The Emperors’ New Clothes

End of the affair

Loot was largely presumed to be the catalyst in crystallizing the ruling coalition’s credibility deficit till FDI and diesel inflamed the firebrand from Bengal. It is certainly to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s credit that she has used FDI in retail and fuel price hike to reduce UPA II to a charred remains of a political alliance.

“Rationality may not be among her principal traits but no one doubts Ms Banerjee’s formidable political acumen. That she has withdrawn support points to a definite swing away from the Congress.”

The cockles of many a Bengali heart will be warmed by the apparent realisation that the cast of political characters that combine to keep the present government afloat – Messrs Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, M. Karunanidhi et al – may do tomorrow what Ms Banerjee has done today. It is, as a jubilant BJP has repeated in its enduring admiration for Winston Churchill: the “beginning of the end”.  But before one embarks on a narrative about how the various minions of the Congress royal household will be able to save the day for the Queen and the prince-apprentice, a slight digression about Ms Banerjee’s ideological convictions is irresistible.

Considering what she and her most devoted lieutenant, Mukul Roy, have inflicted on the hallmark of public sector in the country – the Railways – their staunch opposition to Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail is a trifle mystifying. Has Ms Banerjee suddenly turned Marxist? Or, is it a case of her political instincts prognosticating a terminal decline for the Congress? Indeed, the cap on LPG cylinders, diesel price hike and FDI in retail would have been negotiable, had the political health of her chief ally been even marginally better.

Rationality may not be among her principal traits but no one doubts Ms Banerjee’s formidable political acumen. That she has withdrawn support points to a definite swing away from the Congress. Indeed, even if the Grand Old Party waddles on till 2014 with Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ms Mayawati in tow, the countdown to the next general election has now begun in earnest. And if popular will is the theoretical and operational source of political authority, the chief ruling party may as well start packing up from the Raisina Hills.

That brings us to the simmering cauldron that national politics currently resembles. Besides the shenanigans of those in power and those who aspire to be, the moot question is whether any of the mainstream political parties truly reflect what they call the “popular will”.

The various Kodak moments during the Bharat Bandh called by the Opposition on September 20— CPI(M) stars Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury holding hands with the SP supremo; BJP president Nitin Gadkari sticking on to Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav; Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar floating an intriguing formula that he will support anyone who gives special status to Bihar (a move perceived as an olive branch to the Congress)— reflected that the political class’s presumption that the interests of the people and their own prospects in the next general election is identical. Accordingly, protests against the diesel price hike and FDI in retail became an occasion to forge new alliances.

Mr Yadav was candid enough to admit that the logical culmination of his protest against diesel price hike and FDI is the formation of the third front. Emerging from the Parliament Street police station in New Delhi with Mr Yechury, Mr Karat of the CPI(M), D. Raja and AB Bardhan of the CPI, Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP and HD Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal (Secular), a beaming SP chief exclaimed: “What better example of the Third Front coming together?”

The perennial aspirant for the top job from the saffron quarters, L. K. Advani presumed this moment to be precipitous enough to call for a special session of Parliament. The demand was doubtlessly meant to force the government to prove its majority. Given the Congress’s time-tested saviour, Mr Yadav’s recent promiscuity, the BJP veteran presumed it was an opportunity to bring the election date forward. The octogenarian has not lost sight of his ambition, but time is not on his side. Mr Advani will be 86 in 2014 and every year apparently counts. Though his alliance partner, Sharad Yadav, doused his hopes by dismissing the demand for a special session, even before the Congress had its say on the matter, Mr Advani is an old war horse. He senses the popular discontent and it marries neatly with his own ambition.


Amid this tussle to assume the role of chief arbitrator for “the people”, the Congress remained characteristically sanguine, as befitting the party that has clearly stopped caring about public perception. In the seemingly astounding belief that foreign capital will save it from political annihilation, the Congress managers pledged unending support to the ongoing process of neo-liberal reforms. Indeed, a notification was promptly issued to operationalise the September 14 Cabinet decision to allow 51 per cent FDI in multi-brand retail.


The apparent obduracy is no doubt strengthened by the fact that while elections may be preferred by some – such as Ms Banerjee and Mr Yadav – who run the risk of a rapid erosion in their present support base, there are others who may prefer to wait. These waiting dignitaries include Ms Mayawati, Mr Karunanidhi and, with the exception of an over-eager Mr Advani, the BJP brass that has not consolidated despite the apparent discontent against the ruling coalition. In any case, even the SP chief does not immediately seem too keen on precipitating a political crisis. Accordingly, he announced continued outside support to the UPA II; naturally to “keep communal elements at bay”.


But is this all that people’s aspirations sum up to? Is structural democracy going to respond to the widespread discontent related to issues of livelihood, identity and survival by merely rearranging numbers in the Lok Sabha? Indeed, events of the last couple of months clearly signify that democracy in India has been reduced to a mere game of numbers.


