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September 28, 2022

Opinion: BJP Gains As Others Put Self re BefoParty, Family Before Self

There are two common ways of thinking about India’s political history. One is that we have journeyed from Congress dominance to BJP dominance with a quarter-century of competitive coalitions in between. The other is that more or less from the outset, Indian politics has been defined not by class or ideology, but by the competitive mobilisation of caste, communal and regional identities.

The ideological history of our politics is a story less often told. And yet, from our first general election onwards, our national politics has usually been defined by ideological distinctions.

In 1952, after those first elections, India had a range of local and regional parties, and four national ones. Those four national parties each represented a distinct ideological orientation or tradition. One right-of-centre party, the Jan Sangh; one Marxist-Leninist party, the Communist Party of India; one non-Marxist, “indigenous” Left-wing party, the Socialists; and one big-tent or catch-all centrist party, the Congress. From the Jan Sangh on the right end of the spectrum, to the Communists on the left, they presented voters with a genuine range of views on India’s future.

By 1962, there was a fifth ideological group – the free-market, liberal Swatantra Party. However, by the time of the 1967 election, both the Socialists and Communists had split into two wings. These splits allowed an increasingly unpopular Congress to hold on to its majority. By 1989, both had reunited, the Socialists (along with a number of ex-Congressmen) into the Janata Dal, the Communists into the alliance that we still know as the Left Front. Swatantra had faded away. Structurally, the election of 1989 looked a lot like 1952. Except that the Janata Dal, unlike its ancestor, was not really an ideological party, and the Communists were now confined to a handful of states.

In electoral terms, 1989 was the Indian Left’s greatest triumph. Socialist or Communist parties won 198 seats – one more than the Congress. It was the Left that brought down Rajiv Gandhi, as they had his mother in 1977. But as in 1977, they did so in partnership with the Jan Sangh, now rechristened the BJP. It was a triumph, we know now, that elevated the partner on the right while undermining those on the left.

Three decades later, India is a country without a meaningful political Left. In 2019, the Communists won six seats, their fewest ever, with four of those on the DMK’s coat-tails. Akhilesh Yadav describes himself on Twitter as the “Socialist Leader of India”, but in reality and perception, none of the post-Janata parties is in fact Socialist. What they are, with the one exception of Nitish Kumar’s JD(U), is dynastic.

With the Congress no longer an active aspirant for national power, this means that only one leg of the 1952 stool is left standing. Ideologically, there is only one game in our town.

Plenty has been written about the causes of the disappearance of India’s Socialists and Communists. The Communists’ failure to reckon with caste; the mutation of socialism, a movement with a broad set of principles, into the narrower politics of Mandal; the inability of the Left as a whole to respond to the twin shocks of 1991 (the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the dissolution of the Soviet Union) – all these played their part.

Three other factors deserve mention. India’s Left parties, and recently also the Congress, have ceded wholesale to the BJP the terrain of nationalism and patriotism. They may feebly point to the non-participation of the BJP’s forebears in the national movement, but to the voter of 2022, rather than 1947, the only nationalist narrative on offer is Hindutva.

India’s communists were never nationalists: before and after Independence, they were always vulnerable to accusations of excessive affinity to foreign powers. The CPI also has the dubious distinction of being the only party other than the Muslim League to have supported Partition. The Socialists, by contrast, were active participants in the freedom struggle and advocates for strategic independence on the world stage. They were proud patriots, but their successors, decades removed from Independence, have declined to take up this aspect of their legacy.

Second, India’s Leftists have been as addicted to infighting as its Hindu right is committed to unity. If, in Vinay Sitapati’s apt phrase, “Hindu Fevicol” is the Sangh Parivar’s greatest weapon, the Left – especially the Socialists – has the opposite habit of attracting human dynamite: charismatic, talented leaders who invariably place self before party.

Self before party, family before self. So goes the dharma of dynasticism. Dynasticism, which in the Indian context was invented by Indira Gandhi, is an incurable disease. It is also inimical to any intellectually honest form of Left politics. A party cannot credibly commit itself to equality, to the challenging of social hierarchies, or even simply to the public good, if its senior posts are assigned on the basis of birth. Dynastic parties in India can only offer a kind of post-ideological populism, or the representation of a particular community, or sub-nationalism. They are, after all, vehicles for the aggrandisement of a single family. Voters have long since caught on.

Yet, what should concern us, more than the eclipse of particular Left parties, is the consequences of the absence of any. We have come to take the absence of ideological contestation for granted. It is sometimes said that despite the decline of Left parties, India has a Left-wing consensus on economic matters. This view distorts both the nature of our political economy as well as what constitutes Leftism. It reduces “statism” to the state’s capacity for the obstruction and intimidation of business and the distribution of private goods.

India’s broader trajectory, briefly slowed but not reversed by Covid, has been precisely the opposite of a Left-wing consensus. In sector across sector, we are privatising the provision of public goods. Private security, private electricity, private education, private healthcare, private drinking water, even private air. The old criticism that the Indian state had no business running hotels and making wristwatches was well-founded. That doesn’t mean it has no business other than building roads and delivering welfare schemes.

In the absence of a Left, our other long-standing political consensus – a preference for crony capitalism to either socialism or open competition – has never been stronger. It is no accident that no Opposition party has expended any energy challenging the BJP’s electoral bonds scheme; they only complain about their small share of the takings.

Why do we need a Left? The Left, in the philosopher Richard Rorty’s words, is “the party of hope”. It begins with a critique of society as it is – of inequality and injustice in all its forms – and is optimistic about our collective capacity to improve.

But what is needed is not a revived version of the old Indian Left that engineered or earned its own downfall. What might a 21st-century Indian Left look like? It could genuinely commit itself to the annihilation of caste, and not merely to a rearrangement of the caste hierarchy, it could focus on health, education, and the environment, three of the biggest failures of the 20th-century Indian Left. It would need to embrace technological change, and offer a strategy for growth, not only redistribution.

Of its two failed predecessors, such a Left would have much more to learn – at least in positive terms – from the Socialists. While the Communists were mere intellectual importers, the Socialists could claim thinkers of genuine originality (to name just three: Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Jayaprakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia), who knew that Indian conditions required Indian answers. The difference between the Communists and Socialists is most often located on the question of caste. Just as central are gender equality and decentralisation. At their best, the Socialists actually took the former seriously; the latter is more desperately needed than ever.

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