India today

Issue: 118

Barry Pavier

Niveditya Menon and Aditya Nigam, Power and Contestation: India Since 1989 (Zed, 2007), £12.99

This book, written by two academics who are also campaigners, offers the best survey of recent Indian history that I have seen.

It begins with a chapter on the political expression of caste. The authors discuss controversial proposals for positive discrimination for low castes in public employment (the “Mandal report”) and how electoral politics have been colonised by caste. These dynamics can spread out in apparently peculiar directions. The “untouchable” (or Dalit) political party, the BSP, has entered state-level coalitions with the Brahmin dominated Hindu chauvinist BJP. This phenomenon illustrates one of the authors’ central themes—a crisis in what they call the “secular-nationalist Nehruvian consensus”, which dominated India after independence in 1947.

The key challenge to this is the “Hindutva” (Hinduness) concept of the BJP and its allied organisations. For the BJP, India is Hinduness. If this is true then the “Nehruvian” vision of secularism is nothing but anti-democratic pandering to (alien) minorities. The authors provide an effective tour of the network of organisations of the “Sangh Parivar” (Brotherhood of Organisations) allied to the BJP. They also show how the Sangh Parivar used a few key issues to build support and set the political agenda from 1985 onwards.

The mainstream “secular” left has attempted to manoeuvre around these issues by an Indian version of “triangulation” (ie adopting some of their opponents’ ideas). Unsurprisingly, the net effect has been to legitimise and build up the communalists of the Sangh Parivar.

Once the authors get onto the impact of globalisation they are in their element. They clearly demonstrate how the Indian bourgeoisie and judiciary have embraced a position of validating any project that can be portrayed as modernising or developmental. All mainstream parliamentary parties have embraced this perspective.

Most notably, in 2000 the Supreme Court made a judgment that allowed the development of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River in the state of Gujarat. A 1994 judgment reiterating the principle of eminent domain (the power of the state to acquire private property for public use) is being used to dispossess communities of common land for developmental use, or private land with below market value compensation. In other words, we have here an example of how part of the “superstructure” is operating to promote a strategy of the “base”—in this instance, the “globalising” section of the bourgeoisie.

This globalisation has had almost perverse consequences. In the late 1980s the emergence of large scale cassette production resulted in a huge demand for recordings of Pakistani TV soaps. One of their main selling points was their use of modern (non-Persianised) Urdu. The north Indian audience found this much more accessible than the formal and synthetic Sanskritised Hindi imposed on Indian productions. The subsequent emergence of satellite TV has expanded this “cultural pollution” so feared by the ultra-nationalists. There has been a proliferation of English and Urdu loan words into contemporary spoken Hindi of the under 40s.

It was not only the bourgeoisie who embraced globalisation. The authors track the journey of the Communist Party (Marxist) (CPM), the main left party. The CPM is a curious fusion of Stalinism and old fashioned social democracy, so perhaps the story of capitulation towards modernisation and development isn’t so much of a surprise. This reached its culmination in the suppression of a popular revolt at Nandigram in CPM-ruled West Bengal.

The CPM have run West Bengal since 1977, and initially consolidated their position with a radical land reform programme. Now 14,500 acres are being compulsorily purchased for a special economic zone. Inside this zone normal labour and environmental laws do not apply—all to aid development. The protesters have been attacked both by police and by CPM activists. The authors point out that the CPM chief minister justified this by invoking the mechanistic “laws of history” argument perfected by the first revisionist, Eduard Bernstein.

The CPM’s policy is reflected at national level by its support for the pro-globalisation Congress-led coalition. This has provoked huge dissent from the “non-party” left and an unlikely but limited resurgence in Maoist groups in the most backward forested areas of the country.

The authors include a good review of one of the less known aspects of modern India—the insurgencies in the north east. They ask whether this area is really part of “India”, given its incorporation into the imperial state by the frontier policy of the British (which might also be a useful way to look at the role of Wasiristan in Pakistan). This then patches into a discussion of the recent phases of the Kashmir conflict.

The final section deals with India’s position in the world. Here the authors’ problems of perspective become significant. By failing to comprehend how globalisation has transformed the Indian state into a “great power”, they misinterpret the US-Indian agreement on nuclear power as ensuring “that the US government will decide Indian foreign policy”. In reality, the Indian government intend to behave as all great powers do—they intend to cheat. The deal is in fact a way for the US government to save its face, being unable to admit that it cannot coerce the Indians on these matters. The Indians are doing the US government a favour by going along with this facade.

This problem of perspective—that India is following a standard path of “successful” capitalist development—leads to a weak conclusion. The book simply peters out into a brief summary of what the authors have said and then ends with a limp hope that “contestations” to capital and the state will continue. Such a readable and informative book could have used its material to identify how this “normal” capitalist path can lead to another “normal” feature of capitalism—rising struggles by the growing proletariat as it becomes more aware of its exploitation by capital and, more importantly, as it becomes aware of its own power.