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In Search of Radical and Inclusive Politics

The call of our times is the call for a radical and inclusive political platform which alone will confront and defeat the combined assault on the vision of the modern Indian polity that has been launched by the mainstream political parties. A failure to respond to this call will spell not only the beginning of the end of pro-people, progressive politics in the medium term, but also a paralysis of the process of democratisation, which has implications far more important than the electoral future of political parties.

COMMENTARY

In Search of Radical and Inclusive Politics

S P Shukla

The call of our times is the call for a radical and inclusive political platform which alone will confront and defeat the combined assault on the vision of the modern Indian polity that has been launched by the mainstream political parties. A failure to respond to this call will spell not only the beginning of the end of pro-people, progressive politics in the medium term, but also a paralysis of the process of democratisation, which has implications far more important than the electoral future of political parties.

This article is based on the author’s presidential address on 18 December 2008 to the XXXII Indian Social Science Congress at Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi.

S P Shukla (manjuspshukla@gmail.com) held a number of senior positions in the Government of India and also served as India’s representative in international organisations.

T
he current political conjuncture is pregnant with possibilities. It is also fraught with the real danger of a disastrous outcome in the short or medium run. Which way the political process may turn eventually will be the function of the dynamics of the underlying basic forces.

1

Over the last two decades we have witnessed an unprecedented churning on the political front. This is not to say that in the preceding period the political scene was serene and the process smooth. In the 1960s we saw the Lohiaite politics of anti-Congressism successfully challenging the Congress hegemony in the states. Then, in the 1990s, we experienced the trauma of the Emergency followed by the first ever non-Congress government taking office at the centre. While these developments were eroding the political dominance of the Congress, they were not successful in ending Congress hegemony nor did they constitute a fundamental departure from the vision and philosophy of Congress politics, which itself was essentially a diluted version of the broad political consensus that informed the freedom movement.

End of Politics of Consensus

This politics of consensus derived its sustenance from the elements of radicalism and inclusiveness, which inspired and shaped the vision of the modern Indian polity throughout the long struggle for freedom. But as these elements weakened, so did the politics of consensus. The challenges to the Congress hegemony, which developed in the pre-1990s period captured the political frustration at the weakening of these elements. The growing assertion of the majority of the backward classes for a due share in exercise of the political power or the mass upsurge against the crude attempts to suspend the democratic process constituted; these were not departures from the founding principles of the consensus but were, indeed, strong protests that these principles were being compromised or undermined.

The challenge that Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress faced in 1989 started as an apparent re-enactment of the two preceding episodes with corruption in high places as the trigger and “Mandal” as the polarising force. Both the issues were typically not departures from the consensus but essentially a demand for its reinforcement. But soon the political upshot turned out to be a watershed demarcating this development distinctly from the earlier episodes. Emergence of “Kamandal” as an independent, strident and strong force on the national scene, communalisation of politics at a level unprecedented in the postindependence era and retrogression of the secular and equity doctrines in the Congress ideology and practice (symbolised by its acquiescence in the destruction of the Babri Masjid, on the one hand, and the adoption of the neoliberal economic a genda, on the other) constituted the hallmark of this transition.

The political turmoil that we are witnessing since the beginning of the 1990s or the end of the 1980s is of a fundamentally different kind. A powerful challenge has emerged to the basics of the vision of modern Indian polity. Ironically the two mainstream political formations occupying the largest share of the space of democratic politics, the ruling conglomerate led by the Congress and the official opposition, mainly sustained by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are the ones who have mounted this challenge. They are together when it comes to the direction of economic policy and subservience to neoimperialism. They are pitted against each other in their perception of the plural p olity and the tactics of management of democratic politics. But they have no qualms in jettisoning the founding principles that informed and inspired the vision of the modern Indian nation.

The political challenge so generated b ecomes all the more formidable because the political forces committed to preserving the basics of the national vision,

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d efending its pro-people content and deepening the process of democratisation which constitutes its essence, have either not yet acquired a dominating national presence in terms of political influence (e g, the mainstream Left formations), or are localised (e g, some regional formations which had their origin in one or the other elements of that vision but many of whom, due to the exigencies of electoral politics, have chosen to collaborate with either of the aforesaid two mainstream formations: the Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar, Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, the Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh) or fragmented (e g, the Marxist-Leninist f actions of different persuasions) or a political (a number of specific issue m ovements, e g, The National Alliance of People’s Movements).

‘New Consensus’?

