India: Understanding the Catastrophic Victory of the Fascists and the Long-Term Consequences

Kunal Chattopadhyay

Posted August 29, 2019

The following article consists of extracts of a longer article by Kunal Chattopadhyay, an Indian activist-scholar and a leader of Radical Socialists. It appeared on the Radical Socialist website on June 8, 2019 here and on the International Viewpoint website here. We republish it because the reactionary turn in the Indian parliamentary elections is by far the biggest in the world and has important lessons for the U.S., where we face our own rise of rightwing reaction.

The italicized passages are summaries of the sections omitted for length. We urge readers to check out the full article. The article warns, “We can expect greater state violence in Kashmir and the attempts to scrap Articles 370 and 35A,” articles of the Indian Constitution giving autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. That has now happened, escalating the crises in Kashmir and India and between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. See the Radical Socialist stand on the Scrapping of Articles 370 and 35A.

The Indian parliamentary elections of 2019 ended with a huge victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). What was significant was not just the huge increase in votes and seats of the BJP and the NDA, but the total shift of votes and discourse to the right. Any attempt to minimize this by mechanically referring to classical Marxist texts and quotations would be suicidal.

Before we go into left responses, though, we have to begin by looking at what happened and explain why.

The rest of introductory section summarizes the results for the various parties in the 2019 election to the Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, and the changes from previous elections. Here are the results in the 2019 election: The far-right BJP got 37.4% of the votes and 303 of the 545 seats. The NDA as a whole got 43.9% of the votes and 353 seats. The center-left Indian National Congress got 19.5% of the votes and 52 seats. Its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) got 24.6% of the votes and 91 seats. Running as the Left Front, the Communist Part of India (CPI) got 1.75% of the votes and 3 seats, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI[M]) got .6% of the votes and 2 seats.

So what were the factors that led to this rise of the BJP?

The BJP is the electoral arm of the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Founded in 1925, the RSS was banned in 1948 after a former member assassinated Mohandas Gandhi. The ban was lifted in 1949, and the RSS began its long campaign of penetrating civil society. The BJP was founded in 1989 and grew over the next decade, aided by the failure of the Congress party to improve the conditions of the Indian people. The BJP won the 1999 election and formed a government which lasted until 2004. By that time the BJP had displaced Congress as the preferred party of Indian capitalism.

Workers in Hyderabad participate in a rally during a nationwide general strike on September 2, 2016, the largest in human history (AP)

Globalisation, Indian Capitalism and the BJP

Indian capitalism has developed an aggressive appetite. The Global Wealth Report 2018 published by the Credit Suisse, an investment bank, says India now has 343,000 persons owning over one million US dollars, or about 7 crores [70 million] of Indian rupees, worth of wealth. According to the World Inequality Database, the income of the top 1% of the Indian population was Rs 33 lakh [3.3 million] per adult or Rs 275,000 per month (just under US$ 4000). Mukesh Ambani’s wealth is currently put at 53 billion US$, Ratan Tata’s wealth is seemingly much less, but that is because much of it is concealed as company property which he fully controls. But the Tata group has under his stewardship acted aggressively to take over Tetley (by Tata Tea), Jaguar Land Rover (by Tata Motors) and Corus (by Tata Steel). However, Indian capitalism has been forced to compete with much more powerful US, European and Japanese capitalism, and recently with Chinese capital, from a weaker base. As a result, and lacking any historic colony, Indian capitalism has the need to impose super-exploitation on the Indian working class. This includes a huge burden on the adivasis [indigenous peoples] (including evicting them from forests where they have dwelt, compelling them to work for abysmally low wages, etc.) as well as destroying the organized working class altogether.

This is where Congress has been unable to deliver the goods. The privatization of the finance sectors has been slowed down due to massive struggles by finance sector employees. The very existence of some of the older labour laws, however much they are flouted, create benchmarks against which workers can raise their demands. And this was something that became clear in 2004-2009, during the first UPA government (UPA-I), when the left had 61 MPs, and Congress had to rely on the support of those MPs. Some reforms which from above appear very insignificant actually provided quite a bit of bargaining power to the rural poor. These included the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), which provided that one person per poor family would get 199 days guaranteed work per year.

