India after the elections: a rough guide

Issue: 103

Chris Harman

The result of India’s election in mid-May shook observers of all sorts. Everyone, on the left and right alike, expected the Hindu chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to romp home to another five-year term. There was little else but deep pessimism on the left after state elections in three north Indian states late last year had produced big BJP majorities. And neo-liberals of all sorts took its victory for granted, since they accepted the BJP’s claim that India was ‘shining’, as reforms to ‘liberate’ enterprise by making it easier for the rich to enrich themselves were bound, in their view, to help the poor. A World Bank report earlier this year extolled its performance: ‘India is within striking distance of achieving annual economic growth of 7.5 percent or more, which should be close to the Asian tiger levels and lead to a significant fall in poverty’.1 Even ex-Marxists like Meghnad Desai2 and Nigel Harris3 agreed with it on this point, claiming that a new way of advancing economic growth had been found and that this would lead to a steady, if slow, ending of poverty.

Yet the near-unanimous conclusion of observers after the election was that the poor had voted against the BJP because India was not ‘shining’ for them. The BJP lost nearly a third of its representation in parliament and allowed Congress to rise from the ashes, increase its representation by a third and take the position of largest party for the first time in a decade. In fact, India’s ‘first past the post’ electoral system vastly exaggerated the shift in votes—Congress as well as the BJP actually got fewer votes than in the last election in 1999.4 But the BJP and its allies did get a hammering in places it confidently expected to get overwhelming victories, like Gujarat. A post-election opinion poll in the important state of Andhra Pradesh showed that 54 percent thought ‘only the rich have benefited’ from government economic policies, and only 16 percent thought ‘prosperity has come’.5

This is not a routine parliamentary change. At the core of the BJP is a tight-knit organisation, the RSS, run along almost military lines, and based upon inculcating the notion of Hindu superiority over the country’s 150 million Muslims and inciting repeated armed attacks on religious minorities. Just two years ago the RSS incited riots in one of India’s most developed states, Gujarat, that led to the murder of 2,000 Muslims, while the BJP state government made sure the police only intervened to support the attackers and the national BJP-led government calculated the electoral advantages to be had. None of this, of course, prevented George Bush embracing India’s prime minister, Vajpayee, as an ally in the ‘war against terrorism’, or New Labour’s David Blunkett using India as the launching pad for one of his ‘anti-terrorism’ initiatives.

The BJP and the RSS will be licking their wounds in the months ahead. But does this mean that Congress will resume its once dominant political role, that India will enter a new era of political stability, and that the RSS and its front organisations are banished forever as a threat?

In this article I attempt to show why not, with a rough guide to what has really been happening, and to suggest some of the things that the left should be doing.

Economic growth

Indian capitalism has grown enormously since independence in 1947 and is still growing. Attempts to deny this by wide sections of the Indian left involve turning their backs on reality and lead to strategies that may at times seem heroic but which are doomed to fail.

But this does not mean India is going to smoothly turn into an advanced industrial economy as the neo-liberals claim. The process of capitalist accumulation is always a contradictory dynamic, creating repeated economic, social and political crises, and nowhere more so than in weaker, less economically developed capitalisms.

The statistical evidence for industrial growth in India is unchallengeable. Manufacturing output grew by an average of 5.3 percent a year from 1950 to 1981 and by 6 .4 percent a year from 1981 to 2001. Agricultural output grew by 2.3 percent a year in the first period and 3.8 percent in the second.6 So manufacturing output was 12 times higher in 2001 than in 1951, and agricultural output four times higher. The way parts of India have changed dramatically with industrialisation is all too visible for anyone who has visited places like Mumbai (Bombay), Chennai (Madras), Hyderabad or Bangalore over the last two decades. Capital has accumulated, and its accumulation has transformed the lives of tens of millions of people.

Where apologists for capitalism go wrong is to equate this growth with a raising of the whole of society which relentlessly sweeps away poverty and forms of oppression. In fact, capitalist growth everywhere today is accompanied by the intensification of some forms of oppression and by deep pools of poverty that can expand in some places while they contract in others. And even where there is growth now, there can be no guarantee that it will continue smoothly in the years ahead. The example of countries like Argentina—or even Japan—should be enough to prove that point.

Indian growth has never, at any point in the last five decades, proceeded evenly from year to year. It has been marked by repeated fluctuations—and the last five years have been no exception. So manufacturing production grew by 6.7 percent in 1999-2000, by 5 percent in 2000-2001, by 2.7 percent in 2001-2002, and by 5.3 percent in 2002-2003.7

The unevenness is partly because of the continued importance of agriculture. If there is a poor monsoon, agricultural failures slow down industrial expansion; if there is a good monsoon, as last year, the whole economy can bound forward. One reason India could seem to some to be ‘shining’ this spring was because of last summer’s rains! But there is more to the unevenness than just the weather. Capitalist growth everywhere proceeds by rapid surges forward—and then by suddenly shuddering to a halt. This follows from the central role played by the decisions of major capitalists on whether to invest or not. If they make positive decisions there is a rapid growth in the market. If they make negative ones there is stagnation or contraction. That has been the pattern in India for the last half-century, with ‘fewer than a dozen years of somewhat higher rates of growth, almost invariably followed by poor performances’.8 The more the state withdraws from controlling the economy in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, the more erratic these investment decisions are likely to be—and the more uneven economic development.

Recent growth rates have been dependent upon very high levels of savings and investment—between 25 and 30 percent of total output. But it is very difficult to sustain such levels, and there is already some evidence of a fallback. In any case they are not yet sufficient to justify the hype about an ‘emerging economic giant’ alongside China (with a mammoth 40 percent of output going into investment). World Trade Organisation figures show that India’s share of world exports fell to 0.7 percent last year from 0.8 percent in 2002, putting it in 31st position. By contrast China’s share rose from 5.1 percent to 5.9 percent.9

Yet even the present level of saving and investment can only be sustained if a massive surplus accrues to the capitalist class at the expense of wide sections of the population. There is accumulation of wealth on the one side—and it still depends upon accumulation of poverty on the other, whatever the World Bank might say.

Its prediction of an end to poverty rests upon official figures supposedly showing a decline in the proportion of people living in absolute poverty by 10 percent in the last decade. But in the same period there has been a fall in food consumption in the rural areas, where two thirds of Indians live. Abhijit Sen, reanalysing the official figures, concludes that the total number living in poverty probably grew in the 1990s, that the proportion below the poverty line only fell very slightly, and this was a ‘lost decade’ in terms of fighting poverty.10 The number below the poverty line in 2002 was 35 percent of the Indian population, some 364 million people. But even this underestimates the degree of suffering in ‘shining India’, as Sen points out: ‘Inadequate nutrition is actually far more widespread than either hunger or income poverty. Half of all Indian children are clinically undernourished and almost 40 percent of all Indian adults suffer chronic energy deficiency’.11

The poverty in which vast numbers of people live was shown graphically during a BJP election meeting in the city of Lucknow in April, when 22 women and three children were trampled to death in a rush by thousands of people to get free saris worth 45 rupees (55p) each.

Apologists for capitalism claim that economic growth will automatically cut into such poverty by creating more jobs. But India’s insertion into the world system means that investment in industry is overwhelmingly capital-intensive (ie labour-saving) investment, with the capital-output ratio rising substantially in the 1990s. There has been hardly any increase in the number of industrial jobs in recent years. And agriculture is incapable of absorbing a rural labour force growing by about 3 million a year. So people continue to flood from the countryside to the cities, where they confront unemployment levels of 10 percent or more. Some may eventually find jobs in the service sector, where employment is growing. But although a part of this sector is highly productive, this is a very small part—for example, the much publicised call centres employ only 100,000 people, or 0.002 percent of the country’s workforce.12 Massively more important are jobs involving unskilled labour at very low levels of productivity in return for the 50 rupees ($1) a day needed to just about keep a family alive—sweeping and cleaning, working as domestic servants, washing clothes, pushing barrows, peddling cycle rickshaws, hawking goods, portering, waitering, guarding. Yet even in this area some jobs are threatened by new technologies—for instance, the use of vacuum cleaners instead of brooms, replacement of the cycle rickshaw by the autorickshaw, the use of the mobile phone instead of the messenger boy:

The beneficiaries of growth have been the already better off, not the mass of the population. After 1993 the top 1 percent saw their incomes rise by 50 percent, the top 0.1 percent (1 million people) by 200 percent.13 What is often called the ‘new market’ for the Indian ‘middle class’ encompasses at most the richest 15 percent of the population,14 and for the great majority of these the consumer boom means ‘television sets, telephones and housing with basic amenities’ rather than ‘consumer durables, cars, mobile phones and credit cards’.15

The ‘new prosperity’ is spread very unevenly across the country. New Delhi and Old Delhi are still like different cities, even though they merge into one another. In Mumbai the biggest slum in Asia backs onto the thriving middle class area of Bandhra. To travel by road from Chandigarh (on the edge of Punjab) for four hours to Delhi and from Delhi for four hours to Aligarh (in Uttar Pradesh) is to seem to move from one world to another, from a ‘developing’ part of the Third World to a fourth world akin to conditions in much of Africa. Official figures show 41 percent of people living in poverty in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a population of 170 million (greater than Russia’s); 12 percent in poverty in Punjab. And millions are in intense poverty even in the ‘prosperous’ regions: ‘More than 70 percent of the rural population in Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu consume less than 2,200 calories per day’.16 Punjab is among the states where small farmers are being hit heavily by indebtedness, with a rising toll of suicides.

There is ‘development’, but it is ‘combined and uneven’. Increasingly integrated into the world system, the Indian economy develops according to the laws of that system. On the one side there is growing capital intensity in industry and mechanisation of agriculture in the most productive regions. On the other side there is growing marginalisation of whole sectors of the population and whole regions. ‘Development’ therefore necessarily breeds deep social tensions that can flare into sudden class confrontations, but also into bitter clashes between people over matters of religion, ethnicity and caste. One by-product has been growing turmoil in the political superstructure, of which the election result was the most recent manifestation.

From the Raj to Congress

British colonialism thrust the Indian subcontinent into the developing world capitalist system. But it did so in such a way that India suffered from all the negative features of capitalism while gaining nothing in terms of agricultural and industrial growth. The British took over the pre-capitalist way of extracting most of the surplus from the peasantry through taxation, leaving a portion for a pre-capitalist exploiting class (the zamindars) to maintain themselves in luxury as rent-receiving landowners. This meant there was virtually no increase in agricultural productivity; total output grew at about the same pace as the population through the cultivation of greater areas of land, not through agricultural improvement (except with irrigation schemes in the ‘canal colonies’ of Punjab).

India’s handloom industry had been the world’s biggest textile exporter in the 18th century; the profits on the exports were seized by the British East India Company rather than being available to transform handicraft production into manufacturing industry, as happened in Britain. Then the imposition of free trade allowed British exports to all but destroy the Indian industry. Deindustrialisation was the pattern throughout most of the 19th century.

There was some very limited reindustrialisation by the beginning of the 20th century—for instance, with the opening of Bombay textile mills and the growth of the Bengal jute industry. But it was cramped, and some of the owners began to hanker after a state of their own that would protect them from British competition and enable them to plough some of the agricultural surplus into accumulation of their own.

