General elections that are conducted once every five years are underway in India and voting will end on May 19th. Held in seven phases for over a month, every adult citizen gets to choose the members that will represent their constituency in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament that subsequently decides the government at the Center.
Indian elections are a spectacle that celebrates political democracy where people, irrespective of caste, class, and gender, stand in line to exercise their franchise. However, the current election goes beyond this routine festival as it is considered to decide the future of the pluralist ethos and secularism of Indian society. It has been called as the battle for the ‘soul’ and ‘idea’ of India.
The Hindutva Project
The current government led by Bharatiya Janatha Party’s (BJP) Narendra Modi stands for a right-wing hyper-nationalist and communal political ideology (Hindutva) along with the rhetoric of ‘vikas’ (development) and is seeking a second term in office. This hyper-nationalism seeks to create a majoritarian nation for Hindus (the Hindurashtra) through militancy and exclusion, banking on the sentiments of the aggrieved Hindu, the pure son of the soil who has been wronged by decades of rule by the “other”.
The strategy, therefore, is to erase all symbols associated with the “other” and reconstruct Indian history. Roads named after Mughal emperors and secular leaders like Nehru and Gandhi are renamed, statues of communist leaders like Lenin are demolished, rationalists and public intellectuals are terrorised and murdered, civil society organisations are penalised, and public institutions and university spaces are undermined. The right-wing counter-narrative built on scriptural re-interpretation seeks to romanticise an imagined past where modern inventions like the airplane and medical innovations like plastic surgery existed. The cow is considered to be the holy animal with mythical properties that has to be protected through violence by self-styled gau-rakshaks (cow protectors), and those who consume beef or engage in cattle-slaughter are lynched in public.
Anyone who does not subscribe to the Hindutva project is excluded and considered the enemy ‘other’. The ‘other’ here can be categorised into two distinct but interlinked categories – one, the ‘religious other’ that includes the minority groups with a distinct cultural heritage, specifically Muslims who are seen as infiltrators, as well as the lower caste Dalits who have long suffered under upper-caste hegemony and tribal communities (the Adivasis) who are the worst affected by capitalist development and mainstreaming of dominant culture, and two, the ‘political other’ that includes the communists and other progressives and social activists associated with the Left, who are branded ‘anti-national’ and ‘urban naxals’ (following rural-based Left wing extremists called Naxalites).
What the Hindutva project seeks to undermine is the values enshrined in the Indian constitution, a document of pivotal significance that has often been effectively leveraged in the struggle for social justice in Indian democracy. Thus, the Right wing seeks to delegitimise the foundation on which any counter-struggle to its ideology can be made. Dissenters are silenced through vigilantism, tacitly with the collaboration of the state.
However, it would be ahistorical and uncritical to romanticise the diversity of Indian society. The birth of the Indian state from colonial servitude witnessed large-scale Hindu-Muslim violence, the roots of which lie in the British policy of divide and rule, due to which antagonisms exist even today in certain pockets of India. The Indian society’s celebrated heterogeneity is riddled with systemic violence against the lower caste Dalits and the Adivasis that have been struggling for recognition and resource redistribution. Labour exploitation coexists with different axes of social oppression perpetuating structural violence that is endemic to capitalism, which has reached new heights under neoliberalism.
Secularism has been the professed position of the Congress Party, prominent due to its role in the anticolonial movement as well as building a postcolonial order. But the Congress party in fact lacks a concrete political ideology due to its centrism. The drawback of centrism in a communally charged atmosphere is that the Centrists can tilt as easily to the Right as to the Left, in the absence of any coherent political position. The economic policy of the Congress Party had shifted to the right since the late 1980s, and their attitude to religion has also been bordering on conservatism, what has been called as ‘soft Hindutva’. This was strikingly visible in how the Congress government recently pandered to majoritarian politics in the state of Madhya Pradesh by invoking the draconian National Security Act in dealing with charges of cow slaughter against three Muslims.
The Necessity of the Left
To be sure, while violence and ‘othering’ has been normalised under the current regime, it would be a far-fetch to claim that all was rosy before the Modi government came to power. As the Congress party embraced neoliberal capitalism, it was welcoming a shift to the Right both in economics and in politics. The pandering to private (and foreign/imperial) capital by red-carpeting the corporates that has led to the displacement of petty producers and the peasantry, stagnant public investment in agriculture that has perpetuated agrarian distress resulting in farmer suicides, the absence of any large scale domestic industrialisation that has led to jobless growth, and the inadequate funding of public services like health and education by dogmatically committing to fiscal conservatism, are some of the characteristics of neoliberal capitalism. Needless to say, this has worsened the material conditions for a large section of the labouring classes, while at the same time increasing inequalities to a large extent, to which the Congress party’s response has been not enough.
The dialectics between economics and politics should not be lost in our understanding of any social situation. It is widely accepted in social research that generalised economic anxiety leads to an erosion of democratic values and resurgence of conservatism that glorifies the past and blames the other. Any counter-movement that does not grasp this relationship is doomed to be unsustainable. This is the merit of the Left’s understanding of the current situation and any counter-struggle to the political Right will not bear fruit without a fundamental break from the right-wing policies of neoliberal economics.
Though parliamentary presence has its limits in liberal capitalist democracy, the track-record of the Left during 2004-09 in this respect has been impressive by pushing for several pieces of rights-based legislation. In Kerala, the Left government has been revamping the welfare oriented public sector and recently took a progressive stand in favour of women’s rights to enter the Sabarimala temple. Not surprisingly, the Congress party and the BJP took a regressive stand in the issue. Thus, when in parliament, the Left can sound the voice of reason and keep the Centrists in check from shifting to the Right. When in power, the Left can chart an economic and political alternative to neoliberal capitalism.
To be sure, any element of social progress or democratic values around the world has been won not by benevolence by the political or economic elites, but by struggle from below by mass-based movements. Thus in addition to a short-term electoral strategy, the commitment to building a working class-peasantry alliance makes the Left the sole mass-based political faction with a long-term interest to fundamentally transform the system. The necessity of the joint struggle for social justice around class and social identities thus remains pertinent and it would not be an understatement to assert the theoretical strength and practical relevance of the Left in this regard.