Sovereignty, Unity and The State Of Denial

The self-appointed champions of secular liberalism are decrying the recent electoral triumph of Hindu nationalism as a subversion of the true will of the people. Saswat Pattanayak argues that ‘we the people’ must not be let off the hook so easily…. (Kindle Magazine)

Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind. – Albert Einstein

Contrary to dominant media claims, it is not despite divisive politics that Narendra Modi won the resounding mandate; he instead is it’s natural culmination. For, divisiveness is never the result of political assertions by oppressed socio-cultural minorities against militant nationalistic aspirations; rather, it takes concrete shape through the majoritarian identity politics reveling in patriotic overtures. Divisive is not the politics which ideologically identifies and combats fascist tendencies in one’s assumed country; divisiveness in political climate owes itself to sanctimonious imposition of opportunist conceptions as unquestionable national priorities that override specific needs of the oppressed.

One such conception in recent times involves projection of India as emerging superpower that hosts “world’s oldest civilization” – an enduring and endearing myth that unequivocally demands an end to multicultural pluralism within the country, and harbors a deep suspicion towards the world outside.

BJP’s own election manifestos are constantly updated to reflect the party’s aggressive posturing in as many words. In 2009 edition, the manifesto was less vehement in asserting the myth by stating “Indian civilisation is perhaps the most ancient and continuing civilisation of the world. India has a long history and has been recognised by others as a land of great wealth and even greater wisdom.” In 2014, it dropped the word “perhaps” and emphasized on “always” by beginning the manifesto with these words: “India is the most ancient civilization of the world and has always been looked upon by the world as a land of wealth and wisdom.”

Electoral appeals based on nationalistic outbursts are innately divisive – they require enemies before looking for allies, they condemn diversities before celebrating unity, they overlook special needs before harping on equality rights. In India’s context, they shape nationalism as uniquely Hindu. They also sacrifice dignity in the name of development, undermine humanity in the name of religion, revoke “inner vitality” in the name of civilizational march. Modi’s agenda for “Ek Bharat – Shreshtha Bharat” must also resort to depicting rival parties as “foreigners’ parties”. The seduction of patriotism must encompass rejection of entities who cannot impressively elevate their own jingoism. This year the expectations were so high that despite her foreign origin issue apparently laid to rest, Sonia Gandhi still had to make a televised appearance specifically to reassert her patriotism.

To absolve Congress/UPA of its role in resulting political miseries today would be dishonest. Several of its neoliberal policies have indeed landed India in an economic mess which will require nothing short of a fundamental restructuring – which neither the Congress nor the BJP are prepared or willing to undertake. If the Congress has introduced policies of economic liberalization, it is the BJP which has worked towards its greater implementation – rhetorically, both the parties may indulge in patriotic duels, but in reality, they have never been shy of auctioning off the public lands for private interests. Contrary to popular circulations by the nationalist Right, it is not the “inner vitality” of Indian nation that will be rejuvenated following the new electoral results, but perhaps, quite the contrary.

It is only appropriate to recall in these times the words of Italian communist leader Antonio Gramsci, who had further theorized Lenin’s use of the term hegemony, while courageously battling the fascists almost a century ago: “The more the immediate economic life of a nation is subordinated to international relations, the more a particular party will come to represent this situation and to exploit it, with the aim of preventing rival parties gaining the upper hand. Often the so-called ‘foreigner’s party’ is not really the one which is commonly so termed, but precisely the most nationalistic party – which, in reality, represents not so much the vital forces of its own country, as that country’s subordination and economic enslavement to the hegemonic nation or to certain of their number.” In Gramscian times, “foreigner’s party” was a term used by the nationalist Right to depict the communist parties in Italy. Prior to that, Mazzini’s Action Party used to be vilified similarly since it was influenced by the idea of the French Revolution. In our times, while BJP tends to be nationalistic party, the Congress Party resembling Action Party of the center-left ideology remains the “foreigner’s party” along with the various communist parties.

What Then?
“Hurricane Modi swept through the heartland and beyond…The Modi typhoon that swept away BJP’s rivals in the Hindi heartland…Modi, who mauled powerful regional satraps in states where the caste narrative marginalised national parties, showed that he has the wherewithal to beat them at their own game…The new social umbrella that Modi has forged—‘upper’ castes, OBCs, MBCs and a sizeable section of Dalits— would give the BJP a lethal support base in any electoral combat. “Modi’s ‘backward caste’ image will not put off the ‘upper caste’ voter. The Modi brand has something for everyone.” (Open Magazine, 16 May, 2014)

It is said that during the period of National Emergency when journalists were asked to bend, they crawled. Under Modi, it appears as though we are doing as much, even without being asked. As if the uncritical adulation and the unabashed defense of a communal politician is not shocking enough, there are terms like “Hinduphobia” floating around these days to portray the new ruling class as a potential victim of an imaginary witch-hunt. One commentator in Huffington Post alludes to “civilizational Hindu point of view” in his depiction of a fictitious battle between India and Hinduphobia – and he surmises that India has voted in favor of India (much as a journalist should, while acting as a “stenographer for the government” to quote I.F. Stone).

For, “India has won” was also the tweet by Modi himself to describe the results. And Modi could be right. This is the India we knew always existed amidst us and thrived over the decades. This India was socio-culturally undeniable a construct, despite occasional rise to influence by a few reformers and revolutionaries who challenged it from time to time. Religious beliefs, superstitions, casteism, nepotism, misogyny, greed, and bullying as core features of this India always preceded our keenness to pursue ideological understanding of political economy.

Gleeful celebrations of Modi over the past few months have merely brought it all to a full circle as it so happens that this robust, vibrant, shining India has now also found a complimenting political outlet. For those of us who desired for a different tally, it is not the victory of Narendra Modi. It is the victory of an India we have always cheered for, consciously or subconsciously; an India viciously right-wing in socio-cultural and, now, political character.