The agitation for self-government and then independence that found expression in the Indian National Congress was very much the work of the educated middle class (Gandhi was a lawyer trained at the Inns of Court in London and Nehru was educated at Harrow public school). Resentment at British rule (and the racism that accompanied it) led them to dream of India as a modern state which they could rule. But sections of Indian capitalism felt a congruence of interest with these middle class agitators and financed them as they reached out to the urban masses and, above all, through the mediation of Gandhi’s traditional garb and religious language, to the mass of peasants. It was the industrialist Birla who discussed with Congress leaders how to organise the Quit India movement in 1942, and it was at Birla House in New Delhi where Gandhi stayed when he was in the city.

Gandhi’s form of ‘non-violent resistance’—relying on disciplined action by selected groups of dedicated activists—fitted neatly into this framework. It spread national feeling among the mass of people, but enabled agitation to be switched off the moment it threatened to go in a highly revolutionary direction which might threaten local capital as well as British rule—as in the early 1920s and early 1930s and at the time of the mutiny by the British Indian navy in Bombay in 1946.

This mix of middle class national feeling and cold capitalist calculation explains the political manoeuvring in the run-up to independence and partition in 1947. The Muslim League, dominated by big Muslim landowners, had long tried to resist Congress, with its orientation towards using the agrarian surplus for capitalist development, gaining control of an independent India. It raised the demand for Pakistan in 1940 as an obstacle to independence (a present much welcomed by Britain’s wartime coalition government) and then succeeded in 1946 and 1947 in whipping up frenetic support for it among the Muslim middle and lower classes through deliberate incitement of communal riots.17 Congress was not prepared to challenge the Muslim League through revolutionary agitation that would have set peasants of all religions against landowners of all religions. Instead the key Congress leaders opted to accept partition—and then to fight Pakistan for control of Kashmir. This option, however costly, seemed to provide some possibility of gaining the extra surplus needed to develop India as a centre of independent capital accumulation.

As in other parts of the world at the time, the newly independent Indian state was a capitalist state with a difference. Private capital alone could not marshal the resources needed for that independent accumulation. It needed the state to involve itself directly in the task. It also needed a political organisation with deep social roots to integrate the whole of Indian society behind its goals.

Congress was a mass organisation which fitted these needs. Gandhiism had enabled the party to draw rural notables and the better-off peasants to it in the country’s hundreds of thousands of villages. Nehru had provided an ideology of ‘socialism’ which combined admiration for the successes of Russian-style industrialisation with promises of reforms to help the poor. Ambedkar, the best-known Dalit (or ‘untouchable’) leader, was brought on board to write a constitution that seemed to challenge the oppression of the lowest castes. Other figures were close enough to big landowning and industrial interests for these not to feel threatened by the party’s official populist rhetoric.

The model worked for 20 years. Congress retained sufficient roots and mass appeal for its narrow stratum of upper middle class, mainly English speakers to tie to a single national capitalist project hundreds of millions of people sharply divided along class lines and speaking scores of different languages. And it did so by directing a growing proportion of national output to accumulation, which seemed at first to do nothing for the mass of people.

There were a series of mini-crises: a war with Pakistan over Kashmir that neither side could win; Communist-led peasant insurgency in the former princely state of Hyderabad that was ruthlessly crushed; a clash with landowning interests inside Congress itself in the early 1950s with the ending of the zamindar landlord system; massive agitation in the mid and late 1950s for the redrawing of state boundaries along linguistic lines; the rise of Communist influence in Kerala in the south and Bengal in the north east; another war with Pakistan in 1965. But Congress held together and maintained its hegemony over the major classes and the major regions. To many people Congress was India, and Nehru was Congress.

Capital accumulation was relatively slow, with the maximum achievable growth rate seeming to be less than 4 percent a year (which was often referred to as ‘the Hindu rate of growth’). Big new enterprises would often work at only 40 or 50 percent of capacity because of insufficient markets or raw materials. The population could only be fed by massive imports of grain from abroad, which put pressure on foreign currency reserves. During the 1950s and early 1960s none of this seemed to matter. But in the mid-1960s and early 1970s things seemed to go quite askew. Governments found it difficult to keep accumulation going, despite falls in real wages and growing popular discontent.

The fragmentation of Congress

The economy escaped from the crisis and resumed its growth pattern (although still at the relatively slow rate) despite the expectations of many people at the time.18 But the political structure was badly shaken. Growth in the previous period had led to the emergence of new capitalist interests in town and country that pressed for their share of the total surplus. It also created whole new layers of the middle class, with quite different backgrounds and worldviews to the mainly English-speaking Congress elite. Some of the richer peasants and old landlords had been transformed into mini-capitalists, sending their sons into education with the goal of getting lucrative government jobs. Their influence enabled them to begin to colonise local and regional Congress committees, and to use them to push their own demands for some diversion of the money from capitalist industry into capitalist agriculture. And each local group pressed for funds to go to its area rather than others.

It became increasingly difficult for the Congress leaders at the centre to keep the rival groups happy. Problems of language, caste and religion began to come to the fore.

The ruling group generally treated English as their first language—even though only about 1 or 2 percent of the total population were fluent in it and the great majority could not understand it at all. Something over a third of people, living in the ‘cow belt’ stretching from the border of Punjab in the west to the borders of Bengal in the east, spoke Hindi, and the emerging influential interests in this region demanded it be the single national language. But this was unacceptable to those brought up to use the very different regional languages of south India. If Hindi were the national language their children would find it all but impossible to make careers in government service. If everyone wanting a middle class career had to speak English then everyone would have the same disadvantage, and so they pushed for keeping it as an official language alongside Hindi. And they pushed for the local languages, not Hindi, to have official status in the individual states.

Meanwhile, in each region the rising groups—especially the growing numbers of university graduates who could not get the well paid posts they were looking for—manoeuvred against each other. One form this took was a resort to petty nationalisms, as when the Shiv Sena party emerged in Maharashtra based initially upon opposition to immigrants from south India. Another was to encourage clashes between people of different religions: Hindu communal agitation against Muslims could keep them out of the better jobs (an agitation Shiv Sena soon found favourable to itself); Muslim groups could in turn promise to deliver ‘vote banks’ to parties which promised to take their interests into account; Sikh groups could hawk their demands in front of rival political factions. Finally, the search for votes and influence led to groups using caste ties and animosities to draw people behind them.

Caste divides society into old-established hereditary groups not based directly on relations of production, and so it is often thought of simply as a hangover from pre-capitalist society. But the notion that people are born into a ‘natural’ hierarchy always suits many of those at the top as they try to keep those below them in their place in the midst of rapid economic and social change. Hence the growth and persistence well into the 20th century of racial divisions in the southern states of the US and South Africa or of the religious divide in Northern Ireland. In a similar way, caste in India not only survived throughout the period of British colonial rule and after, but in some ways increased in importance.

For the traditional upper castes, particularly the Brahmins, it was a means to try to maintain their dominant position inside government service (and, with independence, the Congress machine) and their superior position as landlords in the countryside. For the middle castes below them (now confusingly called ‘the other backward castes’), caste networks provided a sense of security in the midst of market pressures and enabled them to assert their interests in competition with each other. For a minority of them, who became capitalist farmers, caste was also a way of mobilising poorer peasants behind them in agitation to break the monopoly of lucrative posts and influence held by the upper castes—and to join with the landlords to keep down the Dalits whose labour they also exploited. And for the Dalits caste organisation was a way of uniting, at the ballot box at least, against systematic discrimination.

Capitalist growth simultaneously encouraged the lower and middle castes to challenge those above them—and put pressure on the upper and middle castes to keep oppressing those below.19 One way to do both things was for the more prosperous and articulate members of a caste to gain control of the local Congress machine and to use it for access to the resources of the state locally. But this magnified the problems Congress faced in trying to hold the disparate elements of society together. There was a growing fragmentation of Congress at its base—and, the other side of this, a growing tendency to authoritarian, one-person domination of the party at the centre as the only way to hold the fragments together.

By the time Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to the mahatma) took control of the party and the government in the late 1960s, some of the fragments were ready to break free. Suddenly here were two rival coalitions of interest groups, each claiming the mantle of the old Congress. This took place against the background of disappointing economic figures, a fall in real wages, a wave of strikes in the industrial centres of West Bengal leading to electoral victory for the Communists, radicalisation leading thousands of students to associate with the far left, peasant agitation in north India by one of the leaders of the independence struggle, JP Narayan, and a national railway strike involving bitter clashes with thousands of police. Faced with fragmentation going to the extremes, Indira Gandhi reacted with an extreme measure—throwing all the opposition leaders into prison with the proclamation of a national ‘emergency’ in 1975.

This did not last long. Indira Gandhi believed she had a chance in 1977 to strengthen her hold through elections—and lost to a coalition of the whole opposition, the Janata Dal, which gained an overwhelming parliamentary majority. Only it found itself as incapable as she had been of pulling the fragmented interest groups together into a coherent political structure. Its main leaders fell out with each other, and Indira Gandhi was soon prime minister again.

But the time was past when Congress parliamentary majorities could cover up the contradictions in the wider political superstructure. The party came increasingly to depend at the centre upon the claim of almost magical powers for one family (the descendants of Nehru), and in each locality upon corruption that produced almost endless squabbles between rival groups—with the central leadership encouraging these squabbles so as to balance between the groups.

One significant outcome of such methods was the bloody agitation for Khalistan—for a separate Sikh state—in Punjab in the 1980s. Punjab was the region where capitalist agriculture was most successful, and regional farming interests organised through the Akali Dal party were a serious challenge to local Congress influence. Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, sought to reduce their influence by encouraging one of their ambitious Sikh rivals. But the new favourite soon felt he had a sufficient base of his own to turn against the Gandhis and to try to sever Punjab, with its agricultural wealth, from the rest of the country. He struck a chord with a minority of unemployed Sikh graduates who became ever more fervent in the separatist agitation, violently harassing their opponents, Sikh and Hindu alike. Indira Gandhi manoeuvred in an attempt to bring the situation under control. She exaggerated the importance of the Khalistan agitation, portraying it as a threat to the ‘motherland’, and then sent the Indian army to bombard the Sikhs’ holiest place, the Golden Temple in Amritsar. In the aftermath, enraged Sikh members of her military bodyguard shot her dead, Hindu mobs murdered hundreds of Sikhs in Delhi while the Congress political leaders ensured the police did nothing. For another five years Punjab was in turmoil as armed Khalistan activists and the forces of the Indian state murdered each other and anyone who stood in their way (like members of the left, whether from Sikh or Hindu backgrounds).

The episode did not lead to the immediate collapse of Congress. But it was further proof that Congress could no longer do what it had done so successfully in the past under Nehru—integrate all classes and all regions of the country behind the ‘developmental’ goals of Indian capital. Congress’s failure led to further splits from it and the growth of new, regional and caste-based parties. But coalition governments based on these in 1989 and 1996 failed as well. They had all Congress’s vices, without its one advantage—the magic of the Nehru line of descent. The crisis was one of the whole political superstructure.

