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India – Social counter-revolution

Frontline 

Published: May 28, 2014 12:30

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The change that the 2014 elections presage entails an attempt to roll back the long social revolution that has been effected in this country over the last one hundred years, under the dialectically interlinked impact of the anti-colonial struggle and of the social emancipation movements of Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar. By PRABHAT PATNAIK

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has always invoked communalism, implicitly if not explicitly. The 2014 elections were no exception: from not fielding a single Muslim candidate in Uttar Pradesh, which has an 18 per cent Muslim population, to Amit Shah’s infamous remarks about “revenge” against (not explicitly mentioned) Muslims, to Giriraj Singh’s outburst, only mildly disowned by the BJP leadership, asking critics of Narendra Modi to migrate to Pakistan, to Modi’s own demand that Bangladeshi Muslim migrants should be sent back (his distinction among migrants was significant), communalism was a major plank of the BJP’s election campaign. And it did contribute to its victory: while the Muslim minority’s votes were divided among a host of non-communal parties, there was a majoritarian communal consolidation behind the BJP. Yet it would be a mistake to attribute the BJP’s runaway success to this factor. Unlike the early 1990s when L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that followed had actually been the main reason for the BJP’s ascent to power, this time the communalisation itself was less obviously used as a weapon and it played its role alongside other factors, at least one of which deserves mention if only because it has been largely ignored. This consisted in pitting the poor against the middle strata of the population.

The fact that Muslims constitute a major chunk of the poor and also the fact that the antipathy aroused against the poor among the middle strata is indistinguishable in any case from an anti-Muslim (and anti-Dalit) antipathy are undeniable. There was nonetheless an antipathy against the poorer sections in general, not confined to the Muslims alone, which constituted a subtext of these elections. This antipathy was aroused not directly, but indirectly via the so-called “development” agenda.

In the immediate post-election analyses, two propositions have emerged which need discussion. The first states that the “development” slogan appealed to all sections of the population because aspirations among all sections now go beyond the desire for mere foodgrains and MGNREGS-style employment; the BJP’s appeal, it is argued, drew votes, therefore, from all sections.

People’s aspirations going beyond mere foodgrains and a maximum of 100 days of manual work that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) assures is perhaps true, and if so, it constitutes a highly desirable development (since it suggests the transcendence of a mindset among the poor that are “grateful” for the few crumbs thrown at them by the ruling classes). But it is not in my view germane to the present discussion because there is little evidence that the poor, among whom Dalits figure prominently, shifted to the BJP in large numbers.

Mayawati is right in claiming that the Dalits have remained more or less loyal to her party, and that it is the upper castes that have deserted her, a loss not compensated for by a sufficient accretion of Muslim support. The vote share of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) at the national level is 4.1 per cent even though it has gone without a seat, and in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati’s party has got almost a fifth of the vote, which would have been impossible if Dalits had deserted her in significant numbers. What has happened in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere in north India is a consolidation of upper-caste support, and to a certain extent Other Backward Classes (OBC) support, behind the BJP. Given the nature of the caste-class relationship, these are not the very poor but constitute what Michal Kalecki had once called the “intermediate classes”: the urban middle class and the somewhat better-off peasantry. It is this class which appears to have bought the “development agenda” of the BJP and shifted hugely to that party.

Chimera of development & media hypeThe second proposition is that this “development” agenda amounted to no more than merely “selling a dream” and that this “selling” became possible because of the hype generated by the media. This proposition is unexceptionable but, to my mind, also misses something important. Since “globalisation” entails more or less free cross-border movement of capital, especially finance capital, every nation-state that remains within the vortex of “globalisation” has willy-nilly got to pursue the set of policies that are demanded by this international finance capital for otherwise capital would leave its shores en masse, plunging it into a crisis. And all political formations within the country that do not visualise delinking from “globalisation” have willy-nilly got to have agendas that contain the same set of policies. The BJP, funded by the corporate-financial oligarchy and therefore having no intentions of delinking from “globalisation”, will therefore pursue the same neoliberal policies as the Congress, and with even greater vigour.

The idea of an alternative development paradigm, the so-called “Gujarat model”, that can fulfil the aspirations of the large numbers that have swung towards the BJP, is therefore a mere chimera. As was pointed out repeatedly during the campaign, Gujarat’s record in terms of human development is quite poor. Even in terms of the growth rate of the Gross State Domestic Product, it is nothing exceptional: its growth rate is not only exceeded by Bihar and Tamil Nadu but is roughly matched by Kerala, which does not woo corporates but emphasises human development instead. But the hype generated around Modi was such that these statistical home truths were ignored.

