The election to India’s Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) ended on 23 May 2019 with the stunning success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies. The BJP is a pro-business and Hindu-nationalist party. It bagged 303 seats on its own, out of a total of 542, establishing itself as Indian capital’s most favoured party and displacing the Indian National Congress from that position. Congress, associated with Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru during the anti-colonial struggle (and with a string of leaders who are descended from Nehru), had ruled India for 55 of the past 72 years since independence. During this time, it opted for a strategy of Third World nationalist, state-led capitalist development. Turning to neoliberal capitalism partly under the pressure of global financial capital, Congress dismantled this strategy in 1991, earning the opposition of the masses who suffered from austerity and unemployment. Congress won only 52 seats in May’s election.
The left was almost completely decimated electorally. India’s largest communist party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M), won just three seats. For the first time since its formation in 1964, it failed to win a single seat from West Bengal, one of its two major bastions, where it had ruled for more than three decades. The left parties together won five seats nationally.1
In terms of votes cast, the BJP received 37.4 percent (an increase of 6 percentage points over its 2014 tally). This is almost twice the Congress’s vote share of 19.5 percent. With its allies included, the BJP-led coalition received 45 percent of the vote.2 Even if 55 percent of the electorate chose not to vote for the BJP and its allies, its victory is unprecedented. It polled more than 50 percent of the votes in as many as 17 of India’s 29 states. Not only has the BJP’s vote share increased, but since it was elected in 2014 its geographical footprint has also expanded. In 2014 it was concentrated in north and north-western India but in 2019 it gained support from the east and even parts of the, traditionally left-voting, south.
The BJP fought the election under the leadership of Narendra Modi, who first appeared on the scene when the post-9/11 world was in the grip of violent Islamophobia. His hardline communalism fitted this mood. In 2002, at least 1,000 Muslim citizens were butchered by Hindu mobs in the state of Gujarat where Modi ran the government. Many, including from his own administration, believe that Modi deliberately allowed the slaughter.3 Not only were Muslims not protected but, following the riots, proper relief facilities were not made available. Referring to Muslim women affected by the riots, he insensitively said: “Should we run relief camps, open child-producing centres?”
Modi inherited his communalism from the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Voluntary Corps) which he joined as a boy and for which he worked as a fulltimer. Established in 1925 (the same year the Communist Party came into being), the RSS, whose political arm is the BJP, is a fascist organisation, inspired by Nazism.4 It is anti-minorities and anti-communist. It considered Muslims to be a greater enemy than the British colonial government and played only a minor role in India’s freedom movement. As a committed RSS man, Modi believes in turning India into a theocratic Hindu state, where citizenship is defined on the basis of being a Hindu.
Another reason for his fame is that as chief minister in Gujarat, he openly promoted the worst forms of neoliberal capitalism (which he and his followers called “development”), a process that saw the transfer of public resources (such as land and loans from state-owned banks) to big business, and the suppression of workers’ rights. Modi’s motto has been: “Government has no business being in business” and “Minimum government and maximum governance”. He has sought to deploy at the national scale his Gujarat model—combining communalism and capitalism in its naked neoliberal avatar.5
India’s turn to the right is a part of a global trend, including Donald Trump in the United States, the Lega in Italy, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Yet it is worth considering the specificities of India. Consider the scale of the right-wing base: out of half a billion people who voted, the BJP-led coalition received as many as 300 million votes—almost 90 supporters per square kilometre. The BJP has a membership of more than 110 million, making it the world’s largest political party. It is supported by three other all-India bodies belonging to the RSS with some 5 million members and close to 60,000 branches. As Achin Vanaik says, no other far-right force in the world can match the power of the fascistic forces propagating an anti-minorities agenda.6
The story of the Indian election reveals many interesting aspects of the country’s contemporary political economy, including a definitive turn to the right, and indeed, to what I call fascistic tendencies, if not fascism as such.7 It is important to ask: why was a far-right party elected in a society where millions lack basic economic and political rights, and what implications does such a turn have for the prospects for an organised anti-capitalist socialist movement from below in India and South Asia.
The previous BJP-led government from 2014-19 was the nastiest in the 70 years of post-colonial India. Apart from the economic slowdown it presided over, there were 45-year high rates of unemployment, wage stagnation, a rural crisis, with farmers crushed by debt, dispossessed of their land and committing suicide, and a rise in economic inequality. There was also an attack on democratic rights. Despite this, the government got re-elected.
There were massive protests of farmers, and millions of workers joined nationwide strikes organised by left parties, including the world’s biggest strike that took place on 8-9 January 2019, in which between 150 and 200 million participated. Yet workers’ anger, expressed at the level of trade union action, was not expressed politically as a vote against the BJP.
This article will attempt to explain these apparent paradoxes and discuss what can be done to change the situation.
Capitalist crisis in India
If owing to capitalism, including in its neoliberal form, the political system can do little to counter structural economic slowdown, if the state can do little to neutralise the efforts by the capitalist class to intensify exploitation and dispossession, then all political parties end up with a reduced relevance. Yet in this situation, right-wing ideas and practices achieve an added relevance: some parties sell sentiments against minorities and immigrants in order to win votes. The BJP under Modi has done just that. It represented bourgeois reaction much better than its competitors.
In 2014, Modi sought votes by promising to improve the economic situation for businesses and ordinary people. As mentioned above, his first term was, more or less, an economic failure, which fuelled massive protests. This in turn created a need to do something to blunt people’s anger and to revive the capitalist economy. The BJP’s agenda for 2019 was just such a strategy.