Congress’s last fling—the turn to neo-liberalism

In the last period of Indira Gandhi and under her son Rajiv, Congress dropped much of its old rhetoric about caring for the poor and fighting poverty. It also reduced its old attention to the most oppressed sections of society, the Dalits, the tribal peoples and the Muslims—assuming that they would continue to vote for it because they had nowhere else to turn. Instead it increasingly directed its appeal to the already prosperous sections among the middle class and the farmers—and it played with Hindu chauvinism (to such an extent that the RSS backed Congress in the 1983 metropolitan elections in Delhi).20 This could not prevent Congress losing office in 1989 after a bribery scandal (the Bofors affair), and it was not until 1991 (after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination by a supporter of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers) that it was back in power.

It was then that it opted for a complete change in economic policy. It dropped the old ‘development’ paradigm based upon protection of national industries, substantial state ownership and a complex system of import licences and subsidies. In its place were a Structural Adjustment Programme, privatisation, moves towards free trade, freeing of capital movements and an orientation towards foreign markets. The old hollow rhetoric about ‘socialism’ and ‘poverty alleviation’ gave way to calls for the rich to ‘help’ the poor by enriching themselves.

There was an element of political desperation in this. If Congress could no longer hold together the disparate local elites, perhaps it could appeal to the new yuppie layer emerging in the more prosperous regions that despised the poor and disliked the old false-socialist rhetoric. But there was more involved than just political game playing. The shift corresponded to a change in the strategy of the main capitalist interests in India—a shift that paralleled that which was happening among capitalist classes and their intellectual hangers-on right across the Third World.

Capital, which had grown within national boundaries, now felt increasingly constrained by them. It wanted to get access to foreign markets and capital and to come to production agreements with the most advanced multinationals—and it could not do so without agreeing to open up its domestic markets. It was a risk it now felt confident enough to take precisely because it had benefited from 40 years of protection. The same logic of accumulation which had led it at one stage to acquiesce in Nehruvian ‘socialism’ now led it to embrace neo-liberalism, the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. The Birla family who once housed Gandhi now boast of their scores of joint ventures with foreign multinationals.

It was an economic turn which suited Indian capital. But it was not enough to shore up Congress. Electoral victory in 1991 was soon followed by electoral defeat. For by this time the long drawn-out crisis of the political superstructure had opened up room for a rival national political force, and with it another method of trying to integrate all classes and all pressure groups behind the goal of accumulation.

The slow rise of the RSS

The rival to Congress had its origins in a supposedly ‘non-political’ organisation formed in the 1920s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. Its leaders saw its role as being to rescue the supposed Hindu essence of India from foreign contamination. In this way alone could the ‘Hindu nation’ come into its own. And the foreign contamination did not just come from British imperialism, but above all from Muslim influences. The almost 200 years of British rule had been shorter and, the RSS believed, less insidious than the 600 previous years of Muslim rule. For this reason their training was for street fighting against Muslims, not for involvement in the national movement against Britain, from which the RSS abstained.

It is never possible to make a mechanical connection between people’s ideas and their short term economic interests, but economic interests often frame how they see things and make it easier for them to accept certain ideas. And for those young members of the educated middle class who the RSS attracted, immediate economic competition for jobs was not with the British but with Muslims (as well as, of course, with other Hindus).

The decades leading up to independence were marked by alternations of unified Hindu, Sikh and Muslim movements against colonialism on the one hand, and clashes between people belonging to the different faiths on the other. Members of the middle classes could play a key agitational role in both activities. They could articulate the view that the future lay with a society in which all groups united to build a modern nation. Or they could have a more limited perspective of Hindus uniting to prove their superiority over Muslim competitors for jobs and influence.

The period was not an easy one for the RSS. The religious divide was not a clear-cut cleavage along simple lines across the whole of Indian society. In some areas the Muslims were the landowners and Hindus the peasants, but in other areas it was the other way round. And in many areas centuries of religious coexistence had led to syncretic religious forms bringing together elements from both faiths, with Hindus worshipping at the shrines of Muslim Sufi saints and participating in both sorts of religious ceremonies. Finally, Hinduism itself was not a single religion but a mixture of sects holding completely different beliefs—from monotheism to atheism—worshipping different gods, and sometimes clashing violently with each other. A huge chunk (perhaps a third) of the ‘Hindu’ population were Dalits and tribal peoples who ate beef and rejected tenets central to the sects of caste Hinduism like the doctrine of dharma.

The Hindu chauvinists (and, for that matter, the Muslim and Sikh chauvinists) could on occasions unleash the mob violence of people of one religion against those of another. But it was much more difficult for them to move on to establish stable mass organisation which ignored the class divisions among their co-religionists and undercut the idea of unity against the colonial occupier. The RSS and other Hindu chauvinist organisations were continually overshadowed by Congress—and remained so in the first decades after independence, despite the horrific communal hatreds that erupted at the time of partition.

The leaders of the RSS focused on building up a cadre organisation, with an emphasis on recruiting boys between the ages of 13 and 16, who they inculcated with a spirit of unity and hatred for Muslims meant to hold them to the organisation for the rest of their lives. They would be organised into local groups which assembled for a short period each day to salute the RSS flag, chant RSS ‘prayers’, undertake physical exercise, practise ‘self-defence’ with staves, and have discussions on the ‘harm’ done by Muslims to India. The groups were linked to local and regional structures united at the top under the almost military authority of a leader holding that position for life. There were 60 such groups in 1930, 500 with 40,000 members by 1939.21 The groups had two functions—spreading the RSS message, and exploiting communal tension so as to appear as the defenders of Hindu areas in clashes with Muslims. The RSS remained a force on the margins of Indian society—a force with some significance in terms of numbers and discipline, but still on the margins.

What enabled it to move out of the shadows was the internal fragmentation, decay and corruption of Congress. As people lost faith in Congress’s self-projection as a party of the whole nation, the RSS set out to win wide layers of people to its Hindu chauvinist version of Indian nationalism.

The RSS’s entry into the mainstream

The RSS’s first national political breakthrough occurred in the mid-1970s as the different fragments of Congress began to look for allies and the RSS’s formidable cadre structure was at hand to help—for a price. Disillusioned with the way Congress had betrayed its promises to the mass of peasants, one of the best known figures from the independence struggle, the socialist turned Gandhian JP Narayan, began an agitation in the north Indian countryside against Indira Gandhi and for what he called ‘social revolution’. The RSS and its Jana Sangh political front threw their weight behind the agitation, calling Narayan a ‘saint’. He reciprocated by praising them. He attended a Jana Sangh conference and declared, ‘If the Jana Sangh is fascist, then I am a fascist’.22

Narayan’s agitation was one of the factors that led Indira Gandhi to impose the emergency. For the next two years the main RSS leaders were in prison along with the other opposition leaders. When the 1977 election led to their release, the other leaders were only too happy to form an alliance and then a joint party, Janata—and to welcome the RSS on board through its Jana Sangh political front. Three members of the RSS—Vajpayee, Advani and Brij Lal Verma—joined the national government. The communalist agitators had well and truly come in from the cold. Funds from government welfare projects enabled the RSS to build its networks on the ground very rapidly until its growing influence worried some of its government partners sufficiently for them to turn against it. This was part of the reason for the collapse of the Janata government in 1979. But the RSS felt it had made sufficient political advances to form the BJP as a new front party, involving people who accepted its leadership but were not themselves RSS members.

Now it was the turn of Indira Gandhi and her sons to provide an opening for the RSS. After the emergency she played down the old talk of socialism and fighting poverty and increasingly used Hindu language, accepting the guidance of a holy man, making pilgrimages to holy rivers, shrines and temples, and speaking of Hindu hegemony in the Hindu heartland while a prominent member of Congress, Karan Singh, participated in an RSS-sponsored meeting.23 RSS members responded to her moves to Hindu chauvinism by moving towards her, backing Congress in the Delhi election of 1983. Under Rajiv Gandhi and the unleashing of repression against Sikh separatists, the government’s appeal to Hindu communal sentiment continued.

The drive for hegemony

The RSS was able to grow against this background. But it was also able to begin extending its influence by setting up a series of fronts aimed at influencing very large numbers of people outside its own membership—a student front, a trade union front and, most importantly, a religious front, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Hinduism, as noted above, has never really been a single religion, but rather a mass of sects holding different beliefs and worshipping different gods. The RSS has always seen its mission as being to get these different groups to identify with a single thing, Hinduism, in opposition to other religions, especially Islam. To this end it continually propagated the demand for a legal ban on cow slaughter, seen as being an evil promoted by Islam (even though some Hindus have always eaten beef), and on conversion to other religions. It was strong enough by 1964 to convene a conference of the different Hindu sects and win them to form the VHP as a common organisation for promoting Hindu beliefs and rituals. Since then RSS cadres have spearheaded efforts through the VHP to unite the different branches of Hinduism behind the RSS’s worldview, with the warrior-god Ram (or Rama) presented as the central heroic figure all Hindus should look to. This has involved a massive effort to collect funds (especially from wealthy Hindus overseas) to undertake temple building in as many villages and urban localities as possible, the distribution of pamphlets, images and stickers of Ram and other gods. The aim, above all for the RSS, has been to create an equation in hundreds of millions of minds between Hinduism and the VHP as the organisation of all Hindus—and then to use the VHP for its own Hindu chauvinist ends.

This has been particularly important since the RSS’s own social base is a fairly restricted one. Its cadres come overwhelmingly from the upper caste members of the educated, Hindi-speaking middle class of north India. The RSS’s daily group assemblies ‘in the lower middle class living areas in the city or small town neighbourhoods’ provide a sense of belonging for ‘traders, shopkeepers, clerks, and petty professions—men whose lives are otherwise bitterly competitive and separated, who feel demoralised and lost in a still partly familiar and rapidly changing atmosphere’.24 It originated in ‘middle class groups with a measure of modern education’ and ‘little or no connection’ with the priests and holy men leading the sects with their mass of followers among some of the poorest sections of society.25 The VHP was the bridge to all these groups.

