India Votes Nehru
I contain multitudes. . . (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)
Were India to speak of herself, she might pretty much say what Whitman famously said of himself.
Which is the reason why so many are repeatedly hard put to make some final sense of Indian social and political realities. And which is why the democratic experiment in India is so very sexy.
Can it be said, though, that Indian democracy is a work-in-progress which, even when it seems to coil upon itself, is always pointing to where it wishes to get?
I hold that such indeed is the case, and the verdict in the just-concluded elections to Parliament is an unmistakeable reminder of the sanities that inform the acumen of the citizen across state and region, community and caste, ethnicity and gender, sometimes even the high and the low.
Always remembering that whatever conclusions we extrapolate from our sea of contradictions must remain mindful both of the contingent here-and-now, and the macro-historical dynamics of the becoming of Indian democracy.
It does seem, for example, that after sixty odd years of independence and some fifteen general elections, the historical sense of the Indian voter has hardened sufficiently not to be hoodwinked anymore by emotive invocations of one kind or another. Fingers always crossed, Whitman would say.
You would have read and been told that hardly, but hardly anyone, the Congress party included, would have anticipated the results that came, especially that the party would reach a double hundred score; 206 was to be the eventual tally of the Congress which the infamous Modi had at one point in the campaign called a woebegone hag of 125 years!
And, yet, I could forward you a mail I sent to a friend on the 23rd of April—some three weeks before counting day—which read: "congress inching towards 200." Trust me.
Sleight-of-hand? Voodoo? Nothing of the sort.
Let me just share with you a little secret: when you do not find me at home, I am most likely chatting up a rickshaw puller, listening to paan-shop babble, prying out the ordinary Indian around a roadside vendor, catching up with a machine-shop worker returning to his hovel, even smoking out the odd policeman at cross-roads or recharging at a sugarcane squeezer, or conversing with the man in the taxi next to my car at the red traffic light, or borrowing a Bidi —the most plebeian form of rolled-leaf smoke—from a construction worker on site as an overture to some authentic interaction.
Wonderful to go from all that to the piece of paper and make one's computations—a resource far more dependable than wasting time with corporate electronic channels, although I listen to those as well and draw my canny conclusions.
It was that sort of joyful legwork that had brought me to the conclusion in 2004 that the numbers then would be Congress 145, BJP 138 etc., (again a claim still on record) when them channels were blaring with the certitude that the then National Democratic Alliance was set to cross the 300 mark, since India was said to be "shining."
Wherever you listened, two sentiments invariably came to the fore: one, that the UPA government led by, most would tell you Sonia Gandhi, was thinking of poor Indians in town and country; and, two, that there had better be an end to the politics of communalism. And that "terrorism" was something that showed no one political group in any good or bad light. I recall accosting an auto-driver and a Beldar (Mason's helper) who had taken recourse to the Right To Information Act passed by the Manmohan Singh government! Not to speak of the middle classes.
Other things followed: opportunistic alliances, nepotisms, corrupt and criminal practices, the tendency to take social groups for granted, and so on.
In the main, the desire to encourage social-welfarist governance and to return to secular citizenship seemed decisive. Eloquent proof that the country was poised to go forward by returning to the much-maligned first prime minister of independent India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, who had understood with searing clarity that India could not be held together unless secular citizenship and governance was considered a sine-qua-non of its being, and unless its economic programmes were calculated to benefit most of all poor and dispossessed Indians. An agenda that required the state to remain firmly in control, rather than abdicate to oligarchies that rule the market, homegrown and foreign equally.
Pretty much what Obama seeks to do now in a beleaguered America—reinsert the state in the economic life of that nation, and attend first to those Americans who have been the most mauled by the insatiable greed of corporate America.
It is no secret that over the last two years especially of the Manmohan Singh government, the many schemes of social spending directed at lifting disenfranchised India, including her grossly neglected Muslims, out of economic non-existence were beginning to nauseate corporate India and their customized experts among the media.
Their hope and effort was great to see the BJP return to power.
The BJP, as I have often pointed out, bears a no-nonsense allegiance to neo-liberal marketism, and is seen additionally to have the resource to subvert social unrest on hard livelihood issues by diverting the energies of the resistors towards the comforts of religious-communal bonding.