It is this imbalance in the structured p olitical process that, on the one hand, gives rise to a systematic propaganda by the vested interests about the emergence of a so-called “new national consensus” based on the negation of the fundamentals of the vision of modern Indian polity, and, on the other, points to the disastrous implications for the very survival of the process of democratisation, and consequently, the integrity of the polity itself. Dialectically, this situation also opens up the possibility for a new initiative for alternative politics.

Since the present political conjuncture is not a repetition of the past conjunctures where the Congress hegemony was challenged, the initiative for alternative politics too cannot be a re-enactment of the erstwhile Third Front politics. The current challenge is far more fundamental. And the forces mounting the challenge have not only appropriated the ruling as well as the opposition space in politics but are also aligned with powerful global forces.

The freedom struggle continued in different phases with varying intensity. It spanned a century which witnessed the emergence of the modern Indian nation. It generated and nourished the vision of modern Indian

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polity. Equally it derived its strength from that vision. What constituted its essential elements, its organising principles, its defining characteristics? What gave it its sustenance, its appeal, its strength?

Elements of Freedom Struggle

If one were to venture capturing the essence of an admittedly complex, multidimensional, complicated and long process (which, at one level, is still unfolding, making one’s task even more difficult) three elements will stand out:

  • Anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism;
  • A vision of modern Indian polity transcending religious and social divides and eliminating the injustices and inequalities inherent in those schisms; and,
  • The welfare of the vast masses of peasantry, the craftsmen and the working classes.
  • These elements inspired the struggle and the historical process of the struggle and, in turn, shaped them. The process of their actualisation was marked as much by refinement and enrichment as by d ilution and modification. The point is not to argue that they were realised fully or substantially at the time of political independence. Nor to suggest that they have achieved a kind of uncontested dominance, unassailable p osition in the contemporary political landscape. The point is that without these elements the freedom struggle would have lost all its democratising content and popular appeal. Equally, bereft of these, the vision of modern Indian polity would fade away and the R epublic of India that we envisioned in our Constitution would be reduced to a hollow, lifeless construct.

    Our freedom struggle entered its robust phase and achieved accelerated progress when these elements appeared in their radical form and the political platform advocating them was inclusive. The two decades from 1916 to 1936 illustrates this. The transition from the modest objective of “Home Rule” and “Dominion Status” to the unqualified declaration of the goal of “Purna Swaraj” clearly marked the radicalisation of the movement. Inscription of a pro-peasant agenda in the political charter and the emergence of peasant movements became an integral part of the freedom struggle. Most important, starting from the Lucknow Pact and the Khilafat

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    movement, this period also witnessed the emergence of a strong political base founded on Hindu-Muslim solidarity to defeat the imperial “divide and rule” tactics. Again, it was during this period that political focus was brought to bear upon the whole question of injustice inherent in social divides, particularly as these divides affected the depressed castes and tribal communities.

    Conversely, the period that followed witnessed a tragic disappearance of the inclusiveness of the political platform. Short-sighted, narrow-minded, divisive politics, of both the majority and the minority communities, overwhelmed the political scene. Radicalism gave way to “pragmatism” and the tired leadership which had lost the will to wage a militant struggle, tried to grasp whatever was within reach. The net result was the emergence of a truncated freedom, two polities, and doors left wide open for continued interference by imperialism in the affairs of the subcontinent.

    Post-Partition Polity

    The impulses of radicalism and inclusiveness had weakened considerably. Even so, the Indian polity that emerged after P artition attempted to recall the elements inspiring the vision of modern India and rebuild itself in that image. And we had the idea of a sovereign, secular, democratic, socialist republic of India enshrined in our Constitution. That was the historic contribution of the Nehruvian era. While the anti-imperialist element was reflected in the self-reliant development strategy and the doctrine of non-alignment, the other elements, particularly the pro-peasant and pro-working classes content and the elimination of the age-old injustice and inequity embedded in the social divides, were not assigned adequate weightage in political practice. And Hindu-Muslim solidarity, the other fundamental element, a lthough enshrined in the doctrine of s ecularism, tended to degenerate into a mere tool of political tactics. Thus, the departure from radicalism was also accompanied by the substitution of inclusiveness by politics of expediency. In this lay the root of the challenges to the Congress hegemony in the 1960s and the 1970s. Even so, it was a dilution, not total eclipse,

    COMMENTARY

    of the vision of India. It was a weakening of the political will, but not abandonment of the vision as such.

