Thursday, December 28, 2006

Understanding the Spirit of Indian Politics

(This unusually long post was written at Krish's blog in four parts. The last part appeared today.
Thanks to Krish for having provided the space and opportunity to write there.)

Defining the Ethos of Indian Politics

Indian politics after Independence has to be seen in the context of the national struggle for freedom.

The Indian freedom struggle was marked by few characteristics that ingrained a certain ethos or spirit that has continued for more than the past half a century though interrupted intermittently- most powerfully in the six years under the shadow of the mushroom cloud that rose up in 1998.

The key to this ethos was acceptance of India as not only a territorial concept but also one that was united by its common struggle against economic drain by British colonialism, an acceptance of its unity in diversity and also of its identification with worldwide struggle against imperialism.

Today, much of this may sound as Leftist banter. But none of these were the product of the Left in India, which, in its contemporary Marxist incarnation came into being only in the 1920s and acquired some political organization in the aftermath of the Civil Disobedience Movement, which also coincided with the worldwide crescendo of the Marxist Left in the aftermath of the Depression. What the Left provided was a deeper and stronger thrust on these elements and a firmer theoretical basis based on Lenin’s analysis of Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism.

It was the Indian nationalists starting with Dadabhai Naoroji and RC Dutt who pointed to the economic basis of (un)British rule in India than indulging in a xenophobic or religious phobia. It’s acceptance of “unity in diversity” was articulated by Mahatma Gandhi himself- sometimes going to the other extreme, for example, during the Khilafat movement, but what stands out is the inclusiveness that permeated Gandhiji’s vision. It was accepted only to differing degrees within the Indian National Congress leadership- itself a conglomeration of various forces and groups, more of an umbrella organization rather than a political party.

Its identification with other movements against imperialism came, admittedly, only after 1927 after Jawaharlal Nehru attended the Brussels Congress against Imperialism. But the opposite, that is, the participation of non Indians in the INC had been a reality since much earlier (I need not list the names, but some of them come instantly to mind are Madame Blavatsky, CF Andrews, Meeraben).

Within the INC leadership, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who, above all, and almost single-handedly carried forward this ethos in all respects. He differed fundamentally with Mahatma Gandhi on many issues but most strategically on the question of modernization. While Gandhiji advocated an essentially Narodnik (or ‘back to an idealized village economy’) approach, Jawaharlal advocated an uncategorical acceptance of modernization (”dams are the temples of modern India”).

Jawaharlal’s own fascination of Socialism specially under the influence of Professor Harold Laski, was clear, even if shifting in its stress at various times. The 1955 Avadi session of the INC outlined “Our Basic Approach

‘In order to realise the object of the Congress as laid down in Article I of the Congress constitution, planning should take place with a view to the establishment of a socialistic pattern of society, where the principal means of production are under social ownership or control, production is progressively speeded up and there is equitable distribution of the national wealth.’ On the Five Year Plans the resolution read, ‘The First Five Year Plan was based on a public sector and a private sector. The public sector must play a progressively greater part, more particularly, in the establishment of basic industries.
In reality, the “socialistic pattern” came to mean no more than “nationalization”, that is, state ownership of industries. Jawaharlal insisted that increasing productive capacities of the nation in the making had to be built before the question of distribution could be taken up. This model was called “mixed economy”, which referred not so much to the question of distribution that the State was, on the whole, to ignore during his reign, but merely to the question to ownership. ‘Socialism’ was a vague intent for the State (”socialistic pattern”, not even “socialism”) and not a matter of policy for the government.

The idea was to nurture Indian capitalism by channeling public funds to build a state- owned industrial base. This was an experiment that had been carried out in “socialist” USSR, a model then for all industrially backward countries. Indeed, the USSR’s model gave rise to many variants, and with the benefit of hindsight, the Indian model of mixed economy was rather creative, combining planning within a capitalist framework.

More on this later. At this point it is sufficient to make the point that of all the Congress leaders, only Jawaharlal had given enough thought to the economic foundation of the country. Gandhiji’s own ideas on this (articulated most pithily in his Hind Swaraj) were at best ignored by all except his least influential admirers). It is no coincidence that post- 1947, this fringe of Gandhians were left with practically no agenda after independence had been won.

