Seventy Years On, India Cannot Allow the Divisive Forces to Triumph Again


A great responsibility falls upon the democratic and secular parties – whatever be their differences on policy matters – to come together and defend the country’s values.

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party. Credit: Reuters

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party. Credit: Reuters

In 1921, an Indian was fortunate if he or she crossed the age of 20, for this was the average expectation of life at birth during the census-decade 1911-21. The expectation of life had been declining steadily since the decade 1881-91, when it had been above 25 years. These data are sufficient to make superfluous any further descriptions of the absolute poverty and starvation of the bulk of the Indian population. With such misery within, India had been still forced to part annually with a significant portion of her GDP by way of tribute to England throughout the nineteenth century, which, if it had remained with her, would have given a fairly respectable rate of national savings in those years: the tribute amounted to not less than 4.14% of the GDP in the early 1880s, and in reality was much larger still. ‘Free trade’ at the same time destroyed India’s traditional industries and obstructed any substantive growth of modern industry. In 1922, the average daily number of workers employed in factories was less than 1.4 million in a country that then contained a population of 305 million. The material backwardness had its reflection in the country’s cultural level. In 1931, the general literacy rate was only 9.2%, female literacy being below 3%.

Such were the conditions of India after more than 150 years of British rule, counting from Plassey (1757). We have to remind ourselves of these conditions in order to understand the framework in which the visions of a future India were formed in the National Movement. The courteous but pitiless analyses of Dadabhai Naoroji and R.C. Dutt exposed the two major British engines of exploitation of India, the tribute and free trade; and this critique, earning universal nationalist approval, gave birth to ‘swadeshi’, the battle-cry of the 1905 movement against the Partition of Bengal and subsequent nationalist upsurges. But if everyone in the national camp was agreed on these essentials of contemporary reality, on the future the disagreements were yet profound.

The founding fathers of the Indian National Congress (first session, 1885), the ‘moderates’, saw the country’s future as one of ‘constitutional development’ under the stewardship of England, the development paralleling a reform of the traditional society with its numerous inequitous customs. They mostly aspired to economic progress on the lines of modern countries, with Japan increasingly taken as the model. Yet, for the reason that the moderates desired India’s industrial development, they rejected free trade, the great shibboleth of modern political economy, and instead demanded protection. Swadeshi, therefore, came more easily to their lips than swaraj. They wished Britain to loosen the tentacles of tribute which strangled the domestic market; and one way to do so was to reduce the salary and pension drain to Britain by ‘Indianising’ the civil services and the army officer corps. One can see now that they looked forward to a future for India as a classical bourgeois country; but there was one mitigating feature: they had a genuine sympathy for the poor, and wished, like Naoroji and Dutt, to protect the small peasant and the factory worker. It was here that the theoretical foundation was laid for the later mobilisation of the ordinary people under Gandhi and the Left.

Swadeshi movement. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Swadeshi movement. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ‘orthodox nationalists’, led by Bal Gangadhar Tilak, had little sympathy for the slow constitutional development or the urge for social reform articulated by moderate leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Not only was swaraj the ‘birth-right’ of Indians, but there was little that was wrong with the old Indian culture and society. Rather, if the British rulers wished to impose their western ways in the guise of reform, opposition to this could be used by the nationalists for the mobilisation of people against alien rule. In the idealisation of the old society, the Hindu aspects were naturally predominant; and this provided a fertile ground for development of the ‘Hindu nationalism’ of Aurobindo Ghosh and others, with all its divisive consequences.

Gandhi’s instinctive sympathies were with the moderates when they envisioned an Indian nation comprising all religious communities, and pleaded for a patient winning of rights by peaceful agitation and persuasion. But, as he put it in Hind Swaraj (1909), he did not want to have a westernised India (to ‘make India English’ though ‘without the Englishman’). From western critics themselves he had imbibed a heavy suspicion of the inequities of modern industrial society; he wished to go back to the traditional India of the villages, to fulfil the objects of sarvodaya (charity to all). The class differences could be tided over by fulfilment of the responsibility of ‘custodianship’ by the upper classes. Gandhi’s views subsequently underwent substantial changes, as he freely admitted later. Untouchability and oppression of women in traditional society had been paid scant attention in Hind Swaraj; now, after Gandhi’s return to India (1915), they became increasingly central to his cause of full-scale nationalist mobilisation. The realities of life began to rule out any prospect of peasant dependence on zamindars. And could India remain for ever an unindustrialised society to keep the village predominant?

