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What Lula’s Win Means for the Opposition to Modi

Like Brazil under Bolsonaro, India’s democracy is facing an existential threat. But the response of most Indian political parties suggests they are oblivious to the danger posed by the BJP.

A bit more than two years into the first term of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) raised quite a storm in the teacup. He argued that the Bharatiya Janata Party, under Modi, while “rightwing authoritarian”, was not “fascist”. The reason, said Karat, was that the conditions of Indian capitalism were not ripe for fascism.

The article triggered a lot of discussion on his understanding of fascism, of economics, and indeed, the model of base-superstructure that Karat was obviously following. In terms of realpolitik, it was seen as a salvo against his successor as party leader, Sitaram Yechury, and the alliance the latter had concluded with the Congress.

The theoretical point at stake was that if India faced ‘full-blown’ fascism, then the Left was duty-bound to unite with all anti- and even non-fascist forces to defeat it. Contrariwise, while it might (or not) be desirable to unite with other parties against the authoritarianism of the BJP, a united front was not mandatory. Hence, it was a matter of choice not necessity – of tactics and not strategy.

While the Left, traditionally, has felt obliged to give some kind of theoretical justification for its tactical decisions, it appears clear that many other parties also do not see the threat posed by the ‘hydra-headed’ Sangh parivar as an existential threat to Indian democracy. Even if not part of the NDA, some continue to support them in parliament (eg. the YSR Congress of Jaganmohan Reddy and the BJD of Naveen Patnaik, though KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samiti appears to have had a change of heart) or seek to challenge the Sangh on its own agenda (eg. Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party). All other opposition parties continue to jostle for space among themselves, with little or no effort to create a common space. Whatever be the lip service, the reality on the ground  is that there is no grand alliance to defeat the BJP nationally. The Index of Opposition Unity remains pitifully low, because large parts of the opposition feel no need for it.

One Brazil does not a Left wave make

After the victory of Lula da Silva in the run-off round of the presidential election in Brazil on October 30, 2022, Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, retweeted a triumphalist map of Latin America depicting the rise of the Left in Latin America. The resurrection of the veteran leftist Lula (who described himself as having been buried alive) and the defeat of the far-right extremist Jair Bolsonaro justifiably brought much joy to the Left. But it is fallacious to read into the Brazil result signs of a clear trend, internationally or even regionally.

To be clear, there is no global pattern of an ascendant Left, or even a regression of the Right. Social Democrats have won in Germany and in Australia and retained power in Denmark, but Jacinda Ardern’s hold in New Zealand appears wobbly at best. Sweden will have its first government with neo-Fascist elements and Italy its first government led by a neo-Fascist. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has crushed all opposition again, while Vladimir Putin in Russia and the Law and Justice Party in Poland appear as unshakable as ever. There are no signs of Erdoğan weakening in Turkey. Philippines has reinstated the memory and the son of the erstwhile dictator, Marcos. Just last week, Benjamin Netanyahu has staged a comeback in Israel, and the most far-right formation in that country’s history is poised to assume power. From the junta in Myanmar to the theocrats of Iran and the nationalists in Thailand, dissent-crushing remains a favourite activity. The Arab Spring has all but vanished from memory. Other forms of dictatorship, such as Xi Jinping’s in China and Kim Jong Il’s in North Korea, MBS in Saudi Arabia and Assad in Syria continue to tighten their nooses. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally drew more votes than any ultra-right formation in history. In the UK, the Tories are yet to lose power.

And in the (still) lone superpower, Trumpism is alive and kicking. Despite the predicted right-wing ‘wave’ failing to materialise, hundreds of election-denying, misogynist, homophobic, violence-encouraging Republicans have been elected at the state and federal levels, and their party has recaptured the House of Representatives. Trump himself has announced he will run again for president in 2024; even if he is not nominated by his party, the equally stridently rightist Ron DeSantis is considered the other Republican front runner.

The Left in Latin America is not homogeneous

In Latin America itself, there is no uniform shade of pink or red. The leftist regimes being celebrated include the annoyingly conservative AMLO in Mexico, the Communist successors of Castro in Cuba, the Bolivarian governments in Venezuela and Bolivia, the former guerrilla Petro in Colombia, and the self-proclaimed “coolest dictator in the world”, Nayib Bukele of El Salvador.

Lula’s victory, too, is in no way that of an unalloyed left, like the trade unionist’s first triumph in 2003. Lula himself had sought to distance himself from the ‘church-destroying’ regimes of Venezuela and Cuba on the campaign trail, reminding voters of his long-standing relationship with the church. He even assured the church leaders that he was personally against abortion and would remain neutral in any legislative move in this regard. He also picked long time rival (though on the centre left) Geraldo Alckmin as his running mate. Moreover, the threat to democracy posed by Bolsonaro drew support from sections historically inimical to the left. Thus, the campaign for a citizen’s manifesto denouncing Bolsonaro as a wannabe dictator that was signed by hundreds of thousands of Brazilians in August was led by people from various walks and hues – politicians, environmental and indigenous activists, artists, academics, but also impresarios and industrialists. Simone Tebet, the Liberal candidate who came third in the first round of the presidential elections, also played an active part in the runoff, often campaigning in person with Lula – all to protect democracy.

Another key to the victory is provided by the Uruguayan political scientist Andres Malamud. He pointed out that since 2018, while the Left have won in six out of eleven elections in Latin America, the opposition won in ten out of eleven. “More than ideology, it’s because voters are fed up”, he wrote.

The scenario in India

In India, we have been told from the noughties, anti-incumbency no longer works. Chief ministers have been re-elected in numerous states, supposedly based on their work. The UPA win in 2009 marked the appearance of this pro-incumbency on the national stage, when Manmohan Singh became the first prime minister since Jawaharlal Nehru to be re-elected after completing a full term. So, are Indians less prone to being fed up than their Latin American counterparts? Is that why Bill Clinton campaign’s famous maxim, “the economy, stupid” did not work in India in 2019? Or is it that the opposition remains pitifully weak and thus unable to press home the advantages of anti-incumbency?

The BJP has continued its winning run in state after state. It has either won elections or gobbled up opposition governments in Haryana, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and the North East. The intimidation of opposition politicians by investigative agencies, the power of corporates and of corporate media, the scare tactics of mobs in the streets and trolls on the net make for a formidable combination indeed, especially when deployed alongside a strong political organisation backed by RSS cadre. Even if the opposition, or large chunks of it, unite, it is not clear whether they would win or not.

Against this backdrop, it should be evident that the question or dilemma that Prakash Karat posed, and with which this article began, was a false and irrelevant one.

When Karat’s article was first published, a democratic and firmly anti-communal student of mine was aghast. What emerged in an ‘outside the classroom’ discussion was that he and his friends thought Karat’s position was nothing but ideological chicanery.

If there is an obligation to explain one’s tactical position in ideological terms, they argued, surely there is an even greater ethical imperative to recognise and respond to the greatest challenge the republic has faced since its founding, when the future of the constitution and democracy is under a cloud. Whether you call this ‘fascism’ or not, the political obligation is to fight and fight unitedly. And this holds true for all those claiming to be opposed to the RSS-BJP. The struggle might be uphill, but the alternative is to fall into an abyss. I had to agree.

At the very least, politicians should not be allowed to claim that they do not know the consequences of surrender, compromise, kowtowing or petty squabbling. They must be asked clearly, loudly and repeatedly where they stand – on the side of democracy and the republic, or against it? They must, along with all people who value democracy, secularism and the idea of India, take a stand.

Jishnu Dasgupta is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Serampore College.