Three Vectors to a Nightmare

June 22, 2014

Narendra Modi rally in Varanasi

By Biju Mathew

The dust from this election just won’t settle that easily. Fear and jubiliation seem right now to be two sides of the same coin. A 31% victory has polarized the country like never before. Let’s face it. Nobody expected it to be this bad. Not the arsenal of pre-election opinion polls. Not the exit polls. Even the most pessimistic of left/liberal commentators went only as far as to suggest that the NDA would gain a simple majority. What’s more, the BJP itself didn’t expect it. We were all wrong. Narendra Modi and the BJP have a simple majority. As the NDA they are uncomfortably close to an absolute majority.

Most commentaries thus far have asked the obvious question: how did Modi and the BJP pull this off? However, there is another question that might well be worth asking. How was everybody so wrong in their assessment of what would happen? Errors in the assessment of trends often happen because of an inability to spot a convergence of forces – the interplay and the acceleration one set of forces provide for another. Frameworks that simplify and offer single causes or one big trend fail to comprehend the relation between the historical and the contemporary, where one may accelerate the other.

Three intersecting vectors, each co-constitutive of the other have brought us to this moment.

1. A specific conjuncture of neoliberal growth, what one might call neoliberal demands under conditions of global recession.

2. A contemporary articulation of youth consciousness that is connected to both population demographics and a twenty five year history of neoliberalism (what has been called the “youth bulge.”)

3. And finally, a vector that has seen a continuous expansion since 1952 with the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the anti-Mandal agitation, the destruction of Babri Masjid, the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 and the exponential rise in anti-Dalit violence in the last two decades, all data points that signal the continual expansion of majoritarianism or to use Babasaheb Ambedkar’s phrase, “the tyranny of the communal majority.”

Bourgeois Hegemony: A Strong Leader for A Strong Economy

In early 2010 the Tata Nano plant in Sanand, Gujarat was inaugurated with much fanfare. It was celebrated as the fastest implementation in Indian history with a 14-month turnaround from commissioning to production. What was even more significant about this 14-month turnaround was both the huge land and tax subsidy Modi’s government gave to the Tatas and the contrast between the fate of the farmers in Sanand and those in Singur, West Bengal. Modi had literally swept aside the opposition of the Sanand farmers, whereas the Singur farmers had prevailed. The opposition and the subsequent quelling of the Sanand farmers was neither the first nor the last such case in Gujarat. The list is long – from the fishermen fighting the Mundra power plant to farmers caught in the Dholera Special Investment Region.

By the time the first Nano rolled off the Sanand plant, all signs pointed to the fact that the global recession had finally caught up with the Indian economy. 2010 was the last year when India recorded a galloping growth rate (just over 10%). By 2011 it had fallen to 6% and in the following year to 4%. There was nothing surprising about this in an objective sense. If we were to compare the slowing down of the Indian economy to the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), we will see that the same trend holds for all of them. Brazil was down to 0.9% by 2013, Russia to 2.5%, China to 7.5% (from double digits) and South Africa to 3%. All of them had lost anywhere between 4 to 6 percentage points from their 2008-09 status.

By early 2011, a new phrase entered Indian political parlance – ‘policy paralysis.’ Over the next three years it would become one of the most commonly used catchphrases to describe the UPA government and the platform for the re-modeling of Modi as an economic superman. Between 2011 and 2014, for instance, the Times of India and the Economic Times (ToI Group) used the phrase over 12,000 times. The Economic Times created a searchable tag of the phrase. Every doyen of Indian industry from Kumar Mangalam Birla to Mukesh Ambani signed on to the phrase. Adi Godrej used his perch as the President of CII to repeatedly bring up “policy paralysis.” In eight short years, the UPA had given away to the corporate sector the most land to be brought under corporate control since independence (through the SEZ Act), including forest land (a la POSCO), opened up the mining sector for the rip, run and export economy (I have personally seen the 30 KM line of trucks coming down from the Gandamardhan hill range carrying iron ore headed to the Paradip port) and overseen the growth of inequality in the country. But not quickly enough.