Gandhi was compelled, on these and other points, to make concessions. These concessions could be read in both a capitalist (or pro-zamindar) and a socialist spirit. From the 1920s the Left in the National Movement began to emerge, consisting within the Congress of Jawaharlal Nehru and the socialists, and outside, mainly of the communists. Their aspirations were sought to be partly met by the vision of free India contained in the Fundamental Rights Resolution adopted at Karachi by the Congress in 1931 – a draft prepared by Nehru and carefully revised by Gandhi, who also formally proposed it. The Karachi Resolution is important because it contained not only all the basic principles of India’s secular democracy (adult suffrage, state’s neutrality in matters of religion, equality of men and women, abolition of caste discrimination), but also those policy objectives (industrialisation, state’s ownership and control of basic industries, protective tariffs, agrarian reform) which are now supposed in some quarters to be the great evils inherited from ‘the Nehru era’ (1947-64). There is no doubt that if there was a single document that contained the National Movement’s blueprint of free India, it was the Karachi Resolution.

Both the Gandhian and Left visions of India were crucial to mass mobilisation for the National Movement. It was the presence of peasants and women that gave particular tenacity to the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930-34; sweeping peasant unrest gave the Congress its very large vote in 1937; and it was the popular post-war mass upsurge, typified by the Royal Indian Navy mutiny (1946), that quickened the pace for achievement of freedom.

Since the ‘nation’ (the country as a political community) is a product of modern history, it can be argued that national consciousness developed in India only as a consequence of the development of modern means of communication, especially railways, and the creation thereby of a unified market, along with the growth of the press and the spread of modern education. But these very factors heightened the consciousness of other identities as well, such as those of religion, caste and region. While nationalist historians like Tara Chand and Mohammad Habib laboured to prove that compositeness was the bedrock on which the Indian civilisation had been built, a point stressed too in Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India, others, like R.C. Majumdar and I.H. Qureshi, saw two mutually exclusive streams running in Indian history ever since the appearance of Islam. If Muslim separatism openly espoused the two-nation theory after the Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League (1940), Hindu ‘nationalism’ also implicitly accepted the same theory by virtually excluding Muslims from India’s cultural past and from her political future (thus the slogan, ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’). The inability of the National Movement to prevent the Partition in 1947 was undoubtedly a severe setback, though it is disputable how far it could have been prevented by making further concessions to British imperialism or the Muslim League – and whether, if so prevented, the resulting political structure could have been viable. The real reverse lay in the failure in the battle for minds, which, as we face an onslaught of similar divisive tendencies today, should be a great lesson for us.

Muslim League leaders. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Muslim League leaders. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Internal economic developments following independence

From August 15, 1947 to January 26, 1950 – from the creation of the Dominion of India to the proclamation of the Indian Republic – spanned a very harsh period of two-and-a-half years. The jubilation at independence was tempered, even silenced, by the largest forced migration of the last century involving some 12 million people, and by popular reaction to the brutal massacres that accompanied them – massacres ultimately stayed only by Gandhiji’s two fasts at Calcutta and Delhi and his martyrdom (January 30, 1948). The partitioned land, already ravaged by two centuries of colonial exploitation, now had its industrial structure thoroughly disrupted. Raw jute and cotton fields were placed on one side of the border, jute and cotton mills on the other; an extensive market for Indian coal was also lost. The adverse effects on textile manufactures, the biggest sector in India’s modern industry at the time, tended to pull back the general level of India’s industrial production. The inherited British-built administrative machinery and the tendency to compromise with the established land-controlling interests led to much peasant dissatisfaction, of which the Telangana rebellion (1947-51) was the most powerful expression. The British officers’ dominance over the Indian armed forces and the dependence on foreign capital set limits to India’s freedom in the international arena during the onset of the Cold War. Yet, despite criticism from the Left, which was not entirely unjustified, much was still achieved. That long-standing obstruction to political progress, represented by the princely states, was removed by the states’ absorption into the Indian Union. Initial steps were taken to remove discrimination against ‘Harijans’ (Dalits) and women. The constitution of 1950, supplemented by the Representation of People Act, provided for a parliamentary democracy with universal adult suffrage and for a separation of state from religion. The Industrial Policy Resolution (1948), despite its eschewing of interference with existing private capital, announced a large future role for the public sector.