The most difficult group for the RSS to reach should be the Dalits and the tribals—regarded as irredeemably polluted and ‘untouchable’ to the traditional Hinduism of the upper castes from which the RSS cadre are recruited. Yet they have had big successes even there. A study of slum dwellers in Madras (now Chennai) tells:

The RSS area groups concentrated their efforts on mobilising the Dalit slum dwellers on the basis of a newly constituted Hindu identity and hatred against Muslims… Bands of RSS volunteers, each consisting of ten to 15 Brahmin youths, have been systematically carrying out the project of incorporating the Dalits. They visit the slums with unfailing regularity and conduct night classes and Shakhas [group assemblies] for the youths… From one slum alone 60 or 70 youngsters have participated in RSS camps and they were later used by the RSS to do graffiti, pasting posters, putting up saffron flags and launching hate campaigns against the Muslims.26

The slum dwellers felt they were getting public recognition from the activists which no one else would give them. One Dalit told, ‘We were very proud that a Brahmin, placed high in the social hierarchy, who once treated us as untouchable, has voluntarily come to us to impart knowledge and involve us in various public activities’.27 The RSS used their acceptance by the Dalits to whip up hostility to the Muslim poor living alongside them and to provoke bloody riots.28

A recent edition of Frontline magazine has detailed similar propaganda work by the VHP among tribal peoples in different parts of India—in this case directed against missionaries and converts to Christianity as well as Muslims. In last year’s elections in India’s second biggest state, Madhya Pradesh, the BJP picked up 38 percent of Dalit votes and 36 percent of tribal votes (as against 29 percent and 36 percent for Congress).29

There are some similarities between the successes of the RSS-VHP in this mass, apparently religious, agitation and the spread of fundamentalist Protestantism in places like Central America30 and of fundamentalist Islam in Algeria or Turkey. In each case religious proselytising goes hand in hand with the creation of a new community identity among people whose lives have been torn apart by emigration from rural backgrounds to urban slums—and with the provision of certain minimal educational and welfare facilities. But in the Indian case there is an added factor—the deliberate fomenting of communal violence so as to reinforce the sense of identification with a political project. As one Dalit youth put it, ‘The riot was a welcome occasion to understand these Muslims and now we can curb their nefarious activities’.31

The Dalits and the tribals used to be regarded as great ‘vote banks’ of Congress, showing loyalty to the party for close on 50 years. The fact that some of them are now being won by the RSS and its affiliates is an expression of disillusionment with a corrupt party that has taken them for granted. One election victory is not going to end that.

Ayodhya and after

When further internal disintegration of Congress led to the collapse of Rajiv Gandhi’s government in 1989, the RSS felt emboldened to move on to its largest ever agitation. The city of Ayodhya contained a mosque (the Babri Masjid) built by the Mogul emperor Babar 500 years before. The RSS decided that this had been built over a demolished temple commemorating the birthplace of the Hindu god-king Ram and that the site had to be ‘liberated’ from the Muslims. In 1989 the BJP took up the call in its election campaign, with strong anti-Muslim language. It doubled its vote from 10 to 20 percent, increasing its seats in the national parliament from two to 86. The anti-Muslim card was playing very well electorally. Advani, the second in command of the BJP, undertook a great yatra pilgrimage, travelling from town to town along a 10,000-kilometre route from Gujarat to Ayodhya. He was greeted by his following chanting, ‘When the Hindus arise the mullahs flee the country,’ and, ‘Muslims have two places—Pakistan or the grave’.32 He left in his wake a trail of communal violence. The BJP made still more gains, winning another 34 seats in the national elections of 1991 and gaining control of the Uttar Pradesh state government. It seemed that with one more push it could gain national power on a militant Hindu chauvinist and anti-Muslim programme.

The push culminated on 6 December 1992, when a huge crowd of 300,000 descended on Ayodhya, thronged outside the mosque, pushed their way through police lines, demolished the mosque brick by brick and began building an improvised Hindu temple. The president of the Delhi BJP said ‘a blot on the face of India’ had been removed. Vajpayee, the national leader of the party, said ‘a symbol of shame’ had been erased.

In fact the demolition had been planned at a meeting in the city the day before, attended by leaders of the RSS and the BJP, including Advani, and their allies, for instance the Maharashtra-based Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena. Far from being ‘spontaneous’, the demolition was a carefully organised action by thousands of RSS cadres. The demolition was a display of the ability of the RSS and its affiliates to take over the streets and terrify their opponents. There was another such display in Bombay, the country’s commercial capital, in the aftermath. Police attacked protests by Muslims against the demolition, provoking bitter communal riots lasting a week. Then, a month later, organised Shiv Sena gangs unleashed a pogrom against Muslims right across the city, burning them out of their houses, stopping men on the streets, pulling down their trousers and murdering them if they were circumcised. More than 550 Muslims were murdered in the city—and riots in other cities such as Surat and Bhopal led to hundreds of other deaths.

The RSS and its allies had calculated correctly about their ability to unleash mob violence on a scale not known in India since partition. But they had miscalculated if they thought this alone could catapult them into power. The rest of the country’s political establishment—including those who had cooperated with the RSS or the BJP in the recent past—were not prepared to see their future dependent on street fighting. Presidential decrees removed the BJP state governments from office, the RSS and the VHP were banned and Advani and others faced legal charges for inciting communal violence.

The banning did not last long and the legal charges were allowed to lapse. But the BJP push for office came to a sudden halt and they were isolated in opposition for a period. In the Uttar Pradesh heart of the Hindu belt the next elections were won not by the BJP but by a coalition of parties dependent on middle caste Hindu, Dalit and Muslim votes.

The BJP’s road to office

When the BJP returned to the centre of the electoral spectrum in the mid and late 1990s, it was not mainly through its street agitation. Its access to government was through the forming of a ‘National Democratic Alliance’ with certain regional parties from south India, a Sikh party from Punjab and the one-time socialist trade union leader George Fernandez. Through this alliance it set out to prove its capacity to create a national consensus that allowed Indian capitalism to push through with minimal opposition the neo-liberal programme pioneered by Congress. It drew into its fold businessmen, academics, newspaper editors and Bollywood stars who would once automatically have looked to Congress—and even some members of the latest generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Communal issues remained important to the RSS-BJP project. They enabled it to redirect people’s bitterness away from attention to class and caste issues to external ‘enemies’—Muslims, those trying to convert people to Christianity, Pakistan. It was this which provided it with the means to infiltrate and incorporate some of the poorest and most oppressed sections of society. But the Vajpayee leadership kept a low profile when it came to communalist issues—although it allowed the cadres of the RSS to keep the pot simmering. The instrument used was the Bajrang Dal department of the VHP, which attracts youth to it on the basis of anti-Muslim propaganda without any of the formal discipline of the RSS cadres. It could be ‘deployed to keep an issue alive for future use while the more important fronts remain relatively quiet so the issue is not highlighted so as to create embarrassment’.33

Fascism and communalism

The rise of the BJP to a dominant role in Indian politics over the last decade has led all sorts of people to look to similarities with European fascism. But the word ‘fascism’ is often used in a very loose way as a swearword for any government people do not like. This prevents the serious analysis needed to fight back effectively.

Fascism is not just a set of reactionary racist, communalist or national chauvinist prejudices. Most mainstream capitalist political parties dabble in these in order gain votes and to consolidate their own hold (witness the Conservative Party in Britain, or for that matter Congress in India at various points in the 1980s). Fascism differs from these in that it aims to foment such prejudices so as to establish total political and social domination, in the process obliterating all independent organisation of workers, peasants and other oppressed groups.

It usually originates with political adventurers like Mussolini or half-deranged figures like Hitler who attempt to build mass extraparliamentary organisations capable of imposing their will on every area of social life. The main social layer that they can use to do this is the petty bourgeoisie—small businessmen, shopkeepers, the self-employed, unemployed university graduates. All these suffer from the endemic crises of capitalism but fear and despise the working class below them as much as they suffer from the very rich above them. These groups often feel they suffer from competition from ethnic or religious minorities; the fascists preach national, racial or religious ‘purity’ in an attempt to direct all their bitterness and frustration against these minorities at the same time as developing among them a hatred for working class organisations.

If fascism can build a mass base among these layers it can exert an influence among sections of the working class, especially those who do not have traditions of independent class organisations, like those in small workplaces and the long-term unemployed, and among wider layers of the poor.

There are usually some capitalists who identify with the fascist message from the beginning. But major sections of capitalism rarely put their faith in fascism in its early stages, since so long as the system does not face some very serious crisis they feel they can keep control of society through more ‘peaceful’ means—their own mass media, tame parliamentary parties and compliant trade union leaders. They usually fear that a direct push by the fascists for their full programme will detonate big social conflicts which will be costly in terms of profits.

But once a powerful fascist movement exists, it provides a weapon capitalism can turn to if it becomes seriously threatened by economic or social crisis. For the mass organisations of fascism are able to penetrate every area of social life and, once they are working in conjunction with the forces of the state, to destroy working class and popular organisations in a way that cannot be done by any authoritarian government based on the forces of the state alone.

So in Italy from mid-1920 to mid-1922 the ruling class treated the fascists as a counterweight to the left, using them to attack workers’ and peasants’ organisations, while keeping in power right wing parliamentary governments. And in the same way, between 1929 and the end of 1932, German big business used the Nazis as a counterweight to workers’ organisations, so enabling right wing authoritarian governments to launch piecemeal attacks on workers’ conditions, while still occasionally taking token actions against the Nazis.

But then, in both cases, a point was reached where key sections of big business and the state decided the only way out of their economic or political and social crisis was to hand full power to the fascists. So the king and the main bourgeois parties handed power to the fascists in Italy in 1922, and the heads of the army and big business agreed with Hitler taking power in January 1933. Until that point they had seen the petty bourgeois fascist bands as a mad dog that could be used to frighten and intimidate the workers’ movement. But they did not risk giving power to the mad dog until they saw no other solution to their own problems.

Fascism, a movement whose mass base is the petty bourgeoisie, could not conquer power without the approval of big business and the state (when Hitler tried in 1923, he suffered a humiliating defeat). Only when faced with a devastating economic or social and political crisis would big business agree to this. Fascism’s success depends, then, on the coming together of a petty bourgeois movement built from below and a decision made by the ruling economic class from above. If one of these factors has been missing, attempts to establish a fascist state have failed.

Fascism as a movement depends on its continual forward momentum to make its members forget economic and social interests which might lead them to engage in struggles alongside workers and minorities for a better world. As Hitler once said, ‘The little man feels like a worm, but we involve him in a movement that makes him feel part of a great dragon.’ But it is very difficult to keep a movement going with this momentum if it is kept a long way from power for a long period of time. Splits begin to arise between those tempted to accept the fruits of normal parliamentary influence and those impatient for direct confrontation.

These problems beset Mussolini and Hitler in the relatively short periods of time they had to sustain movements without taking power. They are correspondingly greater for those leading the RSS, the BJP and the VHP today. There are some of the petty bourgeoisie desperate enough, even in the ‘Shining India’ of 2004, to provide the RSS with a mass extra-parliamentary force claiming 2 million members. But in order for the BJP to get into office it distanced itself from the dreams of communal violence motivating many of its most active supporters.

Indian capitalism can accept without qualms horrific communalist killing in Mumbai or Gujarat every decade or so. It can also welcome their effects in sustaining religious hatreds that help it divide and rule. But it does not want the whole subcontinent to be in flames. And it knows there are still forms of popular organisation capable of putting up massive resistance if their backs are forced against the wall.

The BJP tried in office to fill the role that Congress once filled, of integrating all of Indian society behind the big capitalists. And it tried do so while enthusing about neo-liberaism and telling the rich to enrich themselves in ever more ostentatious ways. Congress used to try to reconcile the poor to capitalism by using the language of socialism and ‘fighting poverty’. The BJP hoped to do the same by communalist agitation that set one sections of the poor against another. But it could not go so far in this direction in case it unleashed the widespread disorder that big business did not want at that time.