The acceptability of this hype itself has to do with neoliberalism. True, the hype is generated and sustained by the media, but there is a readiness to accept such hype among a section of the population. Precisely because most political formations have the same set of economic policies, the failure of these policies in overcoming unemployment, inflation and material deprivation is typically attributed to factors like “poor governance” or “indecisiveness” or “corruption” (as an extraneous moral failure) or “cronyism” rather than to the nature of these policies themselves. No bourgeois political formation dare criticise these policies themselves since it, too, espouses the very same policies. Correspondingly, among large sections of the people the hope for improving their material conditions of life is pinned upon the arrival of some “messiah” who will provide them with strong “governance”, “decisiveness”, a “corruption-free” administration, and so on.

And when corporate funding pours into the marketing of such a “messiah” who arouses expectations of deliverance, the fact that he will not deliver, the fact that his “Gujarat model” is a bluff, is something which nobody is willing to accept at the time. But obviously the “dream” he has sold is not going to be realised, any more than it was realised under Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram who had exactly the same economic policies.

There is however an additional point here apart from the “hype”. The muscular, vigorous and “good governance”-infused neoliberalism promised by Modi does not just entail substantial largesse for the corporate houses (which is why they have been funding him); it entails in addition a reduction of transfers to the poor. The failure of neoliberal policies, attributed to “poor governance”, indecisiveness and “corruption”, is also subtly attributed to the pro-poor schemes (the so-called “populist” schemes) of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, including the MGNREGS. In fact, all these schemes have subtly been assimilated under the rubric of “corruption” involving a waste of public funds.

Squeeze on the poorThe “corruption” discourse started by Anna Hazare, in retrospect, legitimised the advocacy of a squeeze on the poor. The fuzziness of the term “corruption”, or, even worse, of its Hindi equivalent bhrashtachar (literally meaning “wayward conduct”), made it possible to include within its corpus almost anything one did not like. Right-wing commentators used the opportunity to deride all transfers to the poor as instances of “corruption”. And given the persistent and even worsening caste divide between the Dalits on the one hand and the upper and middle castes on the other, of which the recent “honour killings” of young couples are horrendous instances, it was not difficult to create the impression that the path to economic advance of the intermediate classes was blocked by lack of “development” caused by “corruption” which included transfers to the poor. (The well-to-do agrarian classes’ dislike of the MGNREGS no doubt came in handy here.)

A deadly brew consisting of communalism, xenophobia (“an Italian lady is ruling us”!), hatred of “dynastic politics” (as if that was the source of the economic travails), hatred of all egalitarian measures like affirmative action in the form of “reservation”, a rejection of bhrashtachar, within which was included everything from celebrating Valentine’s Day to pro-poor economic transfers, was concocted and served especially to the youth, belonging not just to the upper strata (who in any case are exposed to this diet from birth) but also to the intermediate strata.

Modi did not invent this brew; it was being concocted for quite some time. Modi, and through him his corporate backers, simply made skilful and flagrant use of it. Put differently, corporate funds have been channelled through Modi to utilise the fault lines in our society, to drive a wedge between the marginalised and the less marginalised sections so that the merger of corporate and state power (which Mussolini saw as the essence of fascism) is effected with ease.

Such right-wing anti-egalitarian views, to be sure, can always be found in society. But they come to the fore in the era of globalisation because it witnesses a weakening or destruction of class-based organisations, including, above all, trade unions. It must be remembered that when Hitler called for fresh elections in Germany in 1933 immediately after being sworn in as Chancellor, despite all Nazi propaganda and terror, the entire Berlin region where the German working class was concentrated had still overwhelmingly elected Communists and Social Democrats. Such was the strength and resilience of class-based organisations.

Globalisation, however, enfeebles such class-based collective organisations, precisely because globalised capital comes to acquire an overwhelming superiority of bargaining strength over the workers and all other oppressed classes. This, in turn, weakens the progressive political formations and removes a major bulwark against the concoction of the fascist ideological brew referred to earlier. It is not surprising that similar “young” right-wing forces, fired with animosity against egalitarianism in general, and against economic transfers to the poor in particular, are active in many parts of the world at this moment, notably in Thailand and Venezuela.