The steps prepared the ground for the 1950s, which may now be seen as constituting free India’s most heroic phase. The agrarian reform, undoubtedly uneven in its depth from state to state, was now carried out, restricting if not supplanting rent-based landlordism, and opening the doors to larger farming and rural capitalism. With the Second Five-Year Plan (1956-61), the strengthening of protection and exchange controls, and the revision of the Industrial Policy Resolution (1956), an industrial expansion began, its core being the public sector, creating for the first time in India a respectable heavy industry. The share of the public sector in total capital stock grew over the 1950s (between 1950-51 and 1960-61) from 18% to 33%. At the same time power generation increased 2.5 times, and production of finished steel 2.4 times. Per capita availability of clothing doubled, whereas per capita foodgrains availability rose by nearly a half. Public investment in education also showed some results. School enrolment climbed from 23.5 million to 44.7 million, and university enrolment from 0.4 million to 1.05 million, thus adding substantial numbers to the educated classes. The number of literates increased from about a sixth to nearly a quarter of the population, and average life expectation from 32.5 years to 41.2 years. Strong steps were taken to promote the protection and empowerment of Dalits, with fairly adequate quotas in government service assigned to ‘Scheduled Castes and Tribes’, and a Protection of Civil Rights Act passed in 1955. The years 1955-56 also saw the passage of laws that constitute the Hindu code, giving practically equal rights to women in inheritance and marriage, despite the vociferous opposition of communal groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh/Jan Sangh and the Hindu Mahasabha. These were not insignificant achievements, and need to be recalled especially today, when it has become fashionable to decry the ‘socialist’ policies of those days.

Indeed, in the 1950s there was a distinct attempt by the Congress to occupy a leftward space. Essentially, and despite the absorption into its camp of princes and big landlords, the Congress began to call for a ‘socialistic pattern’ and then ‘socialism’, though, as Nehru made it fairly clear in his note on ‘The Basic Approach’ (1958), his ‘socialism’ was very close to ‘the welfare state’ of western thinkers (‘. . . many of the ideas of socialism are gradually incorporated even in the capitalist structure’, he himself said). The Communist Party remained the largest opposition group in parliament and formed the government in the state of Kerala (1957-59).

India’s internal advance, notwithstanding its continuing poverty, was paralleled by its rising prestige in the world. As the Cold War began in right earnest, with the US’s nuclear might challenged by that of the USSR, and with the Chinese Revolution (1949) followed by the outbreak of the Korean War (1950), India began to diverge from its pro-US policy (it had voted in the UN Assembly against North Korea). Beginning with ‘abstentions’ at the UN, India began to pursue a policy of ‘non-alignment’, which enabled it to act as one of the peace-makers in Korea (1952-53), and spearhead an Asian-African movement, marked by the Bandung Conference (1955). Close friendship developed with the USSR and China, which counterbalanced the aid-fuelled relationship with the US and its allies.

Jawaharlal Nehru. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Jawaharlal Nehru. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the early 1960s, the internal economic developments began to show signs of strain. The growth of heavy industry under the aegis of the state greatly accelerated the expansion of big business and monopoly in the secondary goods sector, and promoted the intensification of social inequalities, to reduce which had been the avowed purpose of establishing the public sector. The agrarian reforms left the poorer strata largely untouched. And open corruption tended to undermine every effort at economic development or promotion of welfare. A right-wing shift developed, marked by the dismissal of the Kerala government in 1959 and the rather listless pursuance of the land ceilings programme announced in 1962. An appeal to national jingoism leading to the fiasco of the India-China war of 1962 further entrenched the Right in the seats of power. The then journalistic pastime, ‘After Nehru, who?’ soon turned into ‘After Nehru, what?’ Nehru’s death in 1964 could aptly (and sadly) be deemed to have closed an era.

