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Mainstream, VOL LII No 12, March 15, 2014

An Indian General Election Like No Other

Saturday 15 March 2014, by Badri Raina

Look at it this way: the anti-colonial Indian national movement, a far more multi-faceted conjuncture than is sometimes propagated, did yield, even among its propertied leaderships, a genuine socialist fervour to spread the fruits of post-colonial reconstruction as widely as new class interests and ingrained regressive social histories would allow. This historical dynamic necessitated assigning a leading role to the state, and placing the “commanding heights” of the economy in public control, and to insulate the economic infrastructure of the independent nation from the predatory demands of inter-national capitalism as much as could be. With a largely selfless input from the then Soviet Union, the steel, coal, and oil sectors came over time to form the strong backbone of new India’s macro-economic life, even as investments in higher education and institutions of science and technology furnished the base for the new professional human resource. Contrary to Right-wing propaganda, the rate of alleviation of poverty in the first two decades after indepen-dence was impressive despite a modest rate of growth.

Having built a considerable and diverse manufacturing clout thanks happily to the sub-sidised inputs of coal, steel. oil, and fertilisers from the state sector, India’s national bourgeoisie began, towards the end of the decade of the eighties, to sense the need to free themselves from the regulated mixed economy in order to enhance the percentage of privatised wealth in the Gross Domestic Product, even as they req-uired the state to continue to protect their oper-ations against international competition.

The decisive “opening up” of the Indian economy began at the commencement of the decade of the ninetees as a collaborative part of the global injunctions laid down in the Washington Consensus of 1990 which explicitly required, among other things, that not just profit-making but profit-maximisation was now to be the common goal of the world’s capitalist classes. Consequently, the chief objective was to transfer wealth from public into private hands the world over, and to make it known to nation-states that national boundaries were no longer to be hindrances to the free movement of Capital from one territory to another for as long as such cash flows made a killing, before the cash was removed elsewhere for further maximisation of profits.

 Over a quarter century now, that global understanding among the owners of cash world-wide has come in our day to lead to a relegation of the real economies and to the jobless multiplication of hot moneys ever on the move for the next killing.

Most significantly, but unsurprisingly, this economic trajectory has led politically the world over to an often contemptuous relegation of democratic principles and processes in favour of brazen concentrations of power shamelessly backed by militarist clout; and, socially, to equally brazen expressions of intolerance and hate for the “other”.

Ironically, the more that the economic opera-tions issuing from the Washington Consensus have brought both the American and European economies to their knees, the greater the clamour for exclusivist appropria-tions of the political and social life of nations, and the greater the contempt for new collective efforts to remedy the bitter fruits of “globalisation”. Even as the pyramids narrow more and more, the base goes into frenzies of unreasoned violence and hate with a view to climbing as far up as can be.

India has come to “grow” impressively since 1990 to the very same pattern—a proliferation of billionaires at the top and of misery at the bottom, with the rate of growth of inequality more rampant than ever before, and the increases in real wages never seeming to keep pace with inflationary price spirals, not to speak of the moneys required for education and healthcare in the overwhelmingly dominant private sectors. Ruefully for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) under whose decade-long aegis the phenomenal growth of the Indian economy has happened chiefly in the jobless service sectors, the new middle classes, products of the UPA’s own exertions, having tasted blood, have relentlessly resented the social rights-based legislatons like the right to work, right to food, right to education as mere “vote-catching” gimmicks and anachronisms from a Nehruvian socialist past. This self-regarding predatory sentiment has found a raucous ally in India’s tameless corporate media who endorse demo-cracy chiefly where it concerns their own freedoms rather than in the matter of the livelihood rights of India’s vast hoi polloi who still find themselves embroiled in a brutal struggle for existence, even as they keep Indian democracy alive. Thus the UPA today finds in its own products its chief adversary who now wish to make that final leap towards super-power status based on further exponential increases in private wealth, bolstered by a new “order” run not in accordance with egalitarian principles but dictatorially on the back of an invincible and aggressively militarised state in league with exclusivist and menacing social and religious bigotry. Interestingly, some of the proponents of this desired future are Indian NRIs who have seen and experienced the collapse of these dreams abroad in the West, and have returned to India for a more pliable milieu.

Needless to say, that, in history, such a conjuncture has been called the moment of Fascism.

Among all of India’s political formations, it is the Right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party—the political wing of the RSS—which has sensed its moment, being closest in its social, political and economic ideological infrastructure to the requirements of the conjuncture.

Thus it is foremost in furnishing a new presidential form of leadership in Narendra Modi—a leadership that promises to go the whole hogg to hand over the economy to the corporate sector, and to ensure through every strong arm method to keep in place all those forms of resistance that may seek to thwart the march of private wealth. And a leadership that seems best equipped on record (Gujarat) to homogenise the frustratingly diverse Indian polity into a monolithic form of “nationalism” that will brook no breaches of that Unitarian covenant. A reason perhaps why Narendra Modi—a man who deploys his words with purpose—was recently to characterise himself as a “Hindu nationalist”. In short, to transform, however clandestinely, the idea of constitutional citizenship into a cultural/religious category. No wonder then that some of India’s retired military Generals are making a beeline to be important elements of this new reconstructive promise, with gun in one hand and Hindu piety in the other, and zero tolerance for those that pretend to make sophisticated arguments.

And yet, Indian democracy now has deep roots, and the Indian hoi polloi, unlike the mono-manaical yuppee classes, are never easy push-overs. If there is a problem it lies in the first-past-the-post principle of the Indian electoral system. Something that has meant that no government in independent India, barring once, has been formed on the basis of a clear majority of the voting percentage, namely, more than fifty per cent of the votes polled. In other words, every government has in that sense been a minority government. The inordinate number and fractiousness of political formations therefore is ideally suited for a party with a thirty or even less per cent of the vote-share to lead the process of government formation.

At the time of writing, far from the madding cacophonies and cock-sure claims, I see the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) making something between 140 and 150 seats in a Parliament of 543 members, and the Indian National Congress struggling to reach a maximum of 120. That would leave about 270 seats with non-Congress, non-BJP formations. Although efforts are underway to bring these formations into an alternative governmental possibility, it would be prudent to say that, given the frustratingly situated local playfields and agendas of these parties, it would require a massively selfless comprehension of the political menace that stares the republic in the face to bring these formations into any ideological coherence. And, truth to tell, one is not certain that such a comprehension exists except among the Left parties and, most honourably, within Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar—a party that however does not wish to be among the third-fronters but remains wedded to an alliance with the Congress.

For the first time in India’s political history, first time I insist although it may be argued that such things have happened once or twice before, it is the new kid on the block whose mind-boggling interventions and exertions may prove of a decisive nature in determining the shape of the new Indian Parliament and government. It is called the Aam Aadmi Party, led by a mercurial, inventive, and daring young ex-bureaucrat and rights activist, Arvind Kejriwal. I offer no judgement on the pristine claims of this leader, and remain equally attentive both to the many counter-claims about his purity of record, and to the political brilliance of his tactics (about strategy I do not yet know), reminiscent of a Prince Hal or a Cassius in Shakespeare.

I will not be surprised if this new party makes a score of some thirty odd seats in the coming elections. But, what is to the purpose is whether in so doing he damages more the Modi gravy train or the Indian National Congress. And, where he might go once the count is out.

What Arvind Kejriwal might consider is this: should the state pass into the hands of the triumvirate of Right-wing religion, Right-wing economics, and Right-wing militarism, all led by a bonapatist neo-Duece, it may be a long while before India and her struggling masses climb out of that fascist conjuncture.

Never before has an Indian General Election seemed more watershed.

The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.

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