Indian Politics at the Crossroads: Toward Elections 2004
AIJAZ AHMAD reflects on a few events and issues of the past that are likely to set the tone for the forthcoming general elections. Exclusive extracts from the just released book.
DRAFTED in the closing days of 2003, this article begins with some reflections on a terrifying interregnum between four state assembly elections, three of which the BJP has swept, and the Lok Sabha elections which the BJP-led central government of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is trying to hold as quickly as possible, perhaps in March-April 2004. The BJP's electoral victories in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh closely followed upon a similar sweep in Gujarat a year earlier, which itself followed the logic of the communal pogrom in that state in February/March 2002. Together, these events can be viewed as constituting a qualitatively new stage in the Hindutva offensive which began with the Ayodhya-driven Lok Sabha elections of 1989 and will likely set the tone not only for the forthcoming national elections but also for further Hindutva offensives in such key states as Karnataka, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh over the next year or two ...
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... Immediately after the polls, Vajpayee asserted vehemently that the issue of Hindutva was simply absent from the contests. In a sense he was right. It was the BJP's opponents the so-called secular parties outside the Left who had avoided that issue. If the Congress had made a bid to take part of the Hindu communal vote in Gujarat by inducting Vaghela, Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh re-made himself and competed with Uma Bharati to show that he was as much of a Hindu devotee as her and even more devoted to cow protection; Bharati was not a good enough Hindu, he said, because her cake had eggs in it. Samajwadi Party (SP) led by the man whom the Hindutva brigade used to call "Maulana Mulayam" entered into an understanding with the BJP and won an unprecendented seven seats in MP where it otherwise had little presence. By contrast, the BJP's entire electoral drive was so focused on consolidating the RSS/VHP power that it need not have raised the issue of Hindutva and was indeed grateful that its main adversary did not raise it either.
Vasundhara Raje has inherited the mantle of her mother who was an illustrious patron of the Sangh Parivar. Uma Bharati is, in her own generation, perhaps the most illustrious figure associated with the Babri Masjid demolition. Raman Singh and Dilip Singh Judev, who competed for chief ministership of Chattisgarh, are RSS veterans. Narendra Modi himself was a star speaker and is said to have drawn crowds larger than Vajpayee himself could; he was the most prominent presence on stage at Raje's swearing-in ceremonies. As in Gujarat, these electoral campaigns were tightly controlled on the ground by the RSS/VHP cadres, and many volunteers associated with these outfits were brought in from Gujarat and Maharashtra. The RSS has long been working in the tribal belts in all three states and the BJP finally cashed in on that work, winning 77 of the 99 constituencies reserved for the scheduled tribes there. In the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, for example, the Congress had 10 seats out of 12 but now has none. In Rajasthan, the BJP won 26 of the 33 reserved for Scheduled Castes while the Congress tally came down from 31 to 5. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress share of the adivasi vote fell from 60 per cent to 40 per cent. Indeed, caste analysis of the BJP vote shows a wide spread all the way from princely families to the powerful Jat lobby in Rajasthan, and from a variety of upper castes to OBCs and masses of adivasis across the three states, all led by a new generation of hard-core Hindutva functionaries ...
... A survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) before the elections showed that a majority of the electorate was in fact satisfied with the performance of Congress state governments in Delhi, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh; only in Madhya Pradesh had Digvijay Singh made such a mess of public facilities notably roads, power supply and electricity rates that he was likely to be thrown out. However, only in Delhi did that popular satisfaction with the performance of government translate itself into votes. What, then, explains the debacle in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and the size of the defeat in Madhya Pradesh? Splintering of the non-BJP vote was surely a factor; even in Madhya Pradesh, all the seven SP victories were at the expense of the Congress. Had there been a united fight against the BJP, that united force would have won in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan would have had at least a hung assembly. Then there was the money; Vasundhara Raje alone is known to have spent 8 crores. And the BJP is no longer associated with any particular segment of the caste spectrum; it cut into the Congress vote all the way from Brahmins and Thakurs to the Scheduled castes and tribes. Above all, the massive shift of the adivasis was surely decisive. The Congress had more or less monopolised this vote for fifty years. By now, the RSS has worked tirelessly among them for well over a decade through a variety of its front organisations while Congress governments, specially in Madhya Pradesh, did nothing to either counter that propaganda and mobilisation nor for contributing to the security and progress of adivasis; indeed, government-appointed police and forest officials were seen as primary agents of repression while RSS fronts often provided the counterweight and in the process did their work of saffronising the tribal identity.