Frequent policy shifts and the Emergency

From 1962 to 1977 constitutes a phase in which there occurred a number of shifts in the policies of the regime at the centre, until, with the general elections at the end of the Emergency in 1977, the Congress for the first time lost power at the Centre. A right-wing shift in the 1960s was marked by recurring arrests of ‘Left communists’ (in 1962 and after the communist split of 1964, whereafter the CPI(M) was organised), but then was followed by a ‘Left-ward’ shift in Congress policies in the 1970s. The principal measures of the latter phase were the abolition of privy purses (1971), and the nationalisation of banks (1969), general insurance (1971) and coal mines (1972-73), during Indira Gandhi’s first term as the prime minister (1966-77). Economic growth continued but with some unevenness: over the 1960s power generation increased more than three times and production of finished steel nearly doubled, while during the 1970s power generation doubled and finished steel production increased by nearly 50%. But during the 1960s and 70s the availability per capita of foodgrains and clothing remained practically stationary, though the so-called Green Revolution was expected to raise foodgrains production.

The problem of absolute poverty lent point to Mrs Gandhi’s winning slogan at the 1972 elections: ‘Garibi Hatao‘ (remove poverty). Despite a drawn war with Pakistan in 1965 and a successful one in 1971, resulting in the creation of the independent state of Bangladesh, followed by the nuclear explosion (1974), the internal difficulties accumulated, as public disenchantment with the corrupt establishment and failure of efforts at poverty alleviation mounted. To this discontent Jayaprakash Narayan gave particular articulation. Indira Gandhi replied with the Emergency in the summer of 1975, which lasted nearly two years with imprisonments, censorship and suppression of civil liberties – the greatest blow to parliamentary democracy since independence.

Front page of Indian Herald announcing the imposition of the Emergency on June 26, 1975.

Front page of Indian Herald announcing the imposition of the Emergency on June 26, 1975.

The Emergency raised many questions about the strength of Indian democracy. Even the Left was divided on the issue, with the CPI supporting and the CPI(M) opposing the Emergency. The intelligentsia’s reaction in the beginning was muted; and there was no general working class action against it to speak of. Yet, much to their honour, the opposition parties had few deserters and an underground resentment began to develop, erupting ultimately to bring about the defeat of Indira Gandhi at the polls in 1977.

It is possible that one of the reasons why the Emergency did not lead to immediate resistance was the strength of the popular base gained by the Congress regime by the radical measures of the early 1970s, which were described as steps towards socialism. Despite the communists’ perception of the public sector as a feeder of big business, both by its supply of cheap materials to private industry and by the investment support given to the private sector by nationalised banks and financial institutions, the Left too endorsed the expansion of the public sector for its future potential in a ‘people’s democracy’ preceding the stage of socialism. The popular response to the slogan of socialism was strong enough to persuade Indira Gandhi to insert the objective of socialism (along with secularism) in the preamble to the constitution during the Emergency, and for the Jan Sangh in its post-1979 incarnation as the Bharatiya Janata Party to pay fleeting lip-service to ‘Gandhian socialism’. Clearly, the ideological momentum created in Nehru’s days was still at work in popular consciousness, so that it was an important factor to consider in electoral politics. Since the late 1970s, however, the picture has changed.

Communal upsurge

There is no doubt that the collapse of the Emergency (1977), despite Indira Gandhi’s return to power in 1980, marked a great break in Indian political tradition. The earlier slogans appeared to be more and more illusory, and throughout the 1980s, neither Indira Gandhi, tragically assassinated in 1984, nor her son and successor Rajiv Gandhi, prime minister until 1989, brought forth any measures of a radical nature, comparable to those of the earlier two phases. This was despite the fact that the economy, running with the structure already created, showed considerable strength: the general index of industrial production climbed steadily from 100 to 212.6 between 1980-81 and 1990-91, though again, per capita foodgrains availability increased only marginally and textile production, determining the availability of clothing, stagnated, being in 1990-91 at about the same level as in 1980-81. The industrial growth thus did not still affect the basic standards of life of the poorer strata, while the upper classes were certainly getting richer.