It ended up falling between two stools. Its enthusing about the prosperity of the rich lost it support among tens of millions of poor people. And its holding back of its own activists led to increased internal disaffection. Ram Madhav, national spokesman of the RSS, has said that during the election campaign ‘many RSS volunteers effectively went on strike because they felt the BJP had forgotten its roots’.34

Loss of office has led to bitter arguments within the RSS-BJP-VHP alliance as to what went wrong, with accusations of betrayal of the Hindu chauvinist agenda on the one hand and calls not to rock the boat of what is still the country’s second biggest political party on the other. There may even be splits in some of the states. But this does not mean that the communalist right is going to disintegrate and disappear. Indeed, there is a strong likelihood that it will make a turn to the Ayodhya and Gujarat approach of inciting communal murder as a way to strengthen its base.

The RSS and the BJP grew out of the incapacity of Congress to satisfy the divergent interests in Indian society. And that incapacity is greater now than ever before. Congress’s electoral victory came not from any massive influx of votes to itself directly but because of a series of compromises with and promises to various regional parties.35 The policies of the government coalition will depend upon endless bargaining and blackmailing between the parties—and between the regional interests within Congress itself. The fact that it has won a victory does not do away with the corruption and decay that have eaten into its structures over the last three decades.

Most importantly, to gather votes, Sonia Gandhi came out with fine words about the poor. But she never challenged one word of the neo-liberal agenda. That agenda will create discontent with Congress just as it did with the BJP. And now they are in opposition, the cadres of the RSS will feel free to do their utmost to divert that discontent in the direction of communal hatred. Whether they will be able to get away with this will depend not on the corrupt politicians who dominate the Congress machine, but on the capacity of the left to intervene with a very different agenda.

The left

The rise of the RSS-BJP-VHP was not only a product of the political decay of Congress. It has also been helped by the confusion, divisions and crisis of the left.

Historically, the left in India has been hegemonised by the Communist tradition. A Socialist Party did emerge out of the left wing of Congress after the Second World War. At points it had some presence in parts of central north India and some figures in this trend (Jayaprakash Narayan, George Fernandez) have been politically important. But the Nehru wing of Congress (with which it agreed on many points) overshadowed it in the 1950s and early 1960s and since then its activists have been absorbed into the secular parties that emerged out of the coalition governments of the 1970s and 1980s.36

By contrast, the Communist tradition has been an independent force since at least the early 1930s—playing an important role in trade union struggles in the early 1930s, acting as a left wing to the independence movement in the late 1930s, gaining a membership of tens of thousands during the Second World War, launching peasant uprisings in the late 1940s, and dominating state governments in West Bengal and Kerala for much of the latter half of the last century.

The tradition has always been marked by two characteristics. The first has been a high level of commitment, seriousness and preparedness for self-sacrifice. It is this which enabled a movement that started mainly among intellectuals from the upper middle class to gain roots in important sectors of the working class and to lead bouts of peasant insurgency. The second, however, has been the dominance—ideologically and organisationally—of the Stalinist model. Even today there is a portrait of Stalin on the walls of the headquarters of the Communist Party (Marxist) in West Bengal, where it runs the state government.37

The result has been a series of disastrous strategic and tactical errors, of which the most important were probably opposition to the Congress-led Quit India movement against British rule in 1942 and the embracing of the ‘two nations’ theory which justified partition in 1947.38 The errors followed from tailoring intervention in the domestic liberation and class struggles to the foreign policy of the USSR. They had the effect of cutting the party off from the best elements in the liberation movement in its final phase—and a weakening of the party’s influence in two key places, among the working class in Bombay and in the Hindi-speaking heartland of north India. The weaknesses persist until this day.

These errors were followed by another, apparently in the opposite direction. In 1948 when the Cold War broke out, the USSR told Communist parties across the world to take a sharp left turn. In India this meant trying to organise mass strikes and peasant risings against a Congress government which, in the aftermath of independence, had massive popular support. In the state of Hyderabad, where the Communists had built a mass base by struggle against the princely ruler under the Raj, the Nizam, they turned their guns against the Indian army that drove him out, at enormous cost to their supporters.

As elsewhere in the world, such mistakes weakened support for the party in wider milieus. But identification with the Soviet Union held the cadre of the party together, and the twists and turns even had the effect of increasing their sense of self-sacrifice and loyalty. What is more, Soviet policy in the 1950s made things much easier for the party than previously. Russian leaders praised Nehru as he followed a policy of ‘non-alignment’ in the Cold War and of using Russian expertise and trade links in the building up of Indian industry. There was a widespread sympathy for the USSR within the middle class and intellectual circles, which the Communist Party was able to take advantage of to expand its own influence. There was a blurring between the ideas of the Congress centre and left on the one hand and the Communist Party on the other. And the Communist Party was able to identify with the Indian state and extol Indian nationalism as a supposed bloc against imperialism, its ‘puppets’ in Pakistan and its threats to the USSR.

All this, however, was soon to be painfully upset. Polemics between Russia and China damaged the illusion of a single, progressive, ‘socialist’ bloc with which India was partly aligned. And then in 1961 a border war broke out between India and China—and Russia supplied MIG fighter jets for use against ‘socialist’ China.

The logic of the party line of the previous decade was to back Russia—and the Indian state. But this was too much for many party members who had joined the party because of its revolutionary rhetoric and saw China’s revolution as pointing the way for India. The party split down the middle in 1964—and for the next decade and a half the two halves took diametrically opposed positions on major domestic issues. And the split in the party was followed by splits in all the front organisations which it had run—its trade unions, its student organisation, its cultural fronts.

One factor behind the split was the monolithic Stalinist form of organisation. It did not allow for any reasoned democratic, scientific debate among the membership over important issues. Just as the party line came from the top down in the USSR and China, so too in the Communist Party of India. Any leader who did not follow a sudden change in line became an ‘unperson’ (to the extent of disappearing from official histories of the party). So when the leadership as a whole split down the middle, instead of debate there was the formation of two rival Communist Parties, each with its own Stalinist structure.

The impact of Stalinism was not only organisational. It also led to an incapacity to analyse what was happening in an Indian society rapidly changing under the impact of independence and capitalist accumulation. Stalinism internationally required any ‘theory’ of domestic economic and political development to fit into a scheme imposed from the outside. Hence the barrenness, everywhere in the world, of Stalinism-influenced Marxism’s attempts to analyse what was happening in the present. In India as in Britain, Communist-influenced Marxists were capable of notable work on the distant past—in Britain on the medieval peasantry or the English Civil War, in India the writings of Romila Thapar on ancient India and of Irfan Habib on the medieval and Mogul periods—but writings on the present were arid beyond belief.

Stalinism had decreed that India’s economic backwardness meant that it was part of the ‘feudal’ and ‘semi-colonial’ world and had to go through a ‘national democratic’ stage. Workers could play a role in this, but the struggle for themselves to take power had to await completion of the present stage. And that could only happen if they allied themselves with ‘progressive’ sectors of the bourgeoisie.

The formula did not fit India at all, since the bourgeoisie had achieved its independence from Britain and was able though Congress governments to promote capital accumulation in its own, and not foreign or feudal, interests. But the formula’s very emptiness suited the Russian (and later, Chinese) sponsors of national Communist parties. They could designate any bourgeois grouping, however reactionary in reality, as ‘progressive’ if it was prepared to do diplomatic deals with the USSR, and order the local Communists to ally with it. Once the direct influence of Russia and China diminished (as it did in the course of the 1960s and 1970s) the local leaders had more leeway about what they could do. But the theory still encouraged them to look for bourgeois allies—and there was nothing in it to stop them doing so in an arbitrary manner, according to immediate electoral considerations. It led them from a thoroughly principled, if disastrous, adherence to Russian policy to completely opportunist alliances with other Indian political forces.

For the pro-Soviet Communists (who kept the old name, the CPI) this meant continued orientation towards Congress, on the grounds that its was a ‘national democratic’ government battling against feudal forces at home and imperialism abroad. So when Indira Gandhi’s emergency in 1975 led to the imprisonment of trade union and political leaders (including those of the other main Communist Party), the CPI supported this as a ‘progressive’ move.

The other side in the split, which took the name Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM for short, saw Congress as representing feudal and monopoly forces in alliance with imperialism. Alliances with other classes, including sections of the bourgeoisie, were necessary to fight it so as to bring about the ‘national democratic’ stage. So its leaders went to prison during the emergency of 1975 and sought alliances with the leaders of other parties to fight for ‘democracy’ against Indira Gandhi. The CPM’s position led it to rely more on mass action than the CPI. But, for all its attacks on the CPI’s ‘revisionism’, it was quite prepared itself to put its faith in parliamentary politics and form a coalition government in West Bengal with a dissident section of Congress within a few years of the split.

Where the Communists formed state governments (in Kerala and Tripura as well as Bengal), they used the formula about the ‘national democratic struggle against feudalism and imperialism’ to justify programmes of minimal reform—land reforms that have benefited the big peasants and capitalist farmers as much as the poor, the modernisation of infrastructure, expansion of education, certain trade union rights. But the other side of this has been working within the limits laid down by capitalist economic power. The result is they have travelled a route well known to those of us who have seen ‘old Labour’ or traditional social democratic governments in the West: telling their own supporters they have to make ‘sacrifices’ in order to balance the government’s books. When I was in Calcutta in 1987 there was a hospital strike. The CPM opposed the strike because it was against a ‘progressive’ government—but supported an identical strike against a Congress government in Delhi!

As time has passed, the pressure to hold workers back from struggle and to do deals with capital has increased. Today West Bengal’s chief minister Buddhadev Bhattarcharjee can tell the Financial Times, ‘Our top priority is to create new employment. The party recognises that multinational corporations have a leading role to play.’ The paper reports that ‘the party had finally come round to the view that labour unrest is bad for investment’.39

This seems to be producing a reaction among many activists similar to that with the shift from old Labour to New Labour in Britain: they are bewildered as to what is happening and are not clear how to respond. In Kerala the Thiruvananthapuram edition of The New Indian Express has been able to carry a series of articles entitled ‘Hardliners Versus Reformers’ on the arguments within the state CPM. On the one side are those seeking to emulate the West Bengal embrace of ‘globalisation’, on the other defenders of the old orthodoxy (who are quite happy to throw around phrases about ‘CIA money’). And there seem to be some at least who want to question both positions.

Over the last 25 years there has been in practice a convergence between the two parties—although old divisions between their leaderships have prevented a fusion. Both have supported the Indian state in military confrontations with Pakistan, under the guise of ‘resisting imperialism’ (although they have held back from backing the nuclear option) and have used similar arguments to reject self-determination for the people of Kashmir. And both have used the ‘stages’ theory to justify electoral alliances with first one then another coalition of bourgeois parties (although this has done little to help them build outside West Bengal and Kerala). In practice this meant in the 1980s seeing Congress as the main enemy and forming electoral coalitions with the splits from it and certain regional parties. Since the late 1990s it has meant seeing the BJP as the main enemy and attempting to establish some sort of loose alliance with all the ‘secular’ parties, including Congress, in an ‘anti-communalist front’. In this year’s elections Communists from both parties campaigned for the ‘secular’ bourgeoisie outside their own strongholds, where they united behind ‘Left Front’ candidates.

