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Lessons for Indian Opposition in Sanders–Corbyn Projects

Satyendra Ranjan (satyendra.ranjan@gmail.com) is a Delhi-based journalist and executive editor of Hindi News Channel Swaraj Express.

Despite their electoral defeats, the consolidation of support behind the political projects articulated by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn underscores the relevance of mass politics with clear ideological moorings. Opposition in India can take cues from these projects for its reconfiguration.

As I write these lines, the new leadership of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom (UK) is in the process of undoing all the remnants of Corbynism (ideas and policies of former leader Jeremy Corbyn). Though Jeremy Corbyn has claimed that he is very much there to oppose all policies that he thinks are “anti-people,” but the leadership of his party is systematically discarding his policies and his supporters. In the United States (US), Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign and has endorsed Joe Biden for the presidential candidature of the Democratic Party. It is obvious that hope for the victory of the Labour left (in the UK) and democratic socialism (in the US) has been belied for now. In the recent past, the left-leaning media of both countries has been discussing the disappointments of the supporters of both leaders over their defeat. But this is only one side of the story.

The other side shows that this is not merely a story of almost similar electoral battles in two countries. But there is something in it that has long-term relevance. The larger ideological as well as political impact the story has left behind is already visible, not only in countries of Sanders and Corbyn, but also in many parts of the world. Or we may say that it is not a stand-alone story, but a part of a similar phenomenon that emerged in many parts of the Western democratic world. Wherein many new political forces have emerged, some of them ditched the hopes (like Syriza in Greece), some faded away after little sparkle (Jean-Luc Antoine Pierre Mélenchon in France), some are struggling to remain relevant (like, Unidas Podemos in Spain), and some are relatively more successful (like left parties in Portugal). The emergence of Bernie Sanders and Corbynism happened in the same period and under ­almost the same circumstances. Some common origins could be traced behind the emergence of all these forces.

Crisis and Depoliticisation

It all happened in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that ravaged the developed world. As ruling elites of those countries followed the policy of austerity that further deepened inequalities, siphoned off incomes of the middle classes and weakened the social security of the common masses, a ground for political revolt began to take shape. The Occupy Wall Street movement captured the mood of the times. Along with the new left forces, many extreme right groups (or phenomena like Brexit and Donald Trump’s election) exploited this situation. At present, it looks like both these types of forces have a future as both have their own narratives. Casualties of this phenomenon are the traditional social democratic parties who bogged down themselves with the responsibility of saving the system that had failed millions of working people. They followed the same set of economic policies that had brought the disaster. As it was alleged, they kept serving their stock-exchange masters.

Among the newly emerged left groups, most remained limited to articulating and (some even) representing people’s anger against old sets of politics. Therefore, they were overtaken by far-right groups, who also found opportunity in new situations to discredit and debase the old “liberal,” “elitist” system. They had better and easier weapons to do it. Atavism and xenophobia were already there. They flared them up with the unscrupulous use of hate speeches and hurling baseless accusations against all and sundry. For this purpose, newly spreading social media was efficiently but unscrupulously exploited by them. If we keep this background in mind, we can better understand the importance of the Corbyn and Sanders projects. Both emerged at around 2015; both were (or became, in the case of Sanders) part of a mainstream political party; both believed in doing mass politics, went to directly addressing the masses in the length and breadth of their countries, and in this process, bringing in new sections of ­people into politics and creating broadly ideology-based new organisations at the ground level. These organisations/groups are today running their own media outlets and have been successful in creating and disseminating their own new political narratives.

Here, we must keep in mind that in Western democracies, mass politics was long forgotten. Financial capital had taken politics and parties in its clutches, public relation firms had become the guide and image-maker of political parties, and corporate media had become the main medium of political communications. Sanders and Corbyn have been successful in breaking this vicious anti-people cycle to some extent. But their most important contributions, whic have long-term relevance in democratic politics, are the ideas and programmes they prepared, presented before the people, and got acceptability for them from large sections of populations. Their large following among the youth and the so-called generation Z (the generation reaching adulthood in the second decade of the 21st century) indicates that these ideas and programmes are not going to fade away with these septuagenarian leaders (Economist 2019).

Ideology and Mass Politics

Corbyn has been a leader of the Labour Party that has a left and (in its some phases) socialist history. It always had some prominent Marxist leaders. But, Corbyn was the first ever case when it chose a (parliamentary party) leader who openly flaunted his Marxist, internationalist and anti-establishment beliefs and tried to organise his politics around them. As a political programme these beliefs and ideas got a concrete form in the Labour Party’s 2017 and 2019 election manifestos.1 The new green ­industrial revolution, free university education, restrengthening the National Health Service (NHS), restrengthening the ­labour unions, bringing back public ­services like the British Railways under the public sector, high taxes on the ­super rich, addressing the issue of the widening gap of inequality, etc, became part of the Labour Party and its newly found millions of younger supporter’s political narratives.

