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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015

The Answer is Blowing in the Wind

Friday 17 April 2015, by Badri Raina

This is the day that India’s greatest modern-day social thinker was born. Aided by a fratern-ity of able and well-meaning compatriots, he gave us Constitutional Democracy, and a vision of how much rot needed to be sorted out if our political freedom was to translate into genuine equality.

The struggles for that equality have seen many ups and downs. Clearly, at the point of writing, the downs overwhelm even those whose commitment and energy on hehalf of equity and justice remain firm and unshaken. So what would he have said had he been amog us? That the night is always darkest before the dawn, believe me. Babasaheb, we salute you and your life’s work; if you could do what you did in circumstances that not only seemed but were impossible, what excuse have we.

So, first the Party Congress, and then the Congress Party. As the CPI-M sets out this momentous day to forge a new understanding of its failures and of thezeitgeist in which it is now called upon to give the proles of the Republic a new reason to hope, many among even such Indians who may have turned their face on their own progressive impulses and convictions will be watching with interest. Chiefly, they will be wondering whethe the Party Congress will be business as usual or a memorable departure from failed perceptions and practices, and a repudiation of narrow, intra-party divisions and regional interests in favour of a bold all-India praxis. That will determine both its new organisational arrangements and its political strategies in the years leading upto the next general elections. The Party will have a choice of either remaining pure in theory and electorally insignificant, or imaginative in grasping the yield that may be expected from concrete situations by either going it alone or teaming up with other forces that may not be pristine but of important relative worth. Many will be asking the question as to whether this largest of India’s Communist Parties—and one of the world’s largest as well—will or will not attempt not just a tactical unity of all Left parties but the possibility that a United Communist Party of India may be bequeathed to the peasants and workers of India (organised and unorganised) who clearly do not deserve to be divided into several outfits without any real basis in ideological contentions such as genuinely confronted different sections of the Left up until the split of 1964. And, whether the Party and a united Left will or will not think the moment pressing enough to either refuse or forge a People’s Front against a rampaging assault from the Rightwing bordering on fascism. A very practical consideration will also be that the new leadership of the Party is not handicapped by an inability to conduct discourse in Hindustani, given that much of the transformative work will be crucially centred along India’s “Hindi Belt”.

Let it be said that a crucial ideological source of the Left’s praxis during the tenure of the Modi regime will be whether the Left sets itself the task of fighting capitalism or neo-liberal economic policies. Clearly, if it opts for the former, the Left will need to fight its own battles with a rather minimal template of success. If it targets the latter, it may be able to find allies that may not think capitalism eradicable but will want to ameliorate its current brutal face to be brought in line with a more sanguine Nehruvian middle path, one that does not seem out of favour any more in many Latin American countries who have over the last decade or so successfully turned back the naked imperialist domination of American Capital. Altogether, the Party Congress of India’s biggest Communist Party—which will be over by the time this appears in print—will have given us answers that may encourage hope or return us to a ”correct line” that may again have little purchase outside of the Party Office. Will the Party continue to participate in India’s multiparty democracy as a sufferance, or will it think it important to strike electoral victories as a necessary step to doing anything further? Fingers crossed.

And, what of the mother of all parties—the Congress Party? Is there reason to believe that it now understands the sources of its predicament—yes and no. Once sagaciously perched on a clear vision of a Welfarist State, it chose under pressue both of its own moneybags and of international capital to dump that vision and record, to forget that half-a-century after political independence, India was still a very poor country wherein some eighty per cent people lived below sub-Saharan subsistence conditions, and to reorient the production and distribution of national wealth to suit the ownership of a minority that wished impatiently to belong to a global elite rather than continue to be embarrassed by the poor at home. All in pursuit of the “trickle-down” thesis, except for the fact that, as we write, some seventyfive per cent of India’s Gross Domestic Product is now in private hands who, don’t we know, think every drop that trickles a wasted opportunity to own more. The fact that the Congress Party’s most sensitive and responsive political mind and leader, Sonia Gandhi, saw this happening and forced path-breaking rights-based entitlements for the common people seemed to have come as a package too little too late, its implementation ravaged at point after point by administrative insensitivity and malfeasance. And as the party has repeatedly said, such successes as actually happened at the level of policy—many path-breaking—never seemed to reach the hoi polloi as the communication apparatus of the party, chiefly its workers on the ground, seemed to take the gratitude of the people for granted—a collective swagger, it seems, infused by a decade of rule at the Centre. It must be said that the decisive ideological failure of the party has been in developing cold feet in trusting the governance of its social schemes to the Panchayats which it brought into mandatory existence once as a revolutionary measure.