In all this electoral calculus, one simply cannot ignore the real and widespread hold of the Hindutva factor. Uma Bharati is not just another BJP leader. She, with her saffron robes and shaven head, embodies and personifies hard-core Hindutva without, at this late stage of her public career, having to make vitriolic speeches. Narendra Modi, the star vote-getter, is not just another Chief Minister from a neighbouring state; he represents the bloodlust of the Sangh parivar. Truckloads of RSS, VHP, Bajrang Dal cadres were brought in from Gujarat and Maharashtra not just because they have experience in running electoral campaigns. They carried with them a certain kind of macho, aggressive, murderous personality which the new, saffronised political culture accepts and admires; they are the carriers and exporters of the Gujarat model. Not for nothing did the RSS keep the campaign planning tightly under its control, and not for nothing did Sudarshan himself hold tutorial sessions for the BJP MLAs immediately after the elections.
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... The above narrative of recent events recalls some of the salient points I have been making in some of my previous writings for almost a decade. First, I have argued that never in history has the far right come to power on its own; it initially comes to power, rather, when the left gets isolated and the liberal centre collapses, parts of submitting itself to the dominance of the far right and other parts rendering themselves ineffectual through internecine quarrels and a politics of opportunism and incoherent tactics without any overall strategy of frontal confrontation. Second, it is the failure of the liberal order to offer radical solutions for mass misery which paves the way for the far right to make inroads among the immiserated the wretched of this earth with millenarian promises and to organize them into a fighting force under its own cultural and political hegemony; the experience of misery does not necessarily lead anyone to a politics of the left, it may equally well lead one to a politics of the radical right; all that depends on the organizational skills, resourcefulness and perseverance of those who do the organizing. No serious student of fascism would be surprised to see that, in the absence of a left challenge, it is the fascist right that has gained so massively among the adivasis; even a saffronised Hindu identity which comes with promises of power is very consoling for the powerless whose tribal identity is so widely despised and exploited. Third, the inherent advantage of the RSS is that it has built itself into a tightly-knit cadre organization and a fraternity of overlapping fronts run by its seasoned cadres, and that it represents a specific and comprehensive world-view call it `culture' if you will which gives to its members and affiliates a sense of political belonging, social coherence, even a sense of their place in the cosmos; something that the haphazard politicking of the contemporary liberal order in India, with a sense of neither direction nor mission, cannot match.
Fourth, this world-view, strongly "culturalist" as it is, is also a comprehensive program of the Right: break-neck privatisation and liberalisation, far-reaching integration of domestic capital with foreign corporate capital in a relationship of subordination, relaxing of the taxation and revenue regimes for the propertied classes, comprehensive attack on the working class including an attack on hard-won rights such as the right of government employees to strike, re-alignment of foreign and defence policies with far right forces on the global scale, such as Israel and the United States, and so on. This combination of saffronisation and neoliberalism is thus a comprehensive attempt to dismantle the very principles and visions upon which the Republic was initially founded: a full-scale counterrevolution of sorts.
These are the more analytic propositions I should like to re-visit now in the shape of some reflections on the general contours of Hindutva politics over the past decade or so.
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... This has been a longish excursus on the successes of the Sangh Parivar, so as to take stock of what we are up against. However, this decade has also witnessed resistance to that power across the nation. The experience of the United Front Government demonstrates that a successful anti-fascist electoral alliance is in fact possible, and the experiment came to grief not because of the power of the Parivar but because of dissensions within the coalition, notably the Congress miscalculation as to its own chances of making substantial advances after pulling the rug from under the NF government. Similarly, the success of the no-confidence vote not only in 1996 but even in 1999 showed that the BJP-led government can be defeated on the floor of the House. The disarray among the forces released by `Mandal' accounts for their cumulative inability to stand up to `Mandir' and it is indeed shocking that the Sangh Parivar has made such inroads among the OBCs, dalits and even adivasis in diverse regions of the country. The vast majority of these forces nevertheless are outside its fold and sphere of influence. Politics of the oppressed castes is still the great unpredictable element in the future of Indian politics, and any consolidation of them against the brahminising project of the RSS still holds great potential for defeating this project; the BJP's stunning success among the adivasis in the recent assembly elections, outside Delhi, is very new and can be reversed through careful, concentrated and innovative work among them. Nor has the BJP been able to gain a parliamentary majority for itself at the federal level, despite a decade of communal fires and historic decline of the Congress; it still rules at the Centre by virtue of its coalition partners. Most of the allies in NDA are fickle and they back the BJP because it looks like a winning side; if a powerful anti-BJP combination emerges, the NDA itself may begin to break up.
Outside (and alongside) the Left parties, the most courageous and dogged resistance has in fact come from small and large activists' groups, cultural organisations, grassroots anti-communal mobilisations, writers, artists, academics, and notable sections of the media including some influential sections of the electronic and print media. The cumulative spread and prominence of this resistance is possibly no less than that of the Hindutva brigade; what this resistance lacks, rather, is matching material resource, agencies of coordination, a "collective intellectual, a coherence, a strategy for accumulation of force. These are among our resources of hope.