The only other persons in the INC who were modern in their outlook were Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Subhas Chandra Bose. That Jinnah fell victim to communalism, and indeed, became the Muslim League’s nationally acceptable face, is a sad story that needs separate treatment altogether.

I am not sure what Subhas Chandra Bose’s ideas on economic development were, possibly they were close to Nehru’s but he was not in the picture during the decisive years of 1947-55. All other major leaders like Vallabhbhai Patel, C Rajgopalachary and Maulana Azad were either organizers of the party (Patel) or regional or section satraps/ representatives (CR, the Maulana to some extent). Those who were to come to prominence in 1969 and form the Syndicate bloc in 1969 came from this wing.

Despite the fact that Gandhiji shared his social conservatism with Patel and CR, it was Jawaharlal that he passed on the mantle to: “Jawaharlal will speak my language when I am gone.” This was nothing but Gandhiji’s acceptance of modernization, in his own- some will say,convoluted- manner.

Jawaharlal continued the discourse on economics that had been started by Dadabhai Naoroji and the other critics of colonial economics. He built on this borrowing contemporary themes- from Fabian socialism as well as Marxism and later Russian “socialism”, but unswervingly committed to building capitalism.

It was this state- capitalist structure whose dismantling began in 1991 and continues. It is at best amusing, if not outright hilarious,to see the proponents of neo- liberalism criticize “Nehruvian socialism”, when no such thing existed.

The Challenge to the Ethos

Despite the broad hegemony that the INC was able to achieve, it was challenged by radical voices from the fringes even during the national struggle for freedom. These were the Communist Party, the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and BR Ambedkar’s Depressed Classes movement.

The Communist influence was partly because of reflected glory of the Russian Revolution (it should not be forgotten that to the outside world, the USSR was an undiluted “success story” in the thirties) but also because of the much strongly committed intelligentsia that it was able to rally around itself and who carried the influence of socialist ideas much greater than warranted by the numerical strength of the CP.

In terms of organization, the Communists were far ahead of realizing the significance of an organized assault on political power and had some of the most committed cadre. Bhagat Singh’s sacrifice at the tender age of 23, and his espousal of socialism led to many of his associates to join the CP (among his jailed compatriots was Ajoy Ghosh, the future General Secretary of the CPI).

The Communists, while they may have had tactical disagreements with the INC at some points, were the radical wing of the Indian struggle for freedom. This came from their understanding of imperialism as well as the fact that in many states the communists were those young men and women who felt that the INC’s goal of political freedom was limited. In some states the a number of INC leaders came over to the CPI (Kerala, for example), and in some others maintained participation in both the INC and the CPI.

The Congress Socialist Party (CSP) within the INC represented a more organized wing, and perhaps even a bridge with the CPI. The CSP was to emerge as a separate, though peripheral force in the 1950s, and only after the 1990s did it get re- incarnated in shapes and forms that someone like Acharya Narendra Deva could not have envisaged then. But more on this later.

The Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Depressed Classes movement shared a perspective that was different and even opposed to these three fundamental aspects. All these formations saw internal enemies as more immediate and major threats and the British as a stabilizing force, even feeling that the British were better than their “other”- the Muslim League was scared of a Hindu dominated Congress leadership, the Hindu Mahasabha was scared of the Muslim “snakes” and the Depressed Classes of the dominant upper caste (if not Brahmin) domination of the Congress. The Depressed Classes did have a point- the leadership of the INC, the CPI and the Hindu Mahasabha were indeed Brahmin dominated.

It also needs to be remembered here that the RSS, the major formation of the Hindutva Right was formed as much to counter the lower caste upsurge in Maharashtra specifically in Nagpur, as to fight the Muslims.

Sumit Sarkat et al have provided insight on the RSS in their tract “Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags”:
“The centrally of Maharashtra In the formation of the ideology and organisation of Hindutva in the mid -1920’s might appear rather surprising, as Muslims were a small minority and hardly active, and there had been no major riots in the region during the early 1920′8. But Maharashtra had witnessed a powerful anti -Brahmin movement of backward castes from the 1870’s onwards when Jyotiba Phule had founded his Satyashodhak Samaj.

