The Indian elections earlier this year brought some good news to our people. Since 1992 with the destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, to the genocide in Gujarat in 2002, and all the time in between and beyond with the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies and POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), times in India have been marked by a climate of fear, repression, communalism, extreme poverty.
Meanwhile the United States has smiled on these authoritarian policies and politicians, creating new configurations between India and Israel at a time when Palestinian sisters and brothers are facing the most vicious policies at the hands of the Israeli occupation.
Did a mandate for the Congress Party really change much in India? The Congress Party in the 1990â€™s oversaw the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programs with Rajiv Gandhi, while the 1980â€™s brought the days of Emergency, martial law, and the carnage of Sikhs under Indira Gandhiâ€™s iron fist.
So why were fighters for peace and justice in India writing on the importance of the BJP loss? While the Congress has covertly used communal politics throughout its reign with the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act- that in an unsurprising trend had the opposite effect as the name would suggest- to secure vote banks and the genocide of Sikhs, the BJP has been overtly fundamentalist, openly admiring Hitler and Nazi methods of extermination.
The loss of the BJP, as Dolores Chew, President of the South Asian Center in Montreal has written, â€œhas brought has a small window of opportunity. A metaphoric five minutes to make a dent. To provide the opportunity to put into practice the many lessons we have learnt, that unless secularism and real democracy prevail, India is lost.â€
The elections in India brought jubilation for the same reasons that the referendum in Venezuela did. It symbolizes the desire of Third World people to assert their democratic rights. It is the recognition of the wishes and hopes and struggles of the millions. The issue is not the BJP or Congress; in fact the peoples mandate was not necessarily for the Congress. Even in state governments where the Congress had instituted economic reforms, they were overthrown (such as in Karnataka where the Congress lost 10 out of 28 Lok Sabha seats).
The people of India made it clear that their mandate was against communalism and against economic reforms. The voters exposed the falsity and vulgarity of the propaganda of ‘shining India”. It was a vote about issues, issues of those who die everyday in order to live. The issues of thousands of farmers who have committed suicide so that our people awaken from this dream of deceit that holds us hostage. A defeat for the fundamentalists and the profiteers driving millions off their lands is a victory. Any attempt to rebel against empire is a victory.
Arundhati Roy wrote, â€œFor many of us who feel estranged from mainstream politics, there are rare, ephemeral moments of celebration.â€
For those of us on the fringes of mainstream electoral politics, there are rare moments of despair and disbelief. Leaving aside the cynicism of the electoral system, there could not have been a worse result in the US elections.
The issue is not necessarily who won or who lost. In contrast to the serious issues of communalism and poverty during the elections in India, the looming issue presented by both sides was faith, family and the flag. And voters followed suit.
Exit polls indicated that “moral values” was the highest priority for voters, trumping even the economy and terrorism, as if the war on terrorism is not â€œimmoralâ€. Of voters who said moral values was their top issue, 79 percent voted for Bush. The New York Times reported that voters who cited honesty as the most important quality in a candidate broke 2 to 1 in Mr. Bush’s favour.
What do we make of this? Afterall, America has voted. America has voted but can we seriously tell ourselves that it does not matter whom they voted for or what they voted for.
Can we continue to say that the people of America are not accountable for the actions of their government when, by a margin of 3.6 million votes, the people have retroactively and in the future justified the brutal occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and Palestine and the subjugation of the millions under colonial rule?
We thought public opinion was on our side with anti-war demonstrations that drew all of Americaâ€™s dirty history and secrets into the streets. We remembered September 11, 1973 in Chile; September 12, 1977 for Biko in South Africa; September 13, 1971 for the brothers rebelling in Attica Prison, and September 14, 1992 for Somalia. All those moments of resistance became our battleground and our frontier for globalizing our resistance. We thought that it would not be too long before the majority of the American people, crushed by their own governmentâ€™s policies of repression and oppression, would become the our allies against fighting imperialism.
Maybe now we realize that the battle for public opinion has not necessarily been won. Third World people have fought for centuries to kick out the British, Dutch, French colonizers from our lands and territories and minds; and here, in the belly of the beast, the Bush administration has not even been held accountable during an election.