If India’s super-exploitative and rapacious ruling class has found its political manager in Modi, a communalist strongman masquerading as a statesman, it is because this ruling class can use the coercive and ideological apparatuses of the state and of non-state agencies (such as the RSS), to carry through right-wing economic policies. No wonder the stock markets cheered the election results.
As far as the masses are concerned, given their alienation under capitalism, anti-minority sentiments and being able to act on these (including by the lynching of Muslims by misguided Hindu mobs) gives them some purpose in life. When one’s own life is precarious due to economic hardship, it is easy to believe that the nation is in danger, a point I return to later.8
However, it is not enough to say that a crisis of capitalism lies behind the BJP’s re-election. Capitalism, as a system, does not act or talk. What is also needed is an explanation of how it is that capitalists and their representatives actually acted. We must turn to the role of corporate money power, discussed below, and to other processes (the use of media, the deployment of a discourse of religious and hyper-nationalist politics, etc) discussed in subsequent sections.
The business class rained money on the BJP’s election machine. Politicians spent an immense amount of money to get people to vote for them.9 A party with more money is more likely to win, and a party that is more business-friendly is more likely to be rich and put up rich candidates. The BJP was that party. India’s top political parties had a combined income of Rs 13,980 million (about $195 million) in 2017-8, out of which the BJP’s share was over 73 percent. Its government introduced non-transparent electoral bonds and collected 95 percent of its funds through this instrument. Some Rs 9,890 million of the BJP’s income came in the form of anonymous donations.10 This is a case of legalised corruption and crony capitalism.11 Money is used to bribe voters and to sway their minds through misleading publicity. In a few key seats, the BJP also seems to have damaged the rivals’ chances by sponsoring independents and propping up small political outfits in order to cut into its opponents’ votes.12
Given the failure of capitalism to provide enough jobs to workers and income to small producers, there is anger against the system. One way of managing this anger is to throw some crumbs. In its first term, the BJP government introduced some developmental schemes, using the money received from the business class to publicise these schemes and garner votes with the help of 161 call centres set up by the party with over 15,000 callers.13 The welfare schemes included building toilets, giving free cooking gas cylinders, electricity connections to 26 million households, 13 million houses for the poor, annual income support of Rs 6,000 to small-scale farmers, health protection cover to 100 million poor families, opening bank accounts to provide access to banking facilities and distributing loans to 120 million people to start their businesses.
The BJP converted citizens into clients of its welfare schemes and the latter into its voters. Its approach was dialectical; on the one hand, it targeted specific groups such as women, who are traditionally less enthusiastic about the BJP than men. The strategy worked. Among women beneficiaries of, for example, the gas-cylinder scheme, more women voted for the BJP compared with those who did not benefit from it (41 percent and 33 percent respectively).14 On the other hand, the party injected a sense of universalness. For example, who can be against the BJP’s policy to promote cleanliness by providing toilets? It needed this sort of universalness partly to hide its extreme parochiality (its agenda of Hindutva, or political Hinduness or Hindu nationalism). It appealed to the universal in order to be able to attend to the particular. The BJP is very Gramscian: it is a master of hegemony-building.
The development schemes worked, but were not enough. They were half-measures and inadequate relative to people’s needs, given the fact that capitalism and its neoliberal form sets limits within which the government (especially a right-wing government) must act. There was therefore a need to turn to non-economic, emotive issues.
The gruel of hyper-nationalism and Hindutva
After a condemnable suicide attack from Pakistan-based militants, killing 40 members of India’s Central Reserve Police Force in disputed Kashmir on 14 February, and the illegal retaliatory airstrike against Pakistan on 26 February, Modi successfully convinced the masses that the country would be secure only if he remained in power. It was as if a dose of nationalism provided some psychological compensation to the masses who are enormously economically deprived.15
But the gruel of nationalism would not completely satisfy the hunger for votes, especially when the opposition was more united in 2019 than in 2014 and there was much economic distress. So, the BJP yoked its Hindutva agenda to its nationalist (mainly, anti-Pakistan) agenda.16 The impact of nationalism and Hindutva peddled separately would be less than when they are made to work in their mutual interaction. The BJP’s portrayal of Pakistan as the mortal enemy is related to the perceived loyalty of Indian Muslims to Pakistan: Pakistan was used as a euphemism for Indian Muslims.
Four out of five Muslims said they disliked the BJP, and despite emerging as the largest party, it does not have a single Muslim MP. In contrast, a majority of Hindus said they felt close to the BJP.17 The BJP-led coalition as a whole got a vote of 51 percent among Hindus. Given such a massive consolidation behind the BJP of the majority community, comprising 80 percent of India, opposition parties stood no chance. They did not ask for votes on religious grounds as blatantly as did the BJP.
The BJP’s strategy to consolidate Hindu votes had several components. First, its manifesto contained promises pandering to Hindu voters: for example, a promise to press forward with the speedy construction of a temple for a popular Hindu deity, Lord Ram, on exactly the site where a mosque was razed by Hindu mobs in 1992.
Second, the BJP/RSS nurtured a view of “Hindu victimhood” as well as a view of Hindus as inherently different from, and superior to, non-Hindus. Modi and his people talked about lifting Hindus “from 1,200 years of ghulami” (slavery) under Muslim and British rule.18 The supposed contemporary marginalisation of Hindus is justified by producing dubious reports and data.19 The BJP’s Hindu supporters’ emphasis on identity is not necessarily because they love Hinduism as a religion more than non-BJP Hindus do.20 Rather, the BJP’s Hinduism is Hindutva, a (political) way of being anti-minorities (or anti-anti-Hindus). For example, the BJP’s proposal to give citizenship to Hindu and Buddhist immigrants from Bangladesh and to deny the same to Muslims is an element of its Hindutva agenda.21
Third, the BJP used foot soldiers from the RSS to spread the communal message, including within the coercive and ideological apparatuses of the state.22 The RSS and other Hindutva entities engaged in a toxic politicisation of Hindu festivals. That these were conducted ahead of the general elections could not be a mere happenstance.23 The RSS also converted many nature-worshipping indigenous people into worshippers of Hindu deities by exploiting their economic anxiety.