It is important to make distinctions between the socio-cultural and the political in understanding how a secular idea called India has ended up in the hands of the communal voters masquerading as Indians. How does a country that had its Prime Ministers celebrate norms of secularism by invariably recalling Mahatma Gandhi in their first address to the nation end up with Modi, who reminds the nation of the centenary celebrations of rightwing Hindu ideologue Deendayal Upadhyaya instead? How does a country prepare itself to be headed by an active member of the RSS – an organization banned thrice on the charges of being communal, then celebrate such an occasion with tearful joys? How do many of the country’s prominent intellectuals and cultural icons express jubilation at the victory of a political party that possibly has its origins through hate-mongering, and prosperity through orchestrated genocides?

Maybe because the trends were always showing culturally, although somewhat limited (or, disallowed) politically. Perhaps the private lives of Indian citizens were not in consonance with the state policies outlined in the constitution. As a reflection of clear dismissal of secular ethos, the National Executive member of BJP Sheshadri Chari recently remarked following his party’s victory: “The jury is out. The constitution does not defend the word secularism and it was added into the Preamble in 1975.” It is almost as though we privately abide by secularism only because it has juridical weight. To quote Gramsci who had proposed two superstructural levels: “the one that can be called ‘civil society’, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called ‘private’, and that of ‘political society’ or ‘the State’. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of ‘hegemony’ which the dominant group exercises throughout the society and on the other hand to that of ‘direct domination’ or command exercise through the State and ‘juridical government.’”

Hypothetically speaking, if secularism were to be removed today from the Preamble, how would the private lives be for us Indians? We the people who have historically practiced untouchability as part of our Hindu “way of life”, and still very much do (even BJP in its latest manifesto is “committed to the eradication of untouchability at all levels”). We the people who gleefully demolish shrines and persecute minorities and overwhelmingly participate in communal riots. We the people who authorize the State in sending Kashmiri freedom fighters to gallows – from Maqbool Bhat to Afzal Guru, brushing aside legitimate concerns over prejudiced trials. From slapping sedition charges against students for cheering Pakistani cricket team to imprisoning professors and social workers on grounds of being Maoist sympathizers – considering innumerable such injustices have taken place regardless of who was at the helm of power, can we the people truly become secular, even if we tried?

As Dr. Ambedkar wrote once, “This country has seen the conflict between ecclesiastical law and secular law long before Europeans sought to challenge the authority of the Pope. Kautilya’s Arthshastra lays down the foundation of secular law. In India unfortunately ecclesiastical law triumphed over secular law. In my opinion this was the one of the greatest disasters in the country. The unprogressive nature of the Hindu society was due to the notion that the law cannot be changed.”

Since Hindu society has always remained the dominant group in India, Ambedkar was not averse to discarding the entire identification with Hinduism. He conceptualized an India where there would be no scope for “Hindu nationalists”, no possibility for anyone like Modi to proudly claim as he did in his interview to Reuters last year: “I am nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I am born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So I’m a Hindu nationalist. So yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu.” Dr. Ambedkar had foreseen such an advent, which is precisely why he had warned the country in the following words, “Personally myself I say openly that I do not believe that there is any place in this country for any particular culture, whether it is Hindu culture, or a Muhammadan culture, or a Kanarese culture or a Gujarati culture. There are things we cannot deny, but they are not to be cultivated as advantages, they are to be treated as disadvantages as something which divides our loyalty and takes away from us our common goal. That common goal is the building up of a feeling that we are all Indians. I do not like what some people say, that we are Indians first and Hindus afterwards or Muslims afterwards. I am not satisfied with that, I frankly say that I am not satisfied with that. I do not want that our loyalty as Indians should be in the slightest way affected by any competitive loyalty whether that loyalty arises out of our religion, out of our culture or out of our language. I want all people to be Indian first, Indian last and nothing else but Indians.”

Nothing else but Indians has been predictably compromised during BJP’s campaigns in various states this season. Amit Shah’s call for “revenge for the insult” in Uttar Pradesh should have resulted in a boycott of the BJP in the state, and yet it landed up with overwhelmingly majority seats. What became worse was how in a unique backlash against minority assertions, Islamic leaders were compared with Hindu supremacists by media and election commission alike. Once the minorities were brought to the level of the Hindu majority in receiving the equal flak, it was just a matter of competitive loyalty then on, in which the majority, quite naturally, had a comfortable victory.

Oppressed minorities in any society are not equal to the oppressive majority. This is a simple proposition which often gets lost amidst modern criticisms of secularism. Whereas it is perfectly alright for various minority groups to organize themselves for cultural promotion, linguistic preservation or even political self-defense to a certain degree, it is absolutely unacceptable for members of the dominant group of a given society to organize themselves accordingly. Whereas what results from minority organizations is a celebration/possibility of diversity and pluralism, what results from majority organizations is blatant display of fascist politics. In other words, whereas it is not hate speech to claim that Muslims have sacrificed themselves in wars against Pakistan, it is clearly hate speech to assume that Muslims are unpatriotic Indians; because in the former instance, minorities speak in their defense in order to doubly attempt to prove their loyalty to the nation, whereas the latter instance would be one where even an irresponsible remark by a member of the majority can further isolate and jeopardize the interests of minorities.

Indian nationalism of Ambedkar, Gandhi and Nehru therefore fundamentally differs from the Hindu nationalism. Rajnath Singh rightly said recently that the dream of Deendayal Upadhyaya was pursued by Advani and Vajpayee, and finally has been fulfilled by Modi. He is right because Indian nationalism has resoundingly departed from Gandhi’s path, and has been replaced by Hindu nationalism – a philosophy that had once succeeded in assassinating Gandhi.

Even as the focus has been identified, the fight for social justice must go beyond Modi government and one’s imaginations for political possibilities must not be surrendered only within the confines of democratic elections. For, this replacement of values did not take place overnight. It did not start with Narendra Modi. It began with the regular Hindu families – of yours, and of mine. It started over the dining table discussions over the evils of reservations. It started with great expectations from our meritorious children to leave others behind in the race for excellence. It started with our charitable cooperation towards the status quo, where giving alms to the beggars took precedence over translating empowering literatures. It started with our collective jubilation at defeating neighboring nations in sports, in distributing ladoos at hanging of “terrorists”, and in remaining ever prepared to lay down our lives in the name of territorial sanctities. It started with our pious denunciation of meat-eaters and needless reverence towards vegetarians – privileged enough to be selective about their diets. Narendra Modi merely provided for a punching bag. For us Indian liberals so committed to thwart Modi’s designs, the real battle must take place inside our own homes, around the textbooks our children unquestionably consume, with our family values that continue to be shaped by Brahminical scriptures, calendars and wisdom. And just because some caste folks eat meat or vote against BJP or unfriend bigots on social media, it has no bearing upon the amount of sustained efforts required to challenge the Hindu supremacist system that has been glorified in India, since well before any modern political party came into existence. Dictatorial Modi may be running a vicious one-man show for BJP. But the well-meaning liberals in India have been running the Hindutva show for several generations now.

