The roots of the rise of Hindutva lie in substantial measure in the nature of Congress rule and in particular the UPA governments of 2004 to 2014.
Many commentators, in the mainstream and on social media, have been urging the Left to align with the Congress in preparation for the parliamentary elections due next year. Several of them, who have been harping on the theme for some months now, turned harshly critical when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) recently announced that it was against electoral tie-ups in any form with the Congress.
A substantial part of such commentary emerges from sections who believe that the defeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2019 is of such overriding importance that all other political considerations should be put aside. Alongside this view, such commentators also present increasingly extreme characterisations of the BJP, with any attempt to inject some sobriety or realism into such assessments being met with the charge of downplaying the danger that Hindutva represents..
Any strategy to deal with Hindutva must obviously begin from the acknowledgement of the basic point that the CPI(M) has always made – that the roots of its rise to the current state lie in substantial measure in the nature of Congress rule and in particular the UPA governments of 2004 to 2014. It was the determined pursuit of neoliberal policies by the Congress (and state governments of the non-Left variety) that had alienated the people, with little improvement in their general well-being on a mass scale – a failure that Hindutva seized, promising development.
Further, given the hold that Hindutva has obtained on Indian society as a whole, across various spheres of national life, mere electoral defeat is hardly the key to halting its advance. Without mass mobilisation on issues that affect the people and without winning a substantial section of the people away from Hindutva ideology, through mass movements for secular and democratic advance, banking on electoral arithmetic alone is likely to be of little use and indeed diversionary. Such mobilisation cannot have unity with the Congress party as its basis, when the alienation of the people at large from it has formed part of the very basis of the rise of Hindutva.
Events of the last two years lend substantial weight to this understanding – one has only to recall the collapse of the Nitish Kumar-led mahagatbandhan experiment that was much touted at the time of its victory (and the Left excoriated for its non-participation in this alliance) and the failure of the Akhilesh Yadav-Rahul Gandhi led combine in the Uttar Pradesh elections, returning the BJP to power in a virulent avatar in a state where it had not succeeded for almost 15 years. In retrospect, it is clear that even the defeat that Hindutva forces suffered in the 2004 elections was merely a temporary setback, from which they emerged to victory, considerably strengthened, in 2014, led by none other than Narendra Modi, the figure who represented the nadir of the earlier spell of Hindutva rule.,
On the other hand, from the large-scale mobilisations of farmers in the agitations of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the workers’ rally in Delhi, to the prompt condemnation by incensed scientists against the obscurantist remarks of the minister of state for education on teaching evolution, from the mobilisation at Una to the protests at Bhima Koregaon and their aftermath, and the long-drawn student agitations in a number of leading universities – all of these speak to the scope for mobilisation against Hindutva. To convert the energies and advances of such movements into lasting political capital is undoubtedly the challenge.
But why does the enthusiasm for Left-Congress unity override this logic even among some on the Left and in sections otherwise well-disposed to the CPI(M)? Ever since independence, it has been a persistent illusion among a section of progressive opinion that the Congress is in fact a viable vehicle for the project of secular and democratic nation-building. Since the Congress has been the dominant political formation for the better part of post-independence India, even after the communal danger became significant, it is tempting to attribute all forward movement in any sphere of national life to the leadership of the Congress.
Unfortunately what this one-sided view misses is the responsibility of the Congress for all that has not been achieved, and that the Congress had presided over the pursuit of a path of development that had fundamental contradictions, leading to the all-round crisis that began enveloping the Indian state at the beginning of the 1990s.
Even after the sharp, rightward shift in economic policy, the illusion has persisted that if not the Congress, other parliamentary coalitions could be the vehicle for a radical movement forward, with the Congress, even if reluctantly, being somehow forced to join. This has been further sustained by the fact that the two responses of the Indian state to the crises of the 1990s, economic reform on the one hand and the push to abandon the secular ideal on the other, have been led by two different parties, the Congress and the BJP respectively.
In reality, this has not stopped the latter from embracing economic reform when in power (however critical they may have been in opposition) and the former from discreetly avoiding head-on engagement with the anti-secular agenda. Both of course have come together in lining up to become a camp follower of the US in foreign policy.
Unfortunately though, if in an earlier era a section of progressive opinion was seduced by the slogan of Congress socialism, it is now seduced by the slogan of Congress secularism, ignoring the reality that it is the whole gamut of Congress policies that have paved the way for the rise of Hindutva. The dithering and inaction of the P.V. Narasimha Rao government on the eve of the Babri Masjid demolition and the UPA’s refusal in 2004 to heed Harkishen Singh Surjeet’s (then CPI(M) general secretary) call to “detoxify” the government of RSS influence are two outstanding examples of the compromising stance of the Congress on secularism.
The record of the CPI(M) shows that it chose, since its formation, a completely different course. In an earlier era, in the 1960s and 70s, it stood out in its refusal to tail the Congress, holding it responsible, as the key representative of India’s ruling elite, for the condition of the masses. It led a rising wave of resistance and opposition to Congress rule across the country wherever its strength allowed, leveraging in some areas the effect of other currents of opposition, even while being critical of their shortcomings.
Within ten years, with the Emergency, the correctness of its assessment was amply demonstrated. The party emerging in the post-Emergency era with substantial gains in its strength and mass following, in striking contrast to the diminution of the strength of the Communist Party of India. In the subsequent years, one of the testing periods was that of the V.P. Singh-led National Front government, to which the CPI(M) provided outside support, with the BJP providing another supportive crutch to him.
From then on, the CPI(M) in the main has stood its ground, refusing to downplay its critique and characterisation of the Congress, even while acknowledging and grappling with the challenge of the rise of the BJP as an equally significant representative of the country’s ruling elite. But it is a measure of the depth of the contemporary crisis that even the CPI(M), in the attempt to forge various parliamentary alliances to ward off the Hindutva danger, had in some measure lost focus on its core agenda.
Critics of the party’s current position would do well to go back to its public, and frankly self-critical, analysis of its political tactics over the last 25 years adopted at its Visakhapatnam congress. This analysis highlighted the fact that the pursuit of electoral alliances, however fruitful in the short term, had led to distraction from the key issue of building the independent strength of the Left and democratic movement, without whose significant presence no stable political shift away from Hindutva could be consolidated.
The CPI(M)’s latest decision has followed this understanding, even if, as is well known, there have been strains earlier in implementing this line in the Bengal assembly elections. Critics would do well to give credit to the fact that the CPI(M)’s view arises from a well-argued and well-debated understanding, with an objective view of ground realities and not falling for illusions of grandeur. It certainly is not the product of mere inner-party factionalism or the product of seeking some opportunistic, short-term gains as innuendos in the media have made out.
There can be no short-cut to fighting Hindutva. We are in for the long-haul and it will be a grim fight indeed. But panic-stricken and hasty assessments and the search for quickfire solutions through hasty electoral alliances have not worked for the last 25 years. They are unlikely to do so in the future too.
T. Jayaraman teaches and undertakes research in climate change, sustainable development and science policy at TISS.. The views expressed here are personal.