General election shows crying need for independent socialist alternative

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may suffer from memory loss, but we the people – the ruled – unfortunately have very strong memories. The last five years of Modi’s abhorrently casteist, brutally capitalist and cut-throat communal regime have rammed home clearly: how not to govern a country of 1.34 billion people. It is nevertheless hard to believe the cacophony with which the rich and powerful, and even the middle classes, are rooting for Modi’s return to power.

The huge exercise of India’s 2019 General Election is under way, across its 29 states and seven Union territories. The Parliamentary General Election in India is a gargantuan one with over 900 million voters – by far the largest electorate in the world. In excess of one million personnel will be on duty in around 1,035 million polling booths. Voting started on April 11 and takes place in seven stages. Four are over and the last polling date is May 19. All the votes to elect 543 members of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the parliament, will be counted on May 23.

More than 50 parties are contesting these elections. Most of them are small with regional/state appeal. The main parties are the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC). In the 2019 general election, there have been four main national pre-poll alliances. They are the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) headed by the BJP, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) headed by the INC, the Grand Alliance of regional parties, and the Left Front of Communist-leaning parties called ‘Mahagatbandhan’.

Though the BJP is currently considerably more than a shade less popular than in 2014, given the fractious nature of the opposition parties, there is the possibility of Modi and his party, the BJP, still coming back for another stint in power. But under his rule, the lives of the people across the length and breadth of the vast country have been pawned to communalism, sectarianism and the poison of religious majoritarianism, which goes in the name of “nationalism”.

The choice of contestants from the various political parties, but particularly the two principal ones – the BJP and Congress – shows that the reference to ‘secularism’ in the preamble of India’s republican constitution is merely a word, with no importance attached to it. All the establishment political parties violate the constitution in the letter and the spirit with equal impunity.

Among the two major parties, 16 out of 83 candidates from the BJP (19%) and 22 out of 83 candidates from the INC (27%), have serious criminal cases declared against them. There are 401 (32%) of candidates who have assets worth Rs.1 crore (10 million) and more – 69 out of 83 candidates from INC (83%) and 65 out of 83 candidates from BJP (78%) .

The two main parties
A distinction, however, must be drawn between the brazenly right-wing BJP and the Congress Party. Congress is traditionally known as the party of liberal social democracy, the legacy inherited from its long history in the pre-independence era, fighting British colonialism.

The BJP started off as a party of the trading classes. Even its precursor, Jan Sangh, was predominantly a businessmen’s party. It has never carried any Social Democratic baggage, and has had the double advantage of representing the “Hindu Majority” and crowing about safeguarding the interests of Hindus against the appeasement of Muslims and other religious minorities by Congress, under the banner of the secular constitution.
On the other hand, Congress has been in terminal decline since the early 1980s due to a combination of factors, both economic and political. It has been unsuccessful in doing the balancing act of appeasing its social democratic base while keeping intact its ties with traditional big business. This dilemma of Congress has cost it dearly over the decades. India’s big business ‘leaders’ have found a fast-track friend in the BJP and other regional capitalist parties.

Stark contrasts
The oppressed poor and the landless masses – predominantly Dalits and Tribals – who were once considered a formidable support base for the Congress, have waited for nearly six decades for a better future. Now increasingly they are losing their faith in this party. The hollow sloganeering of Congress, which once carried the tag of the party of the independence struggle, stands exposed.

As New Socialist Alternative wrote in 2014, “The BJP, unlike Congress, has no social democratic pretensions nor any poorer constituents to appease. It has unapologetically built itself as a Baniya (Businessmen) Party, right from its inception and combines this with the opium effect of a virulent Hindu Nationalism with which it feathers its cap.”

But Congress chose Kamal Nath as its Chief Minister in Madhya Pradesh after it defeated the BJP in the regional assembly elections in December 2018. This was the man who was exonerated for “lack of evidence” for his role in the spine-chilling riots that killed more than 3,000 innocent Sikhs in 1984.

Now, showing they ​​​​too​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ have scant respect for the written constitution, the BJP has chosen Pragya Singh Thakur to stand for parliament in Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal – a woman who was jailed for her alleged role in the Malegaon Bomb Blast in 2006. This saffron-clad woman, now out on bail, is known as ‘Saadhvi’ meaning female saint!

All these wrongs fester and ferment in a country where the ruling classes brag and boast about the success of the seven decades of India’s exemplary democracy.

