environment, genders, consumers as well as indigenous and marginal communities, both rural and urban. While Modi has taken a leaf out of the World Bank’s book by promising ‘minimum government and maxi-mum governance’ to a corruption-ravaged society, the Left’s rhetoric against privatisation and downsizing of the government hardly evokes support except among affected workers and employees. Experiences since the anti-ESMA campaign in the eighties have revealed that the huge gulf between the workers-employees in organised sectors and workers in the unor-ganised sectors, in addition to consumers has helped the governments to suppress the rights of the first section.
The struggle against the LPG (Liberalisation-Privatisation-Globalisation) regime can gain a moral and social ground if the Left take up the anti-corruption, public accountability and service-related issues. But in contrast to the neoliberal anti-state sector campaign, the Left’s point of departure should be the radical democratic ideals of popular control or institutionalised vigilance/supervision on all resources under the government and private sector and bureaucracy through participatory decision-making at all levels by the common stake-holders, including workers, farmers and other project-affected communities, as well as consumers. The right to recall elected represen-tatives at all levels and the notion of public accountability should cover not only the politicians in power and Babudom but also the corporates since they enjoy public funding including bank loans and government concessions.
CPM’s Hollow Politics
The traditional Left, led by the CPM, will consider the abovementioned ideas utopian or immature since they have been the votary of a centralised state and top-down development in the name of socialism and have never really supported the ideas of bottom-up radical democracy or socialist democracy. The CPM-led first Left Front Government’s initiative for panchayati raj in Bengal was hailed as proof of its commitment to decentralisation of power. But in the next three decades, the PRIs have been turned into an extension of the ruling party apparatus leaving little room for genuine rural democracy through mass participation.
With the neoliberal economy being rapidly introduced in the nineties, the CPM, after initial hiccups, has pursued a policy of ‘engagement with the market forces in the era of globalisation’ in Bengal that finally led to Singur and Nandigram. At the same time, it mouthed its anti-neoliberal rhetoric at the Centre while following a different trajectory in Kerala. This doublespeak has cost it dearly both in Bengal and beyond. The Marxist notion of a progressive bourgeoisie, that was relevant in another epoch, became handy for the Bengal CPM leadership and their backers at the party centre to court domestic and foreign capital while branding the farmers as reactionary.
Nevertheless, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s claims to generate jobs for the youth failed to convince the target group while alienating the farmers. In the process, the LF lost power to Mamata Banerjee who has succeeded in fishing in troubled waters. Despite tall talk of learning from the Latin American Bolivarian experiences, the CPM could not provide any alternative to the Gujarat model since its leadership is obsessed with the Chinese model, which is not essentially different from Modi’s roadmap.
Amid the overarching chorus on courting big capital the Marxists have hemmed and hawed around claiming a niche but ended in playing second fiddle to the Congress and BJP’s develop-mental discourses, losing its residual ideological appeal. Bhattacharjee welcomed American capital but opposed the Indo-US nuke deal and strategic ties. In fact, the CPM and its allies had not only lost the opportunity to popularise anti-US sentiments in the wake of the murderous Gas disaster in the Union Carbide unit in Bhopal way back in 1984 but also exposed the hollowness of its anti-imperialist rhetoric after it invited Dow Chemicals, which now owns Carbide, and other American behemoths to invest in Bhattacharjee’s dream project of a chemical hub at the fag of the LF rule.
It’s another matter that old anti-US slogans do not appeal to the youth anymore for several reasons including the fall of the Soviet Union and the apparent success of Chinese capitalism in a one-party state. Also, the old-era imperialist economy had neither outsourced jobs that would have created certain catchments in the colony for its rule nor pumped in funds in the capital market to give it an illusive buoyancy like today’s global neoliberal regime. But neither did we benefit from any in-depth understanding of the new global economy nor did we learn about any imaginative counter-strategies from AKG Bhavan or Alimuddin Street.
It’s an irony of history that the self-proclaimed crusaders against Capital had betrayed every effort to run closed or sick industries by workers themselves—Kamani Tube to Kanoria Jute Mill. Bengal’s CPM-led LF Government did not mind hapless workers from thousands of closed and sick mills to run from pillar to post, be beggars or commit suicide and leave their families ruined. The party-government facilitated illegal transfer of prime factory land to real-estate promoters but opposed efforts for workers’ self-manage-ment or cooperatives calling it impractical and reformist under a capitalist state.
