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Republic Resilient


Much as this writer and many millions the world-over wish this would happen, it appears unlikely for now that Capitalism’s slayer is brewing within its own productive womb. That “inevitability” seems not so inevitable. The historical transformation in productive practices from factory to call centre seems to yield crony aspirants to its fruits rather than ideological antagonists fated to sound its knell. When economies crash, as in America and Europe, the culprits—banks, financial institutions—are the first to receive succour from the tax dollars of the very people whom they have looted in the first place. Wall Streets, country after country, do not want governments to mess with business, but when businesses blow, governments must be on hand to refurbish private coffers with public moneys. When “occupy” movements happen as a result of all that, police forces must be ready and willing to bash such things into loyal submission. This is not to belittle the many courageous resistance movements that have been and are in evidence the world over, but to voice a perception about a macro-historical unlikelihood.

The formidable Marx and some intelligent sections of his progeny have analysed for us with abiding truth how this monster, Capitalism, came about and how it works and mutates but, as in the case of cancer, our armouries keep falling frustratingly short at its decisive decimation. Whether the fault lies in the world outside us or within us, or both will no doubt continue to be a subject of learned debate, leading us ever more knowledgeably, and with charming contention, to visions of the rose garden that is always out there but always already absent. Between the idea and the execution keeps falling the shadow as “animal spirits” keep bouncing back to swallow our erect and erudite historical wit.

Yet, speaking of the Indian republic, it is not as though beyond the seminars and the scholarship there is little that the “Left” may do. Take it or leave it, we may acknowledge first that a certain inevitability  attaches to India’s Constitution. Speculatively, I am unable to think that were the Left in India to obtain an absolute majority of numbers in the Lok Sabha ever, it could forthwith proceed to replace the Liberal text and ideology, and concomitant detailed stipulations of that document with another that did away with such things as right to life, freedom of expression, equality before the law, right to association and peaceful protest, of citizens who may, in class terms, be designated enemies of the people,  or be able smoothly to plough back all privatised  wealth into publicly owned institutions, and so forth.

I dare say that such a Left-wing government could survive only if it desisted from seeking to refashion the Constitution, notable ameliorative amendments excepted. Necessarily, its operations, even as they sought to redistribute the wealth of the nation in accordance, for example, with Article 39 of the Constitution, and return the ownership of land, forest wealth, other natural resources to the people who effectively work those resources and live among them, reorder investment priorities, reclaim lost public controls to further a people-friendly state, launch progressive social, cultural, educational policies in democratic concurrence with self-serving community institutions, it could not forseeably transform a multi-party democracy into a monochromatic political order, or alter in any consequential way the established principles of electoral politics, other than seeking to install a system of proportional representation in place of the unrepresentative first-past-the-post dispensation whose gross  inequities have come to light in the just concluded general elections as never before.

In short, within what now seem fairly established conditions of Indian democracy, inevitability would hit such a Left-wing government the moment it aspired to dismantling the Constitution under whose aegis it would have come to power. The liquidation of that inevitability would require a revolution of an enormous totality—such as seems ever present in theory but ever absent in reality, even in such states and nations that are a hundredth the size of India and invitingly homogeneous in linguistic and cultural profile in contrast to the unequalled diversities of India. In that context, the example of a Bolivia must seem woefully inadequate to our situation.

So here is what I think (cross my heart and hope to die): what I stipulate to be true for a prospective Left-wing dispensation is likely to be true for a Right-wing dispensation as well, even if led by Narendra Modi and driven by the RSS. I am willing to prognosticate that India’s new government will run into the very inevitability that I have outlined were it to attempt any frontal track one dismantling of the existant constitutional sanctities. It would perhaps have been tempted to rework and redraft the injunction to “secularism” enshrined in the Preamble in order to bring the concept into alignment with the “nationalist” belief that India’s secularism is essentially a feature of its Hinduness, but cannot do so since a hard-to-overthrow Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court has determined “Secularism” to be one of the “Basic Features” of the Constitution, and decreed the same to be beyond the power of Parliament to amend. The same goes for Article 25 that grants religious freedoms to religious minorities. In track one Hindutva aspirations, this government may only seek to make moves on such things as instituting a uniform civil code, or banning cow slaughter, both of which issues find mention as desirables in the Preamble. Or on the issue of Article 370 by drawing support from the stipulation that it was adopted by the Constitution-makers only as a “temporary” provision. An issue, though, on which it would once again run into unmanageable legal and political obstacles. The Modisarkar might well try to negotiate winning the building of a Ram Mandir at Ayodhya with Muslim parties to the “dispute”, but may not once again manage to see this through beyond using the issue in the electoral campaigns to the UP Assembly elections.

