[From Liberation, April 1998.]
The Varanasi Congress had taken serious note of the looming threat of BJP coming to power at the centre. The report had said, "We do recognise the threat of saffron power taking over India. The collapse of the UF may well prove to be the catalyst for such an eventuality. Although the BJP has its own problems and internal rifts, and has limited a reach as of now in many parts of the country, yet the threat is indeed real and we must not underestimate it. And if that happens, certain readjustments of policy may also have to be effected depending upon the concrete situation obtaining then."
We said it in October 1997 when the UF government was still going strong with assured Congress support. In less than five months our apprehensions have come true. The report did underline the limited reach of BJP in many parts of the country and as the 1998 election results testify, its own strength in Parliament has not risen to any considerable degree. If we still considered the threat to be real, it was essentially due to our perception of a possible collapse of the UF that could prove to be the catalyst for such an eventuality. And that is precisely what has happened.
Ironically, Congress, the villain of the piece, which was primarily responsible for throwing the country into election turmoil again in less than two years, and, which appeared to be fast disintegrating under a powerful BJP onslaught, ultimately emerged unscathed. It not only maintained its tally, but also, inflicted a crushing blow to the BJP in Maharashtra and Rajasthan. This single fact did puncture, to a large extent, the moral authority of BJP to rule.
On the other hand, the UF, which went to the hustings on a common manifesto this time and with the halo of a martyr, amazingly found its strength depleted to half, and precisely the other half went over to the BJP camp.
The JD, the biggest UF constituent, was routed in Karnataka and its major chunk in Orissa crossed over to the BJD, the BJP ally. In a show of rank opportunism, the Prime Minister Gujral contested on Akali support and another stalwart, Mr.Ram Vilas Paswan, entered into a tacit alliance with Samata Party. The DMK-TMC combine suffered the most unexpected defeat in Tamil Nadu. Still when the BJP fell short of the magic figure, none else but the UF convenor Mr.Chandrababu Naidu extended a helping hand in a rare show of acrobatics. A few other UF constituents, viz. NC, AGP, have also made a decisive tilt towards the BJP. Every one of the BJP allies is citing the specific interests (compulsions!) of the respective states as the rationale behind their somersault. The cat is finally out of the bag. Specific regional interests had united them in the United Front and the same has now led to their parting of ways in a changed political situation. The secular principle was just a smokescreen manufactured by our social-democratic windbags.
It was a bad innings for the social-democratic Left as well, and the writings on the walls of Calcutta are quite ominous. Prior to elections, the CPI(M) leaders boasted of winning all the seats by capitalising on the split in the Congress. In fact they could just maintain their tally. The victory margin as well as the vote percentage witnessed a steep decline.
In an ostrich-like fashion, however, they continued to hope for a repeat performance of the 1996 scenario and quite earnestly prepared themselves to take over power at the centre. To salvage the hurt Bengali pride, Mr.Jyoti Basu announced his readiness to move over to Delhi. The desperate bid to undo the ‘historical blunder’ landed the CPI(M) in the morass of a ‘historical stupidity’. Well, to come back to the point, UF’s fall has been BJP’s gain both politically and numberwise.
Very few political analysts, however, have noted this direct relationship between the UF’s collapse and BJP’s ascendance to power. The reason is not far to seek. As BJP and Congress remain two main players, analyses generally remain confined to the BJP versus Congress framework.
Interestingly though, both the BJP and the Congress invoked the plank of a stable government and able leader. This was a direct indictment of the UF which became synonymous with instability and incompetent leadership. The people’s mandate, within the limits of its being manipulated by the ruling elite, went decisively against the UF this time. The post-election disintegration of the UF only confirms this.
Where did the UF go wrong and what are the implications of this collapse? From the Left’s point of view, probing these questions is quite important for deciding the future course of action.
First of all, the projection of the UF as an anti-BJP, anti-Congress formation — even its diluted version of anti-BJP, non-Congress front — has proved to be a social-democratic myth. In the same vein, the description of the UF as a transitory step towards the People’s Democratic Front, within whose ambit the unity and struggle between the working class and the forward-looking bourgeoisie will ultimately lead to the establishment of proletarian hegemony, has proved to be yet another social-democratic theoretical jugglery, essentially meant to rationalise their opportunist alliances. If anything, from ’96 to ’98, the transition of the social-democrats from the position of keeping the Congress out of power at any cost to the position of bringing the Congress to power by all means, is quite noteworthy.