One of the most consequential failures of the Party, let if be said, was—perhaps even continues to be—its unwillingness or inability to see the social conjuncture its policies since 1990 had yielded, namely, a deadly mix of rampaging acquisitiveness and a corresponding cultural shrinkage to the Right. Hindutva has indeed come to be the legitimating Puritanism of India’s new middle classes who now see their enhanced status in property -acquisition and exponential purchasing power as a legitimate and deserved inequality portending their salvation both here and hereafter. Thus, in contrast to the old feudal aristocracy who were often rather shamefaced about flaunting wealth, India’s post-globalisation noveau riche see such flaunting as a projection of their ordained Election.

How then may the Congress Party turn a corner? A prospect far from easy. We believe the precondition of such a turn around must lie first in its bold acknowledgement of culpability in having dumped that unique, all-embracing acceptability it had legitimately earned among the diverse spectrum of India’s preponderant majority. It must need to revive that covenant with ruthless determination, and sideline those among its leadership whose allegiance, whatever they may say in public, lies essentially with the moneybags, or else persuade them to change course. This renewal ought to be located in relentless mass contact first among its own neglected foot soldiers, and then among the labouring of all communities and castes who have turned away from its complicity with exploiting classes. As in China, its economic thinking must entail giving legitimate space to private investment and enterprise but always ensuring that the control of Capital remains in public hands. If all that means lower intensities of wealth production, so be it, so long as it also means a fairer deal to those that actually produce the wealth—a polity whose productive capacities indeed must be steadily enhanced through assured education, health care and sanitary living conditions. All of that aimed at enhancing domestic purchasing power to a point where manufacture is encouraged to build for a sustaining domestic market. Does that mean autarky? No. Not if China is not autarkic.

Then there are the nigglingly practical questions, currently almost the exclusive subject of tv debates where it concerns the Congress Party, namely, the Rahul conundrum. There are legitimate aspirations among many young Congressmen and women for a more open and democratic culture of leadership choice within the many echelons of the party structure. No question that this needs to happen, and comprehensively. It is a good idea to let Rahul Gandhi take up this project on a detailed and long-term basis and not to thwart such efforts. But, the “concrete analysis of concrete situations” dictates that if the Congress is to lead a coalitional effort to defeat the current Rightwing assault, it needs to be led by someone who has both seen and done this sort of thing before, and whose acceptability both among the masses and among diverse political formations opposed to the fascicisation of the state and governance remains high. Whether she likes it or not, Sonia Gandhi will need to persuade herself that she alone fits that bill. She must also acknowledge to herself the further fact that if some Congress leaders are careful to project Rahul Gandhi, it is more than possible that they do so thinking to be consonant with what they imagine to be Sonia Gandhi’s preference. Whereas from most sources within the party it is clear that an overwhelming majority see the best chance both for party and national revival in Sonia Gandhi’s unimpeded leadership.

Indeed, were such revival not to be thought a pressing concern, and were the prospects for the republic not so deleterious under the current regime, the Congress may have given itself the luxury of a long-term steady lope to recovery. Unfortunat-ely, such is not the case. Thus inner-party renewal and reconstitution and electoral sustainibilty must go hand in hand without getting to work at cross purposes. There needs to be little doubt that in all the coming state and other elections, the party will need to play a decisive role in bringing on board political forces that do see the calamities beyond their own prospects. And talk to whoever you will, no Congress leader has the same honourable credibility in that arena than Sonia Gandhi whose political acumen continues to be highly regarded as well. Indeed, as one young Congress leader said the other day in an exclusive interview, Sonia Gandhi gave life to the party at a time when she was barely groomed; and now that she is a veteran leader and ideologue and available to the party and nation, it seems without point to look elsewhere to meet a situation which is even more grim than it was in 2004. More than a bet that most in the Left and among the Janata Parivar would be of the same opinion,

“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S.Eliot, “mixing memory and desire.” Never very fond of that poet, I must concede that he speaks for many in India now whose memories of an older idealism are strong and whose desire to see that idealism revived even stronger.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.