In the US, Sanders’s vision of democratic socialism is now a popular ideology, especially among the youth and generation Z populations (Golshan 2019). Its contribution to US politics is the demand for the minimum wage of $15 an hour, medicare for all, free university education, the Green New Deal,2 plan for restructuring journalism (Sanders 2019), abolishing the billionaire class and imposing high taxes on rich, worker’s participation in the management, restrengthening labour unions, prison reforms, protection of minority rights, etc. Now these have ­become mainstream, popular political programmes.

Still, both Corbyn and Sanders have lost their immediate political battles. The reasons are obvious. Both of them were up against the powers of financial capital, machinations of existing political machineries of their own parties and the powerful corporate media that became a medium of spreading falsehood and propaganda against them. They created and organised their own following among the masses, but that was not enough to surpass the organised power of the establishments.

But each and every keen follower of the US and UK’s politics is well aware that legacies and influences of both leaders are going to last longer than the periods of Sanders’s movement and Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. Both leaders have (at least for now) transformed the way politics was being done in their respective countries, or at least their own parties. They made “socialism” widely acceptable, and among younger people, a fashionable word. It is remarkable that this could be achieved right in the capitals of neo-liberal capitalism. The issues they raised and policies they offered are being copied even by their opponents in their countries. And as the COVID-19 crisis is ravaging them and other societies, even the corporate media is proclaiming that, in the time of crisis, “we are all socialists” (Harris 2020), “Bernie Sanders has won” (Abernathy 2020), and “Reality has ­endorsed Bernie Sanders” (Taylor 2020). This has happened only due to the strong campaigns they ran on the ground and with the clarity they launched their ideological battles against prevailing politico-economic directions that their countries had adopted decades back. Another important factor is “authenticity” of leaderships. Both Sanders and Corbyn are considered “authentic,” as they have been trading on their same political paths all over their political careers, even in the most difficult and adverse situations.

Reconfiguring the Opposition

So what are the lessons? In these times of “post-truth” politics, when the right-wing has changed the terms of the discourse, only the left/plebeian parties/politicians can hope to make an impact, have vision, message and credibility to speak to disillusioned segments of masses and have their own media to convey their message. It is noteworthy that the main support base of both Sanders and Corbyn has been among teenagers, millennials and younger sections of the population. These youths have only heard of post-war affluences of their societies. Their own experience has been of the declining welfare state, post-recession austerity policies, stagnant income and lack of opportunities. Naturally, they are rebellious against “elitist,” “financial capital-controlled” politics and politicians. They could have been mobilised by a demagogue politician, but at the right time, Sanders and Corbyn emerged and presented a vision that generated hope and enthusiasm among those sections. This process has given a fresh life to the idea of democratic socialism. It should also be kept in mind that Sander’s and Corbyn’s hope to win the elections rested on politicising and mobilising new sets of voters. To an extent, they did it, but it was not enough to secure victory. But it was definitely enough to set the terms of debate.

Recent experience in most democracies has been that the large section of the younger and newly politicised voters have been lured by right-wing demagogue politicians. India is also a case in point. It is important to debate and discuss that why here, in India, there is no non-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician present on the horizon, who seems able to state a narrative that can enthuse the masses? Is this not one of the main reasons behind the continued popularity of Narendra Modi and the ideological hegemony of BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), despite their all-round failure on the governance front? The result is that our political opposition at present looks clueless and seems suffering from a defeatist mindset. In this grim situation, the experience of Sanders–Corbyn projects presents a template that could be useful for our opposition. As the situation stands, what our opposition parties (or non-parliamentary opposition groups) lack the most is the credibility of leadership, content (that is, a well-articulated ideology), and their own media. The ­result is a seemingly hopeless situation for them.

For the Indian parliamentary opposition, the 2019 Lok sabha elections threw a riddle that has not been easy to solve. How can one understand this reality where a government, whose pro-rich and pro-upper-caste inclinations are too obvious, can attract the support of such a large number of poorer, Dalit and Other Backward Class voters? Hardly anyone can deny the fact that large numbers of people from traditionally oppressed classes have positive view of Narendra Modi and BJP even today (Chibber and Verma 2020). And also, this is the reality of today’s India that the BJP–RSS have established total ideological as well as administrative hegemony (Palshikar 2020).

