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Authoritarianism & resistance in India (pt. 3)

Congress, the left, and social struggle

In the third part of this three-part interview, Nagesh Rao discusses the state of the political alternatives to Modi’s BJP government. Part one examined the mass uprising of farmers that rocked the country last year, while part two analyzed Modi’s right wing authoritarian project. In this concluding interview, Rao lays out the problems with both the Congress Party and the communist parties (e.g. CPI-M, CPI-ML, etc.) and the challenges of building a genuine alternative amidst the country’s devastating COVID crisis.

Ashley Smith: The huge spike in Covid cases in India, the massive rates of hospitalization, with people dying from lack of oxygen cylinders and other basics, even after Modi boasted that India had “defeated” Covid, have led to calls for his resignation. Do you see the tide tuning at all?

Nagesh Rao: The news these days is so distressing. We all know about the ongoing catastrophe in India, but no one really knows its true scale. The official figures (283,000 dead and more than 300,000 new cases each day) are staggering enough but the real numbers are much higher–by some estimates as much as five times higher. In January this year Modi was crowing at Davos about how India had defeated Covid. Now in May, the papers are filled with horrific reports of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of corpses found washing up on the banks of the Ganges and buried in shallow riverbeds.

It needn’t have been this way. Kerala’s disaster mitigation, led by science and a grassroots approach, and managed by a competent left-led government, stands in stark contrast to the national and criminal disgrace that is the Modi regime’s death machine.

There is widespread anger amidst the grief and suffering but Modi isn’t the resigning type. National elections are still three years away and a lot can happen before then but the pressure is building, no doubt, both domestically and internationally. Domestically, the regime has responded with more repression–jailing dissenters, policing online speech, and trying to gag independent media–even as former civil servants, and even state high courts have criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Internationally, the media have become more and more critical of the Modi government. Indian embassies in the U.S. are now trying to recruit people to prop up the government’s image because for this cynical regime it’s all about perception management. They will get many takers too—the BJP still has a large base of support in the U.S.

For the left in the U.S. the time is now to join hands with progressive and leftist groups such as Stand With Kashmir, Equality Labs, the Polis Project, South Asia Solidarity Initiative and others, build solidarity with protesting farmers, demand the release of jailed student activists, leftist intellectuals and scholars, and dissident journalists.

AS: How do you read the recent election results in Assam, where the BJP had a strong showing, and West Bengal, where despite much effort, the BJP was defeated, as well as Kerala?

NR: The BJP retained power in Assam, where they have established a base by capitalizing on anti-Bengali and anti-immigrant prejudices. [For e.g. see the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act and a proposed National Register of Citizens. – Eds.] In Bengal they lost ground that they had gained in the 2019 national elections. It is a huge blow to the party, which pulled out all the stops and spent who knows how many millions in a bid to take the state. But in the state assembly in 2016 BJP had won just three seats; this time around they won 75. They now have a firm foothold in the state, and they aren’t going to let go. In Kerala, where for several decades now the government has alternated between a social-democratic front led by the CPs and a center-right alliance led by Congress, the BJP didn’t have much of a chance to begin with.

AS: What is the state of the opposition politically to the BJP? You would think in this moment that there’s a potential for cohering a political stand against the whole project you’ve been describing. What has Congress done? What have the Indian CPs done? Are there other political projects or formations that are giving a more developed articulation of what’s implicit in this [strike], which is a challenge to all the things you’ve just described.

NR: I can’t really talk about the state of the opposition on the ground, except for what I’ve been able to glean online. It’s also difficult to make definitive claims about a complex and rapidly evolving situation.

Just think about this time a year ago. Millions of people were on the march, rallying, marching, sitting down, and sitting in against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC). It seemed like an unstoppable wave, but a couple of months later things looked very different, and not only because of Covid.

The Modi regime responded by calling the protesters “anti-national,” as people who want to break up India (see tukde-tukde gang). Corporate media outlets parroted this line over and over. On January 5, 2020, masked goons armed with sticks and clubs stormed the JNU campus and terrorized the students for what felt like hours. They did this under the cover of darkness, after the lights had somehow been cut. Squads of police held back people from entering the campus for the duration of the terror-inducing rampage. Cellphone footage of the attack went viral. Similar, and even more vicious and large-scale attacks took place at Jamia Millia Islamia University in December 2019 and at Aligarh Muslim University in the state of Uttar Pradesh. These attacks were all in rapid succession, and all this was happening even as thousands were sitting in and occupying public spaces.