Secondly, in the practical arena the UF miserably failed in pursuing progressive legislations. The bill on agrarian labourers remained pending and atrocities on dalits, including massacres in Bihar failed to elicit any response from the government. The ‘communist home minister’ kept himself busy with insurgency in Kashmir and the North-East and had neither the time nor the resolve to undertake any specific measure. And this, while the defence minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav, vehemently opposed the SCs and STs (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in order to appease the upper castes.
The UF did nothing to check ‘criminalisation of politics’ which had become a potent issue after the killing of Chandrashekhar. Neither did it take a single step towards resolution of the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi issue, nor did it take any measure to punish those guilty for the demolition. It made all sorts of compromises with the corrupt regimes of Laloo and Mahanta.
Thirdly, to stay in power, it sacrificed its first Prime Minister and therefore its show of bravery at a later stage on the issue of dismissing two DMK ministers did not cut much ice with the people.
One and a half years of UF regime will be remembered for Chidambaram’s ‘dream budget’ and the VDIS scheme. While the former, if one goes by the all-round decline in indicators of economic growth, remained a pipe dream, the latter was by far the most liberal offer to whitewash black money.
The UF, paradoxically, was seen as more friendly to multinationals though it was backed by powerful segments of the Left who excel in anti-imperialist rhetoric. With the darling of multinationals at the helm of financial affairs, the ‘nationalist’ plank was meekly surrendered to the BJP. The corporate world clamoured for a ‘nationalist government’ and a ‘level playing field’. And with the theme of Swadeshi, the BJP propaganda machinery was set in full steam.
The only strong point of the UF and its essential identity was its commitment to the principle of federalism. Slogans ranging from ‘more power to the states’ to ‘strong states and weak centre’ were raised. Well, the Centre did appear weak and unstable during the UF regime and it was defeated precisely on this score. Its strongest point proved to be its major failing. This underscores the essential characteristic of Indian polity. Whenever a strong centre tends to be authoritarian, powerful regional economic interests begin asserting themselves in opposition. In turn, however, when the centre appears weak and unstable, cravings for a strong centre assume prominence. The dynamics of Indian society can be related to the strong interdependence between the interests of powerful regional economic groupings and the imperatives of a unified national economy. The advocate of a weak centre, a qualification that logically made Chandrababu Naidu the convenor of UF, himself became instrumental in stabilising a strong centre led by the BJP government.
As political logic went against the UF, it had to go one way or the other. But this is not important. The moot point is that it failed to leave any imprint of its own that could be pursued for a future comeback.
The social-democratic Left oscillated between ‘historic blunders and stupidities’ but it never thought in terms of utilising the ‘historic opportunities’ that came its way. The concern of its ideologues was confined to prolonging the stay of the UF by all kinds of ‘go-betweens’, ‘compromises’ and ‘backroom deals’. Surjeet made the infamous statement that the Left did not pressurise the government to implement any left agenda, in order not to trouble the UF government. He expected the same from the Congress and other UF constituents. None obliged him. So the first ever central government in India backed by powerful Left segments, including a section heading important ministries, failed to leave any Left imprint whatsoever.
Every opportunist sin exacts its own price. And there stands amidst the debris of the UF, an overtly communal BJP government at the centre. After half a century of freedom, the central government is led by a party and a person whose roles in the freedom struggle were dubious to say the least.
And yet, wrong lessons are being drawn from this tragedy that has befallen India. A whole group of liberals including sections of left intelligentsia is lamenting the decimation of the ‘great institution that is the Congress’. This is an exercise in self-negation that rejects the history of anti-Congress struggles for progress and democracy.
The BJP government has won the vote of confidence and it pledges to run the government on a so-called national agenda. Atal Behari Vajpayee is repeatedly assuring the nation that as long as he is the Prime Minister, his government will not pursue any hidden agenda. This is a clever exercise of lulling the opposition to silence, splitting it and seeking more allies.
Some socialist and left intellectuals have already started arguing that BJP’s ascendance should not be equated to the rise of fascism. Some put in the argument that the economic basis of fascism as understood in a classical sense, is absent in India.
In the strict economic sense, it is true that the Indian bourgeoisie — a dependent bourgeoisie by itself — cannot pursue the Hitlerite agenda of grabbing the world market and seeking colonies. But is there anybody who is suggesting this? The Varanasi Congress report defined fascist dictatorship in the Indian context in the following terms: "BJP’s agenda includes pursuing a chauvinist policy vis-a-vis India’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan, escalating the nuclear arms race, transforming India into a Hindu Rastra where religious minorities will be treated as second-grade citizens, undermining the federal polity, unleashing brutal state repression and organising private armies of landlords to crush agrarian movements of the rural poor, unilaterally suppressing ongoing movements of national self-determination and crushing all sorts of dissent in intellectual, aesthetic and academic fields. In short, imposing a fascist dictatorship in India."