Fourth, the BJP gave political cover and recognition to brazenly communalist candidates associated with the RSS and its affiliates, including some accused of terrorism. This was done in order to valorise Hindu chauvinism and to suggest that violence against non-Hindus is legitimate. They included one, Pratap Sarangi, who is the former leader of a hardline right-wing group, the Bajrang Dal. Members of the group were convicted of the brutal murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in 1999.24
Fifth, the BJP added a caste approach to its Hindutva politics. In India, there are several parties whose main support base is in the lower castes who are oppressed by the higher castes and who demand some equity (such as reserved places in government jobs and educational institutions). The BJP launched a demagogic attack on these parties on the grounds that they have caste-biases,25 but at the same time appealed to those castes that the caste-based parties have traditionally ignored.
Finally, Modi and his colleagues wore Hinduism on their sleeves, performing various Hindu rituals and stoking Hindu pride. Throughout the election campaign the complicity of the state with this approach was clear. Modi made blatantly communal statements during his campaigning. The Election Commission (EC), if it was truly independent, would punish such a politician on the basis of existing rules that proscribe asking for votes on the basis of religion. It did not. The EC also failed to expose the staggering resources that have secretly gone into the BJP electoral machinery. Investigative and enforcement agencies were also used against opposition leaders.26 The right, a relative late comer in India’s liberal intellectual landscape, has a definite intellectual deficit. While in power, it relies greatly on the advice of career bureaucrats to manage the affairs of the state. It is difficult not to believe that a large number of employees of the state, including in the bureaucracy and judiciary, have capitulated to communalism and hyper-nationalism and have contributed to the success of the BJP/RSS electoral and political success.
The war on free thought and media complicity
Indian society is known for various forms of uneven (and combined) development. Millions of families lack a 24-hour electricity supply, and even simple technology such as landline telephony is not widespread in some areas, yet many millions have access to relatively cheap smartphones. The BJP spent six times as much as its main rival, Congress, on internet and social media-based advertising.27 India is the largest market for WhatsApp, which has become the main medium of communication among 250 million users.28 More than any other party, the BJP made full use of WhatsApp and other social media technologies, not just to spread hatred against minorities but also to make people believe that its policies benefitted the poor more than they actually did.29 According to a BBC report, online accounts that favour the BJP are more prone to disseminating fake news compared with those against the BJP; in fact, the prime minister’s NaMo app has itself been a major source of misinformation.30
BJP leaders freely exercised their right to spread the information they liked, while engaging in a war on the freedom of thought of their critics, including in the media. This created an ideological atmosphere conducive to the BJP’s victory. Hindutva fanatics have killed writers, historians and scholars who raised their voices against the ultra-right ideology and practices such as banning beef or criminalising inter-religious marriage involving a Hindu. Those who did not cooperate with the Modi government were targeted with defamation suits and raids by investigative agencies or tax authorities, all, more or less, controlled by the BJP government. Several journalists and editors lost their jobs.31
Critics in the media and academia were denounced as “presstitutes”, “the Indian mujahideen (jihadists)”, “libtards”, etc.32 Modi’s followers on Twitter constitute an army of internet trolls, sending death and rape threats to his opponents. The Modi government tried at least seven times to hire private firms to monitor social media users during the years 2014 to 2018.33
During the past five years a new genre of journalism, “nationalistic journalism”, has arisen, in which being a nationalist is seen as a prerequisite to being a journalist.34 Nationalist television disseminated information that was pro-BJP/RSS and suppressed information that was not. The mainstream media quickly learnt to adapt to the BJP; it carried Modi’s speeches as running commentaries. Owned by big business, media houses enjoyed a lion’s share of the government’s and BJP’s advertisements, ensuring almost the entire media was at Modi’s disposal.35 During prime hours, Modi received more than three times the airtime of Congress president Rahul Gandhi.36
Modi’s personality cult
Individuals matter in historical processes. If individuals are in the right place at the right time, they can shorten the birth pangs of a process that is driven by certain structural imperatives. This is true of left politics; consider Leon Trotsky’s point: “If neither Lenin nor I had been present in Petersburg, there would have been no October Revolution”.37 This also applies to the right.
One survey showed that 32 percent of BJP voters would not have voted for the BJP-led coalition if Modi had not been the prime ministerial candidate.38 The entire campaign was about “NaMo” as he was dubbed. Modi sometimes ended his campaign speeches with: “Remember, a vote for the kamal [lotus, the BJP symbol] is a vote for Narendra Modi.” The BJP sought votes only in the name of Modi, even in social media campaigns such as “nri4Namo” and “academics4namo”. Thus, people voted neither for their representatives, nor even for the BJP, but for a communal strongman.
For voters, he was viewed as clean (non-corrupt) and even an ascetic. While others appeal to narrow “vote banks”, he appealed to the nation: he is a unifier of the nation, albeit one in which only Hindus count.39 He called himself India’s watchman, and people believed him, even as minorities felt unsafe under his gaze and the resources of the state were given away to billionaires. He boasted of his humble origin, and people believed him, while in fact he favoured the richest. He spoke the language of development. He could not deliver enough jobs to Indians aspiring to a better life, and yet people thought only he could help.
