Depoliticising Peoples Movements
As various parties launched their manifestos in preparation for the election campaign, the National Alliance of Peoples Movements (NAPM) attempted a new experiment in Delhi - a Rashtriya Lok Manch in which representatives of political parties were to respond to presentations and questions from representatives of peoples movements.
The rationale behind this event was that public discussion of policies, programmes and ideologies has been sidelined by all parties within the current election campaign, and it is the role of peoples organisations to ensure that these parties state their positions clearly to voters and to make them accountable to the electorate.
With this aim, the NAPM issued an appeal to political parties and candidates containing a list of questions and demands. The major thrust of the appeal is a critique of current development policies, mainly from the perspective of environmental concerns, decentralisation of power and production, and equity, simple living and self-reliance as the value base.
The structure of the Rashtriya Lok Manch itself reflected what the activists of the NAPM obviously perceive to be the basic dichotomy in todays political scene - that between parties on the one hand, and peoples movements on the other. A whole spectrum of political parties including the BJP and the Congress as well as the Left Platform parties had been invited. In the event, only representatives of the Janata Dal, Samata Party, CPI and National Conference took their places on the political parties side of the dais. Nevertheless, the Manch provided a literally visible demonstration of the NAPMs approach to political parties, and its implications.
The ostensibly even-handed approach to political parties of the right grants these parties (even if inadvertently) a kind of legitimacy - ignoring the inherently anti-people character of such parties of the ruling class, it suggests that they too can be made accountable to the people if only adequate pressure is exerted on specific issues. The dangers of this approach of equidistance have also been apparent in the movement for adequate parliamentary representation for women, in which some activists, including Medha Patkar of NAPM, have called on women to vote for whichever party fields the largest number of women candidates, a call which may even benefit the BJP with its atrocious record on womens rights.
Underlying this is an acceptance of the bourgeois conception of political parties as market-led institutions which simply offer a set of consumer choices to each individual voter every few years. Ironically, even as events like the Rashtriya Lok Manch allow the BJP to gloss over its fascism, they also allow the CPI and CPI(M) to get away with functioning like any other bourgeois parties, rather than challenging them to live up to their claims to be genuine communists committed to peoples democracy.
The parties vs movements world-view is of course also consistent with the vision now being promoted globally by institutions including the World Bank, in which social issues become the exclusive preserve of non-party, non-governmental organisations. In this scenario, the state and political parties are left free to fulfil their assigned role as facilitators for multinational capital and its allies among the Indian ruling classes, even as a select few gain legitimacy as the leaders or at any rate spokespersons of peoples movements.
That the institutionalisation of this role is already underway can be gathered from the restricted nature of the NAPMs agenda in the current campaign. Their Appeal to Political Parties contains no reference whatsoever to the growth of authoritarianism, repression, state violence and state-sponsored violence which has targetted peoples movements, both party and non-party with increasing savagery in recent years.
Predictably, the representatives of political parties who participated in the Lok Manch mainly contented themselves with reiterating their generalised manifesto pledges, thus reinforcing the image of parties as macro institutions which (like the mega projects) are pitted against peoples movements with their sensitivity to micro level concerns. Perhaps if, as is planned, such events are organised at a constituency level in the midst of poll campaigns rather than being staged for the Delhi based media, more real contradictions - which do underpin any form of resistance to state power - will come to the fore. What is disturbing however, is the apparent attempt to carve out a depoliticised space, claiming to maintain an equal distance from the left and the right, a space in which NGOs will increasingly define the scope of legitimate peoples movements, in the wider context of an overall rightward shift in Indias polity and economy.