By the 1920′8, the Dalits too had started organising themselves under Ambedkar. Hindutva in 1925 and in 1990-91; was an upper caste bid to restore a slipping hegemony: RSS’s self -image of its own history makes this abundantly clear. There was, in addition, the distrust felt for the new Gandhian Congress on the part of a section of the predominantly Chitpavan Brahmin Tilakites. It is symptomatic that B.S.Monje, an old associate of Tilak, was one of the five who founded what became the RSS on Vijaya Dashami day, 1925″ {pg10-11).
The Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha and the Depressed Classes movement, each of these focused on sectional interests rather than on an over arching “national” interest. despite a much firmer theoretical understanding of colonialism and imperialism, the Communists were restricted by their dogmatism derived from MN Roy and later RPD’s “India Today”.

This is not to deny that some of the sectional fears and the reality of contradictions between various classes and sections in India existed at the time, but the fact is that they did not see the common principal enemy of the Indian peasant- which was colonialism.

Negation of the Ethos

Post independence, with the Muslim League practically out of the picture, the major political formations were the INC- now re-incarnated as a political party, the CPI, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (with its lone representative S. Mukherjee), the “Socialists” who now advocated an essentially backward caste politics (Ram Manohar Lohia) and the (c)overtly capitalist PSP.

For all of Ambedkar’s qualities, he remained in political backwaters and also led his followers into the same- something that was to change a few decades after his death (and hence the significance of Kanshi Ram).

This framework was sustained more or less in its 1950s form till the late eighties. A lot of change in social structures had taken place in the meanwhile; the Green Revolution had altered the social base of the peasantry in many states in the country led to the emergence of new political parties or of hitherto marginal ones.

Most of these parties are in some way or the other linked to their predecessors of the 1950s in one way or the other. The INC and the CPI/CPM remained perhaps the only one with direct lineages to the 1950s, and even to the days before independence.

The Lohiate groups manifested themselves in various ways, generally these are led by one or few personalities and have “Janta” and/or “socialist” in their names, the major ones being the Samajwadi Party, Lalu Yadav’s Rashtriya Janta Dal, and the Nitish Kumar led Janta Dal (U). The only significant exception is the Bahujan Samaj Party. Though it can, technically speaking, trace itself to Ambedkar’s Indian Labour Party and later the RPI), it had practically nothing to start off with in the states where it is powerful today (UP and MP).

South and East India has shown relatively more resilience in terms of older political parties continuing to remain the major players,though the TDP’s rise in 1980 was certainly spectacular (marking the rise of both Telugu sub- nationalism and the emergence of new castes (the Kammas) in politics.)

The second major emergence at the same time was that of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), which was amazingly, able to build hysteria against the Muslims. The fact that Muslims are worse off than even the Dalits, indicates not only the communal anti- Muslim nature of the BJP but also its essentially anti- poor nature.

Much to the chagrin of Marxists, the developments in the last few decades generally over the world, but particularly in India, have indicated the rise of identity based movements. It places them in a difficult situation where class consciousness and not primordial identities determine the nature of political alliances. It places them in a difficult situation where primordial identities and not class consciousness determine the nature of political alliances. It is all the more piquant when identity overlaps with broad economic classes. This, in the background of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic model of “existing socialism” placed them in a state of stupor, of a paralysis. Communist influence between 1962- 1990 was in a state of stifling stagnation and actually declined in many areas like Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab.

The INC also underwent a massive crisis in the face of the rise of the BJP and the OBC political parties especially in the “BIMARU” states (also called the “Hindi heartland”). Decades of power had corrupted the party to such an extent that a mere hint of failure at the polls makes Congressmen flock to the BJP in hordes. Ideological loyalty had over the years given place to personal loyalties, and even this was based on favors and when the source of those favors- political power at the Center- seemed to dry up, an exodus happened, particularly to the BJP.

What amazed all political analysts was the dramatic rise of the BJP, of course the oft cited comparison with 2 MPs to 88 MPs in 1991 elections is an exaggeration since the Jana Sangh component during the Janta Party rule had been considerable. But still the rise of the BJP was something unexpected and unforeseen. The CPI and the CPM had treated both the Congress, the representative of the bourgeoisie and the BJP, the representative of communal fascism as not only equal, but the Left also entered into an unholy alliance with it within the National Front in 1989.