The party of the permanently postponed revolution in its effort to keep the Capital in good humour kept a tight leash on the trade unions, allowed fly-by-night operators who masqueraded as redeemers of sunset industries to rob workers of their dues and pocket the sale proceeds of prime industrial land. The workers’ independent initiatives were nipped in the bud for long. In their effort to adjust to the neo-liberal economy and stick to power, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Co. moved Rightward by imitating Modi to draw investment. But they could not outmatch Modi in placating the predatory moneybags. Consequently, they lost their rural base to Mamata who played more Left than them. In the general election this time, Modi played the Hindi-Hindu card so well in Bengal that lotus has bloomed in Asansol and made some other industrial towns with large Hindi-speaking population quite fertile for the Sangh Parivar.
Even its continued hemorrhage has failed to wake up the CPM mandarins. Not only have they failed to counter the neoliberal myth but also lost the morale to do so. They have refused to examine the fundamentals of their develop-mental discourse, except muttering some cautions against forcible land takeover. They have not bothered to reorient the party and its mass organisations and develop relations with various people’s movements in order to form-ulate united class and mass politics against neoliberal onslaughts. Instead, they have been hostile to grassroots movements and resorted to state repression to suppress when they were in power.
After Gujarat 2002, anti-Hindutva campaig-ners saw the Bengal CPM playing a fence-sitter fearing a Hindu backlash in the polls. The party’s secular credentials took a further drubbing after Bhattacharjee’s ‘warm’ relation-ship with L.K. Advani and his echoing of the BJP’s original ironman’s charge that madrasas in border areas had become the hub of anti-national activities. The results this time have proved that Mamata continues to consolidate minority votes in her favour since 2011, while Modi ate into the CPM’s anti-Mamata and anti-Modi constituencies. In Kerala, the CPM managed to better its performance against the Congress-led UDF because overall polarisation was not that acute. So the BJP drew nil there unlike its impressive inroads in Bengal.
Expelled CPM veteran Abdur Rezzak Mollah has pointed out that not only Muslims but also a large section of the Hindu OBCs have deserted the CPM. Failing to expand in the Hindi heartland despite harbouring such a wish since 1974, the party willy-nilly tried to adjust itself to the surge of identity politics by forming an internal committee to accommodate minority concerns. It also spoke of understanding Ambedkar and post-Mandal dynamics. But the exercise did not go beyond tailing Mayawati and Mulayam, also Laloo and Paswan earlier who together stand for the travesty of Ambedkar, Lohia and JP’s insights in the Indian social-political reality.
In Bengal, State-level OBC Commission findings in post-Mandal years were suppressed, and a half-hearted effort for reservations for Muslim OBCs was initiated after the Sachar Committee reportedly divulged the poor state of Muslims in Bengal too. It was too little, too late. Neither the principles of class struggle nor social justice informed CPM practices but a partisan clientelism based on political allegiance and control. Thrown out of power, it has lost its distributive leverages now.
Despite the fact that their hackneyed Third Front politics has failed again, the CPM apparatchiks are only busy in Stalinist purges to subdue internal dissenters who are alarmed by the extent of the Left rout and want the leadership to be accountable to ordinary party workers and supporters. The big brother of the Indian Left and its ideological cousins have been pathologically immune from intellectual churning in social sciences and vibes from the ground. The winds of change hardly make way through their armour of democratic centralism, the disciplinary device to gag dissenters and demand for openness. Unless shaken to the roots by the party cadres, the CPM leadership is not likely to leave their beaten path in the near future.
The Shallow Non-CPM Left
The non-CPM Left, particularly of Naxalite varieties, are not an inspiring lot, both ideologically and organisationally. They have not bothered to undertake any sustained efforts for understanding the new economy and its impact on its core constituencies as well as its more multitudinous victims. No worthwhile ideo-political churning, debates and dialogues, based on experiences of localised, isolated and sporadic anti-neoliberal resistances, have taken place in order to evolve some cohesive alternative development paradigms and positive united actions.
