Neo-liberal desires have over the course of the past 20 years had a marked impact on the Indian imagination. It is no longer a society formed on the values of the anti-colonial movement or of the Nehruvian period of national development. The core values of the present are personal consumption and career advancement. Such a cultural universe is detrimental to the kind of political project promoted by the Communists. Prognoses that see this election as the “sunset for the Left” are premature. Indian communism has taken its blows over the past 100 years and it will revive once again for several reasons…
The BJP’s neo-liberalism may have pushed the left to the sidelines, but the inequality perpetuated by this agenda will ensure its return. Of the votes in the Indian election, 69 per cent went against the eventual winner, the rightwing Bharatiya Janata party (BJP). This means that despite all talk of a landslide, the Indian electorate is open to an alternative. As the elected officials take their seats in the 16th Lok Sabha (parliament), it seems like folly to consider alternatives. The BJP has an outright majority in the parliament – it does not even need its allies to govern. The Congress party is a shadow of its former self, the oppressed caste parties (such as the Bahujan Samaj party) will be absent and the Left Front (Communist) bloc will be miniscule. All of these parties have called meetings to discuss their losses. More will be needed than licking wounds. The Congress party’s main lesson will be to sit tight and wait for the BJP to stumble on its promises. Yet two main flaws – dynastic politics and a neo-liberal policy agenda – cannot be addressed by the party’s high command. No senior leader wants to see the party distance itself from the Nehru-Gandhi family, whose current head – Sonia Gandhi – remains its oracle. Over the past four decades, since Sonia Gandhi’s husband, Rajiv, ran the party, it has fashioned itself as the spear of neo-liberalism. It would take a party split for that commitment to be revoked.
During the past decade of rule, Congress’s policies have increased inequality in India and failed to address joblessness. Instead of any concrete improvement in people’s wellbeing, Congress seemed to deliver one corruption scandal after another. The BJP ran as the anti-corruption crusader, and promised to lift growth rates and ameliorate joblessness. However, the BJP’s policy slate is neo-liberalism on steroids, which means it is unlikely to be able to meet the expectations it has set itself.
Over the past decade, the Communists have raised the issue of corruption ceaselessly. And it was precisely on this issue that the populist Aam Aadmi party (AAP) emerged last year to the win the Delhi State elections. Its symbol is the broom, sweeping away corruption from public office. There is a significant divide between the Communist-AAP assessment of corruption and that of the Congress-BJP. The latter see corruption as a surface problem – bribes here, special favour there. “Good governance”, they argue, as if reading from a World Bank manual, will sort this out. The left and the AAP see corruption as a much broader problem – bribes and special favours certainly, but also the nepotism of the elite, the withering of public institutions and the attenuation of the political space. This latter point is germane to this election, as political violence in West Bengal for instance, intimidated sections of the electorate that had made its commitment to the Left clear. The 16th Lok Sabha is itself an example of this corruption – it has a record number of multimillionaires and criminals.
Why were the Communists not able to capitalise on their critique of neo-liberalism? Neo-liberal policy not only drives inequality, it also produces aspirations. Malls, filled with shining new commodities, have been built in the large cities and small towns. Television shows and films have produced a culture of goods – fancy houses, jobs that pour money into their employees’ banks, which hand out credit cards to buy anything in the malls. These neo-liberal desires have over the course of the past 20 years had a marked impact on the Indian imagination. It is no longer a society formed on the values of the anti-colonial movement or of the Nehruvian period of national development. The core values of the present are personal consumption and career advancement. Such a cultural universe is detrimental to the kind of political project promoted by the Communists. Prognoses that see this election as the “sunset for the Left” are premature. Indian communism has taken its blows over the past 100 years and it will revive once again for several reasons.
India lacks a genuinely social democratic party, which means that there will always be an appeal for the Communists to take up the issues of livelihood and wellbeing of a population that will continue to be battered by an agenda that produces inequality. A very anaemic liberalism forces the Communists to lead the charge for civil liberties and the protection of minority rights, a pressing matter when the BJP – with no commitment to such rights – will be in power. The weakness of Indian liberalism and the absence of a social democratic party have led many prominent Indian liberals to call for the Communists to become a party of reform rather than revolution. The way the Communists see things, no amount of reform will be able to lift the hundreds of millions of Indian out of poverty. India requires an alternative policy path.
The Left struggles to find a way to both critique the inequality of neo-liberalism and to appeal to the public for an alternative future. This is the conundrum of the Left around the world. The red flag has come to represent protest against the present. It does not yet indicate the pathway to the future.
– The Guardian