Although the CPs have declined to formally join the national government, it seems certain that they will be supportive of it. CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet told the press, ‘All those who fought against the BJP should come together and help in running the government’.40 Yet the prospect of Communist MPs helping to keep a Congress government in power should not create great enthusiasm among the parties’ supporters. For Congress has in no way abandoned its love affair with neo-liberalism. Indeed, its leaders justify working with the Left Front by referring to the Communist-led West Bengal government’s own concessions to neo-liberalism with privatisation and courting of multinationals.

The two Communist parties themselves gained 16 seats in the election to give their ‘left bloc’ 67 seats. But the gains were concentrated in their old heartlands of West Bengal and Kerala (where the gains were at the expense of Congress). Short term rejoicing is unlikely to do away with the sense of crisis among the activists in the other 90 percent of the country, where the parties are weaker than ever before, ageing and lacking the dynamism they used to display. Again and again people ask, ‘Why is it the RSS can motivate its cadre to undertake the labour and the risks of propagating its message, and we can’t? It is as if it learnt from us what activism means, and that we have forgotten.’

The sense of crisis is made worse by the collapse of the old illusions people used to have in the USSR and China. For most of Western Europe, such illusions collapsed in stages—with great crises in the parties in 1956, 1968 and at the time of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The result was that there were vibrant and influential ‘New Left’ currents of Marxism—and in some cases sizeable revolutionary organisations—long before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991.

In India, by contrast, the collaboration of successive governments with the USSR meant that vague sympathies with the supposedly ‘socialist’ countries were very strong in circles much wider than those of the Communist Parties, making it easier for them to hold any criticism to be ‘counter-revolutionary’. The CPM, for instance, was able to congratulate the Chinese leadership for its crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests. All this made the collapse much more devastating to morale than it was elsewhere. It was as if the disillusionment that has seeped through the Western parties over 33 years flooded Indian Communism overnight. Some members felt their whole life’s work had been undone; many others wondered whether it had all been worthwhile. One CPI member, who still holds a party card, told me of a joke that goes round among party members: ‘Thank goodness we failed to take power, otherwise we would be dead.’ No wonder it is difficult for the parties to motivate people in the way they once did.

There is a third strand to Indian Communism which does retain some of the old activism. It is made up of disparate ‘Marxist-Leninist’ (ML) groups. These originated in splits from the CPM as it set out on the electoral road in the late 1960s and turned its back on the guerrilla tactics preached by China at the time. Boosted by the student radicalisation of 1968 and after, the ML youth set out to create centres of insurgency among the peasants. They struggled heroically—and often died as a result—while all too many CPI and CPM cadres found comfortable niches for themselves within the existing system.

But the ML activism was a flawed activism. It was based, like the positions of the CPI and the CPM, on an imported, Stalinist analysis—in this case from China. As the ML activists saw it, China had moved towards socialism though a ‘national democratic’ stage of struggle against feudalism in the countryside, and India had to follow the same route. When a peasant revolt broke out in the northern Bengal district of Naxalbari, thousands of students went to the countryside in an attempt to foment similar revolts (hence the term for them, ‘Naxalites’) by attacking landowners and village headmen. The strategy was disastrous. The landowners and village heads were usually able to rely on the peasants remaining passive as they launched murderous counter-attacks on the students. And an attempt to take the struggle from the countryside into ‘the town’ led to bloody clashes in the streets of Calcutta between ML groups and the police (including police who were in the CPM), in which the ML groups were invariably the losers.

The MLs were not completely crushed. Some of their members did find a base of support among landless labourers and tribal peoples in the impoverished regions of Bihar and Andhra Pradesh. These were groups who were on the receiving end of physical force from armed landowning and big peasant squads out to keep them in their place. The ML groups provided means for self-defence, creating conditions in which the oppressed gained in self-confidence and dignity—and began to listen to at least part of the political message of the MLs. Yet such activism was never going to shake the main centres of Indian capitalism in the cities and the rich agricultural regions. It could be an irritant to them, like a fly landing on an arm, but it was not going to damage them in any serious way. For India’s ruling class was in no way as weak, divided and humiliated as China’s was during more than a decade of Japanese seizure of much of its territory. And the great bulk of India’s peasantry were not ready to abandon their plots of land, however small, to take part in guerrilla risings.

The ML activism was as frustrating in its own way as the reformism and electoral coalition building of the CPI and CPM. It required enormous effort for very few results. One by-product of the frustration has been repeated splitting of the ML groups (I was told there are more than 40 ‘Communist parties’ in India), each with its own top-down Stalinist form of organisation, with physical clashes between their armed wings. Another by-product has been for some to use their local base of support to engage in electoral activity—and as with the big CPs to use any electoral success to form coalitions with ‘progressive’ sections of the bourgeoisie.

The ML groups are by no means immune to the wider crisis of the Indian left—and to the rethinking about theory and strategy that it is provoking. Some show signs of opening up to new ideas unimaginable a few years ago (a preparedness to have friendly discussions with foreign activists from the Trotskyist tradition, for instance) and in practice are taking up some urban as well as rural issues.

But they will not get very far unless they break with three characteristics that hamper them as well as those members of the big CPs who want to struggle seriously: a failure to recognise explicitly that India is a substantial, independent, middle-ranking capitalist country; the reliance on top-down, Stalinist forms of organisation which stifle scientific discussion on strategy and tactics and cause disagreement to result in unnecessary splits; and the failure to understand that reformist as well as revolutionary currents arise inside any real struggle and that revolutionaries have to prove the superiority of their politics through united action.

In short the ML groups, like the members of the CPI and the CPM, suffer from an overdose of Stalin and Mao and need the antidote of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky. That won’t automatically solve the problems of theory and practice facing the Indian left. But it will point them in the right direction.

Any discussion of resistance to the system cannot avoid touching on the question of the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations). They have been multiplying in India, as elsewhere in the world, at enormous speed over the last two decades, and this has led to much dispute on the left as to how to treat them. On the one side there are those (especially in the West) who see them as automatic allies in the fight against the system. In Naomi Klein’s No Logo they were presented as part of the ‘swarm’ that was going to paralyse corporate power, and some go further and present them as a new form of democratic organisation from below of ‘civil society’. On the other side are many experienced Third World activists who criticise NGOs for using the money they get from Western charities, foundations and governments to move in on struggles, co-opt their leadership and then narrow down their terrain of activity so as to work within the present system, not against it.41

The arguments arise because the rise of the NGOs is a contradictory phenomenon. A by-product of the spread of neo-liberalism is that governments consciously encourage voluntary agencies to replace state provision of services. The point has been reached in Mozambique where NGOs run the whole transport system, or in Afghanistan where, as Conor Foley of the Norwegian Refugee Council tells, they ‘have assumed responsibility for state-type functions such as the provision of public services, health and education’. In India many thousands of NGOs are now in effect filling in for the failure of the national or local state to provide basic services—and using words like ‘empowerment’ that make it seem that they are making things better, not papering over the cracks as they get worse.

But the proliferation of the NGOs also has another origin—in the crisis of the left. In India, as in many other parts of the world, disillusionment with the old left, especially after the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc, led many of its members to retreat from any idea of total confrontation with the world system and to turn to single-issue campaigns. The massive growth of NGOs fitted neatly into this shift. It allowed people to preserve old notions of ‘serving the people’ in new ways—and to receive salaries while doing so. Hence the way in which people who were once stalwarts of the far left run many NGOs and draw to them many of the most idealistic and energetic young people who would have once looked to the left. They take up issues which the left organisations are no longer able or willing to agitate around and they can be the only people in helping workers, peasants and the poor to organise in many localities.

This does not do away with the NGOs’ negative features. As the spread of neo-liberalism reduced ever more the possibilities for reform through single-issue agitation, the pressure was on salaried full-timers to become mediators, reconciling people to the system. But this tendency has produced counter-currents. Many NGO activists and, especially, the grassroots groups they organise do not want to go in this direction. Some have begun to see the need to go beyond one-issue campaigns if they are ever to win even small gains.

The differentiation is not complete—and indeed cannot be, given the very way the NGOs raise money and organise. Their activists organise people, draw people into struggle, but then all too often clamp down on any further militancy lest it goes beyond the framework of the NGOs. They widen people’s horizons so far—and then try to prevent them widening any further.

But this does not justify the left simply turning its back on such campaigning NGOs. After all, they are not the only bodies organising people to demand reforms from the system but attempting to do so in a tightly controlled way that discourages militant struggle confronting the system as a whole. So do many trade unions. They too have a privileged layer of full time officials who attempt to detach new activists from the grassroots and co-opt them into its own framework. The response of the genuine left cannot be simply to dismiss such structures out of hand. It is necessary to avoid the trap of putting your faith in them, getting entangled in their apparatuses and partaking of their privileges. But it is also necessary to respond to them tactically. This means working alongside them in united fronts to pull people into activity that clashes with many of the reformist notions embodied in the official structures.

The left and the RSS-BJP

The classic mistake of both social democracy and of the Communist Parties in Italy and Germany was to fail to see the difference between the parliamentary and the fascist form of capitalist rule. In Italy the Communist leader of the early 1920s, Bordiga, claimed that since fascism and bourgeois democracy were forms of bourgeois rule it was important not to fight them in different ways. Meanwhile the right wing of social democracy said the fascists were not a serious threat. Only when Antonio Gramsci, influenced by discussions with Lenin and Trotsky, began to argue differently to Bordiga did the left begin to understand the need for special methods to fight fascism.

In Germany the social democrats claimed that because conditions were different to those in Italy, fascism could not come to power—and even after Hitler was running the government claimed he would abide by the constitution. The Communist Party, under the dictates of Stalin in Moscow, saw fascism as a menace—but claimed that menace took social democratic as well as Hitlerite forms. So instead of seeing the rise of the Nazis as central, they called the governments prior to the Nazi takeover ‘fascist’, and so made it more difficult to win workers to fight that takeover.

Against that a number of critics, of whom the most important and most perceptive was the exiled Leon Trotsky, argued for the central difference between ‘normal’ forms of bourgeois rule and fascism. Because fascism is based on a mass petty bourgeois base that influences workers and peasants, once it works alongside the forces of the state it can eradicate all resistance in a way that a normal government cannot. From this he drew the conclusion that to fight fascism the most militant section of the working class, organised at the time in the Communist Party, had to appeal for united action to the political and trade union leaders of the less militant section of workers—organised in Germany by reformist social democracy.

Unfortunately the long influence of Stalinist ideas in India means that most of Trotsky’s texts on this question are unknown there. So there has been a long tradition of completely misunderstanding what fascism is. At one stage in the early 1970s the CPM characterised Congress as ‘semi-fascist’; a couple of years later the CPI backed Indira Gandhi’s emergency on the grounds that she was confronting a ‘fascist’ danger. The result today is an almost complete lack of any serious analysis of the relation between communalism and fascism, and of the contradictions in the RSS-BJP project.