The internal dimensions of this dictatorship as well as its designs for emerging as the regional superpower are quite akin to what is popularly known as fascist dictatorship.
One must not forget that the BJP is indeed a party with a difference. Whereas all other political parties are independent entities in themselves, the BJP only enjoys an autonomous political space vis-a-vis the extra-constitutional authority of the RSS. The agenda precisely is that of RSS and the BJP, as its political tool, will invariably move in this direction. Besides, RSS has a wide range of networks and several other organisations to push through its agenda.
The march to fascist dictatorship cannot be halted by relying on the good wishes of the so-called moderate leadership of BJP or by the so-called moderating influence of BJP’s allies. A conglomeration of all kinds of discredited forces in the name of expanding the UF and rallying behind the Congress is no answer to the saffron menace.
We do not deny the need for a broader understanding between left and secular forces and the Varanasi Congress specifically called for ‘certain readjustment of policies’. The policy adjustment necessarily entails opposing the BJP government’s bid to pressurise, blackmail or dismiss the opposition governments; in joining hands against all kinds of communal onslaughts and undemocratic measures; in floor co-ordination in parliament and assemblies to checkmate the BJP’s gameplans etc.
But an outright alliance with RJD in Bihar or for that matter Left Front in West Bengal is certainly no answer to this complex problem.
Some commentators have chided the Left for blowing out of proportion the corruption issue against Laloo Prasad and its subsequent parting of ways with Laloo. Social-democrats are too eager to take this advice and go back to Laloo’s fold. But how is one going to account for the fact that it was precisely during the period of honeymoon between Laloo and the official Left that the BJP, otherwise a marginal force in Bihar, sprang to the centerstage? No high principles, but only the decline in Laloo’s seats and the serious drubbing that the Left received in the 1996 parliamentary elections in the face of a powerful BJP-Samata onslaught, led to a rethinking in the social-democratic camp and they decided to part ways.
Laloo’s regime has become synonymous with all-pervading corruption and all-round criminalisation. All democratic norms have been thrown to the winds and the State is in a state of prolonged economic stagnation. These conditions have indeed provided fertile ground for the rise of the BJP-Samta combine, which, apart from mobilising feudal and ‘upper-caste backlash’ has also won over major segments of backwards and extremely backward castes. In essence, it is not the Left’s opposition to Laloo’s misdeeds but the lack of it in a concerted and unified way that has left open much of the democratic space to the BJP and resulted in the Left’s own marginalisation.
Similarly, it is not our responsibility to defend the Left Front government when workers are deserting it because of pro-management policies; when labouring people on Calcutta’s streets are mercilessly thrown out of their meagre source of livelihood in order to appease the neo-rich and the multinationals.
Political alliances and electoral adjustments with the parties of bourgeois opposition can never form the cornerstone of the policies of a revolutionary communist party. We must primarily rely on mass movements to seek and widen our space in the democratic polity of India.
The BJP’s national agenda specifically targets students and youth. It aims at communalising their mindset through major changes in educational syllabus. The unemployment bogey is sought to be exploited by the BJP to launch the so-called ‘national reconstruction corps’, most probably the official version of RSS shakhas.
The Party therefore must accord top priority to mobilising students and youth against communalisation and pin down the government on its tall promises on employment.
The BJP is bound to dither on the women’s reservation bill and is all set to pursue all kinds of obscurantist agenda vis-a-vis women. Mobilising women against saffron is another major immediate agenda before the Party.
All mass organisations are to be invigorated to take up independent as well as joint initiatives with a wide range of left and progressive organisations to take on the BJP on every specific front.
The Party’s propaganda machinery needs to be streamlined to expose every policy statement and every specific act of omission and commission of the BJP government. No attack on democratic rights, on freedom of speech, and also no denigration of the institutions of parliamentary democracy by the BJP government should go unchallenged and unprotested.
And finally, as feudal forces everywhere are emboldened by the BJP’s ascendance to power, attacks on agrarian labourers and poor peasants and atrocities on dalit masses are bound to intensify. The Party will have to strengthen its combative preparations to foil all such attacks.
In short, this is the national agenda before all left and progressive forces to halt attempts at imposing fascist dictatorship in the country. And it is through this process of developing a heightened consciousness of the masses, and growing mass movements that we can advance towards a confederation of left and democratic forces — the truly transitory step towards the goal of building a People’s Democratic Front.