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Depoliticising Peoples Movements


As various parties launched their manifestos in preparation for the election campaign, the National Alliance of People’s 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 people’s 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 ‘people’s 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 today’s political scene - that between ‘parties’ on the one hand, and ‘people’s 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 NAPM’s 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 women’s 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 people’s 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 people’s movements.

That the institutionalisation of this role is already underway can be gathered from the restricted nature of the NAPM’s 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 people’s 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 people’s 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 ‘people’s movements’, in the wider context of an overall rightward shift in India’s polity and economy. 

Home > Liberation Main Page > Index Page February 1998 > ARTICLE