The Gujarat Model of Narendra Modi consisted of ignoring labour laws, ignoring environment protection (since that increases the cost for the individual capitalist), and promoting big capital. In 2002, after the Gujarat carnage, sections of the Indian capitalist class, members of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), had criticized the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Led by diamond merchant and businessman Gautam Adani, a group formed an alternative body, Resurgent Group of Gujarat, and even threatened to leave CII.

Adani pledged a sum of Rs 15,000 crores [15 billion] for the first “Vibrant Gujarat” summit (held in September-October 2003). Thereafter, Adani was one of the principal lobbyists for Modi consistently, including outside India. Other capitalists began to see the value of the Modi/Gujarat model. Unlike in the case of previous BJP leaders, the Modi for Prime Minister campaign was launched at Vibrant Gujarat summits, with prominent Indian capitalists cheering.

The Modi government started repaying their friends. When it became a Modi government at the all-India level, this repayment was even more fulsome. The BJP had a few campaign planks in 2014, one of which was its opposition to corruption. But from Anna Hazare down, all the “anti-corruption” crusaders who had targeted the Congress, remained silent as India’s big capital, and to a certain extent certain major international capitalist concerns including Monsanto, made huge inroads.

But it was not simply a matter of corrupt practices (the so-called crony capitalism). It was a matter of systematic inroads on the workers and poor peasants’ livelihoods for the profit of big capital. However, there were roadblocks. The Indian working class is much weaker now than it had been three decades back. Nevertheless, the call for changing the labour laws, the speeding up of the privatization of Public Sector Undertakings, got slowed down primarily because of labour resistance. While only about 5-7 per cent of the working class is organised by now, the twenty-first century did see attempts, including by some of the bureaucratic Central Trade Unions, to mobilise not just their immediate members but others as well. General strikes across India, and regular struggles in the financial sectors, meant that the plans could not always proceed.

The ideological mobilisations

But in 2004, Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee had stumbled here. He too had sought, as BJP leader, to serve big capital. But the “India Shining” campaign had resulted in huge popular rejection. That was also the last occasion when, as we saw, the left votes had gone up along with seats. Though that was a matter of 59 seats of the four Left Front parties (CPI[M] 5.66%, 43 seats; CPI 1.41%, 10 seats; Revolutionary Socialist Party [RSP] 0.43%, 3 seats; All India Forward Bloc 0.35%, 3 seats) along with two more by their allies, this was an indication that the masses of people were willing to vote for alternatives if these were posed before them. Also, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP, representing Dalits or “Untouchables”) had won 19 seats (5.33%), the Samajwadi Party (SP, representing “Other Backward Classes,” another oppressed group in India’s caste system) 36 seats (4.32%), and in Bihar the Rashtriya Janata Dal (the SP’s rough equivalent in Bihar) had won 24 seats (2.41%). In 2009 too the UPA had trounced the NDA. But this was followed by the old guard of the BJP being pushed aside, and a firm, aggressive new leadership taking over. Between 2014 and 2019, this leadership consolidated itself.

The Hindu nationalist rhetoric was modified, because it was clear that merely pushing for Hindu unity was not paying adequate dividend. At the same time, a series of policy measures by the government had created popular anger. This was eventually translated into votes in several state assembly elections in 2018. In May, the Janata Dal (Secular) (JD[S]) and the Congress tied up after the elections to form a JD(S)-led government. The BJP tried to spend huge sums of money to buy up several MLAs [Members of legislative Assembly] but was foiled. In November-December, there were elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan, and Telangana. The Congress lost Mizoram to the Mizo National Front, but gained Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh from the BJP. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi swept Telangana, defeating both BJP and Congress.