For example, most of them did not question the basic premises of the statist socio-economic progress that stipulates accumulation of capital for heavy industrialisation and the pros and cons of the economy of scale since the Bolshevik and Chinese models. The problematic of such accumulation without any colony to exploit had plagued Lenin, Mao and Castro. Questions are now being raised increasingly regarding the trajectory of the Eurocentric idea of history and civilisation, progress and development and its impact on Marxist traditions. But rethinking Marxism in the light of old and new socialist experiences has hardly occurred to any CPI-ML groups except some fringe elements.
Other aspects of developmentalism too have been ignored at the theoretical level in the excitement for the short-lived and street-smart oppositional rhetoric. All of them have virtually followed the CPM-style politics and organi-sational practices in varied degrees that turned them into competitive closed circles with their mass fronts remaining mere tutelages of tiny outfits. Their endless ideological nitpicking often masks their aspirations to grow at the cost of the other fellow-travellers, a la the CPM. While amoeba-like perpetual self-division has become a crucial condition for their existence, sometimes one or other group calls for anti-neoliberal unity but only at its terms. No wonder that these caricatures of Marxist overlords could not build a facade of united struggle, electoral or otherwise, before Modi’s march to power.
The poll results show that the CPI-ML (Liberation) continues to lose its ground on both accounts along with the CPI and CPM in Bihar, its stronghold earlier. Some fellow-travellers fondly remember the party’s efforts to gather a broadbased platform of democratic and patriotic forces in the eighties, in the form of the Indian People’s Front, before the neoliberal economy took its wings. But we have not heard of any rekindling of such effort to coordinate heterogeneous grassroots, class and mass movements sans remote control by the party. Other smaller CPI-ML groups and offshoots, which are confined to a few pockets of activities across the country, contested a few seats but could not yield better in the latest electoral battle, primarily because of their inability to forge alliances with likeminded forces.
Some others advocated NOTA and thundered against all parliamentary parties ignoring the provincial and regional configurations against the BJP and Congress. NOTA is a significant recognition of the voters’ right to reject all candidates and their disenchantment with the political parties. Nevertheless, judging by the 1.1 per cent NOTA votes out of the total votes polled this time and the public responses to NOTA campaigns, the Indian voters’ disillusion-ment with bourgeois democracy is mere wishful thinking of the self-styled vanguards.
Maoists, the Perpetual Outsiders
The largest Naxalite party, the CPI (Maoist), which follows a strategic poll boycott line, has done almost nothing to stop the Hindutva forces in the red zones. Sumanta Banerjee has rightly pointed this out in his recent open letter to Ganapati (frontierweekly.com, posted on May 9). Instead, the party’s lower rank-and-file has become prone to make deals with mining and land mafias in the region. The BJP has bagged 10 out of 11 seats in Chhattisgarh, including in Maoist-dominated Bastar, this time. In Jharkhand too, where the Maoists have a strong presence, the BJP swept the poll by taking 12 out of 14 seats.
The party’s armed activities have definitely played some role in arresting the government-corporate plan for extending the mining areas, particularly in Chhattisgarh. The idea of open mass movements, supported by armed militias wherever needed, is not new in the Naxalite movement. But the Maoist party’s militarism-obsessed politics, reckless violence, hostility to non-armed grassroots initiatives in addition to competitive state-Maoist bloodbath and terror have stymied the potentials for a genuine and strong mass movement of the tribal people affected by neo-liberal plunders. If there was such a movement, it could have impacted both the BJP and Congress prospects in the polls in the region and percolated a message outside.
The advent of Modi could not unsettle the supporters of those perpetual outsiders to the body politic and puritan believers in ideological grandstanding. For some of their supporters, it’s a ‘moment for clarity’. As Saroj Giri has observed (Sanhati.com): “the vote is good enough for the Rightwing or fascists to come and capture power or to eliminate the social and political gap. The vote works for the Right, not for the Left. This, if you like, was a key insight of the Naxalbari movement and that is why they called for boycotting elections. Thanks to this, perhaps the Maoist movement is the single large Left movement in the country today. Given its extra-parliamentary nature, it is like the reserve army of Left revolutionaries, beyond the contingency of electoral defeat or victory, beyond the long arm of a Modi!”