India is a parliamentary democracy in which people typically vote for candidates of different political parties, but the 2019 election was fought as a presidential election, in which it made little difference as to who the candidate was in any constituency.40
Crisis of leadership of the masses
A mere economic crisis will not lead to a change in state form from capitalist to socialist. Nor will it, in itself, even bring a more progressive bourgeois government. Given the economic crisis and consequent crisis of ordinary people’s livelihoods, the form of political change depends partly on the balance of opposed forces, including the left leadership of the exploited and oppressed masses. The turn to the right is to be explained in terms of the character of the whole conflict-ridden bourgeois political system, not just its parts. Seen this way, the blame for the turn to the right cannot be laid on the BJP alone, which is just a part of the bourgeois system.
There was a degree of unity among the anti-BJP opposition parties.41 Yet, the opposition was not as united as it could have been. The 2019 election was simply a contest between Modi, with his corporate-media-manufactured cult status, and numerous potential prime ministers belonging to opposition parties. In such a situation, many voters with little ideological sympathy with the BJP opted for political stability and voted for Modi.
To the extent that there was an opposition, there was simply a lack of a credible alternative, even a bourgeois alternative. The opposition parties, singly and together, were operating within the framework of (neoliberal) capitalism.42 They were driven more by the desire to have access to governmental power, which is a source of economic power, than by a principled opposition to the BJP’s right-wing agenda.
Economic issues were a very big concern for voters. Yet, the opposition as a whole, or its constituents such as Congress, did not have an alternative economic programme.43 The Congress president did not even hide his pro-business views, making it clear that his party is a “tribune” of the capitalist class.44
Congress, which has a long history of soft Hindutva, engaged in a competitive wooing of the Hindu vote.45 In order to appease upper caste Hindus, Congress, like all bourgeois non-BJP parties, remained almost silent on secularism, and failed to counter religious mobilisations by RSS/BJP backed groups. The failure to protect democratic rights, including the rights of religious minorities, characterises the bourgeois system as a whole.
Let us pause to ask how this system was not able to defend those democratic rights. The system has been able to hold an election in which half a billion people voted, it has the resources to go to war with neighbours and to hold massive military and paramilitary operations against those fighting for their rights, whether in Kashmir or in interior India. It can conduct mega sporting events and train millions of scientists, exporting them to imperialist countries, and send satellites to space, and so on. Then how is it that the same system, including its army, judiciary, police, bureaucrats who flaunt their intellect, was not able to stop the demolition of a 16th century mosque in north India in 1992, the riots in 2002 where at least 1,000 Muslims were massacred, and the juggernaut of the BJP/RSS forces in 2019, including numerous cases of lynching against minorities by these forces?
More generally, why has such a system not been able to stop the persecution of religious minorities, which has happened under both Congress and BJP regimes? And, why has such a system not succeeded in satisfying the basic economic needs of the majority?
Although BJP governments are incomparably more blatant in their aggression against minorities and are much more pro-business than other parties, the entire bourgeois state is implicated. The combination of the comprehensive communalisation of the whole bourgeois political system, in a context of economic crisis, and the absence of a principled and effective left opposition that can defend the economic and political rights of toiling people, has provided the conditions for the massive mandate received by the BJP.
Modi, like his party, is authoritarian. But there was a long history of authoritarianism and militarism in India before the electoral rise of the BJP. People’s resistance against exploitation and oppression has been crushed since independence and often in a violent manner. It cannot be forgotten that Indira Gandhi imposed the 19-month long Emergency, suspending India’s constitution, in June 1975. Consider the 1974 railway strike involving almost 2 million workers, which was defeated by the Congress government on the grounds that it was “politically motivated”.46
The Indian state has systematically failed to punish those responsible for inciting communal atrocities against minorities during both Congress and BJP regimes. Laws banning the slaughter of cows—considered holy by Hindus—a favourite part of the BJP/RSS agenda, were introduced in many provinces long before the electoral rise of the BJP. India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, has been under occupation by more than half a million troops, under both BJP and Congress-led governments for the past several decades.
When in power, non-BJP parties (including the left in Bengal) have done little to improve the economic conditions of Muslims, even though they were better protected against communal violence under those regimes. Non-BJP regimes have not done much for Muslims’ political representation either.47 So the non-BJP parties’ relatively weak sense of secularism gives the blatantly communal BJP a chance to undermine the legitimacy of those parties that claim the secular mantle.
The BJP-led coalition got the electoral support of 45 percent. Consider this: if a communist party had united 45 percent of the population on the basis of their class background, and on the basis of a political programme of socialism, would the state have allowed this? No, it would not. How did the state allow the forces of the right to do what it would not allow the left to do? It is important to think about what the state does and what it does not and will not do. The BJP’s success was rooted in capitalist crisis and in the objective need to respond to the potential and actual threat of the masses, and it was well within the limits of bourgeois politics, reflecting bourgeois economy and class relations.
Implications of the re-election of the BJP government
To sum up, India’s turn to the right, as elsewhere in the world, is caused by the crisis of bourgeois economics and politics. The continuing crisis of (neoliberal) capitalism is producing widespread economic deprivation and alienation, unemployment, wage stagnation, and distress for rural petty producers. As a result, there have been massive protests and strikes.