It took the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and the grisly riots in other states in the interim period for them to realize the difference between the two parties. The Left support to the present UPA government, therefore, is based on the realization that despite the differences with the INC especially on economic policies, the Left and the Congress share the same political ethos.

The present day BJP traces its origin to the Bhartiya Jana Sangh though for a brief period some of its leaders merged into the Janta Party in the seventies (I believe that the BJS, and its founder leader Balraj Madhok both exist, at least on paper). Even before that, it can be linked to the Hindu Mahasabha. One of the Hindu Mahasabha’s leader Shyama Prasad Mukerjee was to later found the BJS. Nathu Ram Godse, another member of the same outfit, had assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.

The RSS itself had focused its energies in galvanizing Hindu youth against the Muslim “enemies”, since its formation in 1925. The Hindu Mahasabha, too had directed its energies towards the same goal. In terms of its overall, it came closer to the Muslim League than to the INC.

After Gandhiji’s assasination in 1948, the RSS was indicted by the judicial commission investigating the Mahatma’s assassination for creating an atmosphere where a group of political activists planned and carried the assassination of the most outstanding advocate of ahimsa. Because of the repercussions that the Sangh faced in the immediate aftermath of the murder, it’s castigation of the Mahatama became oblique. So, while Jawaharlal comes in for direct rebuke in Golwalkar’s “Bunch of Thoughts”, his abuse of Gandhi is implied though unmistakable.

Golwalkar says:
“Those who declare ‘No swaraj without Hindu- Muslim unity’ have thus perpetrated the greatest treason to our society. They have committed the most heinous sin of killing the life- spirit of a
great and ancient people. To preach impotency to a society which gave rise to Shivaji who, in the words of the historian Jadunath Sarkar, ‘proved to the whole world that the Hindu has drunk the elixir of immortality’ and to break the self- confident and proud spirit of such a great and virile society has no parallel in the history of the world for sheer magnitude of its betrayal”.(page 150,151, 1966 edition of Bunch of Thoughts)
His criticism of the Mahatma is more than evident, despite the thin veneer. His criticism of Jawaharlal, indeed, a perverted hatred for the man and what he symbolized in the same book provides the backdrop to the later hatred for Jawaharlal that came into prominence.

This leads me to some conclusive summarization of the ideological character of the assault on India and its concept in the last two decades, since the launch of the infamous Toyota yatra.

This assault has been on both economic and the political fronts, the first one manifested as reneging on “Nehru’s socialism” and the second one, sometimes covertly in cultural terms, but more often than not in showing the Muslims, Christians and minorities in general as the enemies, the fifth columnists in the country- in other words, it harked back to the days of the nationalist struggle where the internal enemies, and not the colonial state were seen as the enemies.

It is a perversity of our times, that a party that had no role to play in one of the greatest movement of men and women in the 20th century next only, in terms of the populations involved, to the Chinese Revolution in 1949, took on the garb of a “nationalist” party!

The inter relation of the two- the assault on the basic premises of the Indian Nation, its inclusiveness and modern vision rooted in the elements of Enlightenment from within the Indian tradition and the overwhelming fascination with neo- liberal economics is hard to miss.Under the globalization that came to be synonymous with neo- liberalism of the 1980s the only major opponent is the national state.

Despite the quintessentially capitalist nature of the Indian state established during the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, it also embodies the anti- imperialist and anti- colonial elements.

It is these elements that have been assault since 1991, by elements from within the INC but most rabidly by the Hindutva BJP. While much was wrong, and stifled development especially after the 70s, and needed to be corrected, the last 15 years have seen the shrill assault against everything. The baby is being thrown out along with the bathwater.

In the backdrop of a decrease in the euphoria over the defeat of ‘existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe in the West, even its decrease in the “war against terror” (another term for war against Islam), it is strange that many in India still seem to clap to its otherwise fading echo. There are sounds from other parts of the world that it needs to wake up to, most resoundingly in South America where majority of the countries have turned to the Left.