As if what has been at stake is an Indian revolution or, at least, the possibility of a Left Government at the Centre. As if victory of the extreme Rightwing or corporate-religious fascist nexus has no immediate bearing on the survival and resistance of the classes and communities, which are facing the worst neo-liberal onslaught. As if Maoists can run parallel to the Modified polity by being blissfully oblivious to the electoral outcome. As if Maoists will escape the anxieties and contingencies of its fallout simply because of its poll boycott line. As if we are at the threshold of an Indian February or November 1917, Giri alluded to Lenin’s moment of clarity that had dawned on the latter in a radically different situation almost a century back.
“Hence we cannot simply fight to get a Congress or the Left or seculars back in government. Let us also not harangue with the big media and big corporates and complain about their pro-Modi stance. Let us accept that the present democratic order is inherently skewed against any possibility of real social transformation—or else one only indulges in an untruth,” Giri commented asking us not to be perturbed over Modi’s victory. His call for reinventing the idea of India from the Left perspective is welcome. But Marxism cannot be further removed from the Indian version of historical reductionism, which reduces ups and downs in bourgeois politics into distracting mayas.
Our enlightened radicals in their wisdom may have stayed away from such traps. But the traps have been inescapable for guerrillas too. Despite their official poll boycott, in the past Maoists have played second fiddle to the electoral politics of Chandrababu, YSR, Laloo and Mamata and lost ground miserably to them. Will the latest poll outcome trigger any fundamental rethinking in the Maoist rank-and-file? Better to keep one’s fingers crossed.
Soni Sori, the woman teacher who had suffered gruesome torture in police and jail custody for years as a suspected Maoist conduit, contested at Bastar as an AAP candidate. But she polled almost half of the Maoist-inspired NOTA votes, which was also higher than the CPI share. Sori as well as Medha Patkar, S.P. Udaykumar of Kudankulam and a few other leaders of various people’s movements lost their sheen in the eyes of the radicals after they had contested the polls as AAP nominees. The high priests of ideological purity of the CPM and Naxalite varieties had shrugged off the AAP as dangerous reformists ready to waylay revolutionaries with its agenda for clean capitalism in lieu of crony capitalism. So Sori-Patkar-Udaykumar’s defeat did not matter for the champions of class struggle or protracted people’s war.
AAP Thunder Ended in a Whimper
The AAP’s anti-corruption crusade and practices towards participatory democracy had initially succeeded in addressing the middle class and youth concerns while attracting some sections of the urban poor too. But euphoria over its impressive electoral debut in Delhi dazzled the leadership so much that they mistook the National Capital Region for India. Arvind Kejriwal’s government resigned only after 49 days in order to spread its wings across the country. Instead of consolidating their imme-diate support base, Kejriwal and his comrades aped the Congress’ High Command culture and Modi’s personality cult.
After the party has fallen flat on its face, despite its success in bagging four seats in Punjab, they now admit that the resignation was a mistake. It has resulted in the party’s defeat in all the seven seats in Delhi that have gone to the BJP’s kitty. It is hardly a solace that the AAP vote-share has gone up slightly in the State. Team Kejriwal’s effort to resurrect the government with the help from the Congress has landed them in a new quandary. It will take a long time to regain the faith that the people of Delhi and the rest of the land had reposed in them.
Some commentators like Aditya Nigam have pointed out that ‘the big change is that the long winter of deadening consensus on neoliberalism has been broken’ with the ‘struggles against land acquisition’. Like many others outside the cocooned Left, the advent of the AAP also raised his spirit, which he said had broken the ‘political deadlock’.
My initial appreciation of the AAP phenome-non notwithstanding, experience cautions against putting all our eggs in one basket. Despite the continued intra-Left fights and disunity among liberals, radical democrats, including the AAP and neo-Left of the red and green hues, one can only hope against all hope that they would go for some honest introspection and take efforts for broadest possible mass mobilisation against aggressive neoliberalism under Modi. This alone can save them and salvage the setback.
The author is a Kolkata-based journalist.