    The eclipse and the abandonment is the product of the last two decades. The issues currently dominating the people’s political agenda have their origins in this eclipse and abandonment.

    These decades have witnessed the emergence of a new phase in the growth of world capitalism-imperialism, which has taken a more aggressive, more rapacious, more encompassing, global form. At the global level, this has given rise to new and deeper contradictions; it has also produced new crisis situations. The eclipse and abandonment of the elements inspiring the vision of the modern Indian polity that we have witnessed and the consequent emergence of the people’s political agenda need to be situated in the contemporary global environment.

    People’s Agenda

    The three issues that currently dominate the people’s political agenda are:

  • Agrarian crisis.
  • Deep sense of insecurity and alienation of minorities.
  • Assertion of dalits and virulent negative reaction of the ruling elite to it.
  • Each of these issues is directly relatable to the founding principles of the Republic. Their emergence on top of the people’s agenda is the dialectical reaction to the eclipse of these principles. The global environment has encouraged and emboldened the ruling classes to abandon these principles. The economic reforms of 1991 onward signalled the reversal of the selfreliant economic paradigm of the Nehruvian era and adoption of a new paradigm of outright integration with the new global order of capitalism-imperialism.

    Control of Resources

    This global order is intent on forcible control of the oil and gas resources of the globe without which the hegemons of the order are not in a position to maintain their hegemony, indeed, their whole civilisation with its present lifestyle. This order spells out a new paradigm of land and water use based on corporatisation of the basic r esources of land, water and seed. Last, but not least, this order can sustain itself only by negation of the process of democratisation and the subjugation of the working people; in short, by promoting f ascistic politics.

    Each of the requirements of this order runs counter to the basics of our vision of modern Indian polity. For instance, the obsession with appropriation of oil and gas resources is sought to be rationalised in terms of pseudo-thesis of “clash of civilisations”. This obsession has systematically generated Islamophobia (often couched in misleading and meaningless nomenclature of the “global war against terrorism”), which has become the inevitable and crucial adjunct of the strategy of the global order of neo-imperialism. The Indian polity simply cannot internalise this dimension.

    The three issues of the people’s political agenda enumerated above have to be seen in the context of three major contradictions manifest at the global level:

  • North vs South;
  • “Globalising Growth” vs Environment;
  • Aggrandisement of corporate capital vs stagnation of the median and now rapidly growing job losses (in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries) and immiserisation of the masses (particularly in the third world); and the three major crisis situations that are unfolding in the world:
  • US/Israel military aggression in west Asia;
  • Decimation of the peasantry, particularly in the third world;
  • Fragility and rapacity of the global financial system.
  • The circuitry of interconnections between the three issues of people’s political agenda, on the one hand, and three c ontradictions and crisis situations at the global level, on the other, passes through the critical junction built in by the pursuit of “globalising growth”, which has been unquestioningly accepted by the mainstream political formations as desirable or inevitable or both. By “globalising growth” is meant growth which is d ependent and volatile, unequalising and polarising, environment-endangering and livelihood-displacing. In other words, it is the growth strategy adopted by the r uling classes in most of the third world in the name of ever deeper integration of their economies with the global order of neo-imperialism.

    The fragility and rapacity of the global financial system has already resulted in the worst ever financial turmoil since the 1930s. The logic of globalising growth persuades our ruling classes to ignore, obfuscate or minimise the three major contradictions at the global level. More dangerous, it compels the ruling establishment to stand by the wrong side of the contradictions (North, “growth”, corporate capital) and against the right side (South, conservation of environment, the working masses). Consequently, in responding to the triple global crises, the ruling classes find themselves either defenceless (as in regard to fragility and rapacity of the global financial system and the threatened decimation of the peasantry) or on the wrong side (as in case of military confrontation between US-Israel and the west Asian peoples).

    4

    What implications do the foregoing have for the alternative political strategy to be evolved? First, it must be recognised that single issue strategies; isolated, sporadic strategies; or strategies based on eclectic or opportunistic combinations of issues or forces, would not work. Also, while in the nature of things, that is to say, deriving from the wider social objective functions and the historical continuum of which they are part, the strategy has to be conceived and operationalised at the national level, it cannot be viewed in isolation, overlooking the contradictions, crises s ituations and the potential allies/ a dversaries in the global context. (The ruling classes have already grasped this and established linkages with their allies in the global context.) Indeed the global c ontext and the global solidarity are

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    b ecoming increasingly far more significant, if not critical, elements in evolving a national strategy.