‘Policy paralysis’ was a brilliant catch-all that spoke to many things without having to specify any of what it stood for. It allowed for the attribution of the slowdown in the Indian economy to UPA non-performance and avoid a focus on the more systemic relation between the Indian economy and the global crisis. The same Economic Times that was central to the creation of the “policy paralysis” discourse carried a mere handful of articles on the global recession’s impact on the Indian economy in the same time period – 2011 and 2014 (they did carry a large number of articles in 2008-09 when the crisis emerged in US and Europe). Nobody, not the corporates of course, but even the Manmohan-Chidambaram-Ahluwalia coterie was inclined to expose the systemic issues of a neoliberal economy and so could only cooperate with the discourse of policy paralysis. Alongside the national economy, so had the Gujarat economy slowed down in the same period. But this was of no concern because the reason for the bourgeoisie’s decision to get behind Modi and the BJP had little to do with such numbers.

The Indian bourgeoisie had thrown its lot behind Modi and the BJP, just as they had done in 2004 but this time with three big differences. In 2004 there were elements of the bourgeoisie that were not fully behind the BJP precisely because of Modi, including heavy hitters like Ratan Tata. More importantly, in 2004 the effort was to invoke nationalism through the India Shining slogan – a nationalism that merged the notions of India as an economic superpower and Hindutva as underlying this power, but this time the messaging sought to precisely pull apart “development” from Hindutva and underplay the latter. Finally, the most material difference between 2004 and 2014 was that in the intervening decade, corporate control over media and media infrastructure had both expanded vastly. The post election announcement that Network 18 has been acquired by RIL and the impending departure of Sardesai and Ghose from the network confirms what had become a litany within the social movement left over the last year – that it was close to impossible to get a critical word in about Modi on network TV and electronic and social media.

The Nano moment, the discourse of policy paralysis, the deployment of specific messaging emergent out of the paralysis discourse and the control over media together indicates not just that the Indian bourgeoisie has overcome its 2004 ambivalence toward Modi and the BJP but more importantly that the unmitigated support and adulation that Modi has received from the capitalist class is not for his development record but because to inaugurate a neoliberalism-under-recession they needed somebody whose authoritarian credentials are impeccable. On this count Modi had an impressive record. Not only did 2002 and every encounter killing fit well into this necessary authoritarianism, but if quelling the Sanand farmers and the Mundra fishermen needed such prior violence to set the tone then he had indeed established his record perfectly.

The Youth Bulge

Mihir Sharma’s recent thesis that the Modi victory can in significant part be attributed to the youth bulge – both small town/rural and metropolis based first time voters who have no memory of the Emergency or Mandal, Babri masjid or the Gujarat carnage, is indeed compelling. Sharma’s argument that such a generation desires to move forward and out of their circumstances allows them to not just accept but admire a strong/authoritarian figure as Modi has a ring of truth that is difficult to resist. Alongside some objective facts – that the Indian electorate saw the addition of 150 million new voters between 2004 and 2014, the sharp rise in voter turnout this election and the numerous examples we saw of mobilized youth in the Modi campaign— it is indeed an important vector to add to our analysis. And yet there is a gap that bears some attention.

There are far too many aggregations at play when we account for the youth bulge as a homogenous block. Over two-thirds of this group is non-metro youth. A majority of the youth is economically precarious. The youth in the South and West have greater access to education than the ones in the North and the East. So also, its critical to ask whether the BJP/NDA was able to swing this youth vote evenly across the country or were they more successful in specific pockets?

Far too much of the recent commentary on the youth has positioned the generation as having no memory of the Emergency or Babri Masjid, Mandal or the Gujarat massacre. In such characterizations, the youth emerge as empty containers that were suddenly filled by the Modi wave. The far better question might be: what in the daily material experiences of these youth over the last decade or little more, dovetailed with the messaging of the Modi campaign? It is possible to think of the dominant images and daily interactions that shaped the generation. IPL auctions and match fixing, reality television and game shows where week after week somebody is eliminated, naked corruption, dog-eat-dog capitalism and the meteoric rise in the wealth of some, dramatic growth of income disparities, the ease with which those higher up the jati ladder can crush those below, rapes and molestations with impunity along class and caste lines… the list just keeps growing more macabre. My point here is simple: instead of seeing the youth bulge as empty containers caught up in the Modi wave we need to acknowledge that they are in part or full formed by the cultural logic that ties such images and experiences together. There is, in other words, a cultural logic to these most contemporary times and that is the cultural logic that lies at the heart of neoliberalism – hyper-utilitarianism and hyper-individualism and a hard instrumentalism to everything around you. Refract this cultural formation through the heterogeneity noted above and you will find that the more precarious one’s life – the less access to education and other life opportunities – the more heightened and dramatic the anger, frustration and the sense of powerlessness.