This economic-political situation is combined with a lack of an alternative vision from the opposition parties, which has allowed the BJP to deploy a Hindu-nationalist narrative as well as the Modi cult to mobilise (Hindu) votes. Furthermore, the business class, looking forward to pro-investor reforms in order to increase their profits, funded the BJP’s election. The party’s electoral machine also made full use of the state’s coercive and ideological institutions and non-state entities, a process that contributes to the gradual and uneven emergence of a fascistic state.
With a crisis of profitability, and when finance capital can move quickly in and out of a country, there is little time for the niceties of government by discussions that are informed and democratic but time-consuming. Decisions favouring the capitalists must be taken more quickly and against opposition, including opposition from below. It is this imperative (created by finance capital) that creates a condition for the politics of personality, which is an aspect of the politics of Bonapartism, allowing a person and the people devoted to that person to make pro-business decisions quickly, in part by controlling all parts of the state and even the press.48
Arguably, of greater importance than the BJP’s re-election is the fact that the BJP/RSS has succeeded in making a massive proportion of people, including in the media and academia, believe that the BJP is a normal bourgeois party, rather than one opposed to the fundamental interests of workers and peasants (both Hindu and non-Hindu) and the very principles of liberal democracy. Similarly, the RSS, which has been banned several times since 1947, has normalised its existence. Even the respectable electronic and print media invite RSS representatives as analysts of the national situation and offer space for RSS views. Few argue for “no platform for fascists”. A well-known Indian Marxist professor told me: the left must engage with the right (read: speak to them and make them understand things better). Another academic (not a Marxist) said to me: “Look how the RSS is doing relief operations and other good things for the people.” An organisation that is a fatal danger to the democratic and social rights of the people is viewed in the most benign terms. Fascistic ideas are gaining wider acceptance than before and gripping the minds of the masses, thus acting as a material force.
The objective effect of all this is to draw political attention away from the business class. The actions and views of the BJP/RSS have the objective effect of dividing the toilers on the basis of religion and uniting Hindu toilers with Hindu exploiters on the basis of Hindu-nationalism. The fascistic duo thus benefits the capitalist class. When RSS and BJP people, including Modi, who are both communal and anti-communist, talk about the task of lifting the Hindus from centuries of slavery under Muslim and British rule, not a word is uttered by them about the fact that the nation of peasants, workers and oppressed minorities is enslaved to merely 1 percent of the population right now. The BJP’s re-election is helped by, and feeds into, the mistaken belief that people’s problems are caused, not by capitalism and its state, but by inter-religious differences.
What are the general implications of the BJP’s electoral success?
First, on the economic front, the corporate-funded re-election of pro-business Modi and his government will give a boost to pro-capitalist ideas and policies.
Second, on the political front, the tendency towards authoritarianism will deepen. A 2017 report by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that respondents who supported democracy in India had dropped from 70 percent to 63 percent between 2005 and 2017. A Pew report in 2017 found that 55 percent of respondents backed a “governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”.49 Using the money power garnered from corporate donations, the new central government will seek to depose opposition controlled state governments, especially in the South where the BJP did not get much electoral support.
On 1 August 2019, the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act was amended to allow the government to designate any individual as a terrorist, even for their political views, without following the due process.50 Anyone, whether Hindu or non-Hindu, who supports the democratic rights of workers, peasants, indigenous people and women will live in fear. There will be police brutality against workers and peasants. Indeed, as Roy says: “As the world looks on, the architecture of Indian fascism is quickly being put into place”.51
Third, in terms of India’s relations with the world, there will be further consolidation of the strategic relationship with the imperialist US against China and more muscle-flexing against an economically struggling Pakistan. There will be deeper connections between India and Israel. India will fast become like Israel. We might see the emergence of an “Indian Zionism”: Jammu and Kashmir is fast becoming a South Asian Palestine. Without any consent from Kashmiris at all, the new BJP government took away its legal autonomy in August 2019. Kashmir is now directly ruled by the central government, which has subjected it to a lockdown, with people denied basic human rights and material facilities such as access to hospitals or means of communication. Legal obstacles to non-Kashmiris owning land have now been removed. Kashmir, which really belongs neither to India nor Pakistan, has become a big real estate for people with money.52 BJP’s attraction to Israel is rooted in its Hindutva ideology, which is coterminous with Zionism in its supremacist zeal.53 The cost of this Indian Zionism is to be paid not only by Indian Muslims but also by Palestinians, as each weapon bought from Israel entrenches their occupation. Also, in terms of India’s relations with the world, India will continue to export an important item—Hindutva’s fascistic ideas and practices—through the massive diaspora in the UK and in North America.
Fourth, the 2019 verdict that “The minorities’ votes do not count” will be manifested in many ways.54 The secular aspects of the constitution will be under attack. And with that the principle of scientific temper and respect for intellectual thinking will be in retreat.55 The RSS/BJP will see the 2019 results as a vindication of their quest for a Hindu homeland. The majoritarian tendency among voters has remained fairly stable over the past five years: half the respondents approve of the statement that “in a democracy, the will of the majority community should prevail”.56 This majoritarian tendency will deepen. Minorities will live in fear.
So, what is to be done now?
“The significance of science lies precisely in this: to know in order to foresee”—Trotsky, 1973.57
“Social questions resolve themselves in the domain of the political”—Trotsky, 1934.