Such a situation was bound to create a climate for political change, even if strong allegations of corruption had not queered the pitch for the Congress. After a Janata Dal interlude (1989-90), there was again a five-year period of rule by the Congress under Narasimha Rao (1991-96), when ‘reforms’ were set afoot to dismantle much of the older order in the interest of a free market economy, which would hopefully be spurred by foreign competition and fed by foreign capital. This could be taken to be a right-ward turn for which the ideological preparation was already afoot since the early 1980s, or it could be seen as a policy adopted not out of conviction but out of compulsion, forced by the collapse of the socialist camp, and the achievement of a seeming total ascendancy in the global economy by the US and its allies. The scam of 1992 and the vulnerability of the Indian stock market thereafter still leaves questionable the actual degree of success of the ‘reforms’ policy. It was certainly accompanied by a degree of corruption that left even most cynics sincerely astonished.

Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. Credit: PTI

The departure since the 1980s from the traditional post-independence principles of state policy created a vacuum in the political space for the bourgeois parties. Since radical social engineering of any sort was out of the question, the Congress regime in the 1980s developed the policy of throwing money at the poor through costly and inefficient poverty alleviation programmes. With corruption and embezzlement draining away the tax-payer’s resources actually assigned to the programmes, their cost-effectiveness was miserably low. V.P. Singh in 1990 came forward with his goal of ‘social justice’, designed to be attained through an affirmative action programme in favour of the backward castes. As so far put into effect, this amounted mainly to reservation for such castes in public employment and public educational institutions, and left untouched the private sector, the main area of employment. The policy assumes that caste identities constitute a key element of Indian social reality; and here, undoubtedly, there is a major shift away from the concept of class, a shift with which the Left has had increasingly to reconcile itself.

It is important to remember that, however necessary in the short run such a perception of ‘social justice’ may be, it cannot serve as the basis for any long-term vision of an equitable India, which must involve the larger issue of distribution of wealth in Indian society. Despite the fall of the socialist system in Russia and Eastern Europe, and with all the imperfections that possibly hastened its demise, socialism still remains, in human experience, the most practical and logical form of the welfare state. It is, therefore, a valid position for the CPI(M), CPI and other parties of the Left to take, when, unlike some of their counterparts in other parts of the world, they affirm their continuing loyalty to the goal of socialism. But it is clear at the same time that in the short run, they are obliged to accept the continuance of the capitalist order, hopefully to be increasingly restricted, while building or participating in a united front formed to defend India’s secular democracy from the threat of communal forces.

The spectacular electoral successes of the BJP in the 1990s made it obvious that communal revivalism now began to occupy an ever-increasing part of the ideological space. Assistance to various communal outfits of all hues had been provided from time to time by the ruling Congress since the inclusion of Hindu Mahasabha and Akali representatives in the first cabinet of free India to the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 – the largest assault on the life and property of a minority after the post-Independence slaughter. Rajiv Gandhi’s actions in 1986 were characteristic of this policy of communal appeasement, viz. simultaneously opening the Babri Masjid for Hindu occupation and passing an Act to circumvent the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Shah Bano case to please Muslim fundamentalists. Yet such concessions – which, once communal ideology becomes widespread, become acts of populism – are not sufficient by themselves to explain the swelling communal upsurge that led to the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992 and to the BJP’s enjoying power at Delhi for the first time, though only for seventeen days in May 1996. The stock market’s reaction to the short-lived BJP regime was, however, ominously friendly, showing that the BJP has few problems with the Indian capitalist class, which was certainly right in taking its ‘swadeshi’ protestations as a mere populist posture.

Other forces that now emerged with much strength were those of regional separatism, sometimes allied with religious appeals. The 1980s saw violent ‘militancy’ in Punjab, Kashmir and parts of the Northeast, which continued, though with some welcome abatement, into the early 1990s. While there is every reason for firmness against parochial demands such as the one for an unending division into states, ‘self-government’ is still a basic democratic principle for dealing with regional grievances. The cause of national unity is not at all helped by those who have a very one-sided view of the nation. National unity can hardly be built through the exaltation of the Aryan origins (with India as the Aryan ‘homeland’) and the demand for imposition of the Hindi language on non-Hindi states. Equally, however, one must urge restraint on those who quite unhistorically glorify regional contributions and unduly stress ethnic identities. There is the larger cause of the poor, the Dalits, the women and the oppressed of our society, which must override all divisive considerations. One hopes that this would also be appreciated by those who strongly advocate regional or ethnic demands.