The Loss of the Left


That numbers are all that matter in democracy is an erroneous presumption by political parties, as asserted eminent political scientist Manoranjan Mohanty.  “That is why the fulcrum of Indian democracy, Parliament, is facing multiple challenges. Questions are now being raised about representativeness, responsiveness and self-developmental capability of Indian Parliament,” said Prof. Mohanty. “The alacrity with which Parliament seems to respond to economic pressure groups is not traceable in its responsiveness to social movements. And this is becoming obvious to the masses. The Indian experience of law-making and overall ability of the legislature to debate issues of livelihood and dignity, growth and social justice, cultural and environmental has clearly left a lot to be desired.”


Prof. Mohanty located his argument in the context of anti-corruption movements that have challenged the system in recent years, large-scale displacement due to mining/development projects, the agricultural crisis, agitation and mass killings in Assam, followed by the kind of identity politics and intolerance that was visible in Mumbai and Bangalore and events such as violence in the Maruti plant at Manesar, Gurgaon last month. This incident specifically brought to fore the transformation of the labour market in India, that shows a staggering growth of the informal sector, weakening of collective bargaining institutions coupled with a total extinction of social security for the working class.


This is reference to over 94 per cent of India’s work force that includes the entire farm sector. In terms of sheer numbers, the National Sample Survey Organization has recorded total employment in both organised and unorganised sector as 45.9 crore (2004-2005), of which unorganized workers formed 94 per cent. Out of the 43.3 crore unorganised workers, 26.9 crore workers were employed in the agriculture sector, 2.6 crore in construction and the remaining in manufacturing activities, trade and transport, communication and services.


It is near impossible to imagine an improvement in the lot of these workers unless they become part of a political process. The alienation and disjointedness means that mainstream parties can conveniently forget about them, and those who claim to represent the workers are busy fighting different battles. While the Maoists wage a bloody war on the Indian state and the mainstream Left parties struggle to retain a toe-hold in Parliament, this vast work force has been left entirely to the vagaries of the market. Marxist scholar and activist Jairas Banaji, in his essay on ‘The Ironies of Indian Maoism’ (International Socialism Vol. 128), has highlighted how, in the present scenario, the Left is incapable of bringing about any meaningful change.


“The bulk of the Indian labour force remains unorganised into unions, and it is stupefying to imagine that a revolution against capitalism can succeed while the mass of the workers are in a state of near-complete atomisation. The impoverished notions of democracy that either reduce it to a battle for electoral supremacy or dismiss it as a fraud, the failure to encourage and develop a culture of working class organisation and debate, to encourage forms of intervention that contest capitalism in concrete ways, and build a movement that can address the widest possible range of issues starting from the desperate struggle for survival of the millions of landless in India, are all part of the legacy of a left that was moribund intellectually and deeply conservative in its culture,” says Banaji in the essay.


Indeed, the parliamentary Left has not just remained alienated from various social movements, it has actively crushed land rights movements when they interfered with policy decisions.


The Left is the only force that can collaborate with social movements to present an alternative political agenda. However, the mainstream Left parties are too busy trying to become the fulcrum of the “third front” in Indian politics to engage with anything more creative. Although the CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury has asserted that the Left is “not in the business of promoting a certain individual to the Prime Minister’s office” and is working towards “a different polity”, these proclamations are feeble compared to assertions by Mr Yadav that the “third front” has “already come together” during the Bharat Bandh.


These developments bring into focus the contradictions between a communist party’s ideal role in the existing socio-economic situation and what the CPI(M) is actually engaged in. At one level is the tremendous upheaval and social unrest caused by government policy and retrograde identity politics and at another, the alienation of the parliamentary parties, including the Left, from all these complex problems. Despite its rhetorical commitment to social movements, the mainstream Left continues to be primarily engaged with the parliamentary process that has been shown by the infamous Radia tapes to having been deeply contaminated by big business. CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat has admitted, at a seminar on the Left parties’ social development agenda recently, that the Left is getting “squeezed out” of the parliamentary process as it is the only force uninfected by big business contamination.


“The neo-liberal outlook is not confined to the economy alone.   It has a profound effect on politics and the political system.  The nexus between big business/capital and politics has become more pronounced. More and more businessmen and capitalists at various levels are the politicians in the bourgeois political parties.  The unprecedented use of money power in elections is a direct outcome of this nexus. The Left parties are the most badly affected by this flood of illegal money in the electoral system.   In a recent by-election to the Lok Sabha in Andhra Pradesh, it was reported that Rs. 2,000 per voter was distributed by the winning party and a similar amount was also given by the other major party,” said Karat.


He was lucid in his description of the impact of policy being practiced, not just on parliamentary processes but democracy itself.