BJP’s stellar performance is not the contribution of a failed Rahul Gandhi. It is a mandate by the country ever so in denial of its supremacist potentials. Even in the mammoth defeat of the liberals, we scrounge for figures that would suggest that BJP has received merely one-third vote share. Apparently, that provides us the solace. Before Modi came to power, we continued to reject any Modi-wave whatsoever. And even after he bosses over the parliament, the educated liberal Hindu folks are looking for convenient numbers to absolve ourselves off our responsibilities, if not complicity. Intellectuals not only are able to articulate the direction a country takes, they also lend credence to that. Gramsci said as much about their roles in furthering the prestige of the dominant group in any society, until the group emerges too dangerous to be tackled anymore – “The intellectuals are the dominant group’s ‘deputies’ exercising the subaltern functions of social hegemony and political government. These comprise: 1) The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production. 2) The apparatus of state coercive power which ‘legally’ enforces discipline on those groups who do not ‘consent’ either actively or passively. This apparatus is, however, constituted for the whole of society in anticipation of moments of crisis of command and direction when spontaneous consent has failed.”

The spontaneous consent to BJP is in fact caused by India’s historical propensity for Hindu dominance. Until now, barring intermittent sessions, Hindu nationalism was part of the civil society (the private) in India, but now they are dominating the political society (the State) with unprecedented success. Reversal in sight through electoral reconfigurations is merely hogwash, since it changes very little. Let’s take Odisha as an instance, where there has been no Modi wave, and yet Christians are routinely harassed and the Hindu way of life prevents Dalits, Muslims and foreigners from sharing Lord Jagannath’s blessings in the same way the caste Hindus do. “Modi wave” may only legitimize the coercive power of state apparatus, but the privileges of the dominant group that gave rise to Modi, has remained a constant due to our refusal to take a stand on religious absurdities. What Gopalkrishna Gandhi recently hoped for in his open letter to Narendra Modi reinforces once again the hegemonist notion that it is indeed possible for someone “to be Savarkar in the heart and yet Ambedkar in the mind”. The truth is there is no reconciliation among the two. There is no reconciliation between Savarkar’s Hindu and Ambedkar’s India – they stand diametrically opposed. India can never be a Hindu nation and a Hindu nation can never be India.

What Now?

Contradictions abound in the new political landscape. Like Savarkar’s divisive Hindutva excluded other religions, so does Modi’s prescriptions of Hinduism as the way of life for Indians. To reemphasize, Modi did not win the mandate because he opposed divisive politics, but because he profited from it. Not because he spoke against identity politics but because it is the victory of the identity politics – that of the Hindu identity. That of a Hindu nation. A supremacist majoritarian identity has merely triumphed over the stifled oppressed identities. It is not the unity of Indians across caste/religion lines that gave rise to Modi. It is the disunity of people who are divided along various social divisions – thanks to the all pervading Hindu ethos – to distrust each other, rather than to unite as a politically empowered working class to thwart domestic and global capitalists, which has empowered the fascists. BJP is a political vulture (with due apologies to the bird) that aimed to gain the most from a divided working class. And it has amply succeeded, thanks to the virulently anticommunist Indian society.

At the cost of incurring the wrath of the politically correct who must treat the act of voting as sacrosanct, we should be able to denounce a backward society that thrives off feudal values, a nation whose literacy quest remains abysmally apolitical, a country whose ruling class remains emphatically anti-intellectual, a people that remain conflicted based on fictitious religious romanticisms rather than expressing solidarities to foster class interests among the oppressed. If religion is the opium of the masses, the communal politicians remain the drug dealers. In allowing for them to legally operate as cultural peddlers and in ennobling them to take the political centerstage, it is we the people who must bear responsibility and solemnly resolve once again – this time to reconstitute India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic.

Our resolve must be strong enough to prevent encounters of Ishrat Jahans, jail terms for Binayak Sens, sedition charges against Arundhati Roys; our resolve must become strong enough to prevent arrests of G.N. Saibabas, Hem Mishras, Prashant Rahis; our resolve must emerge strong enough to let no politician call Kerala a nursery for terrorism, or to demand Hindu ancestry of religious minorities. Finally, our resolve must be relentless in not forgetting amidst all electoral festivities, that elections are not about personalities or parties – they are about ideas. Idea of India as a sovereign democratic republic needs to be contested on the basis of whether the country surrenders to imperialistic designs – threats from foreign powers or through its own military – or chooses to remain sovereign and therefore respects struggles for sovereignty by lands oppressed by it. Idea of India needs to be contested on the basis of whether it allows capitalistic expansions by private capital, regardless of whether it is global or domestic, or it chooses to pursue socialist economy. Idea of India needs to be contested on the basis of whether the country remains at the disposal of Hindu supremacists or it celebrates secularism by allowing for sufficient reflections and correctional measures to check the growth of majoritarian militancy.

And if we fail at our renewed resolve in safeguarding even the Constitution we once dedicated to ourselves, now that we discover the political crossroads – contrary to what the champions of resurgent nationalism claim, India might even have won, but Indians would eventually lose.