With just 31% of the national vote it should be clear that there was no clear sweep of the youth bulge by the BJP. And yet when it comes to states such as UP (42%) and Bihar (39%) it’s clear that the BJP/NDA moved large sections of the new voters. This is where it is important to ask how the BJP moved youth – economically precarious and hyper instrumental – over to their side in places such as UP, while they were unable to do so in other areas? Again, the answer may be multifaceted but in spaces such as UP, it’s clear that the Modi/Amit Shah strategy was one of polarization. Muzzafarnagar was what one might call a targeted deployment of the Modi/Shah polarization strategy that had worked so well for a decade in Gujarat. Polarization, as a strategy met the youth bulge in UP half way – gave them somebody to be angry with and simultaneously a way to step away from their powerless utilitarian frame to, however momentary, a sense of power defending the honor of Hindu women.

Add to this the capitalist class’ projection of development with a tinge of authoritarianism, bravado and self confidence, what was at play in UP was a mood not very different from the one in 1930s Europe. Thus Sharma’s projection of youth voting across caste lines as aspirational, while true , needs a further byline – that it wasn’t homogenous and where it did happen such as in UP, it is potentially fascist.

Ambedkar’s Nightmare

The third vector – caste Hindu majoritarianism – is one that has been in continuous and almost unimpeded expansion since 1952. I mark 1952 as the moment because with Ambedkar’s resignation from the Congress government (1951) and subsequent electoral defeat a period of intense and high-impact opposition to majoritarianism suffered a blow from which it is yet to recover.

Ambedkar articulated his struggle against a simple First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) style liberal democracy with utmost clarity from 1932 all the way into the Constituent Assembly. For him, the FPTP/Winner Takes it All system would only result in the continued reproduction of the terrible social and economic inequalities that dominated Indian society. If such a system was to be implemented it would only lead to a successive consolidation of what he famously called the “tyranny of the communal majority.”

Ambedkar’s experiments in setting up the Independent Labor Party and his agile rearticulation of the Indian socio economic system as not merely a division of labor but instead a “division of laborers” reflected his deep clarity on the convergence of class and caste power in the continuously consolidating communal majority. The congress-led nationalist movement was clearly, for Ambedkar, a vehicle for such a consolidation. His two decade struggle with them ended in 1951, way short of the revolution he was seeking but with some protections – reserved constituencies and educational and public sector reservations – that did not threaten the fabric of majoritarian power but offered some minimal technologies of redressal.

Over the two decades of struggle Ambedkar attempted two different radical solutions. His first attempt at breaching the institutional framework of liberal democracy came through the now famous ‘double vote’ for minorities that he secured at the Round Table conference and ended with the Poona Blackmail when Gandhi forced him to back down from victory under threat of death. This was followed on the eve of the formation of the constituent assembly with his second attempt, written as “States and Minorities”, in which he proposed a limited reverse proportional allocation of seats with caps on seats by community. This effort was also to be forced into a compromise – a weak one at that, with reservations as a long term fix emerging as an unhappy middle ground. Ambedkar was clear that this was insufficient and did nothing to prevent the logic of majoritarian consolidation. Even as late as 1955, a year before his untimely passing, he was still hopeful that a struggle could be waged to breach the framework of FPTP.

One has only to do a momentary thought experiment to see that the current conjuncture of the communal majority controlling parliament with just 31% of the national vote would have been simply impossible if either of Ambedkar’s solutions or even if simply his warning that India would spiral towards the rule of a communal majority had been heeded.