Squaring the circle
Recently in a liberal bourgeois journal, ‘The Hindu’, a left-wing commentator wrote on the current situation: “One out of every two Indians goes to bed hungry at night. That’s almost 700 million Indians. The number comes from McKinsey. But you don’t need a consultant to tell you about the distress in India. It is evident on our streets and in our fields. Agrarian distress (amplified by the suicide of farmers) and urban distress (illustrated by the growth of slums) have become normal. Policy from the central government does not effectively address any of the challenges faced by over half of the Indian population. Deprivation and desolation set the mood. The emotional dial switches to anger ever so often.

The voices of peasants and workers, of Dalits and Adivasis, are muffled. Most political parties ignore them, making their appeal to the middle-class as if this class should set the terms for political decision-making. It is evident that the real beneficiaries of government policy since 1991 have not even been this middle class, but it has been what should be called an oligarchy (10% of Indians own 75% of India’s social wealth). Centre-stage have been the interests of prominent business houses. Not the voice of Chinna Balayya (a farmer from Parigi mandal, Andhra Pradesh, who killed himself) nor the voice of a 16-year-old girl from Gaya, Bihar (who was killed in an honour killing), nor hundreds of lakhs of people like them.”

We wrote during the 1999 general elections, that the whole parliamentary exercise was looking like a farce, where none of the fundamental problems faced by the people were addressed. Previously, before the so-called ‘liberalisation’ era, elections saw the political parties speak, at least rhetorically, about the problems of poverty, unemployment, the status of women, the lack of fundamental necessities such as water and sewage systems and the burgeoning diseases that were killing hundreds if not thousands of Indians. Twenty years down the line, the scenario is exactly the same, if not worse. The only difference is that all the socio-economic and political problems are much more acute.

Myopic “Secularism v/s Fascism” debate
This year’s election is being held and fought not on real issues faced by the people, but with a very subjective polarised agenda. The opposition to Modi’s regime is left with no choice but to deal with the issues that the Sangh Parivar dictates.

Modi and the BJP have kept the opposition busy from the word go in 2014 over issues that spread communal poison, including mob lynching, using a very well orchestrated net-work of organisations linked to the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It was the riots of Muzaffarnagar in 2013 in Uttar Pradesh, deliberately fomented, which resulted in the BJP winning a land-slide in the 2014 parliamentary elections there (with 73 out of the 80 seats). This was a clear warning of what the future trajectory would be.

While attention was diverted to the controversial and divisive social issues, Modi succeeded in fine tuning the Indian economy in the interests of the capitalist class with unprecedented blatant cronyism creeping in. In the first few months of his ascent to power, Modi dismantled the decades-long policy of 5-year Plans. They had not been perfect, but had leaned in the direction of public ownership and developing the state sector. The BJP regime replaced them with technocrat-driven policy-making which favoured the big corporations.

The sheen that Modi commanded in 2014 has faded; all the promises made during 2014 are an embarrassment to him now. Not once in the current campaign has he or his sycophantic coterie mentioned the much tom-tom-ed ‘demonetisation’ or the Goods and Services Tax as achiever policies. Unemployment is at a record high for the last four and half decades. The promise of 2 crore (20 Million) jobs per year has become a subject of ridicule among the urban youth. India’s working age population is currently growing by 1.3 million each month, exacerbating a stagnant jobs market.

The assessment by the National Sample Survey Office conducted between July 2017-June 2018, showed the unemployment rate stood at 6.1% – the highest since 1972-73. Joblessness stood at 7.8 percent in urban areas compared with 5.3 in the countryside.

India’s economy has been expanding by more than 7 percent annually – the fastest pace among major economies. But uneven growth has meant there are not enough jobs created for those millions of young Indians entering the workforce each year. In January this year, the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy, an independent think-tank, said the country lost as many as 11 million jobs last year. This was the year following the infamous economic bungling of Modi – ‘Demonetisation’. India’s debt is up by 50% to ₹ 82 lakh crore (82 Billions) in the Modi era.

Kaushik Basu, a former World Bank chief economist and top economic advisor to the Indian government, writing in the New York Times in February this year, said, “India can hide unemployment data, but not the truth. The Modi government’s economic policy has been disproportionately focused on a few big corporations, neglecting small firms and traders, the agricultural sector and most workers. The results are now showing.”

Agrarian distress is at its peak. Coupled with farmers’ and peasants’ suicides this too can cost Modi dearly in the ongoing elections. Not surprisingly, his government has attempted very late in the day to win over 12 crore (120 million) marginal farmers who hold less than 2 hectares of land by giving them ₹6,000 per annum as income support for their families. And that, too, in three instalments. This is a drop in the ocean of distress in which the impoverished peasants are sinking.