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The Politics We Deserve

By Saswat Pattanayak

 

“Politics hates a vacuum. If it isn’t filled with hope, someone will fill it with fear.  (Naomi Klein)

Fear-based politics reaches disproportionate heights when coupled with nationalistic frenzies. As a first sign of fascism, it assumes a normalized state, masquerading as an agency to dispel fear itself. To rejuvenate the political climate with a fresh lease by resorting to masculine rhetorics becomes its core strategy. It predictably attacks the progressives as conspiratorial and traitors, while it paints the secularists as impotent and pseudo. Fear-based politics mocks constitutional frameworks, not out of concern, but from disdain. It revises historical narratives not out of an interest to engage scholastically, but because anti-intellectualism becomes its mainstay. It obsesses with geographical, cultural and religious borders. It is constantly wary of those outside as enemies, unless they acquiesce; it thrives in a climate of hatred towards those it treats as fringe elements, within its territory. Fear-based politics aims at reawakening the traditionally privileged, lest their inherited spoils are subjected to redistribution. It resorts to reaffirming the sacred, upholding the holy, instituting moralisms and reimposing strictures, often borrowed from the ancient texts to undermine the modern reforms.

Fear-based politics reinforces the reactionary aspects of a cultural status-quo, while opposing the liberal strides of a political one. It confuses social majoritarianism with democratic mandate, while employing religious discourses as an invigorating weapon. It assumes equality of all as a preexisting condition, regardless of unique histories of oppressions and privileges. It celebrates military conquests with glee, abhors the idea of lagging behind, and limits the imaginings to supersede as an authority. In short, fear-based politics celebrates the survival of the fittest in the political arena, where the leader is seen as vigorous and brawny, reveling in pride for unquestioned heritages. The desperation to lead a country’s journey into emerging as a superpower is predicated upon the unceasing fear of losing whatever remains left of an imperious status.

If histories of fascism and nazism are any indication, such desperations on part of the politicians are merely natural corollary of a suitable political climate. People deserve the kind of leaders they elect, select, or tolerate. Although it is far more tempting to paint a specific prime-ministerial aspirant as the apostle of fear-based politics at this juncture, it would be more prudent – and sincere – to hold responsible, the political culture itself – reared by the Indian citizens thus far, as the country goes to polls in a couple of months from now, in what is being hailed as a potential “turning point”.

The reality that a far-right politician is indeed legitimized as a candidate to the top political post in the country is immensely telling, whether or not, he ends up winning it. What is only more disturbing is the sheer predictability of this reality – it is almost as though we were bracing the country for this day. Our social conditioning has manifested in our misplaced patriotic duties to refuse authority to a woman not on grounds of political differences, but solely because she is a “foreigner”, despite having been more of an Indian than the countless NRIs whose funds we voluntarily have solicited to fuel hatred in the subcontinent. Our collective derision of a prime minister not because he is the architect of a neoliberal agenda, but because he was not macho enough to outgrow his “silence” that appears to us as jocular. Our unquenched thirst for the blood of imagined enemies – ranging from the Maoists to the Muslims, grounded on unfounded claims of sovereignty losses, from within the borders, and from outside. Our unabated eagerness to claim and reclaim golden ages of a monolithic culture that suits our propensity for consumption of selective glories, harking us back to celebrate a certain five-thousand years old civilization.

Such a predictable crossroads where the opinion polls suggest a significant support for a party that draws its convictions from xenophobia and isolationism has arrived not because of a single politician who once spearheaded attacks on members of a vulnerable minority group. We are confronted by it today because as a nation, we have ducked the difficult questions posed before us by historical opportunities, time and again. We have consistently refused to address the special plights of the people inhabiting occupied territories and have evaded any referendum even as we have reinforced military might without pause. We have reached this unfortunate stage where resurgence of Hindu nationalism is treated with admiration because we have unfailingly nurtured the sanctities around inherently regressive tendencies of Hinduism, a religion that must relegate a section of its followers to the abyss in order to herald another section as its panacea, and we have offered it a clean chit as a ‘way of life’ instead. In endorsing this way of life, we have flatly rejected any attempt to equate casteism with racism. Not only that, in endorsing the Hindutva philosophy that governs our everyday lives, we keep rejoicing patriarchal mores, so much so that our images abroad are the images of the assaulted and raped. And yet, instead of reflecting over how our subjugations of women and the minorities are sanctioned by the very texts we hold fundamental, and instead of finding our cultural nationalism at odds with constitutional prescriptions, we have reached a stage where rabid jingoism is the preferred flavor for most pre-poll respondents, because we have as families have continued to raise our children against the spirits of the constitution, and through installing in them values of distrusts, superstitions, ruinous competitions and superiority complexes.

It must not surprise us that we have reached this crossroads where we have to choose between the secular and the communal. It should however alarm us like never before. It should alarm us because we have even begun to dismiss the relevance of secularism. By attacking it as “pseudo” and “appeasing” and simply unworkable, we are thumping our chests to decry what we have started mocking as “sick-ularism”. Just as we have done with our opposition to “reservations”. Instead of recognizing the dividends and therefore expanding them, we are choosing to dispense with the progressive policies. We don’t just stop there – our attacks on the drafters of our constitution and makers of the nation are not so much to learn from their struggles to resolve the crisis – some of which still are pending for us to do justice to them ourselves – but to revise our history books to undermine the various streams of anticolonial movements that gave birth to a fairly new republic of India for whom inevitable challenges were to far outpace prospective accomplishments.

Despite critical issues abound which we must tackle sustainably, systematically – informed by needs for social justice, we treat national elections as sensational phases to posit individuals against one another, in a farcical, albeit, spectator sport. In the most recent such attempts, we witnessed Arnab Goswami trying to outsmart Rahul Gandhi, and as the various analysis from leading commentators affirmed, he clearly outsmarted Gandhi. Some wrote that Gandhi was not prepared for the barrage of “specific” questions, and some said he just could not have answered anyway. From crude jokes to outright waves of sympathy were expressed for the ways Gandhi had to endure Goswami. And most of them were correct observations. Indeed, Goswami’s voice has started representing not just the content, but also the manners in which public discourses are taking place in India – the very reason why we are at this crossroads, to begin with.

Goswami’s overzealous attempts to elicit a duel between personalities (in this cas
e, a “RaGa vs NaMo” match) perfectly synchronized with how we tend to treat elections. His demand for a PM candidate ahead of the polls so that he can then hold the individual responsible for the social diseases, is exactly how we are always on the run for our favorite scapegoat. His obfuscation surrounding origins critical to understanding 1984 and 2002 in context is exactly how we rationalize the rise of Hindu nationalism under various garbs. Finally his “challenging” Rahul Gandhi for “a direct one on one battle with Narendra Modi” is just reflective of the yardstick which many of us measure the national politics by. Some have argued that this interview – Rahul Gandhi’s first – was going to be disastrous for his political career; that it amply demonstrated how incapable he was in handling the tough questions, and therefore it proved him feeble in leading the country.