Then came rabble-rousing far-right politicians, whipping people up into a frenzy with chants of “Desh ke gaddaaro ko / Goli maaro saalon ko!” (“Traitors to the nation / Shoot the bastards!”). Then came the Hindutva goons leading mobs of rioters and uniformed police to break up the protests by violence and chaos. More than 50 people were killed, and many more injured and brutalized. And then came Covid and the lockdown.

Photo wall at Jamia Milia Islamia University; Credit: DTM

So I’m not going to offer any predictions about how these new protests will develop. Right now, it seems the farmers are prepared for a long haul and are unlikely to back down without a complete repeal of the laws. But a lot can change in the coming weeks and months.

That said, yes, I think the farmers’ protests are a big opportunity for the left, and also a big challenge. There’s no doubt that there’s a huge potential for cohering a stand against Modi’s neoliberal economic agenda, but beyond that we’ll have to see to what extent this translates into a new mass radicalization, and with what effects on the politics of caste, class, gender, religion, and nationality.

The parliamentary opposition is weak and fragmented. The BJP faces no credible rival on the national stage. The main opposition party, the Indian National Congress (the Congress Party, or simply Congress), is a pale shadow of the mass party that hegemonized the anti-colonial struggle, and in either case offers (and offered) no real alternative to the project of Hindu nationalism. After all, the “authoritarian democracy” (Achin Vanaik’s term) that is the Indian state was created and fine-tuned under Jawaharlal Nehru and then under his daughter Indira Gandhi. It is a bourgeois, center-right party controlled by dominant caste Hindus, which has played to majoritarian sentiments just as much as the other Hindu parties, and has an undeserved reputation for secularism and pluralism. In 2016 Congress recovered a bit from its low point of 44 parliamentary seats in the previous election to 52 seats, about a sixth of the BJP’s 302 seats. It’s unlikely to make a comeback on its own and will have to build a coalition with other national and regional parties. But India’s political parties are notoriously fickle and politicians everywhere are notoriously opportunistic, so there’s no use holding out for some grand national coalition that will unseat Modi and Shah.

The communist parties, which are really social-democratic parties with Stalinist baggage, have only a couple of seats each in parliament, and are at their weakest point in recent memory. They are still paying the price for what happened in Nandigram and Singur in 2006 when their attempted neoliberal land-grabs on behalf of Tata and Vedanta Resources Limited corporations sparked peasant uprisings and led to their losing power in a state they had governed for 35 years. Nationally they’ve gone from a high point of 43 seats in parliament in 2004 to 3 seats in 2016. So at least for the foreseeable future, the prospects of a national left-led electoral opposition to the BJP are bleak.

In either event, fixating on elections alone will get us nowhere when it comes to pushing back the Hindutva agenda. As I said earlier (see Part 2) there is widespread social struggle in India. In the last decade, we’ve seen an explosion of Dalit, feminist, and LGBTQ-rights activism, climate activism, and anti-nuclear activism, the anti-CAA/NRC movement, and now the farmers protests. As comrades in the Kolkata-based group Radical Socialist have argued, there’s an urgent need for a new left that is rooted in these struggles. To defeat the fascists you need a left that is not only rooted in the various protest movements but can also offer a vision of a different future. And this the CPs have struggled to do because they are hamstrung not only by their commitment to a statist, developmentalist, gradualism, but also by their commitment to Indian nationalism. Working class liberation is impossible without decolonization, but these left nationalists twist this way and that to justify a colonial occupation in Kashmir.

AS: One thing I just want you to bullet point for U.S. readers, who don’t know a lot of the ins and outs, is what role Congress has played. Of all the opposition parties people in the United States might have heard of Congress as the historic party of national liberation. So what has happened to Congress?

NR: For several decades following the end of British rule, the Indian National Congress carried with it the prestige of having led a successful revolt against the colonizer. Leave aside the fact that Congress leadership during the struggle against British rule was never really interested in the kind of radical democratization that the various oppressed classes, castes, genders and nationalities needed. As Perry Anderson says in his book The Indian Ideology, Congress strategy was designed around maintaining a monopoly of political power in an independent India. They were unwilling to offer any concessions either to Muslims or to Dalits in the form of power sharing or affirmative action but willing to accept partition along religious lines. The party was, and remains, an alliance of upper caste Hindus and bourgeois classes with a center-right orientation. They proclaimed themselves secularists who rejected the two-nation theory, when it was their majoritarian intransigence that guaranteed the Partition.

