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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 43 New Delhi October 13, 2018

Trajectories of Change in the World’s Largest Democracy: India, 2004-2019

Monday 15 October 2018


by Alf Gunvald Nilsen

At the time of writing, India is headed for what is likely to be a fateful general election. Will the neoliberal and Hindu nationalist Modi regime secure another five years in office, or will they be ousted by the electorate in favour of an alternative, and most likely a Congress-led coalition government? What is in store for the Indian polity and Indian society if the BJP secures another win? And conversely, what strategic questions will a progressive counter-hegemonic project have to confront and tackle to offer India’s popular classes an alternative to the cruel optimism of an elusive achhe din, a majoritarian cultural nationalism, and an ever-more aggressive authoritarianism?

To answer these questions, it is useful to consider key trajectories of change in India over the past one-and-a-half decade. In particular, it is necessary to think carefully about what distinguishes the hegemonic project of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which ruled India from 2004 to 2014, from that of the incumbent Modi regime. On the economic front, of course, there is little to distinguish the two regimes from each other: the BJP has mostly followed in the footsteps of the Congress by prioritising the continuing pursuit and consolidation of neoliberalism. However, where the UPA regime attempted to build popular consent for its rule by combining economic policies that advanced and consolidated the market logic with rights-based legislation that enshrined new civil liberties and socio-economic entitlements, the Modi regime has fused its neoliberal policy with coercive and majoritarian initiatives. This can be thought of as a transition from inclusive neoliberalism to authoritarian populism as the prevailing hegemonic project in the Indian polity.

However, the Modi regime is not the unstoppable juggernaut it is often made out to be by media pundits. On the contrary, there are increasingly apparent cracks and fissures in its hegemonic project, which make Modi’s re-election in 2019 less likely than what it is common to assume. For progressive forces in the Indian republic today, this means that it will be necessary to build a new popular radicalism that brings together multiple social forces in an effort to defend and deepen the country’s democracy.

The UPA Regime as Inclusive Neoliberalism

In the lead-up to the general elections of 2004, it was evident that senior Congress leaders were keenly aware that the party had alienated much of its popular support base—especially in rural India—as a result of spearheading the neoliberal restructuring of the economy since the early 1990s. The political resurgence of the Congress was perceived by its High Command to hinge in large part on the party’s ability to reconcile neoliberal accumulation strategies with new forms of legitimation that could appeal to those groups who languished in the underbelly of the Indian boom. Following the general elections of 2004, the UPA regime pursued such a strategy through what political scientist Sanjay Ruparelia refers to as India’s new rights agenda. This agenda established civil liberties and socioeconomic entitlements as legally enforceable rights. The new rights-based legislation includes the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) and the Forest Rights Act of 2006, the Right to Education Act of 2009, and, most recently, the Right to Food Act of 2013 and the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act of 2013.

The laws that have been put in place emerged from the Common Minimum Programme that the UPA centred its election campaign on, and which emphasised the need to achieve growth with a human face. Significantly, each of these laws responded—to greater or lesser extent—to social movement projects that had crystallised in India during the 1990s. The processes of policy-making that yielded these laws incorporated social movement activists and civil society actors in crucial ways. Moreover, the drafting of several key laws was propelled by the direct involvement of key movement activists and shaped in significant ways by extra-parliamentary mobilisations and campaigns.

Commentators have argued that laws such as the NREGA and the RTI Act have the potential to establish new standards for social citizenship in India. There is undoubtedly a grain of truth in such assessments, but it is equally important to be aware of the role that rights-based legis-lation played in enabling the Congress to construct a new hegemonic project that remained essentially neoliberal. In terms of economic policy, the UPA did not break in any significant way with the process of neoliberalisation that Manmohan Singh had initially set in train during his tenure as the Finance Minister in the early 1990s; on the contrary, it sought in many ways to add impetus to the globalisation of the Indian economy. Moreover, although activists were significantly involved in shaping policy-making, the law gained salience as a terrain of mobilisation in a conjuncture when many of the social movements that emerged in India in the 1970s and 1980s were declining.