The real problem still is where it has been since the 1970s and has only been getting worse and worse as years and decades go by: the programmatic decay, internecine conflicts and disarray, and general directionlessness of what used to be the reform-minded liberal centre of Indian politics, with some sense of principle and social responsibility. The Congress itself was for long the main formation of this kind and a party that could have been described those days, borrowing from European terminology, a party of the Centre-Left. By now, the ideological drift within the Congress is so acute that it is no longer coherent enough to be called a party even of the Centre-Right. It has become so cynically pragmatic that it is quite capable of practising a very pragmatic kind of communalism time and again, as it did in the Gujarat elections clearly and in Madhya Pradesh indirectly; it shall do anything for electoral gain, and then gets bewildered when it finds out that this kind of impulsive shift from one tactic to another doesn't work. In the previous national elections it poured scorn on the idea of coalitions and alignments, going loftily alone, and came home with the worst electoral performance in its history.
Now, after the spectacular defeats in Assembly elections and with national elections looming, it has suddenly reversed itself and seeks coalition and alignment with anybody and everybody who can help it garner the votes. At the heart of all these twists and turns is a programmatic vacuum, and its leader, Sonia Gandhi, often gives the impression of a lady thrashing around rudderless, in that vacuum. On the issue of communalism, it cannot mount a consistent, militant struggle against the RSS because it reserves the right to use its own `soft Hindutva' line wherever that line seems serviceable in its own pursuit of electoral opportunism. On the other major issues, notably the havoc the BJP's neo-liberal policies has caused for the masses of Indian workers and peasants, its own policies are indistinguishable from those of the ruling party. By now, the same could be said of virtually every other party as well, with the exception of the Left; Arun Shourie (BJP minister at the Centre), Chandrababu Naidu (TDP Chief Minister in Andhra and an ally of the BJP) and Digvijay Singh (the ousted Congress Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh) are all cut from the same cloth.
In the meanwhile, all the potential as well as actual allies of both the BJP and the Congress are essentially regional satraps. Be it Mulayam or Jayalalitha, Naidu or Mamata: the fief in one's own state is what matters, national politics is manipulated for state-based gain, and, in virtually each state, the non-Congress regional satrap tends to be pitched against the Congress itself. Constituency-level analysis of the recent polls shows that the multiple divisions of the anti-BJP vote determined the size of its victory in Madhya Pradesh as well as the very fact of its victory in Chattisgarh and possibly in Rajasthan as well. Pooling together of this vote is essential.
The heart of the electoral problem as we move toward the 2004 elections seems to be this. No single party, including the Congress, can give a credible fight to the RSS/NDA combine. The possibility of a third front, of the sort that put together the United Front (UF) government in 1996, has entirely receded from the horizon for the foreseeable future. All parties going it alone before the elections and seeking alliances afterwards will only lead to further splitting of the anti-BJP vote and an overall defeat will then have been snatched out of the jaws of a possible victory. No combination of parties can put together a winning combination without the Congress while the Congress, in its present state, cannot do it without radically reforming itself.
In this situation, the Congress needs to do five things. (1) It must programmatically renounce the use of the `soft hindutva' card and mount a militant anti-Hindutva struggle on the level of each state as well as the national level, so that it can be seen as having adopted this as a strategic imperative; states like Karnataka are crying for this shift of posture. (2) It needs to enter into a programmatic revision of its outlook on economic policies, with respect to the execution of the whole range of neoliberal policies of the past and such policy projections into the future, with concrete proposal for undoing the harm that has been done and for protecting the working masses of this country from policies that are driven by imperialism and big capital; it must, in other words, re-build itself as a Centre-Left party and invite others to join it on the basis of such a programme. (3) It must stop pretending that it is the leading party of the country and that the regional antagonists (for example), Mulayam Singh in U.P.) are nobodies; it must offer them credible concessions for these regional alliances and must learn to live with less than what it considers its due in the particular case, in order to gain across the nation. (4) It must learn to live with the fact that certain anti-BJP parties will not join the coalition directly and it must hammer out with such parties bases for cooperation and alignment on the state level. And (5) The Congress must not project Sonia Gandhi as the future Prime Minister of India. She may continue to be the party President but it must (a) not project anyone or project someone of national stature as the future leaders of its own group of MPs in the future Parliament and (b) leave the question of actual Prime Ministership to deliberations after the poll results are in. The position of the Congress on these issues has to be open, consistent and vigorous. Chances for building a winning anti-BJP combination can thus vastly improve.
I am drafting these lines on the first day of January 2004. Rumblings toward building such a combination are now very much in the air, and this month shall in any case be decisive if unity of this kind is to be obtained. The future is, as usual, open.
Abridged extract from:
Will Secular India Survive?, edited by Mushirul Hasan, published by imprintOne, Rs. 800, distributed by Manohar Books, Delhi.
Aijaz Ahmad is a Professional Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, and Professor of Political Science at York University, Ontario, Canada.
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