The BJP showed that it was prepared for these setbacks. While this also calls for a discussion of the errors and flaws of its opposition, we need to understand that right from 2014, the BJP had taken up a multi-pronged strategy. One was a shift from merely Hindu nationalism to a full-fledged appropriation of Indian nationalism in its ugliest form. The distinction lies in the past of the RSS. The RSS does not have, as we saw, the freedom struggle in its genes. So it has in the past stressed that it is fighting for the real rights of Hindus. But this time, Kashmir, Pakistan, these became important buzz words.

In place of previous governments with their attempts at some degree of carrot and stick policies in Kashmir, under Modi there was simply a big stick with no attempt at either carrot or talking softly. From a very early stage, Modi projected himself as a strong man. Kashmir was a key component of this chest-thumping nationalism. Violence in Kashmir was firmly justified. This was the way in which the Sangh worked itself into nationalism. Violence in Kashmir is not new. Between 1990 and 2017 about 41,000 persons have died due to the conflicts. They include 14,000 civilians and 22,000 real or alleged militants. However, there was clearly an upward graph from 2014. And this has resulted, with the Pulwama suicide-bombing incident, in the emergence of purely home-grown cases of militants, even though Pakistan had to be blamed for political (primarily electoral) reasons.

National security trumps civil liberties — this was the message. The failure of the RSS student wing, the All Indian Student Council (ABVP), to win the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union (JNUSU) election led to aggressive nationalism and fake propaganda, which however was dramatically effective. The JNUSU President Kanhaiya Kumar (a member of the CPI-dominated All India Students Federation [AISF]), along with students belonging to other left organisations, such as Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, were accused of having raised anti-India slogans at a meeting which was held over the commemoration of the hanging of Afzal Guru. Guru was a Kashmiri who was hanged in a case that will remain one of the worst cases of legal violence, with ample evidence that he was framed by the police. Many lawyers and civil rights activists have protested his conviction and hanging. Kumar and others were charged with having shouted anti-India slogans. They were arrested, Kanhaiya Kumar was assaulted in front of the Patiala House Court. While no legal case could stand, the bulk of the electronic and print media were used, with shouting brigade leaders like Arnab Goswami (then Times Now, currently Republic TV) leading the pack.

The aim was manifold. First, Kashmir was made into a seat of evil. Modi was shown as the first muscular leader tackling Kashmir the way it should be, namely by massive and unrelenting violence. Second, leftists of all shades were depicted as “anti-national” for talking about civil rights in Kashmir. Of course their utterances were distorted so that they, including someone like Kanhaiya Kumar, belonging to the CPI (all moderate left parties take the position that Kashmir is an integral part of India and differ only over how to conduct control there), was supposed to have advocated Kashmir’s right to self-determination to the point of secession. Third, as these were JNU students and much of the left and liberal intellectuals of Delhi, and intellectuals and students all over India stood by them, it was argued that liberal intellectuals by definition were suspect, with a tendency to become anti-nationals.

The elections of 2004, 2009 and 2014 were all fought on primarily economic issues. In 2004 BJP went into the polls claiming India was shining. It had a fully articulated aggressive neoliberal policy, while the Congress, the original party that had ushered in neoliberalism in India, was talking about social security. The left won its highest ever number of seats. In 2009, the second UPA government (UPA-II) was formed because UPA successfully defended its economic record, including the MNREGA. In 2014 Modi and the BJP focused on corruption, economic failures. Hindutva was worked in, but with a distinct economic tinge in areas like West Bengal and Assam, where “infiltration” by Muslims was linked to outsiders (real or alleged immigrants) taking away jobs from locals.