Apart from subverting class identities among the have-nots, religion as social assertion has the further merit of making available to corporate industry the lucrative opportunity to produce that whole endless paraphernalia of festivities, holy days, and so forth, to the noisy accompaniment of the cymbal and the drum that deter those that would otherwise.
And rare indeed is the policeman who would have the gumption to stymie breakdowns of public order or of civic rights so long as these are sourced in religious activity. Such activity is presumed to transcend the claims of the state and of its regime of laws.
Alas, it has not turned out as corporate India wished it might.
And yet, in a true sleight-of-hand, it is already busy instructing the Congress that its most unexpected good-showing must, after all, owe not to its social-welfarism but to the economic "reforms" carried forward by it from earlier days when the BJP-led NDA was in power.
And there are those within the Congress Party who will continue to buy this thesis.
There is reason to think, though, that with Sonia Gandhi at the helm both of the Congress and the UPA alliance, economic growth will continue to be seen to have any relevance only when it furthers the inclusion of dispossessed Indians (some 77% of whom are able to spend only half a dollar or less per day) into the economic life of the nation.
That indeed must require the state to remain engaged in the business of increasing farm incomes and wages, consolidating social security safety nets in town and country, enhancing infrastructures basic to the sound health of Indians, such as drinking water, free health care, equal education, investment in housing and connectivity, and special schemes for the absolutely most downtrodden. And safeguarding the mineral and forest wealth of the nation from the marauders who care a tuppence either for the ecology of the nation or the lives of the millions who both live off forest wealth and preserve it for the future.
That in turn must require the replacement of top-down bureaucracies by the grass-root empowerment of people's communities whose decisions must be backed by the financial resource needed to set the nation right where it is most needed. And the will to hold punitively accountable all those who skim off those finances or subvert decision-making at the grass-roots. Most of all, those hinterland husbands who usurp the due empowerment of their elected wives as panchayat pradhans etc., must be publicly flogged. I mean it.
It will also require obliging private entrepreneurs to heed the employment needs of the socially non-networked, and for privately-owned assets, be they hospitals, or schools, to return to the labouring what is owed to the labouring in terms of access and aid. The dirty habit whereby the privateers fatten on the subsidies, overt and covert, made available by the state must end.
And the regulation of India's capitalism will need to include the states's prerogative to disfavour forms of investment that have high profit but low social use (low social use meant to include high ecological damage) and favour forms of investment that are cognizant of the need for productive systems to address their energies to consequences that are fruitful in the widest participatory ambit.
A model of "growth" that widens forever the gap between rich and poor, making, indeed, the rich richer and the poor poorer, must be avoided as something far worse that the swine flu now aiding and abetting the economic collapse of the capitalist world.
In brief, the verdict of the 2009 seems clearly, at the least of least, for a social democracy that respects and addresses both the political and economic claims of the vast majority of Indians, irrespective of caste, creed, community, or gender.
A word about the Left parties:
Much of the comment that has thus far appeared among the national media from ‘reputed' columnists or smugly smiling celebrity anchors has tended to be expectedly superior and derisive. Ergo, routinely shallow.
The touching contradiction of the last five years during which the Left supported the Manmohan Singh government (till that support was withdrawn because of the government's refusal to buck the nuclear deal which was outside the Common Minimum Programme drawn up as the covenant for Left support) has been that the Left's interventions were substantially responsible for drawing the policy emphases of the government toward social spending, and away from "reforms" which, had these been carried out to the full (disinvestment in public sector undertakings, increased FDI in banking and insurance, convertibility of the rupee on Capital account, speculating in employees savings in Provident Fund moneys, and so on) could have brought the Indian economy crashing faster than the American. (See my "Sweet Times for the Left in India, Znet, September,21, 2008).
Yet, having brought the Congress party Left-of-Centre in many important matters, the Left itself seems tragically left out for now.
It is useful that the sniggerers also recognize that such marginalization of the Left is not bad just for the Left but for India as well. Sobering thought, one hopes.
Available comment predictably puts the onus on the Left on the basis of tactical blunders.
That there is truth in some of this comment is not deniable, even when such comment chooses to wholly rubbish the qualities of concern out of which some of these blunders may have issued.
I have for some years mulled considerations that go beyond the tactical merely—things like should or should not the Left have withdrawn support when the nuclear deal became an issue, or, should it or should it not have sought to forge a "third front" with political groups with which it had next to no ideological affinity, and so on.