As for combating the BJP is concerned, weaknesses of the Indian National Congress (INC), regional and other identity politics-based parties (many of whom associate themselves with Lohiaite, Ambed­karite, Adivasi and Dravidian legacies), and the left are evident. At times, it seems that the INC is forced to struggle only for its meaningful existence. Its degeneration that started during Indira Gandhi’s era seems to be reaching near terminal stage (Gudavarthy 2020). The condition of identity-based parties is no better. Though it will be premature to ­declare that identity politics has run its course, it is hard to deny that the RSS–BJP’s somewhat successful game plan to ­submerge caste/tribe/cultural/regional identities into a grand Hindu identity has been proving detrimental to identity-based parties. Left parties are in retreat for a decade. Though left leaders and activists are still considered relatively honest and committed to their cause, the specific goal and programme they stand for has increasingly become hazy. So, it is not surprising that they fail to present a coherent narrative and leadership that can enthuse large sections of masses in the country.

Thus, the BJP’s success story is proportionally linked to the gradual retreat of secular, left and social justice parties/organisations from the arena of mass-based ideology-driven politics. For now, all these parties/groups seem incapable or even unwilling to accept the challenge to combat the BJP. If they are willing to reinvent themselves, they will have to first come out of some misconceptions: that they can regain their earlier influence (at the national or state level) just by the normal electoral cycle of incumbency–anti-incumbency voting pattern, that they can win elections by forging caste/community-based alliances or by creating such equations on the ground level for themselves, and that in the post-Modi era (whenever it comes), everything will go back to “normal” (like the pre-Modi era).

A politics with new narratives, a credible leadership with a well-prepared message and new-media of its own can generate a new self-confidence in the rank and file of these parties/organisations. And, this also can enthuse large sections of people. Yes, it is a difficult path that demands the sacrifice of the family-based organisational structure, as well as “drawing room and Twitter politics.” But without it, the Indian opposition hardly has any future. Fortunately for them, they at least have two examples in Sanders and Corbyn to take some cues.

In Conclusion

It is undeniable that political models or templates are evolved in society-specific conditions. Mimicking or blindly following any model/template can only be useless at best or disastrous at worst. But, learning wisely from new experiences or experiments becomes useful when one is wondering in the dark.

Therefore, Indian secular political parties would be well-advised to put their energies in clearing the haze over their ideological moorings, changing their style of doing politics, and creating their own media to converse with the masses. In this process, they may find a leadership that looks or sounds more credible and inspiring. Actually, this is the lesson the Sanders and Corbyn projects have left for all parliamentary/electoral political forces. This is their legacy that is enduring.

Notes

1 The 2017 and 2019 election manifestos of the Labour Party can be found here, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/labour-manifesto-2017.pdf, https://labour.org.uk/manifesto-2019.

2 https://berniesanders.com/issues/green-new-deal/.

References

Abernathy, Gary (2020): “The Coronavirus Shows Bernie Sanders Won,” Washington Post, 25 March, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/03/25/we-are-all-socialists....

Chibber, Pradeep and Rahul Verma (2020): “The New Voters for Modi’s BJP Are Poorer, More Majoritarian But Not as Religious,” Print, 18 February, https://theprint.in/opinion/new-voters-modi-bjp-poorer-majoritarian-but-....

Economist (2019): “The Resurgent Left—Millennial Socialism,” 14 February, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2019/02/14/millennial-socialism.

Goslhan, Tara (2019): “Bernie Sanders Defines His Vision for Democratic Socialism in the United States,” Vox, 12 June, https://www.vox.com/2019/6/12/18663217/bernie-sanders-democratic-sociali....

Gudavarthy, Ajay (2020): “New Congress for a New India,” Telegraph, 31 March, https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/the-congress-needs-a-delivrable-i....

Harris, Tom (2020): “There Is No Alternative: We Are all Socialists Now in the Fight against Coronavirus,” Telegraph, 17 March, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2020/03/17/no-alternative-socialist....

Palshikar, Suhas (2020): “Politics in the Times of Hegemony,” Seminar, January, https://www.india-seminar.com/2020/725/725_suhas_palshikar.htm.

Sanders, Bernie (2019): “Bernie Sanders on His Plan for Journalism,” Columbia Journalism Review, 26 August, https://www.cjr.org/opinion/bernie-sanders-media-silicon-valley.php.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamhtta (2020): “Reality Has Endorsed Bernie Sanders,” New Yorker, 30 March, https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/reality-has-endorsed-berni....

 

Updated On : 29th Jul, 2020

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