The Hindutva predilections of the new government then may be expected to find more doable expression in track two operations—restyling  institutions outside those that, once again, it cannot restyle (such as the judiciary, the legislatures, the electoral system, the media.) As once before, we may expect a restaffing of educational institutions; and text books—especially in History, the Social Sciences, and the Humanities generally—to be objects of a “Hindu-nationalist” attention. Authors, scholars, teachers, and books may come in for proscription and harrassment (remember Wendy Doniger?) at the hands both of a friendly prosecutorial establishment and vigilante enforcers of the majoritarian impulse, and dissenting voices may be duly intimidated (the Gyanpeeth winning writer, U.R. Anantha-murthy already being a case in point). Even as the corporates will have a free run towards a profit-maximising modernity driven by ever new appropriations and applications of techno-logy, modernist “aberrations” among women may be sought to be kept in check by custodians of “proper” female behaviour. Indeed we may witness an aggressive preponderance of the political use of community pujas and ever new and forcefully visible religious ceremonies and assertions aimed to create an ethos of a Hindutva-suffusing Bharat, with Dalit bashings and communal conflagarations thrown in for emphasis. But, to return to my hypothesis, it is much in doubt that beyond these sorts of familiar practice any radical-fascist systemic assaults on the constitutional regime or on the polity can be in the offing. For example, it is hardly to be envisaged, especially after Gujarat 2002, that pogroms may be unleashed as silent state policy on Muslim Indians as on the Jewish people in Europe, or Ahmedis, Christians, or Hindus in Pakistan. India’s Muslims, numbering about 150 million, are not that sort of minority. Their footprint in the nation’s history and contemporary life is of a magnitude and richness lacking which the idea of India cannot but be a truncated travesty. The edifying fact that Muslim elites and numerous social vanguards have now for some years assumed their stake in India’s democratic institutions, processes, and injunctions with full conviction and participation strengthens Indian democracy in exceptional ways, and draws towards them the solidarity of the overriding mass of secular Hindus. It is just as well to remind ourselves as we  despair that the absolute majority of the BJP in Parliament is based on the lowest ever share of the popular vote behind such a majority of seats. Indeed, the vagaries of the vote-seat mismatch in this election offer a paradigm of mind-bogglingly unrepresentative irrationality. (See “Issues in Electoral Arithmetic”, edit., The Hindu, May 27, 2014, and the CSDS post-poll electoral survey.) If the fact that the BJP polled only nine per cent of the Muslim vote and only eight per cent of the Christian vote bespeaks the extent of majoritarian consolidation behind the party’s victory, it also simultaneously underscores the long-term untenability of its representative credentials nationally, its enhanced demographic spread notwithstanding. Just as the electoral outcome also ruefully brings home to us the deleterious consequences of the reckless divisiveness among the secular political formations.

But consider this: there is already something of great interest happening among some Right-wing opinion-makers, scribes, and scholars who were forthright votaries of a Modi Government. Tactically silent throughout the campaign on its open, unprecedented and decisive chaperoning by the RSS, these important pro-Modi voices are now admonishing that the RSS not be allowed to become, as one says, the “10 Janpath” of the Modi Government (odiously inaccurate as that analogy is: 10 janpath has been the residence of the elected head of the Indian National Congress and of the previous UPA Government, and an elected Member of Parliament to boot; the RSS has never had either electoral or constitutional legitimacy). Others voice the same sentiment on behalf of, predictably, that other great sponsor of the Modi candidacy, namely, the corporate lobby; they clearly sought a Right-wing regime but minus any Hindutva hocus pocus such as only divides the polity, creates social tensions, and debilitates the free and peaceful dominance of market fundamentalism. (See my “The Modi Whirlwind”, Mainstream, May 17, 2014, for an anticipation of these sorts of contradictions.) One may add a caveat here: the one time that the corporates do have a use for demonstrative religiosity is when it can be deployed to divert mass attention from crunching livelihood concerns and organised protest movements thereof—true to a time-tested covenant between Capital and organised religion worldwide. But, if the corporates came to be upset with the Manmohan Singh Government for succumbing to socialist welfarism, they may be disillusioned with the Modisarkar likewise sooner than later if it messes up a straightforward and single-minded market fundamentalism with needless genuflexions to the irritating Hindutva agenda.