Consequently, rights-based legislation is arguably best understood as being a component of what might be called a strategy of inclusive neoliberalism—that is, a hegemonic project that couples market-oriented accumulation strategies with limited social policy interventions in order to ward off resistance from below. The objective of pursuing such a strategy, in turn, was to facilitate the long-term advance of neoliberalisation in a global context where India was rapidly emerging as a serious contender for the status of the world’s fastest growing economy. Generally speaking, this was done by offering limited legal concessions to some of the long-standing demands of progressive social movements in order to curtail more radical forms of mobilisation. In addition, the laws themselves have proven to often channel oppositional collective action towards bureaucratised activism and procedural citizenship. Finally, of course, it should not be forgotten that the UPA regime, especially in its second term, cracked down on several social movements that were critical of its developmental agenda. In other words, whereas the introduction of rights-based legislation was far from inconsequential from the point of view of progressive social movements, for the Congress elite, its purpose was clearly to serve as a vehicle that would enable the party to win popular support for a hegemonic project that ultimately attempted to deepen the neoliberalisation of the Indian economy.

The Modi Regime as Authoritarian Populism

This strategy, however, ultimately failed as public opinion shifted massively in favour of Modi’s fusion of market liberalism and Hindu nationalism. Indeed, the 2014 elections were nothing short of a landslide: as scholars such as Achin Vanaik and Suhas Palshikar have pointed out, the BJP emerged as the central reference point of the Indian polity.

How can we explain this scenario? The first thing to note is that the standard Right-wing argument that the UPA regime failed to bring about growth is demonstrably false—growth rates were consistently high during both UPA periods. There was, however, a slowdown in growth during the last three years of the UPA, and combined with food price inflation and major corruption scandals, this contributed to popular discontent. However, more importantly, economic growth never translated into job opportunities; on the contrary, unemployment continued to rise during the decade that the UPA ruled India. Ultimately, this made it possible for the BJP to extend its sway down-ward in the Indian socio-economic pyramid in a way that helped secure its massive electoral victory: the BJP also secured 34 per cent of the OBC vote, 24 per cent of the Dalit vote, and 38 per cent of the Adivasi vote.

But just how did a party—that initially emerged at the helm of middle class and upper- caste reaction to lower caste and Dalit assertion in the 1980s—manage to secure electoral support from the popular classes that the Congress had attempted to appeal to through its strategy of inclusive neoliberalism? This question is best answered by considering the BJP’s hegemonic project as a case of what the British cultural theorist Stuart Hall referred to as authoritarian populism—that is, a form of conservative politics that constructs a contradiction between the common people and elites, which is then used to justify the imposition of repressive measures by the state.

Authoritarian populism under Modi is constructed, first of all, around a narrative of development that seeks to address frustrated subaltern aspirations in the context of jobless growth while opposing dynastic elitism and promulgating individual entrepreneurialism. A key strategy in this regard was to foster a narrative and an image of Modi as a man of development—and to build a national cross-class and cross-caste consensus around the imperative of giving power to a strong man who could make headway where others had failed. The developmental narrative was linked to a putative anti-elitism that pivots on opposition to the dynastic politics of the Congress party. Modi’s objective of achieving a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ (Congress-free India) was portrayed as a quest to rid India of a privileged and corrupt elite that was out of touch with the ground realities of the country’s common people. Anti-elitism, in turn, is linked to anti-collectivism: Modi celebrates individual entrepreneurialism in opposition to the rights-based welfare approach of the UPA.

To some commentators, the focus on growth, good governance, and development has amounted to a move away from the Hindu communalism that had been so central to the BJP’s expansion from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, and which culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Such views, however, fail to grasp the ways in which the market-oriented developmental narrative is linked to a majoritarian cultural nationalism and an ever-more aggressive authoritarianism.