And yet, the reality may just be the opposite. In more ways than can be described here, the interview indeed proved that India has finally found a political leader who is immensely capable of discerning questions, identifying issues, and persisting with the necessary. When Arnab’s unrelenting question was, “Are you afraid of losing to Modi”, Rahul’s response to that was only appropriate: “What millions of youngsters in this country want is to empower and unleash the power of the women in this country.” This is as direct an answer as could have been provided to a question about Modi’s growth in Indian society. Missing the connection is precisely the point. An empowered citizenry does not opt for fascist politics. Only a fear-based political climate gives rise to despots. Hailing from a political family that has directly been targeted by fundamentalist forces, Rahul Gandhi is only acutely aware of it. The good part being, he acknowledges the same. Instead of resorting to any meritocratic claims of individualistic journeys, he recognizes the privileges, responsibilities, and the perils – of having been born in a family that has remained at the helm of Indian politics for decades.

While BJP and its ideological apparatus offers misogyny as a response to women’s rights, Rahul Gandhi keeps returning to the issue of women’s empowerment as crucial to national development. From media portrayals to dining table discourses, the space we provide to issues of gender inequality has always been dismal, and it will not be an exaggeration to state, as Rahul Gandhi has cited on a separate occasion quoting a NGO activist, that no nation will prosper which oppresses its women. And despite his insistence on deliberating over women’s issues in India, the manner in which Arnab Goswami continued to reject that as a non-issue in the only interview he had with Rahul Gandhi, is exactly the reason why we as a country need to reflect upon which questions are indeed tough, and which ones are just plain wrong.

Not all questions are relevant, just as not all changes are desirable. Often times, our temptations, and not our studied observations, clamor for a change. And more often, the changes we seek are not systemic ones, instead we merely look for a facelift. The questions before India are not just about who will lead the country, but much more importantly, which issues will govern it. What Rahul Gandhi has proposed is that constitutionally the MPs choose the PM candidate and so who will lead the country will be answered after the polls, not before. But even if it is decided that we must reject one between Gandhi and Modi, the choice is clear: only one of them is decidedly professing a majoritarian religious sentiment in a country founded upon secular values. There is no dispute here. What are at stakes, however are the core issues that will govern this country at such a defining intersection.

Macho sloganeering of “India First” is directly benefitting the popularity of right-wing nationalism in the country today. It is an embarrassing development for a nation that urgently needs to check its own powers, not expand those any further. “India First” is also reminiscent of the dark days of Pokharan test – a filthy display of militarist pride borne out of disregard towards humane priorities. It is important to remember that India was never designed to be a first. India’s emancipation lies in its setting an example for the world, in being an equal partner in progress for the Third World, which still suffers from excesses of capitalism and neocolonial projects. India’s future lies in acknowledging its own transgressions, ending the war on its own people, confirming with international standards set in dealing with occupied territories. India’s future lies in empowering the Dalits, the women, the working poor, in preparing for a nation that respects the spirits of its constitution and the fundamental duties it prescribes, among which feature the development of “the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

Economic development – no matter what the model is called – cannot be a substitute for social democracy that embraces values of humanism and inclusiveness. In 2010, Sonia Gandhi aptly described what it implies, “Social democracy is not populism, it is not generosity; it is the justice that our constitution promises. The backlog is huge, but without social democracy, Indian democracy could well be undermined.” Taking a leaf off Indira Gandhi’s own visions, she cited the four features of a social democracy that India must strive towards: first, a belief that social democracy must not only be responsive or responsible, but also be representative of many diversities; second, a conviction that social democracy is unachievable unless economic growth empowers the disadvantaged, deprived and the discriminated against; third, a yearning for social democracy must pay highest attention to the preservation of environment and regeneration of natural resources; and finally, a passion for social democracy must provide for a nation-state as an instrument for change and protection of national sovereignty.

Last year, eminent Dalit scholar Kancha Ilaiah hailed Sonia Gandhi as one of the greatest foreign-born Indian women to have left a deep imprint on our history, he was not stretching the truth. He articulated at least four legal measures, in which Sonia Gandhi had “changed the course of the Indian welfare state” and enabled Indian democracy to become “seriously transformative”: the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Right to Education Act (RTE) and the Food Security Ordinance (FSO).

Ilaiah argued that the UPA government had empowered the villagers to get their wages without being subjected to any humiliations via contractual engagements with feudal lords. For the first time in memory, villagers are telling stories about their increased food intake. On matters of transparency, RTI was a radical step towards the right direction and required a level of courage on part of a political party, that was not commonplace. Right to Education Act put in place by the UPA has also been revolutionary and has given hope to parents who could not have otherwise afforded education for their children. Most importantly, Right to Food Ordinance is a direct attack on casteist superstructure of India, apart from being an exemplary contribution to alleviate poverty.

Going by Mahatma Gandhi’s Talisman, the four measures above apply to the poorest in India, but at the same time, they may not be impacting the lives of the middle class or the rich, which explains partly why the corporate media refuses to engage in conversations on these issues. A “Shining India” slogan invariably overlooks issues concerning food, clothing, shelter, literacy and rural employment, because, it can afford to take these for granted. But even more critically, the deliberate oversight owes itself to the ongoing class war in India – the war waged by the rich upon the poor, which subsequently helps in agenda-setting for the media.

As a result, the central elect
oral issues end up becoming the ones that concern the upwardly mobile. One question often posed to Rahul Gandhi in this regard is, “How can India be a superpower if we continue to depend on the United States?” His answer has been unequivocal: “It is not so much that we depend on another country. We don’t need favors from others. But there is a certain amount of integration, and it has massive advantages. If we built an inward-looking IT industry, and we don’t allow it to go beyond Indian borders, that will be very limited. Our strength is we are young and highly educated. We are not saying we should depend on another country, in fact, what we are saying is others should depend on us. It’s a different way of looking at the world.” Thereafter in a classic instance of misunderstanding this “different way of looking”, the convener concluded with glee that, Rahul Gandhi had said other countries should depend on us. And Rahul had to immediately clarify that it is not what he had meant at all: “It is not that the other countries should depend on us. The world is integrated. We have offices in Bangalore and Hyderabad contributing to the world economy. Once you believe in yourself and can compete with anyone, it’s not about whether we are depending on others, it is about their views on us.”