Nor, if I may push this tactless complacence further, may we expect any declaration of war against Pakistan, sabre-rattling notwithstanding, unless of course something foolish be attempted by that troubled country in defiance of good sense and of the well-being of people on either side. A major catch may be announced from time to time as did the previous UPA Government, although with far greater fanfare and aplomb.

Which is not to say that the RSS will forego this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to push for the implementation of some of its key “nationalist” goals. Indeed, even as we write, a controversy has broken out on national media around a statement made by a young, new BJP Minister elected from Jammu to the effect that repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution which grants “Special Status” to the State of Jammu & Kashmir is under consideration of the new government. Legally, such abrogation would need the reconvening of the State Constituent Assembly which had given concurrence to adoption of the Article as integral to the negotiations on Accession of the state to India; and politically the move to repeal the Article is tantamount to what could turn out to be a terminal blow to the trust that the Kashmiris placed in India at the time. The Chief Minister of J &K has already countered with the warning that such a move would lead to the separation of the State from India. In the context of my discussion and hypothesis, this would be a test case: if the Modi Government actually were to go ahead with this agenda of abrogation and force it on the State, regardless of the consequence, I would have been proved grievously wrong. If not, my main stipulation about constitutional inevitability would stand vindicated.

It ought to be recalled that whereas all princely states had also passed “merger” resolutions subsequent to signing the Accession, Jammu and Kashmir state did not; and the background to Article 370 related to the acknowledgement by all parties, including Sardar Patel, of the desirability to wait for the indeterminacy of Kashmir’s status to be resolved.

Time will tell.

To return to where I began: what, in the meanwhile, may India’s Leftist political forces do? One, it would be helpful if they recognised the dimensions of the political shift we are witness to, and the dangers of such a shift going unchallenged, if they felt a new imperative to put an end to fake internecine inter-party bickerings often driven by leadership egos rather than ideological differences of any great consequence, and resolved to achieve Left organisational unity. That done, it would be time to recognise that a “People First” agenda as opposed to Modi’s corporate-centric “India First” slogan would require a concerted and sustained struggle on two equally important and intermeshed fronts, namely, preserving the secular substance and unity of state and polity, and mounting challenges to the political economy of post-globalisation market fundamentalism. Third, since these struggles would have to be fought within the authorisations of the constitutional regime and against great odds, given India’s new government and changed demographic profile, the new united Left would do well to reach out to all secular democratic forces, persuading them through tireless ideological and social effort of the need to join the good fight on both fronts with conviction and without party-specific hang-ups. Sections within the Congress would need to pursue within their organisation the argument for the imperative need for a return to a “People First”. Left-of-Centre politics, since their own globalisation-friendly, Washington-Consensus-driven economic policies over the last two decades or more have, in the first place, been responsible both for their disconnect from India’s still immiserated masses, and for yielding a class of Indians who now wish to have as little to do with issues that bear mortally on the daily survival—not to speak of quality of life—of countless millions of citizens whom privatisation, market fundamentalism, jobless growth and cultural aggressions consign to ever greater inequality and marginalisation. That would imply that the laudable regime of enforceable rights legislated by the previous government, even if late in their day, did not remain an adjunct to an otherwise corporate-friendly governance but came to be the central concerns of the state. The Congress would need to turn its back on Wall Street and the World Bank and rediscover Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Azad, and determine to undo many of its own sins. The Congress would do well to remind itself that the rate of fall in poverty levels under Nehru still remains to be equalled.