Neither this so-called “reform” measure of Modi’s nor the drawing room proposal of Rahul Gandhi and his proposed Universal Basic Income of ₹ 72,000 per annum (roughly $ 1,000) will help farmers deal with the massive indebtedness that often compels them to take their lives. Since the 1991 economic “reforms”, more than 300,000 farmers have committed suicide. This is directly due to the economic policy-making by the ruling class which is blatantly neo-liberal and against all oppressed sections of the population.

Modi’s one-sided illusionary “growth”
According to an Association for Democratic Rights report, the BJP accounted for 80% of the income of national parties for 2017-18. The BJP received 93% of all donations above ₹20,000 (the legal limit for political donations) totalling ₹4,370 millions, while the Congress received ₹266 millions in such donations. This gulf in funding is one of the many indicators of the capitalists’ consolidation behind the BJP. What explains such a one-sided choice?

Meanwhile the number of dollar millionaires in India in 2014 rose to 2.5 lakh (250,000) from 1.96 lakh (196,000) in 2013 – an increase of 27 per cent, according to a recent report. The report also predicted that India will have 4.37 lakh (437,000) millionaires by 2018, and potentially double that number by 2023. This growth is primarily driven by the increase in wealth of a few individuals rather than an overall increase in income levels of all Indian people.

While the number of millionaires increased steadily, rural India, which constitutes 66% of the total population, still languished in poverty. The highest paid member of three quarters of rural households in India earned less than ₹5,000 (around $70) per month.

One of Modi’s favourite white lies was that his ‘Make in India’ initiative would attract investments from all over the world, as the multinational corporations would be eager to take advantage of the demographic dividend of India’s youthful population. But in reality, Foreign Direct Investment as a percentage of GDP has remained limited to around 2 per cent, and only a tiny proportion of this has gone to the manufacturing sector. For want of investment and because of the invasion of manufactured goods from China, India’s manufacturing sector has had negative growth.

Wealth has continued to be concentrated at the top of Indian society. The 2018 Global Wealth Report published by the investment bank, Credit Suisse, says India now has 343,000 people owning over one million US dollars, or about 7 crores (70 million) of Indian rupees. According to the World Inequality Database, the income of the top 1% of the Indian population was ₹33 lakh per adult or ₹275,000 per month, while the income of the bottom 50% of the population was ₹45,000 per year per adult, that is ₹3,750 per month.

The Reserve Bank of India has confirmed that 99.3% of demonetised bank notes were returned to the banks. The suddenness of the demonetisation had a massive negative impact on the Indian economy, including a slowdown in employment of labour and a dip in overall farm incomes. Growth slowed down to a four-year low of 6.7%.

It is no exaggeration to say that Modi’s government of the last five years is the most regressive that India has experienced since independence from the British Raj. It is true that Modi, through his divisive agenda camouflaged as “development”, has held even sections of workers and other oppressed people under an illusionary spell. In effect there has been an unprecedented transfer of wealth from poor to the rich under Modi’s development agenda.

Politics is concentrated economics, but the right-wing demagogue Modi practices ‘Politics by other means’. He uses the language of communalism and even engages in warmongering. This 2019 election has become a stage for him to make pseudo claims of the threat of war with Pakistan (even going close to instigating one). He uses majoritarian religious nationalism with the aim of creating a “them and us” atmosphere. This election has seen the lowest of lows, with Modi repeatedly asking youth voters to dedicate their first ever votes to honouring the 40 soldiers who died in the Pulwama terror attack, allegedly perpetrated by a Pakistani suicide bomber of Jaish-e Mohammed.

His cohorts like Amit Shah, the BJP’s Party President, and Yogi Adityanath (Chief minister of UP) had to be restrained by the Election Commission from using the Balakot air strike, (which was purportedly a retaliatory strike against Pakistan as a response to the Pulwama terror attack) as an electioneering point. Many senior Defence personnel, both retired and in service, resented the fact that the BJP was using their sacrifices for their own narrow political gains.

BJP leader, Ranjeet Bahadur Srivastava from UP, made a directly controversial remark by asking voters to cast their ballot in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi if they want to destroy Muslims. He asked people to vote for the BJP in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections or else, “get ready to face the consequences if you do not vote for the BJP.”

Maneka Gandhi, currently Cabinet Minister for Women and Child Development in the Government of PM Narendra Modi, threatened voters, saying she will categorise villages under an ‘A-B-C-D system’ to prioritise development, according to the voting preferences of the people! Never in the history of India has a political party tried to threaten people to vote for them or lose services or jobs.