Rahul Gandhi’s assertions of a changing India that will be a key participant in world economy, and not a haven for domestic capitalism, is one that needs to be understood with the “different mindset” he keeps harping on. He draws from the Nehruvian legacies of peaceful co-existence, not Reaganesque argument of one-upmanship. His view has been that “We should not be in the business of making decisions based on fear. We have to think about not how we will be affected by the problems but how we shall affect the problems. Instead of having a mindset where we fear that we might get pushed around by someone, we should recognize that we have a place in the world and we should occupy that place in the world.  If we don’t have this attitude, rest of the world will not respect us.”

Respect, not fear, is what Gandhi’s central thesis has been. His party has been infested with corrupt politicians and yet he has earned praises from Anna Hazare for his anti-corruption crusades in getting the Lokpal Bill passed. If corruption has been a core electoral issue, Rahul Gandhi has rightfully taken credits for his activisms involving Right to Information, Aadhaar and NREGA as transformative anti-corruption projects. He is not ashamed of the socialistic aspects of Indian economy, despite being at odds with Dr. Manmohan Singh himself. Calling them as unmatched transfers of power, he applauds his party for its efforts at ensuring “bank nationalization, telecom revolution, rights paradigm, fight against the British – everything for power to the people. Answer to every single problem is to push this democratization further, to make it reach the heart of this country.”

One of the ways democratization takes place is through political machinery, by restoring the faith in the legislature, so that the MLAs and the MPs do what their business is: to make laws. Addressing the elected representatives recently, Gandhi said, “This is not just another turn or another election – this is a turning point. No one is in a mood to accept less than full or to compromise; they want individual choice, participation, fair deal – and frankly, they deserve it. Either we wake up to their aspiration, or we have no business to claim that we represent them. While the work you do in the ground is very important, today laws are being made by the media, by judges, on the streets of this country, and the people elected to make laws are being sidelined. We have to get you – our MLAs, MPs and Pradhans – back.”

In a time when politics is a dirty word and politicians are most distrusted in the society, so much so that Arvind Kejriwal won the elections with his “anti-politician” rhetoric, what Rahul Gandhi is saying is refreshingly different: “Real change is structural, and for that we need to work continuously through legislation, reform and sustained political efforts…Imperative before us is not whether to change, but when and how to change. What does this mean for us as a political party? Responding to an immense demand to change…But we can’t complain without articulating clearly what is going to be done about it, we can’t oversimplify non-solutions, we can’t subvert democratic institutions by blocking parliamentary sessions; we cannot turn people against one another, or spread communal hatred or propose that structures be handed over to one man or they be viciously destroyed.”

Rahul Gandhi has democratized the Youth Congress and NSUI and succeeded in multiplying the numbers of new members, but more laudable is the way Congress Manifesto itself is now demanding mass participations in its revisions. As a first step in the country, Congress also intends to introduce direct candidate selection process in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies. As an electoral promise that certainly sounds tall, but truly emancipatory, Rahul Gandhi has assured that 50% of Congress Chief Ministers shall be women, in addition to his support for the reservation for women in Parliament. Gandhi’s stress on reservations is based on his assertion that there is not one India, but two. The India that is left behind in the race needs to catch up with the India which has surged ahead rapidly. For this to happen, the means need to be peaceful, democratic and constitutional. While, he contends, the opposition parties are headed exactly in the opposite directions.

Time will tell if Rahul Gandhi lives upto the different attitude and mindset he is espousing. But suffice it to say, contrary to mainstream media contention, his words and actions as a political leader, have been reassuring and inspiring so far, enabling imaginations, while thankfully remaining devoid of fear tactics and warmongering. Most of all, he has a principled composure difficult to maintain at a time when nationalistic rhetorics have started reverberating, almost to the point of stifling out voices of reason. He reminds us of what patriotism truly entails, howsoever unpopular it may sound at the moment:  “We do not love our country because it is powerful or because it is rich. We love our country because it upholds the ideals we wish to live by, we love it because it stands on the ideals of humanity, inclusion, and no matter how much our shortcomings might frustrate us, and they do; we love this country because it always taught us to love one another, how to remain united in the face of adversity and to never ever give up, no matter how hard or difficult the struggle is, or how dark the night. India teaches us to fight on, with compassion in heart and faith in future.”

No one knows who shall lead India this year, and how much of reflections we as a nation may have to undergo post this election, but hopefully it will be someone who truly believes in compassion in heart and faith in the future. Because, in the current climate of desperation and vacuum, politics needs to be filled with hope, not fear.

(Published in Kindle Magazine, March 2014)

Communists Must Win, Now That the Election is Lost

By Saswat Pattanayak

Elections are social, not political events. Whereas social functions entail an understanding of, and adherence to established norms, effective political actions require empowered state of conscientious being. Democratic elections – from ancient noble Greece to enslaved corporate America – take place independent of mass empowerment, most often, by keeping the participants oblivious.

People are kept sufficiently ignorant about the repercussions of their actions by not only the political parties, but by their media cohorts in general. What is instead propagated at an almost constant level comprises pure trivia: the equations of wins and defeats, the seats and the states, and the number games to legitimize a victor.

What results is a triumph of the end-product of elections, than an exposition of process complexities so as to challenge existing structures of power. Every mass-based hierarchical election that claims to have democratic character in turn produces a winner which revels in celebration of conquest as a finality of purpose, not identification of its purpose as worthy of celebration.