On the one hand, we have to refrain from placing the onus of these results on voters, many of whom are undoubtedly disenfranchised, disempowered, and disillusioned. Mainstream politics will never represent systemic changes or justice for the majority and the Democrats gave people very little to vote for.
One thing we know is that a man who wants more troops in Iraq is not an alternative; he does not even pretend to be the â€˜lesser of two evilsâ€™. In terms of the economy, the ideological difference was also slight. Kerry offered tax cuts for corporations and the balancing of the federal budget by slashing public funding as the centrepieces of his economic policy. Kerry swung even further to the right by accusing Bush of going soft on Iran. John Kerry perpetuated the discourse of hegemony and imperialist aggression.
On the other hand, a part of me aches- the way it would have ached had the BJP won again in India. That this is no longer about ignorance or a covert system of politics. Millions of people have voted for an overtly fundamentalist, fascist and war-mongerer. They have rewarded a man who has killed, plundered, and lied.
In addition, Bush’s Republicans increased their control of Congress, taking three more Senate seats from Democrats and adding five House seats as well. And on a series of ballot measures across the country–bans on gay marriage and an immigrant-bashing referendum in Arizona–the right wing won on virtually all counts.
From all this, two more things become apparent.
One is that much of our own anti-war movement and the â€œEverybody But Bushâ€ camp that supported Kerry uncritically needs to be held accountable. We cannot be co-opted in a debate that is not and has never has been on our terms. Our strength has always been in our numbers, we are in fact a majority; and in the very least, we have to hold power more accountable. Without engaging a debate about whether voting for Kerry is tactical or unethical, those who did vote for Kerry for tactical reasons barely placed any demands on him that would give voice to the subjects of the American empire.
The second is that if Bush and Kerry (coined Bush Lite by many) were perceived as identical on crucial issues of the war on Iraq and domestic issues for immigrants and the poor and working class, how did marginalized communities vote?
Republicans made inroads into the Democrats’ working-class base. According to CNN exit polls, Bush obtained 44 percent of the Latino vote–up from 33 percent in 2000. Some 42 percent of people with incomes of $15,000 to $30,000 backed Bush–as did 49 percent of those earning $30,000 to $50,000. Bush even managed to increase his African American vote to 11 percent–and the union-busting president got the votes of 36 percent of union members.
Part of this phenomenon can be attributed to the first observation. If conservative ideas made inroads in the electorate, it’s because the Democrats echoed those ideasâ€”from support for the occupation of Iraq to the homophobic attacks on gay marriage. If these ideas form the unquestioned basis of mainstream politics, then many accept them.
The other part is that the Right has mastered dividing our struggles at a seemingly faster rate than we have been able to unite ourselves. By playing up the idea of morality and family to right wing Christians and to non-Christian faith constituencies, they garnered a significant vote base. None of us are naÃ¯ve enough to believe that resistance in all its forms is ideologically pure and pristine: anti-racist, feminist, queer positive, class conscious, secular. We fight on the frontlines of empire for various reasons. We all carry various prejudices with us. But what is disturbing is when various faces of resistance actively undermine each other and act to institutionalize those prejudices such as anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion policies within the state structure.
The predominantly white left in North America has hedged from seriously tackling these issues and the ways in which various oppressed communities can perpetuate subordination. These struggles and intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality need to be confronted in a more nuanced manner.
Today we are faced with the same system that we were always faced with and therefore we have the same task we have always had: to build a broad and powerful revolutionary grassroots movement to challenge U.S. imperialism in solidarity with grassroots movements on a global scale.
Yet at the same time, although the system remains the same, we have allowed the battleground to be muddied with emotive words like family and morality by the Right. We must challenge the meaning of those words as they are traditionally used, while simultaneously reclaiming those words. Our rebel voices and resistance will continue.
The writer is an organizer with the No One is Illegal Campaign and South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy.
CERAS Newsletter, Editorial Summer 2004
Arundhati Roy on the Indian Elections. â€œLet us Hope the Darkness has Passedâ€ in the Guardian
See Charles Demmers on Framing the Shariah Debate