    In operational terms, at the national level, what is needed is radicalisation of the agenda and inclusiveness of the p latform. In other words, we need a radical renewal of the vision of the modern Indian polity in the contemporary global context and we need to build anew an i nclusive political platform which has the capability of providing a decisive

    o perational thrust.

    Elements of a Radical Agenda

    Defeating the corporate takeover of a griculture, resisting corporatisation of land, water and seed, and moving towards socialisation of these basic resources will constitute one of the two core elements of the radical agenda. The other element will consist of uncompromising resistance to neo-imperialism in all its manifestations: strategic, economic, political and cultural. While the latter element, particularly the strategic and political aspects of it are well internalised by the Left formations, when it comes to the former element, their thinking seems to fall far short of a radical alternative. And that may a ccount for, to a considerable extent, the present predicament of the Left, that is to say, their not having acquired political i nfluence of decisive proportion at the n ational level.

    Coming to the question of an inclusive platform, the acid test of inclusiveness in the current context will mean its appeal to Muslims, dalits and adivasis. No platform can claim to be radical and inclusive at the same time, unless it encompasses these three elements of our polity unhesitatingly and upfront. The political agenda must incorporate clear enunciations defending their interests. More important, there must be demonstrable endeavour to share power with them at every level. And, there must be a clear break from the stereotyped tendency to dismiss this whole issue as simply a postmodernist diversion of “identity politics”.

    Priority List

    What, then, are the policies that would need to be adopted in pursuance of an a lternative political strategy? Here is an

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    attempt to provide a short, 10-point priority list pertaining to critical areas:

  • Defeating corporate takeover of agriculture; resisting corporatisation of land, water and seed; moving towards socialisation of these basic resources.
  • Defeating the corporate encroachment and appropriation of commons, particularly the forest and adivasi habitations and lands; protecting adivasi community rights and livelihoods; promoting community ownership and management of forest resources.
  • Defeating the World Trade Organisation paradigm on agriculture; striving for a peasant-centric alternative for South-South cooperation in agricultural production and trade.
  • Alternative development policies which will not only repudiate the mainstream strategy of “globalising growth” but also promote self-reliance; inter-personal, interclass (in the sense of educationally and socially backward and advanced classes), and inter-regional equity; and conservation of the environment. It will imply r eorientation of the direction and pattern of industrialisation. It will mean a break from the present obsession with “globally competitive” industries and a shift in favour of employment-intensive and mass consumption oriented industries.
  • A national wages and incomes policy s everely limiting the disparity across the sectors and classes.
  • Strengthening the autonomy of the Indian financial system and protecting it from the fragility and rapacity of the global finance capital. Working for regional financial cooperation, e g, An Asian Monetary Union.
  • Decisive breaking away from the US strategic design and opposing US-Israeli militarism in west Asia, and exposing and d efeating US-sponsored Islamophobia.
  • A new energy policy consistent with the reorientation of the strategic, agrarian and industrial policies; selective strategic cooperation with the west and central Asian oil and gas rich countries ; closer cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
  • Providing legally guaranteed preferential opportunity in education and employment, in private as well as state sectors, for the socially disadvantaged classes and communities.
  • vol xliv no 8

    – Introducing a Common School System from the primary level.

    5

    As we have noted earlier, the political forces that are committed to defending the vision of the modern Indian polity and their constituencies of supporters and sympathisers are today either not politically influential enough on the national scale, or are localised, or fragmented, or apolitical. The compulsions of parliamentary politics as it is practised are partly r esponsible for this state of affairs. But at the root of this political disarray is the failure to creatively fuse radicalism with i nclusiveness. Those with radical elements on their agenda are not inclusive enough. Further, radicalism in one part of the agenda coexists with the absence of radicalism or even its opposite in other respects. And those who wish to be inclusive are not radical enough or are apolitical. And many are overwhelmed by the apparent might of the mainstream formations.

    The call of our times is the call for a radical and inclusive political platform which alone will confront and defeat the combined assault on the vision of the modern Indian polity that has been launched by the mainstream political parties virtually appropriating the ruling as well as the opposition politics. A failure to respond to this call will spell not only the beginning of the end of pro-people, progressive politics in the medium term, but also a paralysis of the process of democratisation as such, which has implications far more important than the electoral f uture of political parties. It will have implications for the very survival of the integrity of our polity; implications which forebode a severe retrogression in the historic popular struggle encompassing two continents, which brought about the demise of colonialism in Asia and Africa.

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