In 2019 by contrast, the economy was in a mess. So much so that the government of India stopped data from being published. As we write this, the Government, now securely in place for five years, has acknowledged that the growth rate had plummeted to 5.8% and that India’s unemployment rate hit a 45-year high in 2017-18. But the success of the BJP lay in its ability to move the entire campaign away from the economy. The Congress did try raise issues relating to the economy as well as corruption (the Rafale fighter aircraft deal), as did other parties. But the BJP stayed firmly on course for an ideology-driven campaign that stressed national security, a strong leadership, and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Nor was this last something invented only after the Pulwama suicide-bombing and the Balakot airstrike. This chest-thumping belligerent nationalism was ratcheted up immediately after the 2014 victory and stayed the entire course. And no party, not even the left, was in a position to take this on adequately (in most cases not at all).

BJP rally in New Delhi in December 2018 calling for the construction of a temple on the site of the demolished 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya (Sajjad Hussain/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

Ideology, Institutional Subversion, Fraud, Force

The BJP combined ideology, institutional subversion, fraud and force to achieve its electoral victory. Its ideology is Hindu nationalism, scapegoating Muslims, dalits and other oppressed castes, and adivasis. It has subverted institutions, including the media, social media, the Election Commission, and the Supreme Court. The new darling of the capitalists, the BJP had fifty times the funding of the other parties. Where this wasn’t enough, it used fraud to exclude voters and shows of force and threats to intimidate voters in places where it was electorally weak. This will seem familiar to activists in the U.S., although the Trump forces don’t have anywhere near the advantage that the BJP does.

The Opposition and the Strategy of the Congress

Despite its advantages, the BJP might have been defeated by a wide bloc of parties. Congress seemed to be seeking such an alliance in the first half of 2018. But its success in a few state elections led it to change its policy. As the year progressed, it was more interested in putting itself forward as the only legitimate alternative to the BJP than in winning the election and putting together a coalition government.

The Disaster of the Left

The election was a disaster for the mainstream left — the CPI, the CPI(M), the RSP and the All-India Forward Bloc. All of these parties led unions, women’s organizations and other mass fronts. Left-led unions have called general strikes which have received massive support. Since 1991 there have been 17 general strikes, some them far larger than any elsewhere in the world. But for the leadership these have all been symbolic actions, carefully limited to keep open the possibility of joining capitalist parties in government. The demobilization of mass struggle and electoralism has transformed their cadre from fighters for social justice to party and government hacks, often corrupt, sometimes little more than gangsters, no longer able to inspire their base.

What to expect and how to resist?

The BJP government in the first few days has given clear indications of what we should expect. In brief, it will seek to retain its position as the preferred party of the Indian big bourgeoisie. This means an aggressive attempt to reform labour laws in favour of capital. The draft for a new labour code will now be pushed rapidly, depending on the degree of resistance that can be generated.

In foreign policy, the pro-U.S. thrust will be retained, along with something that is distinct to the BJP, namely its extreme closeness to Israel. The anti-Muslim internal ideological politics will be supplemented by anti-Pakistan rhetoric. One especially significant aspect of this is to remember that Balakot was the first case of two nuclear armed states coming into direct military confrontation of the order where one country sends in its air force so deep into another. [On February 26, 2019 Indian warplanes bombed Balakot, near Kashmir but in Pakistan; the next the Pakistani military shot down an Indian warplane.] Much has been written in the Indian media and social media about how many actually died etc. Much more significant is the fact that this happened, and may embolden the BJP to try it again, with aggressive retaliation by Pakistan at some point.

In 2014-1019, the Modi government had already started a process of controlling all segments of the state apparatus. Institutions that previously had some autonomy by law have been gradually brought under control of the Prime Minister’s Office. This is likely to deepen.

This means that under a formal retention of “democracy” there will be a steady erosion of all democratic content. The institutional subversions will be backed by the deepening of communalism so that all non-Hindus are relegated to the status of second-class citizens. Within a couple of years, it will be likely that the NDA will also have a clear majority in the Upper House (Rajya Sabha). The constitutional changes that the RSS has been pushing for can then be pushed through, making India formally a Hindu Rashtra [nation]. We are not predicting that these will all happen, but these will certainly be attempted, and only mass resistance can stop them.