After all, identification of purpose in political sphere takes shape through solidification of an ideology. Since every ideology is backed by distinct political-economic theory, it inherently distances a section of people from embracing it. To evade this dialectic nature of political action, the so-called democratic election of the day, in its systematic pursuit of sustenance, necessarily has to shed the elements of ideology. At a social level, since the masses are kept ignorant of the systematic nature of the process that legitimizes one party or the other, the ideological components are dissolved in favor of encouraging consensus and its accommodating functions. The natural conflict that must ensue between an ideology that supports bourgeois electoral system and one that rejects it, is crushed down in favor of projecting the multiplicity of politics through democratic election that pits one comfortable party against another one.

Thus, political action plans for the people are orchestrated by the very entities that stand to benefit from them. Instead of letting people decide the system which can produce ground for equitable redistribution of worldly accesses, several political parties, often floated by a handful of seasoned ruling class elements carve out a system that produces visions for society as shaped by one winning party of a given time in an electoral drama that is designed to produce another victor the next time. In this game of changing hands between various rulers, the parties must blame each other once the they fall off the mark. The constant blame-game between the parties continue within the framework of existing political system which rely on an assumption of hailing the public decisions as the absolute one.

After keeping the masses ignorant in spheres of political education, the parties shower their gratitude to the people for keeping them in the contests. These electoral contests between various political parties ceremoniously take place every few years form the heart of this reactionary and retrogressive movement. This is retrogressive in its affinity with practices of royal, colonial, and feudal eras where representatives were chosen from among the exploiters. Mere transfer of power from colonial agents to capitalistic ones may not be sufficient sign of progress, but it should not appear so alluring that any sign of fundamental protest is obliterated.

And yet, in the recent elections in India, a continuance of political tradition has resulted. It does not matter who has won the polls insofar as some parties have emerged winners. In the victory of the electoral system as a sustained thread for unified Republic of India lies the defeat of the majority of people, destitute of dignified lives and yet heralded as architects of the country’s growing economy.

Such is the humongous irony in Indian elections that the poorest section of the society has chosen to be represented by the agents of the richest section. Even as ironical, this should not come as a surprise, since every country that lays its political foundation upon the so-called democratic elections has a ruling class exact opposite in its economic nature from its majority subjects. But unlike most such countries, India’s second largest organized political party is actually proclaimed as Communistic. The aspirations of this political base are naturally ambitious when they vocally champion the causes of the oppressed – the huge majority of Indians. In fact, so much is their sphere of influence that for the first three decades of India’s sovereign status, it was the Communist Party of India and its sympathizers within the ruling Congress regimes that led the country through a certain Nehruvian Socialistic/Internationalist way of life as opposed to a fundamentally different, yet more naturally inclined considering the cultural givens – nationalistic, religious, reactionary way of life as envisaged by the Hindutva forces after their successful attempt at ensuring a creation of a Muslim nation separated from India. During the period of so-called Cold War, India was guided mostly by leftist philosophical overtures thereby cooperating with the Soviet Union on most grounds so much so that it went to war with American interests in Pakistan, and East Pakistan while submitting to Chinese communistic dominance. In Indian academics, the leftists thoughts prevailed. In scientific progresses, collaborations were made with Soviet Union. In business, India maintained a huge public sector reserve. In other words, the communists significantly influenced Indian way of life, managed the largest trade unions and despite their comparatively minimal presence inside the Parliament, they steered several ruling class policies to overtly show sympathetic tones towards pro-people, not pro-profit legislations. Subsidies, rural employment schemes, agrarian incentives formed the major portion of Indian political interventions.

In a way, the Communists in India had a sway over both the elected leaders and the Indian population in an unmatched manner in the history.

And yet, 2009 elections mark the biggest blow to the organized communistic movement in Indian political space. What then has resulted in such a mandate?

What is left of the Indian Left?

The answer obviously is not obvious. But contrary to media beliefs, Communists have probably not been defeated in this election season. The parties have certainly lost considerably in their seat-gathering momentum. But in this defeat of theirs lies their eventual victory.

Since the dissolution of the USSR, like every other Communist Party in the world, the organized Indian left started to crumble in its orientation once more (the first major blow was over Sino-Soviet split). In a desperate attempt to survive, the Indian communist parties evolved strategies of fighting the system within the system. Extending “outside support” to the ruling parties formed part of an instinctual decision of the leadership which was a radical shift in the leftist position. A blurry line between outside support and coalition network dissolved in no time and the party in its ambitious best decided to actually take charge of the power if thus granted at the national level. There is nothing inherently wrong in aspiring to win the mandate if that is the goal of political activism, irrespective of ideologies. But what went missing was the self-evaluation of the philosophy of communism as an emancipatory tool for the working class from the vestiges of capitalistic utopia.

Instead of acknowledging the necessity to unite progressive forces for the sake of replacing a political system that was soon becoming subservient to imperialistic interests, the leading communist parties employing tactics of survivalism chose to seek and appease a public that was intoxicated through post-modern bliss of uncontested capitalism. These leaderships were readily embraced by the the media houses as representatives of the Indian left, to the exclusion of the extremists, Maoists, the Marxists-Leninists. Two major communist parties and few left leaning outfits which were legitimized by a ruling government to be able to participate in the popular system grew electoral wings and their media acceptance. In an almost desperate bid to exhibit their power position, they supported Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led coalition, even if upon their own terms. The class agitators became the class reconciliators.

Shedding every bit of Marxist conclusions, the official communists joined the market-driven Congress-led coalition to form a Common Minimum Programme (CMP). The CMP aimed to dissolve the differences between working class needs and bourgeois aspirations, with an enviable ability to eventually deny the fundamental nature of conflict between classes. The idea that the official communists agreed upon was that it was possible to reconcile the differences between classes by forging common alliance and following a market economic model with a ‘human face’. Joseph Stiglitz and his likes became difficult to ignore as their humanitarian pleas for the rich nations to help the poor ones were projected as the biggest dissent against World Bank philosophies. Communists, alongwith their role in attempting for reconciliation also declared their politically amicable positions when it came to support neoliberal market forces.