The vector of continuous consolidation of the communal majority was slow and gradual in the decades immediately after independence but accelerated as a new political vehicle for the expression of the majoritarian trajectory was rebuilt and launched in the 1980s – the Hindutva movement and the BJP. In the non-electoral domain one can see the acceleration through a quick succession of data points – the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the anti-Mandal agitation, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the exponential increase in antiDalit violence from the late 1980s onwards and the Gujarat carnage of 2002. In the electoral domain, the emergence of the BJP in the mid 1980s produced the necessary architecture for a consistent and focused experiment in consolidating the communal majority. However, the Congress Party, always in tune with the majoritarian sentiment, moved during this same period towards a caste-Hindu identity consolidation – first under Mrs Gandhi’s tutelage and then under the able guidance of Narasimha Rao, Tytler and Bhagat, the Sanjay Gandhi coterie that was instrumental in the Congress’ open turn to majoritarianism. Simultaneously we saw several of the caste-based regional parties’ convergence towards the centripetal pull of majoritarianism. Prime in this would be the case of Telugu Desam, that repudiated the non-Brahmin core of Kamma caste identity and unambiguously embraced a majoritarian identity. As Kammas have emerged as the economically dominant community in Andhra, the Telegu Desam has been, one could argue, forced to jettison its non-Brahmin past and lock step with majoritarianism. So also, the fast Brahmanizing AIADMK under Jayalalitha had little trouble embracing majoritarianism, as also the Akali Dal that has worked for over two decades now to harmonize the post Khalistan (having-been-taught-a-lesson) Jat Sikh identity with a place at the majoritarian table. In this sense parties like the Telegu Desam provide the leadership to caste groups that have had uncomfortable histories with communal majoritarianism but having now achieved economic ascendancy, wish to seek their place within the majoritarian caste-class block.

It’s not, therefore, a new logic that produced the current election results, but a specific watershed moment in the expansion of the vector of majoritarianism – a kind of tipping over effect where the capitalist class’ unequivocal acceptance of majoritarianism worked in tandem with a vector of youth powerlessness to bring them a supremacist party. The 31% vote share is a meaningless number because where it mattered the majoritarian consensus got much beyond a low number like 31% and in the end the vector is to be understood as an aggregation of social and economic power rather than pure numbers. We are fortunate to have had this result because now there is no longer the possibility of fooling ourselves that majoritarianism is not at the center of Indian politics.

Going Back to the Future

What does it mean then to resist at a moment like this? The next several years will, in all probabilities, see a rapid rise in repression and a huge assertion of the majoritarian sentiment. The open calls for a Hindu Rashtra, the aggressive rumble of corporate takeover of everything from coal to media, the brutal repression of Dalit women seeking justice against rape at Jantar Mantar, the brutal clubbing to death of a Muslim youth in Pune and Modi’s open assault on Kashmir and so called Bangladeshi migrants are a two-week slice of what is to come. The immediate consequence will be disarray in the opposition ranks. What is central to pulling out of and pulling together out of such disarray has to be a big idea – a big idea with deep roots. The Ambedkarite critique of majoritarianism with a ready framework that goes all the way from culture to institutional reform can be the big idea that unites us all – Dalits, Muslims, Women and other minorities. We are no longer fighting to defeat the BJP. Instead we are fighting for a new meaning and a more revolutionary democratic form that exceeds the bourgeois liberal framework we have been stuck within. It doesn’t matter that it may well take us a decade or more to win this battle. It’s the only kind of fight that can withstand the majoritarian logic especially now that the capitalist elite have signed on to it fully. This battle fortunately won’t be unique to India. All across the world liberal democracy under conditions of neoliberal dominance has begun to come apart on the question of minorities. In the US and the UK, for instance, Islamophobia and anti-third-world migrant sentiment has produced the sharpest divisions in civil society. In post-revolution Egypt, the struggle has also turned in significant part on the question of minority rights, though for now the army has fundamentally short circuited the debate. The significant showing of nine fascist parties in the EU elections is an indicator that in almost every part of Europe a majoritarian sentiment is on the rise. In Iran, the emergence of the Green movement over the last decade articulates aspects of a similar problematic. In Pakistan, the struggles around the status of Shias, Christians and the Baluch invoke the same limits. The solution in the end is to produce a global revolution in the democratic form that must arrest majoritarianism. Let’s work to put into place our part in this revolution.

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