As the early part of the 21st century comes to resemble, more and more, the early part of the 20th century, it serves neo- liberalism (another term for neo- colonialism) to forget the struggle against the colonialism. The cause is expedited by a party that wants to erase the struggle of the Indian freedom fighters and replace it with those situated in a mythical past.

Recovering the Ethos

The Left world wide has historically voiced the concerns against the dominant classes. It has set itself as its goal, the emancipation of the working people, of the subjugated against ruling classes. It is the Left that in India has to recover, and leverage, the ethos of the Indian freedom struggle. It will be represented not only the Communist Parties but also any other group, political party and movement that carries forward that ethos.

The success of Marxist theory between 1917 to the sixties was so great (spawning Marxist schools of thought in many disciplines) that it became difficult to separate the Marxist method from the theory. And classical Marxist theory had very little patience with both the ‘nation’ and identity based movements, except in class based context. This is something that was rectified to a large extent in many other countries but not sufficiently in India, primarily because in India, the communist movement was not without successes and it never felt the need to question its basic premises, and hence there has been no ‘New Left’ in India.

The Left is situates itself the fact that one cannot be “left” in certain aspects while being “right” on others and that xenophopia (manifested in India by Hindutva) and globalization are two faces of the same animal.

The Left in India will be made of up of the many movements that will work sometimes in a contradictory manner. It will be built up of organic intellectuals from a Dalit resurgence, from the backward castes, the middle and poor classes and from the sensitive intelligentsia from the ruling classes who realize both the immorality of the increasing gaps between the rich and the poor and the unsustainable nature of “development” fostered by neo- liberalism.

The intellectual tradition for an Indian Left consists of the path breaking method and theories of Karl Marx and F. Engels and the political intensity of Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Antonio Gramsci. It also draws from the literature and traditions of dissent from within India and South Asia, of Charvaka and Sufism, of the Buddha and Kabir. The political traditions that it carries forward are not only political leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhagat Singh, but also Babasaheb Ambedkar and the subaltern protests of Birsa Munda. It cannot but find itself within the fraternity of those who struggle for the weakest of the weakest even as they also sympathise with similar movements across the world that wage a daily struggle against oppression, including the working people in the West who lose their jobs as corporates look for profits in the poorer nations.

The Left in India will embrace internationalism- the universal brotherhood of mankind, not the forced corporatization of the world that goes under the name of globalization.

It will have its heretics. It will learn from them as well.


Buddha Ram said...

Response to part of this rather long write-up at:

Jack Stephens said...

Very nice blog series Bhupinder, very uplifting in the last post. I do hope that your vision for the future of the left in India, and worldwide, comes true. I always wondered why there wasn’t a “New Left” movement in India (especially with aspects such as the Dalit Panthers movement in the early 1970s), and your posts definitely helped me learn some more of why this was so. From an American perspective I can’t help but sometimes feel disheartened by the state of the left in my country. It seems that the left is essentially dead and while there is some rejuvenation due to the defeat of Bush’s party in the 2006 mid-term elections one has to realize that this new “shot” to the left was brought about by the ascent of the Democrats, whom by no means are a leftist party. There tends to be little difference between the Democrats and Republicans and there’s even less now because many of the Democrats elected to the House of Representative are conservative Democrats. In fact, while the left may celebrate Bush’s political demise they seem to have forgotten (well, at least temporarily) that these two parties have helped each other out (intentionally or unintentionally) over the years and in many ways they need each other. The great (and late) Walter Karp wrote about this in one of his early books, Indispensable Enemies, back in 1973. What I tend to see with the left in America is that since the 1960s many in America have become more placated due to the many maneuverings of the capitalists and the entrenched political oligarchy. As American capitalism has become more pervasive and more involved, with the demise of unions, the rise of Regan and the new conservatism (after the Goldwater debacle in the mid-1960s), and of the Clinton Democrats it seems as though there is very little chance for any widespread revolt that we could have had in the 1960s. Even with the demise of the Republican party in these resent elections (by demise though, not total, but for a political season) the politics in America has became much more conservative than it was in the 1960s (and even then it was conservative) and much of this also has to do with the “angry white-man” syndrom where many whites, feeling “threatened” (which makes absolutely no sense, that’s like entrenched Brahmins being feeling threatened by Dalits and OBCs due to an increase in college slots). So while there are economic factors due to the rise of conservatism and political factors, there is also a race factor as well (speaking of race I have a new blog that I co-write with my good, and highly inteligent friend, Carlo Montemayor, on race in America, called “Double Consciousness"). To top it off the left in America fights amongst itself and does suicidal political moves that are much more reactionary than leftist (the International Socialist Organization is now a joke, especially on my campus, the Revolutionary Communist Party seems disconnected [all though the say the right things], and the Communist Party USA probably is still tarnished due to the fact it followed the dictates of the Soviet Union for years, and many of the militant movements such as the Black Panthers where destroyed by internal strife and government interference (which often caused internal strife). There is no party or movement that even goes beyond the local level, the closest we had was Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and that was a Democratic Party movement, not even remotely radical or leftist. But I still fight and I continue to push ahead just like many of my fellow comrades. But, despite all of this, I share your optimism about the left in India and I do remind myself that the struggle will take many years. Great post.