What is likely to happen?
It has become a much-chewed cliché to say, “India’s democracy is at a cross-roads”. As we wrote soon after Modi came to power five years ago, “The victory of Modi in May 2014 can in no way be termed as yet another political accident of parliamentary democracy. As reiterated in the previous issues of ‘Dudiyora Horaata /’, right from its inception in 1980 to this day, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its mentor, the RSS conglomerate, which is euphemistically called “Sangh Parivar”, is gaining strength by each hour, week, and month by exploiting every available loophole in this bourgeois democracy.”

There is now a definite erosion of the popularity of Modi and the BJP because of their dismal failure on all fronts, particularly the economic one. It is very evident from the BJP election rallies that the previous confident fanfare is missing spectacularly. Modi’s famous slogan of “Sab Ka Saath-Sab Ka Vikas (With everyone, for everyone’s growth)” in the 2014 election, promoting his vision of all-round development, is conspicuously missing this time. Instead, together with his coterie, he is resorting to desperate communal and war hysteria. Modi went to the extent of declaring and threatening Pakistan by saying, “They should not think India’s nuclear weapons are meant for Diwali fire-works displays”.

It is one thing to see the traits of a desperado. But there is a fractious atmosphere of communalised politics and in-built insecurity of the culturally deprived masses, who have been fed with decades-long exaggerated stories of injustice being meted out to the Hindu majority and how their grand vision of an undivided Indian empire has been subjected to foreign powers dominating their nation over the centuries, resulting in all the socio-economic-political evils. This narrative of the ‘Sangh Parivar’ (RSS) is what the BJP is banking on and is using to an unprecedented level in the current elections.

It is clear from the long list of failures and a seemingly desperate BJP, that there is enough dynamite of opportunities to defeat Modi and his ilk lock, stock and barrel. But what are the possibilities of such an outcome in the given scenario of a divided opposition to Modi’s regime?

More importantly, under what programme and platform can such a welcome thing happen? The platform of “lesser evil-ism” on which the so-called alternative to Modi and the BJP has been cobbled together, is built on the quicksand of caste, regional and numerous parochial identities. Ironically in contrast to it, Modi’s virulent Hindu majoritarian nationalism can appear immensely attractive.

It is easy to paint Congress and the other capitalist opposition forces, who are rabidly casteist, misogynist, sexist and – very importantly – anti-working class and against other oppressed people, simply as anti-religious or secular in comparison to the RSS-BJP which is openly communal and has never hesitated to use fascistic methods to terrorise the people.

What is worse is the fact that the traditional left, comprised of the Communist Parties, who rhetorically claim to be guardians of the working class and the poor peasants, are failing in their duty to provide an independent class alternative instead of cosying up to Congress and other discredited bourgeois parties, giving certificates of Secularism to them.

The very crude narrative of BJP v/s Congress or Fascism v/s Secularism is a kind of scarecrow used to dampen the combative spirit of India’s working class and peasantry who have taken on Modi’s communal regime through massive general strikes and through walking protests of marginal peasants and the landless. The most recent general strike was just months ago with a record participation of 220 million workers. Both workers and peasants have also been involved in ‘Long Marches’ to parliament on specific issues.
It is this approach – based on the arithmetic of caste, religion, region, language and gender – that the BJP wants. This is because behind its “One Hindu Nation” slogan it can hoodwink all these identities.

Anger can erupt
But what BJP-RSS fears most is the eruption of anger at the deep class divisions in society. Behind its facade of Hindutva lies its desire to have a Hindu Block without class divisions where it can hide its real nature – its own class interest, that of capitalism.

Though it would be the worst outcome from a socialist and class point of view, it is most likely that Modi’s BJP will return to government, albeit with a reduced majority, for want of a credible alternative.
Socialists under the banner of New Socialist Alternative (CWI-India) will continue to campaign on the basis of a programme of slogans and demands for the current situation in which the traditional parties continue to abdicate their historical responsibility to lead the working class to fight for an independent socialist alternative to capitalism and against the communal politics of India’s ruling classes.

  • Say ‘No’ to the BJP!
  • Reject the Indian National Congress too – which is no apostle of secularism!
  • Fight communalism, casteism and the right-wing RSS and BJP!
    Build the struggle with united class action for jobs, wages and homes for all.
  • Build the left and an independent socialist alternative.
  • For a mass party of the working class and all other oppressed.
    Jagadish G Chandra
    New Socialist Alternative