Needless to say that the brutal opposition that such a reorientation of state ideology would surely evoke—something of which a confused Congress caught napping in the headlights, as it were, tasted in the campaign just over—would need to be met through herculean work among the people 365 days a year, as well as met head-on with fearless and patient conviction in media outlets and sundry public fora. Given that the new government is hardly likely to unleash a crash-consumer-prices onslaught, or bury corruption (except make cunning noises about fruits of corruption stashed abroad rather than in the country), or create millions of new jobs as if by fiat, given the class character of and financial patronage behind it, a rethought praxis on behalf of the Congress would have a future. Remembering that the party must first rethink its organisational traditions and hang-ups in revolutionary ways, deconstructing shibboleths, devolving initiatives and political power to its grassroots workers as chief stake-holders,  freeing its state and district-level satraps to build the party and meet challenges in their areas of work without fear of saying the “wrong” thing or need to look over their shoulders for approval, indeed making Panchayati Raj the fulcrum of its commitment to a people-driven democracy, developing a vernacular-friendly mode of interaction with media outlets in preference to distant and khandanisuperciliousness, acquiring polemical skills rooted in the richness of homework, and, most of all, internalise that sort of concern for the underdog of any description which Congress people often cite as the USP of their one hundred and twenty-nine year-old history, but one that now indeed seems just that—history. Congressmen and women must ask themselves the question: is there often abject dependence on the Gandhi-Nehru family an imposition on them, or, what is more likely, an attribute of their own failure at forging bold, democratic unities among themselves, unities that may issue from a principled understanding of and adherence to the admirable contributions of the Congress as a movement to the building of the Republic rather than from the diktats of a “high command.” Congress people could usefully learn from the BJP how to be a cohesive political force despite diverse personal ambitions and diverse nuances in policy preference. Even as Congress leaderships need to recognise the energetic political virtues of hot contentions expressed with vigour and in good faith.

Indeed, all of that applies equally to India’s two old Left organisations whose party programmes and press statements seem to have come to stand in for the work that the people of India rightfully may expect of them the year-round. Their attachment to niche areas of influence and prospects of state power therein ought to come in for drastic review if the Left has any ambition or feels any call to rightfully speak without partisan or selective emphasis for the oppressed masses at large in whose name we in the Left set up shop. It is time also that the principle of party hegemony and holy centralism are revisited, given India’s concrete conditions, learning to appreciate and emulate if good things are thought and done by other political forces that occupy the vast Indian political space without feeling falsely superior or inwardly belittled. And welcoming sincere and intelligent criticisms most of all from Left cadres who habitually seem trained only to mouth the oracle, regardless of their own best perceptions on issues, and to pooh-pooh that which comes from political voices on the outside. Most of all, the Left must give serious thought to whether its participation in parliamentary democracy is still only tactical or indeed strategic. For much of its theoretical ambivalence and inconsistency in political action still seems to hinge on its refusal honestly to confront that question. Needless to say that clarity on such issues cannot but have concomitant implications for the Left’s quality of equation with other organised political forces in India. Often in my experience the “correctness” of its mental mappings seems largely ineffectual in influencing the flux and dynamics on the ground, leading to missed opportunities and depleted strength. Speaking of which, for example, I have yet not ceased to rue my own insignificant support to the Left’s decision to withdraw from the UPA Government in protest against the Nuclear Deal with America, although, in fairness to myself, I had also made the point that had the Left agreed to be part of that government, the protest could have been restricted to withdrawing its Ministers rather than withdrawing support. How different things might have then turned out to be for the Republic! Not to speak of what I along with many others, including the late Jyoti Basu himself, still think of as the single most gruesome mistake made by the CPI-M, namely, disallowing Jyoti Babu to accept the offer of Prime Minister-ship of India—a blunder emanating from a doctrainaire adherence to purity within so unparalled a plurality and mix such as India that may never allow any one purity to lord over it.

To conclude: with the new turn that the balance of political forces has taken in India as a result of the general elections of 2014, the Left and secular-democratic forces may carry on business as usual at terminal peril to themselves and to the hopes and requirements of some seventy per cent of the Indian citizens. The worst and most culpable thing they can do is either to pass the buck or find self-righteously equivocating explanations. If we believe in dialectic, we must accept the reality that the ascendance of the Right has had intimately to do with the failures of the Left. And we must accept that this failure has not been a matter of some ordinary miscalculations, but one rooted in far-reaching inadequacies in the conceptual and pragmatic universe of the Left, not to speak of the Congress.

I have stipulated that we may for now feel secure in the inevitability of the constitutional regime. It is time to say that such inevitability could well become another myth if the secular and egalitarian needs of some seventy per cent of citizens are allowed to go effectively unrepresented on the ground as they have come to be in India’s new Parliament.

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.

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