We can expect greater state violence in Kashmir and the attempts to scrap Articles 370 and 35A [Articles of the Indian Constitution giving autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir]. There will also be efforts to pass the Citizenship Amendment Bill making it an Act, so that Muslims coming from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Afghanistan are denied asylum or residency while non-Muslim migrants will find it easier to get naturalization and the right to stay permanently. Muslims across India may be forced to show their officially prescribed documentation or lose citizenship status. This will not only mean they lose their votes, but that they are likely to lose a whole series of basic rights as humans. Muslims are being clearly warned, that if they want to live in the new India they must accept ghettoization, they must not object to the RSS, they must not raise their heads and protest. Here too, what has happened to Muslims in Gujarat since the 2002 pogroms is a template for what will be attempted elsewhere.

The RSS has always had a deep interest in ideological control. This will now involve greater control over education and the media. Curriculum changes are already in the offing. Funding is being linked to loyalty, as well as to a competitive strategy that means that only a handful of institutions will be really high-grade, while the rest will be far more easily amenable to control. The appointment of loyalists to key positions will be another way in which this control will be increased.

Finally, the last five years have also shown that there will be both state sponsored force — the wide use of laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act to arrest anyone who protests, the attack on NGOs which talk about issues like environment, health and safety, organic farming, farmers rights, etc.

The three major responses within left organisations and parties to all this are flawed. For the Maoists, the elections do not matter much. Certain Maoist-inclined activists have even displayed greater happiness at the collapse of the reformist left than alarm at the growth of the BJP. But their strategy of a Protracted Peoples’ War is at a dead-end. The focus on forests and extraction from there, along with the appointment of Amit Shah as Home Minister, presages a far more violent war in the core areas of Maoist influence. Unless there is a radical transformation of their outlook, doctrine, and tactics (which essentially means unless they stop being Maoists) there seems no prospect for serious widening of resistance by them.

For the mainstream left it is business as usual. While even Rahul Gandhi of the Congress tendered his resignation after his party’s failure to gain many more seats, the left leaders, hiding under the cover of collective responsibility, actually do not acknowledge responsibility for the disaster to the left. Rebuilding the old left, with a few poultices here and there, one or two facelift operations, will not gain them anything. This is clearly seen by the fact that the CPI(M) daily in Kolkata has been printing news and op-ed articles that do not address this central issue, the devastating blow suffered by the left.

For many activists, the desire will be to say, we must focus on social movements. But unless all such fragments are brought into a coherent and focused politics, these efforts will all be targeted by the Congress and its liberal intellectual supporters each election time in the name of a rainbow coalition.

What we need to understand is that unlike in many other countries where also there has been a rise of radical right or fascistic forces, in India the opposition is divided, including the popular opposition. The struggle against Hindutva, with the RSS having some 36 organisations and over 800 NGOs working within all sectors of civil society, and having an existence of nearly a century, is different from a struggle against say, Bolsonaro. To damage the hegemony of the RSS-BJP calls for struggles beyond the electoral struggles.

This can however be done only by the building of a new, radical left. The forces for them will have to come from the existing far left, from the sections of the reformist left willing to challenge their leaderships and the drift to the right, the social movement-oriented left activists, in particular caste activists. A separate discussion is needed to look further at why the Amedkarite [Dalit Buddhist] movement in its various forms does not provide a full answer. But one key point is, as long as Dalit parties and leaderships try to fight for upward mobility within the caste system, rather than its radical overthrow, they cannot get out of the ultimate trap of Hindutva. Also, as we saw, the political project of Dalit unity has often foundered on ambitions of particular Dalit castes. But a revitalized left has to be a left that takes caste oppression seriously.

Any such new radical left has to therefore reject the politics of Stalinism and Maoism, without going to a rejection of building revolutionary parties altogether. In this struggle, Radical Socialist will play its role, reaching out to organisations and activists for collaboration and unity. Overcoming fragmentation is the call of the day in today’s India.