Some people might turn to the left for a response to the turn to the right.58 In my view, the existing left parties, which are in practice social democratic at best, are too weak to launch a challenge to the BJP and fascistic tendencies.59 Wedded to the goal of a form of democratic revolution to bring a more egalitarian capitalism as opposed to socialist revolution, socialism for them is a distant dream. Therefore, there is no strategy of transitional demands to connect the present level of class consciousness and of preparedness of the masses to the socialist project.60 Focussed on getting small concessions, they forget that concessions are generally obtained as by-products of revolutionary movements, and not from the demand for what the system says is grantable. Consider how far India’s communist parties are from Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) conception of revolution.61
Principled electoral activities are necessary in order to gauge the support for socialist policies and to be able to use the parliament/assemblies to highlight the attacks on economic and social rights of the masses. However, the Communist parties are too electoralist, downplaying extra-parliamentary activities as well as the ideological socialist education of their cadres. A principled collaboration between the left formations (including left parties and left mass organisations), and genuinely progressive social movements may be useful, but that is not enough.
It is true that there is a distinction between the state and the government. Given the overall class character of the capitalist state, some bourgeois governments can arguably be a little more conciliatory to the masses than other bourgeois governments. To say that there is no such distinction whatsoever between the two forms of bourgeois government and that therefore the left is indifferent to them, is almost equal to saying that fighting for higher wages still reproduces capitalism and is not worth doing.62 Socialists can and should make use of any conflict within bourgeois politics and make use of temporary allies, but always as a part of the fight for a socialist movement and socialist government, and always maintaining their organisational and programmatic independence vis-à-vis bourgeois forces and emphasising extra-electoral activities over electoral activities.63
But it is also true that, as long as capitalism exists, and therefore the capitalist state persists, the genuine and permanent fulfilment of economic needs and political rights of the masses is an impossibility. This is because there are irreconcilable contradictions in class interests, between the toiling masses and the capitalist class. The Indian state itself—including parliament, the judiciary, police and army, its various parties, etc—is thoroughly compromised as far as secular and democratic rights and the economic needs of the masses are concerned. Institutions of the state have become weak relative to the power of the right.
The democratic rights of working people cannot be fundamentally secured, and the Hindu right completely defeated merely by replacing the BJP government with a non-BJP government. Any non-BJP government that might exist due to the pressure of the masses can at best give a little breathing space to the left. But breathing space for what, is the question?
India’s capitalist system, including its capitalist state, has been unable, and will continue to fail, to resolve democratic questions such as caste oppression, landlordism, unfree labour relations, inequality in land distribution, absence of equal rights for all religious, linguistic and ethnic groups and territories, and ongoing imperialist assaults on India’s sovereignty. These unresolved questions have, in the main, remained unresolved due to the operation of a political-economic system that is bourgeois in character.
Even if a non-BJP government had come in 2019 or comes in the future, it would be forced by big business to accelerate pro-business reforms, increase military spending and strengthen India’s alliance with the US. And when miseries intensify and inequality rises, the tendency towards authoritarianism and need to divide the masses along religious and other lines will deepen. Fascistic tendencies will re-emerge.
So what really needs to be done? At a general level: the political mobilisation of the 400-million-plus Indian working class, allied with petty producers, independent of all bourgeois forces as part of an international working class offensive against capitalism. Such an independent socialist mobilisation of the exploited and oppressed masses in India will be advanced by a similar movement in countries such as the UK and the US (where Hindutva-based fascistic tendencies are already raising their ugly head). Such a movement in the advanced countries will in turn support the movement in India. But who will do it?
The independent mobilisation of the masses on the basis of a socialist programme requires that efforts be made towards a reforging and regroupment of revolutionary socialist individuals and groups to form a democratically-organised party of class conscious workers. This process must be informed by principles of non-sectarian class politics and the avoidance of a left version of the personality cult and petty-bourgeois ego clashes.64 And yet, this reforging must bring together all socialists, strategically and/or tactically, who are against not only the fascistic politics of the BJP’s Hindu majoritarianism but also against caste-based identity politics, the liberal democratic politics of so-called secular parties such as Congress and social democracy type politics. It must also include those who are critical of the mainstream communist parties’ electoralist, reformist, stageist politics. The existing communist parties, given their history, theory and programme shaped by Stalinism, are incapable of mobilising the masses for a socialist movement. However, it is conceivable that there are individuals and factions within the current communist parties who can join the new socialist movement; hyper-phobia or instant hatred against everyone associated with the existing communist parties is inadequate and can be sectarian.
This revolutionary socialist movement requires a revolutionary theory and that can only come from what I will call “the Marxism of the MELLT” (Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky). The movement must encompass three inter-connected fights. One is the fight for a secular-democratic society, a society without the BJP/RSS agenda and a society where the democratic questions are resolved. In particular, the RSS/BJP agenda must be ideologically and politically countered, as militantly as possible, by workers and semi-proletarians mobilised in every locality, and nationally and overseas (among the diaspora), as a part of the socialist strategy. The fight for a democratic-secular society, the fight to resolve the democratic questions, must include the support for Kashmiris to exercise their right to independence from Pakistan and India. Another is the fight for economic concessions, including those based on transitional demands. These two inter-connected fights must be fought as a part of the struggle for a socialist society in India, in South Asia and globally; a society that is democratic in every sphere of life (economic, political, cultural and at the level of the family), that is ecologically sustainable and that practises solidarity with the oppressed and the exploited in every country of the world. It is a society that is without the rule of bureaucrats, capitalist or non-capitalist.