The change that the 2014 elections presage, therefore, goes beyond just the communalisation of Indian society; it goes beyond just the “fascification” of the Indian polity. It entails nothing short of an attempt to roll back the long social revolution that has been effected in this country over the last one hundred years, under the dialectically interlinked impact of the anti-colonial struggle and of the social emancipation movement of Jyotirao Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar (though the leading participants of the two movements may not have always been cognisant of this dialectical interlinking, not to mention several progressive contemporary chroniclers of modern India). We are witnessing in short the unleashing of a veritable counter-revolution against the long social revolution of the last century that had made a country with millennia of institutionalised inequality, expressed through horrendous practices like “untouchability” and “unseeability”, enshrine equality among citizens as a founding principle of its republican Constitution.

The essence of Hinduism, the historian Suvira Jaiswal has argued, lies in the caste system. Any privileging of “Hinduism” over the republican Constitution, such as what Hindutva seeks to do, necessarily entails a refurbishing of caste inequality, caste discrimination and caste oppression. It necessarily entails, therefore, a social counter-revolution.

There is an element of irony here. Hindutva’s rise to power in the 2014 elections has been facilitated in no mean a manner by the media. It is a testimony to the reach and influence of the media, particularly the electronic media; it is, in short, a consequence of India’s Communication Revolution, an offshoot of our “modernity”. This very “modernity”, however, is being used to roll back India’s progress to the modern era; it is being used in the service of “un-modernity”, which is what the social counter-revolution amounts to and which corporate capital does not mind.

Modi clones in the makingEven more dangerous, however, than the ascendancy of Modi-led Hindutva forces for the progress of India’s long social revolution is the ideological impact that this ascendancy may have. The scale of Modi’s victory is likely to influence other bourgeois formations, and the Congress party above all, into making themselves into Modi-clones, at the very least by emulating his “development agenda”. We already find Kamal Nath saying that the mistake of the Congress was to adopt a “rights-based approach” and to underestimate the aspirations of the people at large; this amounts to putting the blame for the Congress’ debacle on the pro-poor economic transfers it had effected. It means emulating Modi’s hard-nosed neoliberalism without even the saving grace of the MGNREGS or the food security legislation; it amounts to joining in the counter-revolution, to trying to make Modi irrelevant by “Modi-fying” the Congress itself. This position, however, is both ignoble in its intentions and flawed in its analysis.

A “rights-based” approach must mean institutionalising rights for everyone, and it must mean a set of rights that complement one another. The UPA never adopted a “rights-based” approach in this sense: neither the right to employment embodied in the MGNREGS nor the right to food that has been legislated but is yet to be implemented are universal rights. These are targeted programmes, and any programme where the number of targeted beneficiaries is arrived at on the basis of negotiations between the Finance Ministry and the National Advisory Council does not, by definition, constitute a rights-based programme. As for the right to education, in the absence of a chain of quality neighbourhood schools run by the government, it means nothing. The UPA government, in short, never followed a rights-based approach and the current conjuncture is a product precisely of the fact that it never followed a rights-based approach.

Select welfarism & universal rightsIts concessions to the poor were not only meagre but were also bound to arouse the ire of those sections who were excluded from their ambit. By creating a targeted group of beneficiaries, it also created the scope for a contradiction between those included within its welfare programmes and those excluded. Selective welfarism, which is all that neoliberalism permits, creates in short a fertile ground for right-wing forces to work towards a rift between the marginalised and the less marginalised. This is what has happened.

If this conjuncture is to be altered, which is essential for the survival and progress of the nation, then we must move from selective welfarism to the universalisation of a set of rights so that nobody feels excluded. Apart from the right to food, the right to employment for all (or adequate unemployment allowance), the right to old-age pension and disability benefits, we must have a universal right to free health care and a universal right to quality education (which rolls back the process of commoditisation of education). The absence of health care and education is the most serious deprivation experienced by all segments of the population, both the marginalised and the less marginalised. Assuring these facilities for all is the surest means of overcoming perceptions of “favouritism” on the part of the state.

The institutionalisation of universal rights is a hallmark of “citizenship” that transcends particular identities. It is essential for genuine “modernity” as distinct from a situation where “modern” means are used to refurbish the “un-modern” caste and other hierarchies. It will not be long before disillusionment sets in with the current “messiah”. Corporate capital, working with the reactionary elements in our society, will then try to find a new “messiah” who will try to exploit some other fault line of society to create a fresh right-wing wave. If that has to be stalled, then instead of mimicking such strategies, those interested in the progress of this country must present before the people an alternative agenda of citizenship that transcends specific identities and ensures for everyone the prerequisites for a meaningful life.

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