With “reforms” replacing “revolutions” in the literature of the communist parties, and with supports for selective privatization plans of Manmohan Singh – the chief architect of neoliberal economic policies in India – the legitimized leftist forces fell out of line with their ideological distinctiveness even as they fell into the power paradigms of the nation. India was soon evolving into a nation that proclaimed its own brand of wars on terror against its dissenting peoples. And communists, once accused of being the internationalists, now stood vulnerable as identifying with reactionary nationalist anthems. When Manmohan Singh on his several addresses to the nation including on Independence Day celebration of 2006, declared that the biggest threat to India was not the poverty or unemployment, but the Naxalites- the dissenters against a failed political system he was heading, the Communists were supporting him. Dr Singh’s words included, “We cannot rest in peace till we have eliminated this virus. We need to cripple Naxalite forces with all the means at our command…The Naxalite threat was the biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country.”

Biggest internal security challenge ever faced by India? For such a learned man like Manmohan Singh (who of course credits with gratitude the Colonial Crown for all his knowledge in his infamous speech in Britain), even a cursory look at security threats in India would have suggested glaringly different realities. Atrocities committed by Indian defense forces against their occupied lands of the North-East are just a passing reminders about priorities India must set before claiming the moral high. The farmer suicides – the highest act of insecurity – owing to failure of loan repayments would perhaps stand in the line of top internal security threats in India, a country whose national reserves are way higher than the debts and yet which, thanks to the market fetishes of MacMohans have to keep borrowing from the international monetary organizations at rates that must corrupt the country and thereby impoverish it to the extent of subjugated living for at least decades without end. Not only has the economist in Dr Singh been blatantly wrong in his market assessment of India’s financial situation (employing this ignorance, his finance minister provisions more than 80% of the budget towards repayments to World Bank and the likes), the militarist in Dr Singh has been entirely wrong in assessing the security needs of his country (employing this arrogance, his regime provisions for more than 15% of the rest budget towards defence expenditure to fight the dissenting poor). In his militarist speech to curb the “virus” of India, Dr Singh was merely echoing sentiments of another militarist predecessor of his, A B Vajpayee’s.

Vajpayee wrote in India Today dated December 26, 2005, “The activities of Naxalite and other extremist forces sound a warning bell for India’s future. These forces, which have no faith in the power of the ballot, not only endanger India’s democracy, harm India’s socio-economic growth, condemning the poor and backward areas in which they mainly operate to continued poverty, and imperil India’s unity and integrity, but also their ideologies and actions pose a threat to everything we value in India’s cultural and spiritual heritage. Political parties and governments must sink their differences in evolving a united and comprehensive strategy to neutralize this peril.”

Sure, the communists were not alarmed at the profound similarity in opinions between Vajpayee and Singh. The extremists in both Singh and Vajpayee’s opinions were agitators from the left who organized the masses for violent protests against continued oppression. Whereas the Hindutva extremists managed to contest elections and rule over commercial capital of India for years, and whereas the Market extremists managed to contest elections and rule over the political capital of India for decades, the alarming virus was noticed only within the rank of the Left extremists who continued to be seen as the biggest threat to India’s internal security because they organized the poor for proactive measures for their welfare which the government failed to provide for. One gets reminded of how the FBI used to consider the Black Panther Party as the biggest internal security threat to the United States because they used to offer free mid-day lunch program for black children in poor school districts. But, no, the official communists did not get reminded of the history.

Communist party, whose elementary functionings depend on theorized goals and strategies to struggle for social justice, always commanded respect among a section of people, consisting of working class poor, idealistic students and patriotic seniors who were well informed about the party’s role in India’s struggle for independence against the colonialists, and in its internationalist alliance to fight the forces of imperialism. Struggles for social justice do not easily translate to power corridors. In fact, they are incompatible aspirations. Especially, if the power is not wrested by force or consent from the private monopolist consolidators and their agents, and instead be granted via a ballot system that thrives through ignorant masses and financially sponsored candidates.

What needs to be Done?

Even as the romancing with bourgeois parties have ended, the communists need to remind themselves that their role in human history is not of becoming agents for reconciliation, but rather to emerge as the torchbearers of revolutions. To that effect, they must officially extend supports to all progressive forces in India that are oppressed today by the corporate and political power structure sustained through electoral processes. Exercising vote may be a free idea, but it is not a step towards achieving freedom for the oppressed. A choice mechanism that revolves around one bourgeois party and another, between one corrupt politician and another, between one religiously divisive force and another, between one exploiting regime and another, between one coalition of opportunists and another, between one capitalist enterprise and another – no matter the differences between their religions, castes, or nationalities- is not a mechanism that can ever be used to create a socialist society.

When winning an election within a neoliberal setup is no more a goal, when appeasing a growing middle-class opportunistic urban youths is no more a mission, when becoming politically correct to address issues of caste, gender and religion is no more an option, the communists will find them by the sides of the oppressed in India – these people may be the unpaid housewives, unemployed engineers, agitating teachers, misdirected youths, displaced indigenous peoples, marginalized dalits, exploited domestic housekeepers, non-unionized software mechanics, faceless rape survivors, undertrial prisoners, street theater activists, legal sex workers, illegal child laborers….indeed, with the majority of people in India. Poor peasants, organized naxalites and factory workers are just a fraction of the solidarity network. Redistribution of property is the only necessity at this and at every historical stage in order to enforce social justice. This is an aim that require massive political education and emancipation of the working class. Only then will voting make any sense as a political act. Voting as a means to gain power is a feeble attempt at securing status quo. The communists are by nature inclined to destabilize the status quo.

This so-called defeat of communists in Indian elections is actually a victory for the organized communism. It is a call for carving out a unique niche once again with the historical opportunity it provides. To choose its side with the very people it has been despising each time the communist party has faltered into forming coalitions. To recognize that there indeed are class antagonisms, and not every interest needs to be catered to in quest of winning a democratic mandate. To strengthen the progressive forces everywhere in India, and in the world in a collective struggle against maintenance of imperialistic forces that spread their reach through global capital. This is the opportunity to stay away from power corridors and go back to the peoples in educating, organizing and agitating them against the system that perpetuates class society through poverty, unemployment, and divisions along lines of race, caste, sex, religion, and nationalities. To form a classless society requires, not an election, but organized revolution against the winners of elections that hold the national posts in order to facilitate international trades. The communists must not forget where they came from: from a fundamental difference with the existing world structures, with an intent to replace it, not aspire to becoming a collaborator. The communists must never forget what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the Manifesto exactly 160 years ago:

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”