Let me end with some lines from Lenin’s What is to be Done?, with which I profoundly agree. Marxists must draw the attention of workers and peasants, the majority of the nation, to all “manifestations of tyranny” such as “the flogging of peasants, the corruption of the officials and the police treatment of the ‘common people’ in the cities…the suppression of the popular striving towards enlightenment and knowledge, the extortion of taxes and the persecution of the religious sects…and the barrack methods in the treatment of the students and liberal intellectuals”.65 A Marxist, in word and in action, must be “the tribune of the people”. They must generalise all the manifestations of tyranny “and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation”. They must “take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his [or her] socialist convictions and…democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat”.66
Lenin further adds that: “When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the peasants and the authors are being abused and outraged by those same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life”.67
These principles that Lenin laid out are as relevant to today’s India (and other similar countries) under a fascistic party as they were to autocratic Russia under the Tsar.
Raju Das is a professor at York University, Toronto. His most recent book is Marxist Class Theory for a Skeptical World, published by Brill and Haymarket (2017/2018). He is currently completing a two-volume manuscript critically examining Marx’s Capital, volume 1, from the vantage point of global capitalism and Lenin’s Marxism. He serves on the editorial board and on the manuscript review collective of Science & Society: A Journal of Marxist Thought and Analysis.
1 Apart from the CPI(M), the other left parties include the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Revolutionary Socialist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
2 BJP coalition allies include: Akali Dal, a Sikh-based party in the Punjab, and Janata Dal (United) or People’s Party (United).
3 An undercover journalist probing the riots said: “I met some of the top bureaucrats, officials who worked under Mr Modi in 2002. They confessed his complicity in the Gujarat riots; one bragged to me that Mr Modi let the violence worsen, so it would help him in his re-election”—Ayyub, 2019.
4 Ahmad, 2015:172-174. I agree with Chris Harman (2004) that “the word ‘fascism’ is often used in a very loose way”. I do not think that India has become fascist. But there are fascistic tendencies that are growing stronger, thanks to BJP/RSS forces. Apart from Aijaz Ahmad and Achin Vanaik, on “fascistic tendencies” or the far right in India, see Banaji (2016) and the writings of Keith Jones in www.wsws.org.
5 Arundhati Roy has said this about Modi: “From being this openly sort of communal hatred-spewing saccharine person, he then put on the suit of a corporate man, and, you know, is now trying to play the role of the statesmen, which he’s not managing to do really”—quoted in Smith, 2014.
6 Vanaik, 2019.
7 This is a complex topic which I deal with, in terms of its theoretical and empirical aspects, in my forthcoming book—Das, 2020. See also Das, 2019a; 2018a; 2018b.
8 Kumar, 2019.
9 At least $7 billion was spent on the 2019 campaign, in addition to a lot of undeclared expenditure. Note also that in the US, the total amount spent on the presidential campaign and the congressional seat in 2016 was $6.4 billion—go to www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php. The money that Indian politicians spend to get elected is more than the money spent on India’s largest employment programme for millions of people in 2018-9.
10 The Wire Staff, 2019.
11 Shahabuddin Quraishi, a former member of the Election Commission, said: “If you take money from corporate groups, you will end up giving them contracts… It is crony capitalism led by corporates which is running the country. They get their bureaucrats…their ministers appointed”—quoted in Bagchi, 2014.
12 Rupawat, 2019; Sharma, 2019.
13 Hebbar, 2019.
14 Attri and Jain, 2019.
15 “Just as the Falklands War in 1982 shored up support for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain, who dramatically gained in popularity, the border battles with Pakistan in February helped Mr. Modi immensely in the elections,” wrote Amartya Sen (2019).
16 Indeed, during the six-week election from 11 April to 19 May, national security emerged as the most talked about election-related topic on Twitter, followed by religion. Next came the economic issues: jobs and employment, agriculture and demonetisation (which involved the Modi government removing all 500 rupee and 1,000 rupee banknotes in 2016, resulting in an acute cash shortage and much economic distress to millions).
17 Sardesai and Attri, 2019.
18 IANS, 2019b.
19 For example, the Hindu Human Rights Report 2017 records the violation of Hindus’ human rights in India. It argues that despite being a numerical majority, Hindus are treated as second class citizens. In order to justify this claim, atrocities against ex-untouchables and indigenous peoples (known in India as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, respectively) are included in the list of crimes against Hindus. What is forgotten is that the perpetrators of these crimes are generally Hindus themselves!
20 Religion is the opium of the masses and contributes to the reproduction of class societies. But religion is not entirely that. Like the written or oral texts of other religions (such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism), those of Hinduism contain some interesting philosophical, psychological and (pro-)scientific ideas about the human mind, body and nature and society and can be studied and critically assessed. Religion allows people to express their suffering and to fight it out, however inadequately, and to imagine a good society, however utopian. Consider this point about Islam that Harman makes: “its message has balanced between promising a degree of protection to the oppressed and providing the exploiting classes with protection against any revolutionary overthrow”—Harman, 1994.
21 In a campaign rally, its president Amit Shah said: “The BJP would find these termites and throw them out,” and that citizenship would be granted to every Hindu and Buddhist refugee. That, of course, leaves just one group to fall into the “termite” category: Muslims—Ayyub, 2019.
22 58,967 RSS branches spreading Hindutva propaganda were operating in 37,190 places across India. In 2017, the number stood at 57,165, up from 39,396 in 2014 when the RSS-backed BJP came to power—Kakvi, 2019.
23 In an awareness camp in an indigenous area, an RSS functionary asked a group of villagers in their local language, “Can you desert your mother who has given you birth after nine months of sufferings?” “No, never”, the crowd responded. “Then why do you convert to Christianity by leaving your Hindu mother? We are Hindus, let us keep this identity intact,” he thundered—Anwar, 2019.
24 BBC News, 1999.
25 The BJP seeks to unite all caste groups within Hindu society. So it has denied the importance of caste oppression despite glorifying the Hindu religion that ideologically justifies it.