“Parliamentary democracy itself is getting corroded by the insidious use of money power.  Democratic politics and the Left parties are squeezed out in this process.  The democratic set-up is getting denuded by this intertwining of big capital and politics.  The Left’s stand on democracy and the present parliamentary democratic system has to have a clarity based on a clear class conception of the type of democracy that we have.  Democracy in a bourgeois State which pursues neo-liberal policies cannot be idealized as ‘democracy’ per se.  The struggle to utilize all democratic rights and opportunities available within the present system for  the people has to be combined with a powerful extra parliamentary movement, which alone can determine whether the people will get more democratic rights and  will have a greater say in  a democratic set-up,” he said.


Herein lies the problem. Preoccupation with the electoral process leaves little scope for the Left to engage with what Karat calls “extra parliamentary movement”. In the same discussion with Karat, feminist scholar Uma Chakravarty and sociologist Amita Baviskar were forthcoming in their disappointment with the Left’s indifference to feminist and environmental movements in the country. Indeed, the Left was conspicuous by its absence in the ongoing radical action in the anti-nuclear agitation in Kudankulam and Jaitapur just as it showed an alarming repressive streak during the Nandigram and Singur land rights movements.


At the same time, very little is known in terms of the social agenda of the CPI(Maoist) who continue to engage in a bloody battle against the state from the forests of central India. In fact, the only mainstream Left party that has shown some inclination to align with social movements is the CPI. While party leader Manish Kunjam has been closely associated with land rights and other movements in Chhattisgarh, Abhay Sahoo, another CPI activist, has led the remarkable people’s movement against displacement of people by POSCO in Orissa. The party has a new self-effacing general secretary S. Sudhakar Reddy who, unlike his counterparts in the CPI(M), is a mass leader from Andhra Pradesh.


Political scientist Neera Chandhoke of the Delhi University has proposed a “going to the mattresses” strategy for the Left – stepping away from the parliamentary process and working full time to revive a social and political base. Though this may appear rather too radical for the Left, change and “alternative politics” always come from the periphery. The option is, of course, to align with Mr Yadav and others of his ilk to form a Third Front. And whatever else they may represent, Mr Yechury should not be too surprised to learn that Mr Yadav et al definitely do not signify “alternative polity”.


In such a scenario, without a political force to channelise their energy, most social movements remain mere light and sound shows while mainstream parties cynically usurp democratic institutions.


And Movements


Despite the significant contribution it made in triggering a debate on development and big dams, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) not only failed to achieve its specific target of restraining big dams but also to ensure an effective rehabilitation policy as well. The various agitations against nuclear power in Jaitapur, Kudankulam and Gorakhpur have garnered public support, yet failed to move either the government or the courts in restraining the power plants.


And the fight against communal fascism, especially against the mass murder and violence that the Narendra Modi-led government in Gujarat presided over in 2002, has been carried on largely by activists and concerned citizens— Mukul Sinha, Shabnam Hashmi, Teesta Setalvad et al— without any of the political parties (the Congress or the Left) actively joining in these individual struggles. Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to meet Zakia Jaffri, the widow of slain party MP Ehsan Jaffri, during her first visit to Ahmedabad after the riots is just a reflection of the Congress’s dilly-dallying on the issue of communal fascism. And with the honourable exception of Brinda Karat, none of the other Left leaders, either Prakash Karat or A. B. Bardhan, were visible or active, either in the immediate aftermath of the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat or the period that has followed.


In fact, it has been a constant refrain of Historian Dilip Simeon that the ‘secular’ perspective on communalism has been heavily tainted by partisan politics. “The Congress’s track record in Gujarat can only be understood in the light of the fact that we do not view communalism as a problem that afflicts Indian society as a whole. The anti-Sikh violence in 1984 continues to be viewed as a handiwork of the Congress alone. We have consistently refused to look at the documentation pointing to the RSS’s involvement in the violence in 1984. We refuse to analyse the fact that anti-Sikh rhetoric was quite popular in those turbulent times and no political force raises a voice against that. Congress may have been the chief organiser but it was not the only culprit,” said Simeon.


This is the same skewed understanding that leads to most liberal democratic parties bending backwards to please communal elements among the Muslims in order to appear secular.  The SP under Mulayam Singh Yadav is only the latest in the long list of political parties who have harboured the most retrograde elements among Muslims in order to corner a few votes. The Left government hounded out writer Taslima Nasreen under pressure from the Muslim clergy. These gestures have nothing whatsoever to do with a genuine debate on the educational, social and economic backwardness of the Muslims.


The heartening fact is that despite the cynicism of the political class, spontaneous movements against land acquisition, environment degradation, corruption and livelihood issues have gained momentum of late. What they require for translation into effective, potent democratic intervention is a political process and structure. If they remain fragmented, they will continue to be ignored and fade into irrelevance. Just as the RSS, after decades of chipping away at national consciousness, managed to drag Hindutva from the fringes to the mainstream of national politics through the BJP, the social movements need a political apparatus. Till such time as this instrument is found, Indian democracy will continue to be trampled on by the existing political players with their exhausting numbers game.

Poornima Joshi is a Delhi-based journalist and associate editor with multi-disciplinary academic journal Social Change.

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