Hindutva was in no way entirely absent from the BJP campaign trail in 2013-2014, and after the elections Hindu nationalism has become more and more central to the party’s agenda. A majoritarian cultural politics has crystallised around issues such as cow protection, the communal policing of inter-religious love and of women’s sexuality, the rewriting of school textbooks to bring them in line with Hindutva historiography, and the promotion of religious reconversion among Muslims and Christians. Hate speech has proliferated, and majoritarian rhetoric is clearly linked to communal violence against Muslims and other marginal groups. In this way, through rhetoric and through violence, the Modi regime constructs the ominous Other that authoritarian populism depends on in order to frame a unitary conception of the nation and national culture. These majoritarian constructions of the Other have been joined at the hip with systematic attacks on political dissenters—activists, public intellectuals, students, and journalists, for example—who are accused of being “anti-national” and subjected to harass-ment, silencing, arrests, and murderous violence.

Counterhegemony: 2019 and Beyond

There are good reasons, however, not to end our reflections on the contemporary Indian polity on a pessimistic note. Despite the landslide victory in 2014 and several electoral successes in key Indian States, the BJP has undoubtedly encountered both setbacks and challenges during the last two years.

The setbacks have occurred in the electoral arena—for example, in the Karnataka State elections and in several important by-elections, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The challenges have arisen outside the parliamentary sphere—in new popular movements that contest Modi’s legitimacy. Key among these are the new forms of Dalit radicalism that have erupted in Gujarat and other parts of the Hindi heartland, as well as the recent agitations by small and marginal farmers, landless labourers and Adivasis in response to the deepening of the crisis in India’s countryside. It is not unlikely that these convulsions signal that the BJP is losing some of its hold over disadvantaged groups that were swayed by its promises of development in the 2014 elections.

If authoritarian populism as a hegemonic project has its fragilities, the immediate question is how to consolidate scattered forms of resis-tance in a counterhegemonic project. As Achin Vanaik has pointed out, India’s liberal democracy may be weak and brutalised but it is never-theless meaningful and real. Its defence must therefore also be one of the cornerstones of any collective oppositional project in the current conjuncture. Yet, at the same time, such a project should not limit itself only to a defensive rallying around formal democracy. On the contrary, progressive forces must aspire to couple a defence of democracy with deliberate efforts to deepen it. And a starting point for a counter-hegemonic struggle for democratic deepening in India today might be precisely the rights agenda that was introduced by the UPA, and which has come under attack from the Modi regime. As much as rights-based legislation was put in place to enable the UPA to engineer a compro-mise equilibrium between subaltern and dominant groups in order to stabilise the long-term advance of neoliberalisation, this does not constitute an inherent limit to the oppositional potential of rights-based legislation. Laws are fundamentally indeterminate and can be given radical new meanings through counterhegemonic mobilisation from below.

If such a counterhegemonic project is to advance, it will be necessary to bring together multiple social forces across a complex political landscape. It is hard to imagine that this can happen without some kind of revival of a third front in electoral politics that is able to genuinely fuse demands for redistribution and recognition in a meaningful way—but to bring about such a fusion will be a challenging task. The track record of India’s silent revolution clearly shows that the transformative potential of a politics based exclusively on caste comes up against the constraint of basic class antagonisms. However, at the same time, Left forces will have to reckon —and reckon very seriously—with the fact that that caste-based discrimination and political underrepresentation constitute distinct manifes-tations of social injustice. The most promising route towards such a politics arguably runs through and beyond the all-too entrenched barriers between political parties and social movements that have tended to seriously hamper the development of oppositional collective action from below. Indeed, the current articulation of progressive opposition to Modi’s authoritarian populism already defies such ossified demarcations—with the emergence of a new Dalit-Bahujan oriented Left-wing politics in Gujarat being a case in point.

Alf Gunvald Nilsen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Global Development and Planning at the University of Agder. He is the author of Dispossession and Resistence in India: The River and the Rage (Routledge, 2018) and Adivasis and the State: Subalternity and Citizenship in India’s Bhil Heartland (Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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