Having shared these thoughts with ideologues of the Left parties, I can state them here, even if as mere skeletal formulations.
I am of the view that the Left's tactical ups and downs can be ploughed back to strategic ambivalences that have dogged the Left—ambivalences that have not to our knowledge formed the substance of any major collective evaluation that has seen public light.
To wit, does the Indian Left still hold that multi-party Parliamentary democracy in India is reversible, and a single-party hegemonic regime achievable?
Or does it indeed accept the view that such may not be the case?
It has been my case that should the first be true, then a particular form of praxis must follow. It is to be much doubted that the Left can hope for such a revolutionary path while consistently participating in state power.
The first strategic option would require that the Left dissociate itself from state-power participation (be it in West Bengal, Tripura or Kerala, or voyeuristically at the centre), free itself from the contradictions that such participation must engender, and go into a movement form of politics over a decade or two. Only thus can the Left hope to bring the masses to any credible or consistent understanding of the nature of class-based politics. And in so doing, it must learn not just to mouth such phrases as the "toiling masses" but to put concrete faces to them and like to live among them.
This would also require learning to expand the theoretical ambit of "class" within the plurality of the Indian "concrete" so that the abstractions of bookishness do not thwart the opportunity to draw greater and greater numbers into a truly Bolivarian/Gandhian movement from below.
Contrarily, if the Left does at bottom recognize that multi-party Parliamentary democracy is here to stay, its energies must be distributed between consolidating its hold among those who are at the receiving end of capitalism, and never letting an opportunity go to push class politics from the top Leftward
To wit, this would involve learning from social-democratic engagements of the Left in Europe and Latin America, on the one hand, and deeply rethinking its evaluation of the possibilities of the Congress Party and other smaller ones for a nation-wide Left-of-Centre politics.
It would also entail rethinking the principles of party organization, of cadre formation, and the Left's overall equation with non-party liberal democrats whose numbers are not inconsiderable.
Indeed, it is to be doubted that, taking the social-democratic option, the Left Parties in India can hope to dislodge the Congress so decisively as to become its improved substitute.
It is in that context that its experience of the last four and a half-years during which it supported the Congress-led UPA invite to be deeply pondered.
I recall that in 2004, at the time of government formation, many of us had felt that the Left should have entered government for the reason that it could both enhance the social quality of government and give the Left the opportunity in some ministries of its choosing (panchayati raj, health, labour etc.,) to make its mind better known among greater numbers, as well as profit from the work it might actually have done.
Tactically, this option could have afforded the Left the leeway to drop out of the ministries at the time of the nuclear deal imbroglio while still remaining an outside supporter.
I recall that we were told that it would be futile for the Left to participate in government until it had enough hegemonic clout to dictate all policy. A clear instance of the ambivalence I spoke of.
There is ofcourse another possibility, one that has not been articulated—namely that the Left is happy just to be doing business in West Bengal and Kerala, while picking up the odd gain here or there. A view hardly worthy of Left ideology, and one that I seriously doubt crosses any Indian Left mind.
It is to be hoped that the pretty bad showing in the recent election where the Left has come down from 61 to 25 seats in Parliament will force some of these strategic considerations into open debate.
The Left can either be revolutionary, or it can be social-democratic. The attempt to be both seems self-defeating.
In the meanwhile, it is no mean achievement that the time-tested shenanigans of the Hindutva parties have been routed. It will be their task to think whether or not to turn their faces on the poitics of cunning, unprincipled polemics, and revisionist and sectarian "nationalism" and morph into a recognizable right-wing, conservative formation that reconciles itself to the Indian Constitution's stipulations about what comprises its unamendable "basic features", such as secularism. And its stipulations with regard to the special rights granted to religious and other minorities.
They must know that it is when they cross that line, they dismay even corporate India and the corporate channels that would otherwise wish to see them always in power.
Lastly, a media theme throughout the campaign of 2009 was that it was a campaign bereft of any ideological concerns—something the channels did infact everything to further.
The sterling fact is that whereas this may have in some measure been true of the participating campaigners, except the Left parties, India's 700 million plus voters had a clear ideological line in mind.
Which is what they voted for: a secular, welfare state. They deserve the nation's salute.