In the 1950s and 1960s, India’s close ties with the Soviet Union and its involvement in the Non-Aligned Movement gave Congress a progressive veneer, even as they were engaged in a process of consolidating an imperial state that they had wrested from the British. Kashmir, Hyderabad, and much of the northeast were militarily occupied, but Congress got away with it because of this veneer of democracy and secularism, and because of Soviet cover in the United Nations.

Responding in part to the radical student and peasant uprisings of the previous years, Indira Gandhi, part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s dynastic tradition, turned populist in her campaign for a second term as Prime Minister, promising poverty reduction programs. When the Supreme Court four years later ruled the 1971 election faulty and stripped her of her parliamentary seat, she suspended the constitution and imposed emergency rule. In those 18 months in 1975-76 Indira Gandhi ironically strengthened the very forces that she claimed to be defending against: the Hindu right. Less than two decades later (following her assassination in 1984 and that of her son Rajiv Gandhi in 1991) the Congress-led government at the center was unwilling and unable to do anything to stop the demolition of the 500-year-old Babri Masjid mosque by Hindu mobs in late 1992. Since then it’s been a steady process of neo-liberalization going hand in hand with the growth and spread of Hindutva fascism.

Illegal demolition of the Babri Masjid 1992; Credit: Ayman Aumi

Congress can’t fight the Hindu right because its leaders are equally guilty of using Hindu majoritarianism to win elections. For all its rejection of two nations theory, Congress has never shown itself capable of bringing Muslims into the polity as equal citizens. Moreover, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi called on supporters to initiate anti-Sikh pogroms. More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed by rampaging mobs in the capital Delhi and other cities. And so when Hindutva emerged from the shadows and out into the open in 1992 under the leadership of L. K. Advani, and Hindu nationalism emerged as a viable independent national political current with the election of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1996, you see large defections from Congress from those sections of both capital and the middle classes who until now were diffident and discreet about their Hindu chauvinism. The BJP’s rise blew away the need to hide your Hindu chauvinism.

Aaron Amaral: Does there exist currently any organized resistance within the Muslim community, either nationally or regionally? Maybe outside of Kashmir?

NR: There wasn’t much until the anti-CAA/NRC protests. There’s been very little space for Indian Muslims to speak up as Muslims, because they’re immediately labeled anti-national, as Pakistan sympathisers. Indian Muslims have to constantly prove their patriotism, and I think this acts as a constraint on political activism. It is telling that while hundreds of thousands of Muslims took to the streets to protest against the CAA/NRC, the signs of solidarity with the Kashmiri struggle for self-determination were few and far between.

AS: And the left is betraying that demand too. Right?

NR: Many on the left stop short of calling for self-determination for Kashmir. They’ll call for ending the siege, or ending the violence, or ending human rights atrocities, or pulling back the troops, but they will stop short of calling for self-determination for Kashmir. The unity of India is a stated principle of virtually every strand of Indian politics, except among Maoists and Trotskyists.

AS: Which is their adaptation to nationalism.

NR: For Indian nationalism, Kashmir’s incorporation into India validates India’s secularism. This causes confusion even on the left. While the bourgeois parties—from the BJP’s predecessor the Jan Sangh to Congress to the BJP—have successfully communalized a political issue, the left laments the erosion of secularism among Hindus while denying a Muslim-majority province the right to self-determination.

Many Indian leftists tail liberals when it comes to nationalism. Liberals, of course, proudly proclaim their nationalism, so there’s no surprise there. But too many on the left say to Kashmiris, “We support your struggle, but why do you have to emphasize your identity”? I’m not joking–this is more or less word-for-word what a much-respected leftist documentary filmmaker said at a recent academic conference in the United States. Another version of this argument is that we can’t support your struggle as long as you have “Islamist” leaders. But “Hide your Muslimness so we can defend you!” is no way to support a struggle for self-determination. Leftists enable and sustain Islamophobia by offering such “conditional support” for Kashmiri self-determination, and then they are shocked that Hindu nationalist ideas have gained hegemony in society at large.

Nagesh Rao is a Lecturer at Colgate University, a proud father of two, and a long-time socialist who grew up in Bangalore and now lives near Syracuse, NY.

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Aaron Amaral & Ashley Smith View All

Ashley Smith is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont. He has written in numerous publications including Spectre, Truthout, Jacobin, New Politics, and many other online and print publications.

Aaron Amaral is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Tempest Collective, and on the editorial board of New Politics.