26 Chowdhury, 2019; Mannathukkaren, 2019.
27 Vakullabharanam and Motiram, 2019.
28 Vakullabharanam and Motiram, 2019.
29 The BJP spent more than Rs 260 million on advertisements on Facebook, YouTube, Google and Instagram compared with Rs 35 million by the Congress Party. In Bengal alone, a strategic battle ground for the BJP, where it won seats in an unprecedented manner, there were 50,000 BJP WhatsApp groups.
30 Vakullabharanam and Motiram, 2019.
31 Srivas, 2017.
32 Philipose, 2019.
33 Dwivedi, 2018.
34 Philipose, 2019.
35 Wagle, 2019.
36 IANS, 2019a.
37 Cliff, 1989.
38 Thachil, 2019.
39 Mukhopadhyay, 2019.
40 A joke that used to be heard in party circles was that the BJP was now BJP-free. The joke has come perilously close to being a reality—Subrahmaniam, 2019.
41 In 332 out of 542 constituencies there was a two-way contest. Another 184 saw three-way contests.
42 Even the CPI(M)-led Left Front has implemented neoliberal policies while in power.
43 All that the Congress could offer was 2 million government jobs and some income transfer to the poorest. Proposed welfare schemes would come from the pockets of corrupt business tycoons, and not from taxes on business as a whole.
44 Rahul Gandhi said: “there are large numbers of Indian corporates who India should be absolutely proud of and protect. You can’t build a modern nation without corporates… My point is there should be fairness. Wherever there is pain, I will go…if tomorrow I find that the honest corporates of this country are in pain, I will be the first person to defend them”—quoted in Anshuman and Samanta, 2019.
45 Vanaik, 2017, p393.
46 Frankel, 2005, pp528-530.
47 Muslims constitute 14 percent of the country’s population but their representation remains abysmally low at 4.7 percent (the highest percentage since 1950 has been less than 9.5 percent).
48 It is worth recalling some of Trotsky’s (1934) points here. He says: “between parliamentary democracy and the fascist regime a series of transitional forms” emerge, one of which is Bonapartism, which “represents…the government of the strongest and firmest part of the exploiters”. He adds: “Present-day Bonapartism can be nothing else than the government of finance capital which directs, inspires, and corrupts the summits of the bureaucracy, the police, the officers’ caste, and the press”.
49 Biswas, 2019.
50 Khare, 2019.
51 Roy, 2019.
52 In 1952, addressing the Kashmiris, India’s first prime minister, Nehru, said: “Kashmir is not the property of India or Pakistan. It belongs to the Kashmiri people… We have taken the issue to the United Nations and give our word of honour for a peaceful solution. As a great nation, we cannot go back on it. We have left the question of final solution to the people of Kashmir and we are determined to abide by their decision”—quoted in Waheed, 2019. The author of this Guardian article rightly says: “India has now done exactly what Nehru ruled out, going back on its word, and scripted a final betrayal of the Kashmiri people. The journey from being a colony of the British empire to colonising the unyielding Muslim other next door reveals a catastrophic mutation at the heart of the Indian state”.
53 Apoorva, 2019.
54 If the BJP got more than 50 percent in a constituency from Hindus only, who form almost 75 percent of the population, the BJP can win an election on the basis of Hindu majoritarianism.
55 This is clear from the fact that after the election, a senior BJP leader and a former spokesman for the RSS, wrote that the “remnants” of the “pseudo-secular/liberal cartels that held a disproportionate sway and stranglehold over the intellectual and policy establishment of the country…need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape”—Roy, 2019.
56 Palshikar, Kumar, and Shastri, 2019.
57 Trotsky, 1973, p276.
58 Professor Prabhat Patnaik, associated with the CPI(M) says: “With neither of the neoliberal formations being able to provide an answer to the burning material problems of the people, it is only the Left, which can go beyond neoliberal capitalism, that can provide a way out of the crisis, though this way out would take us eventually beyond capitalism itself. This is true not only in India but in the rest of the world as well”—Patnaik, 2019. But the question is: what kind of left?
59 This is the case even if it is true that these parties have consistently opposed communalism and even if they have organised numerous strikes against neoliberalism under both the BJP and the Congress regimes.
60 The transitional demands stem “from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat” (Trotsky, 1938).
61 “We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a ‘by-product’ of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities. We have always said that reforms are a by-product of the revolutionary class struggle. We said—and proved it by deeds—that bourgeois-democratic reforms are a by-product of the proletarian, ie, of the socialist revolution”—Lenin, 1921.
62 Karl Marx vehemently argued against all those abstentionists for whom: “Workers must not go on strike; for to struggle to increase one’s wages or to prevent their decrease is like recognising wages”, and “If in the political struggle against the bourgeois state the workers succeed only in extracting concessions, then they are guilty of compromise” because getting concessions does not end exploitation—Marx, 1873.
63 In launching class struggle, “to renounce in advance…any utilisation of a conflict of interests (even if temporary) among one’s enemies, or any conciliation or compromise with possible allies (even if they are temporary, unstable, vacillating or conditional allies)—is that not ridiculous in the extreme?”, Lenin (1985) asks.
64 Das, 2019b. It is problematic that groups of a few people in a city or a country consider themselves a party (or a part of a party) of the working class who unceasingly engage in aggressive abrasive criticisms of one another and defend their own pure programme.
65 Lenin, 1977, p136. My emphasis. Lenin, 1977, p146.
66 Lenin, 1977, pp153-154.
67 Lenin, 1977, p146.