The different sections of the Indian left are in danger of making exactly the same mistakes as made in Germany and Italy in the inter-war years. On the one hand there are those who put their faith in electoral coalitions of mainstream parliamentary parties to stop the BJP. On the other, there are those who do not see the need to campaign for genuine united fronts of all genuinely popular organisations—the trade unions, the different Communist organisations, Dalit organisations—to stand up to the RSS, BJP and VHP every time they take to the streets.42

The working class and the peasantry

India remains overwhelmingly rural. Unlike the major Latin American countries (Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Chile) the majority of people (around 70 percent) still live in the countryside and about 60 percent of the workforce is in agriculture. The working class is a minority of the population—around 20 percent. And the industrial working class is smaller still: the numbers in the formal sector of medium and large enterprises amount to only about 7 percent of the workforce.

But the industrial working class nevertheless occupies a strategic role. It produces about the same amount of national output as the much greater numbers in agriculture. It is concentrated around the country’s centres of communications and state power. It is, by and large, literate (usually in at least two languages) and numerate, with an awareness of events beyond the immediate neighbourhood. It has traditions of struggle going back a century or more in certain key sectors—and networks of activists who embody those traditions. And it has shown in the past that its struggles can have enormous political impact—as with the wave of strikes in West Bengal in the 1960s, the national rail strike of 1974 and the year-long Bombay textile strike of 1982-1983.

As with the working class anywhere else in the world, when it is quiescent it is very easy for people to forget that it exists. But when it struggles it challenges the central mechanism that keeps capitalism going—the production of value and surplus value.

Today is not a great period of struggle. If you travel the country you find in each locality reports of small strikes—and sometimes of large one-day ones, like the recent 3 million strong protest at restrictive labour laws. But there is little sense of a unified eruption of discontent, or even of a gathering storm. The reason is that, again as elsewhere in the world, recent decades have been ones of piecemeal defensive struggles, of some serious defeats, and of widespread demoralisation—adding to the demoralisation many activists felt with the collapse of the USSR and the rise of the communalist right.

The last generation of labour struggles suffered two great defeats—the railway strike of 1974 and the textile strike of 1982-1983. As we know only too well in Britain, the memory of a major section of workers (250,000 in Bombay) being on strike for more than a year and then being forced back to work defeated is discouraging for those in every other industry, and the discouragement can last for many years.

Massive rationalisation and restructuring of industry has taken place in the aftermath of these defeats. The workforce in the formal industrial sector is actually declining. This year saw the first recruitment to the railways for two decades (with 740,000 people applying for 20,000 jobs in the lowest grades!). The employers used the defeat of the textile strike to slash the workforce, and since then many of the big mills have closed. Where there is expansion of industrial employment it is usually in the informal sector, with production of textiles, for instance, moving to modern power-looms housed in small workplaces each employing a handful of workers.

India’s labour laws add to the problem. They encourage unions in the formal sector to rely on legal rulings for recognition and the right to negotiate. It is quite possible for a union with very little support to get that right and hang on to it, despite the fact that it does virtually nothing with its members. So the officially recognised union in the Bombay textile industry in the early 1980s opposed the strike and helped organise scabbing, even though virtually the whole workforce joined in the strike. One result of this legal framework is that unions put an enormous stress on using the law and lawyers to try and get recognition—and the lawyers often hold the top positions in the unions.

The top-down approach of the various political parties, including the left parties, makes things worse. Each party tries to establish its own union, which vies for recognition in opposition to other unions, thus creating a fragmentation of the movement as a whole which makes it more difficult to transform successes that come from big mobilisations into sustained, strong organisation at the shop floor level.

Finally, there is the overall composition of the urban populations. Alongside the big workplaces of the formal sector, where workers have these limited legal rights to union organisaton, there is the growing mass of smaller workplaces that lack them and are easily subject to managerial threats and bullying. In recent years it has been employment in these workplaces which has grown, while employment in the formal sector has fallen from 10 to 7 percent of the total. There is nothing in principle that stops the small workplaces being organised. The history of capitalism contains many occasions in which workers in small workplaces, without formal legal rights, have been drawn into struggle and created strong organisations. But creating the nuclei of activists capable of initiating struggle in such places requires dynamism, dedication and self-confidence, things which have been drained from much of the Indian left in the last couple of decades. It also requires a political understanding that, because India is a fully capitalist society, the working class is central to change. But this understanding is missing from some of the most dynamic and dedicated sections of the left.

Both sectors of the working class are immersed in a much greater urban mass of the self-employed, the unemployed and small businesses dependent on family labour. This mass, mingling the poorer sections of the petty bourgeoisie with the lumpenproletariat, typically exhibits a consciousness very different to that of the workers in medium and large workplaces. It is not structured by its position in production in such a way as to readily take collective action. It can be roused to take to the streets at times—but the direction in which it moves can be towards communalist confrontations, as at the time of Ayodhya, just as easily as to class confrontation. And in ‘normal’ times, when there is a low level of class struggle, it exercises enormous psychological pressure on workers in the informal sector and through them on the formal sector as well, so that sections of workers can easily be drawn in when waves of communal frenzy sweep through the city.

It is important to remember, however, that when the core working class does struggle for its own goals, it has the capacity to draw much of the urban mass behind it, as happened during the Bombay strike of 1982-1983, leaving the communal right with very little influence over events.

Just as this has happened in the past, it will happen again. For working class activists may often be demoralised, but their class has not lost its capacity to fight. Capitalist rationalisation and restructuring do have the effect of weakening old centres of resistance. This is what people really mean when they say globalisation makes the situation more difficult. But rationalisation and restructuring also mean that new industries and new concentrations of workers grow up while the old ones are in decline. And sooner or later these new groups of workers begin to discover that have the power to challenge the subordination of their lives to the blind drive for profit. Their victories can then begin to shift the whole mood among wider groups of workers, restoring to them the confidence to fight. Suddenly all the bitterness accumulated through the period of defeat can come to a head, find collective expression and shake capitalist rule at its key points, in its great cities. We have seen this with the sudden uprisings that have driven out governments in places like Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia in recent years. There is no reason we should not see such things again in India in the years ahead. But the final outcome of such struggles is not preordained. It will depend on whether there are networks of revolutionaries within the working class trying to give them a revolutionary socialist direction. And that in turn will depend on whether the Indian left that exists today gets its act together.

If the working class is the strategic key to challenging Indian capitalism, the mass of the peasantry should be its strategic ally. There is little doubt about the suffering of the great majority of peasants under the present system. Consumption has been falling, not growing, in whole swathes of rural India. Some 37 percent of peasant households farm less than one acre and another 25 percent no more than two acres.43 Many only survive years in which the harvest is poor by taking on debts they cannot afford to repay and thus live in fear of losing their land. And beneath them some 10 percent or more of the population is made up of landless labourers, many with only spasmodic work and often subject to physical harassment from those who exploit them. As a result there are two recurrent, characteristic movements of rural protest: movements by the peasantry as a whole, demanding a reduction in the prices of fertilisers, cheap credit and higher procurement prices for their products; and movements of landless labourers against low pay and harassment and for plots of land.

But such movements do not, by themselves, have the potential to challenge state power and capitalist production relations in their totality. The landless movements are of minorities in each area (they are not movements of the peasantry as a whole against feudal exactions or for division of feudal estates), and often run into resistance from many of the landed peasants (who use some hired labour) as well as the bigger landowners. As a result, they usually have a defensive character even when they resort to violence in self-defence. As for the movements of the landed peasantry, they usually take place over issues which are beneficial to the capitalist farmer as well as those with medium-size plots—this is true of fertiliser costs and procurement prices. Very often it is the capitalist farmers who take the lead in the movements, since they have greater resources than the mass of medium and small peasants. So they tend to dominate local panchayats—village and district councils—and to run the parties that gain votes as a result of peasant agitation.

There is a tendency on the anti-capitalist left internationally and within Indian Communism to romanticise peasant movements. But left to themselves they do not automatically break with capitalism, and those on the left who make them the strategic centre of their agitation can all too easily end up being pulled by the forces of rural capitalism, instead of leading the mass of peasants away from them. The precondition for a peasant movement that breaks with the rural capitalists is that an anti-capitalist focus is provided by workers’ struggles which raise the perspective of a completely different organisation of society.

Finally, there are other oppressed groups that should be natural allies for the working class—especially the Dalits and the tribal peoples. Legislation in the early 1950s banned formal measures of discrimination and provided for a certain proportion of government jobs to be ‘reserved’ for what were referred to as ‘the scheduled castes’. A few untouchables have even made it to top positions. But for most of the 150 million Dalits and 70 million tribal people the everyday reality of discrimination, humiliation, poverty and abuse persists.

Economic development can even make it worse. In the countryside, the pressure of the market on tens of millions of small farmers makes them want to cut labour costs—and so increase the burden on their Dalit labourers. Old caste loyalties and prejudices are brought into play as the poor turn on the very poor. Hence a sharp rise of ‘caste violence’—usually meaning the murder of Dalits by the organisations of the middle and upper castes—over the last 30 years. And as people flee rural poverty for the cities, caste connections become very important in knowing where to get jobs and who to talk to for them. Those from the historically literate groups, especially the Brahmins, are best placed to get the higher white collar and professional posts.44 Those who did the drudgery in the countryside find few openings in the city other than the same drudgery.

But something else has accompanied the ever-greater penetration of the countryside by capitalist market relations and the influx of people into the city—a growing unwillingness to put up with oppression. A rejection by the ‘untouchable’ castes of the ideologies that justify their oppression goes back many centuries. And movements aiming to do away with oppression go back at least a century and a half. But as only one in six of the total population, it has been difficult for any of the movements to find a clear way to achieve this goal.

Some have concentrated on pushing for reforms within society, especially fighting to ensure that a proportion of government jobs at all levels are ‘reserved’ for them. But as with positive discrimination for blacks in the US, although this allows a minority to advance, it leaves the great majority still doing the most menial jobs and subject to daily harassment by those above them and by the police. A second approach has been to try to deploy the voting strength of the Dalits to force concessions. But their minority position means they cannot achieve anything without electoral allies. This used to mean—and still does in many regions—relying on the Congress patronage machine. But for a decade and more it has also meant the existence of a Dalit-based party, the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party), in the biggest state, Uttar Pradesh. It formed a victorious electoral coalition with the party of the middle castes (the SP) in 1994, which gave the impression of being an alliance of all the most exploited—the small peasants and the landless labourers. But it soon became clear that it was an alliance of politicians working for small gains within the existing framework. As the poor and the very poor continued to squabble over the crumbs from the system, the coalition fell apart. Then, to keep their political machine going, the BSP leaders formed a coalition with the worst enemies of all the oppressed—the upper caste dominated BJP.

The approach of the big Communist Parties has been to say the future for the Dalits lies with class struggles for reform, uniting the great majority of Dalits who are workers, agricultural labourers or among the urban poor with those members of other castes whose economic situation is the same or similar. But as the reforming capacities of the Communist governments in Kerala and West Bengal are increasingly constrained by the pressures of the global system, they have not been able to overcome all the forces that keep the Dalits at the bottom45—and Dalit activists complain that in these states, as elsewhere, the best jobs remain in the hands of those from the upper castes while the former ‘untouchables’ continue to carry out the menial, dirtiest tasks. They can even end up distrusting the left as much as they distrust the BJP.