bhupinder said...

Buddha: Thanks for that quote from Sevagram. I have responded on your post at your blog.

Jack: Thanks once again for a very comprehensive comment that could be a post in itself.

I agree that in the United States, politics has been dominated by the Right and what passes for the left is actually little more than what would be considered Center Right even in Europe and elsewhere.

In India, the Left did not succeed to the same extent as in some other countries including China, but it did not fail either. There are two major Communist Parties (the Stalinist CPM and the less Stalinist CPI), there are the a number of Maoist factions and even a Trotskyite party (the RSP).

But the influence of the Left has been far greater than warranted by its head count- in a poor country with an impoverished intelligentsia it is perhaps natural.

Thanks for your encouraging, and insightful, comments.

realitycheck said...

Nice post Bhupinder.

At the street level however, a reality check on the left is not very pleasant.

For starters, the bengali muslims and backward classes need to take the CPI-M party to task for denying them OBC benefits. Is there anyone who wants to take a stab at answering the following question ?

Why are only 6 out of 100 bengalis are eligible for OBC benefits, where as 62 out of 100 keralites are ? The communists have ruled both states and do so today.

Is Bengal the land of social milk and honey and is Kerala mired in backwardness and opppression ? What is the social explanation for this splendid anomaly ?

Arguably the wealthiest muslims (if not the wealthiest community) the Mappilah muslims of northern kerala are classified as OBC, but the wretched poor of Murshidabad, Malda, Dinajpur are not !Even a casual visitor to these two areas will be shocked by the striking contrast. One covered with gulf funded mansions and imported cars, and another grimy and gray with no hope.

For all its talk about "struggling for the weakest of the weak", not even one left MP raised their voice in parliament on the creamy layer issue. They let the creamy layers (who are the richest of the rich) have benefits with only a voice vote.

I apologize if this comment is too harsh. Left is what left does, not what it claims to stand for.

bhupinder said...

There are lot of things for which the mainstream communist parties in India is to be held to, particularly the extremely Stalinist and dogmatic CPM. I have not written about the disenchantment that some of these parties have caused among younger people and even increased dislike for Marxism.

But when one looks at the country as a whole, one cannot but see the great undermining of the Indian ethos by the Hindutva forces. That is the principal enemy of the Indian people today, and only a Congress- Left unity can create conditions under which saner elements can even work.

If you notice the last part of thepost, I have avoided any references to the CPM or CPI except in passing. I'd see the Left as being far broader than these two formations, but as far as representation in the Parliament is concerned, better them than the BJP and Shiv Sena.

Your comment is not harsh at all- you have a point and your are making it emphatically and well. Having being subjected to venomous abusive expletives from the Hindutva wadis for many years, this is like honey :-)

Hyderabadi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
b v n said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
b v n said...


In the Negation of ethos section, about CPs , you have mentioned "It places them in a difficult situation where class consciousness and not primordial identities determine the nature of political alliances." did you mean the other way round ?

bhupinder said...

bvn: oops ! You are right.
I indeed meant the other way around. I will correct the post as well. Thanks for pointing out.