The ML groups have succeeded in gaining the support of Dalits in some rural areas, as part of their general approach of providing armed protection against landlord and capitalist farmer attacks on landless labourers. But actions by a minority of the population in some of the most backward parts of the country cannot, by themselves, destroy the overall structure of oppression weighing down on Dalits across India as a whole. Indeed, they could not even stop nearly 40 percent of Dalits voting for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, a state where MLs have had some success.

The large-scale involvement of Dalit groups in the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January 2004 was a very important sign that one of the most oppressed layers in the subcontinent is stirring. But enthusiasm for the dynamism of the movement should not lead people to ignore the way it repeatedly throws up political debate. These touch, above all, on the old argument over reform and revolution. And they also raise the question of which class has the power to hit Indian capitalism where it really matters—at the heart of its productive apparatus. The Dalits, as labourers in agriculture and construction, are an important component of the working class. But they cannot emancipate themselves unless they succeed in winning the support of wider sections of that class for their own resistance to oppression.

The Dalits, as the most oppressed minority, can easily get trapped into fighting those only just above them, in a way that will play into the hands of those at the top of the system as a whole. To emancipate themselves they have to be part of a project for emancipating all the exploited and oppressed. That does not mean ignoring their own demands, but those demands will never be won securely unless wider groups of workers and peasants are pulled into a struggle to overthrow Indian capitalism in its entirety.

What is to be done?

Two things struck me forcefully on recent visits to India: first, that the Indian left is bewildered and half paralysed by the collapse of its old Stalinist certainties; second, that it has the potential to regroup itself, reorient itself and begin fighting back. There are still many, many thousands of old activists with a lifetime of struggle. And the World Social Forum in Mumbai in January showed that there is the potential to recruit a new generation of younger activists.

The strength of the left should lie in the very things that weaken the RSS-BJP-VHP. In every part of the country there are a multitude of struggles against aspects of the system which, even though nearly always small, raise class issues in ways that cut through the Hindu chauvinist talk of the RSS bloc and create possibilities of solidarity across communal divides.

But the left cannot relate to these struggles and offer a way forward for society as a whole unless it overcomes the deadweight of its own past—in particular Stalinist methods of organisation and forms of analysis:

There has to be an understanding that the collapse of the USSR did not mean the end of hope for the left. Quite the opposite, it cleared the way for the revival of the left with the anti-capitalist movement after Seattle and then the biggest anti-war demonstrations the world has ever seen. At the same time we have seen a series of popular uprisings that have overthrown three Latin American governments (Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia) in three years. As in the late 1960s, some of this spirit of revolt will have an impact on young people in the subcontinent. Indeed, there were the first signs of that at Mumbai.

There has to be systematic clarification of the left’s ideas—over the capitalist nature of India, over what went wrong in the USSR and China, and over the nature of the communalist threat and its relation to fascism. This cannot take place without looking at revolutionary theoretical traditions barely known in the subcontinent—especially the tradition pioneered by Leon Trotsky which the International Socialist Tendency and others have attempted to employ critically to understand the world system today.

There has to be a recognition that the advances of the communalist right will not be stopped by reliance on Congress or on the other ‘secular’ bourgeois parties. Governments which came to power through negotiation with the Communist parties did not stop the advance of the BJP in 1989-1991 or in the mid-1990s. A Congress government even tacitly supported by the Communists will not do so today. The more the left is associated with such a government, the more the RSS and the BJP can pose as the champions of the poor against it.

There has to be a break with the idea that reformism in two or three states is the way forward, at a time when the pressures of the world system force reformist governments to adopt neo-liberal measures at the expense of their own supporters.

Finally, there has to be a break with the top-down, authoritarian forms of organisation inherited from Stalinism. These mean that the organisations in the communist tradition do not know how to carry through important political debates with each other and with other activist currents while uniting around particular issues which they agree upon (like stopping the agitation of the communalist right). If the RSS and the Shiv Sena can unite to launch pogroms against the religious minorities, then the CPI, the CPM, the MLs, the left unions, Dalit organisations and the better activist NGOs should be able to unite to fight back against the pogroms.

There are important and necessary arguments to be had over the parliamentary orientations of the CPI and the CPM, the guerrillaism of the MLs, the separatism of some of the Dalit organisations, the tendency of NGOs to buy up and depoliticise the leaders of local struggles. But the serious left cannot resolve these arguments if it turns its back on activists influenced by other groupings.

Accumulation and industrialisation cannot take place in a backward capitalist country like India without leaving behind enormous pools of poverty, creating enormous disruption to the lives of hundreds of millions of people and causing repeated outbursts of discontent. The RSS, BJP and VHP’s attempt to use this discontent to impose their reactionary programme through electoral means has stalled for the present. But they will recover from the setback, as in the 1990s, if the only obstacle facing them is a ‘secular’ government dominated by forces committed to the interests of Indian capitalism. The new Congress ministers are already rushing to reassure the financial markets that they are as ready to embrace the ‘get rich quick’ philosophy of the upper classes as were the BJP ministers they have replaced. And as they manoeuvre with each other and their coalition partners for the fruits of office, they will return to the old Congress game of playing regional, caste and religious groupings off against each other. Such a government cannot be a real barrier to a RSS-BJP revival. The task of the left is not to support it, still less join it, but rather to create an independent focus to the left, capable of channelling discontent into the struggle for a genuine alternative to the system.


1.Quoted in Financial Times, 16 February 2004.

2.For his general arguments, see M Desai, Marx’s Revenge (London, 2002). He was in sufficient agreement with the BJP government’s policy for him to happily shake the hand of the RSS member Vajpayee at a ceremony of expatriate Indians in January.

3.For his most recent arguments in favour of neo-liberalism, see his polemic against the positions of this journal, International Socialism 102 (Spring 2004).

4.As The Hindu tells, ‘Sonia Gandhi cobbled formidable alliances in states that worked magic for Congress in the Lok Sabha elections to bag 145 seats despite its vote share coming down by 1.5 percent from the last elections in 1999. The Congress handed out a stunning defeat to the BJP-led coalition with help from its allies even though the saffron party and its allies managed 35.31 percent of votes, 0.12 percent more than the coalition led by Gandhi. Likewise, the BJP, which was the single largest party at 182 in the dissolved House, suffered a negative swing of 1.68 percent that cost the party heavily, bringing its tally down to 138 now. This happened because both the principal parties hammered out pre-poll pacts due to which their vote share in the overall kitty was bound to go down but in terms of seats it goes up as they contest the constituencies where they are strong, according to Naveen Surapaneni of Centre for Media Studies.’ The Hindu, 15 May 2004.


6.For a summary of growth rates and a discussion on them, see, for instance, A Virmani, ‘India’s Economic Growth’, on

7.Figures given by T R Kumar, ‘Industry’, in Alternative Survey Group, Alternative Economic Survey 2002-2003 (Delhi, 2003), p83.

8.K N Kabra, in Alternative Survey Group, as above, p10.

9.See Financial Express, 30 April 2004, on

10.A Sen and Himanshu, ‘Poverty and Inequality in India: Getting Closer to the Truth’, Ideas, 5 December 2003. There has been a very long discussion on how to interpret the official figures in various articles in the Economic and Political Weekly (published in Mumbai but available on the web) over the last three years.

11.Force, 20 April 2004.

12.Figure for 1992 from National Association of Software and Service Companies, quoted in A Vanaik, ‘Rendezvous at Mumbai’, New Left Review 26 (March-April 2004), p54.

13.V Kozel and others, ‘Poverty Measurement, Monitoring and Evaluation in India’, Economic and Political Weekly, 25 January 2003, p298.

14.A Vanaik, as above.

15.S Waslekar, The Globalist, 13 May 2004.

16.A Sen, Force, 20 April 2004.

17.See A I Singh, The Origins of Partition in India, 1936-47 (Delhi, 1990), pp179-202. There is disagreement in studies of the period as to whether Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, really wanted a separate Pakistan state or was just using it as a bargaining chip to get a position for his party in any independent united India through domination of a united Punjab and a united Bengal. Those who hold this latter position claim that partition would not have occurred if Congress had been prepared to make more concessions to him.

18.See, for instance, the articles by Nigel Harris in International Socialism 1:52 (July-September 1972) and 1:53 (October-December 1972). One wonders whether Nigel’s blind enthusiasm for the neo-liberal model in India today is not a reaction to his catastrophism of 30 years ago. Then he held that ‘independent’ capitalist development was never possible in Third World countries. Now he seems to conclude that it always is.

19.This is a very condensed version of a much longer argument. See, for instance, my piece ‘Caste and Class’, available on

20.P Kanungo, RSS’s Tryst with Politics (Delhi, 2002), pp192-193.

21. As above, p49.

22. Quoted in above, p183.

23. As above, p192.

24. T Basu and others, Khaki Shorts and Saffron Flags (London and Hyderabad, 1993), p36.

25. As above, p50.

26. Anandhi S, Contending Identities: Dalits and Secular Politics in Madras Slums (New Delhi, 1995), p36.

27. As above, p38.

28. As above, p39.

29. See

30.See, for example, L E Samandu (ed), Protestantismos y procesos socials en Centroamerica (Costa Rica, 1991). For an interesting discussion on Pentecostalism in the Third World, see M Davis, ‘Planet of Slums’, in New Left Review, 26 (March-April 2004).

31.Anandhi S, as above, p40.

32. P Kanungo, as above, p203.

33.T Basu and others, as above, p68.

34.Quoted in the Financial Times, 14 May 2004.

35.Indeed, the total Congress vote was actually down by around 2 percent because it stood in fewer seats than before so as to give these allies a free electoral run. See

36.One of the bigger regionally based parties in the new parliament, the Samajwadi Party, is sometimes called socialist, but in reality its base is the middle farming castes of Uttar Pradesh and it promotes the interests of the bigger peasants.

37.According to the Financial Times, 13 April 2004.

38.This was not simply a question of making a tactical adjustment to pro-Pakistan feeling among many Muslims, but more importantly of encouraging that feeling. See, for instance, A I Singh, as above, p128.

39.Quoted in the Financial Times, 13 April 2004.

40.The Hindu, 15 May 2004.

41. For a clear presentation of this argument, see J Petras, ‘Imperialism and NGOs in Latin America’, Monthly Review, vol 49, no 7 (December 1997).

42.As Achin Vanaik has written, ‘On the issue of Ayodhya at no time did the mainstream left organise counter-mobilisations—and the left had the cadres base and capacity, if not the will, to do this.’ The Furies of Indian Communalism (London, 1997), p333.

43.For two slightly different estimates of the breakdown of rural households on the basis of landholdings, see J Mehta, ‘Changing Agrarian Structure’, and Songh, ‘Agriculture’, in Alternative Survey Group, as above, pp33, 38.

44.But caste, remember, is not class, and many Brahmins end up in poorly paid white collar work, or even long term unemployment.

45.For the situation of Dalits in Kerala and West Bengal, see O Mendelsohn and M Vicziany, The Untouchables (New Delhi, 2000), pp169, 210-211.