Decline in share of public sector in the economy, rise of capitalism

Under every regime that India has experienced since the 1990s, big business has prospered enormously. Ever since the Narasimha Rao government accepted the International Monetary Fund’s assistance in 1992 under the pressure of a foreign exchange crisis, successive governments have largely accepted wholesale the principles of the Washington Consensus, namely, full opening to foreign direct investment, removal of protective tariffs and wholesale privatisation of the public sector. The banking and insurance sectors have now been thrown fully open to the private firms, including foreign corporations. The share of the public sector in the economy has been steadily declining over the last two-and-a-half decades. At the same time there has been a deliberate erosion of previous policies of price controls, anti-monopolistic measures and the system of subsidies. During this period what India has seen, therefore, is the recurrence of a nineteenth-century type of development of capitalism, heavily resting on ‘primitive accumulation’ at the cost of the poorer strata of the country’s population.

For this the best index is the large portion of population that has remained below the poverty line. In 2009-10, by an official estimate, over 35 crore persons, forming 29.8% of India’s population, were found to be living below the standard ‘poverty line’. On the other hand, in China, where, if not Marx, then at least Keynes, still reigns, a far more spectacular economic growth has been attained with equally spectacular poverty reduction. According to World Bank estimates, whereas 65% of China’s population subsisted below the poverty line in 1981, the figure had been brought down to just 4% by 2010.

India too, on paper, after 2000 attained what was a respectable annual rate of growth of some 6-8% per annum, yet the average per capita foodgrains availability fell from 177 kilograms in the early 1990s to 155 kilograms in the three years 2001-03. A new grim statistic has been created in the shape of numbers of peasants’ suicides, which have become a marked feature of ‘Shining India’ in the last 20 years. Automation and computerisation also tend to make India present the spectacle of what is frequently termed ‘jobless growth’.

Indeed, a curious feature of the Indian model of development is that while capitalism has universally extended its tentacles, industry has not grown correspondingly. The growth has actually been sluggish in material production and remarkably high in the realm of ‘services’. In 1950, as much as 55% of the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) came from agriculture, 15% from industry, and 30% from services. In 2008, the corresponding official figures were: agriculture 17.6%, industry 28.2% and services 54.2%. Thus ‘services’ have now far outdistanced both industry and agriculture. In 2014-15, industry grew by 2.8% (a ‘Hindu’ rate of growth in the parlance of economists of the early years of freedom), while the ‘services’ sector grew by 10.2%, so that the size of industry relative to ‘services’ is actually contracting. In China, on the other hand, in 2006, industry accounted for 48.1% of GDP, well in excess of services, estimated at 40.2%. The special charm in ‘services’ is also that it includes transactions in which no services may have been actually performed: what the poor lose in such cases, yet enlarges the national income.

It must be recognised that India is now a full-blooded capitalist country. (No capitalist economy in the world is, of course, pure.) The urban population now nearly equals, and by the Census of 2021 would probably exceed, the rural population. Peasants produce only about a sixth of gross domestic product, and much of peasant agriculture is influenced by capitalist relations, as in many areas ploughs and scythes have been replaced by tractors and harvesters employed on hire. The key industrial and communications sectors are dominated by great semi-monopolistic firms with deep links to international finance capital.

This transformation of India must surely be taken into account by those who aspire to see a socialist India one day. The case for an intermediate stage, whether one calls it ‘people’s democracy’ or ‘national democracy’, seems now to be out of date. There is all the more reason today why one should rather envision a direct transition to a socialist economy that would still make full use of commodity relations. There could also be room in it for a private sector, with much freedom given to entrepreneurs in a long period of coexistence.

Need for Left parties to unite against the BJP-RSS axis

As India turned into a major capitalist economy, the two parties that have largely remained in power during this period have been the Congress (1991-96, 2004-14) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (1999-2004 and 2014-). They have worked largely in unison as far as conformity of views with those of big business is concerned, the fleeting exception being the United Front government of 1996-99. It seems, however, that free of the burden of any past ‘socialist’ baggage, the BJP can serve the interests of capital with much greater promptitude and zeal than the Congress. In the last few years, the great corporations’ donations appear to have shifted to the BJP. (It is singular that parliament has never cared to forbid companies from making donations to political parties. In fact, the BJP-sponsored ‘electoral’ bonds would further enable shady political payments to be conveniently hidden from the public eye.)

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party. Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

The BJP and its moving spirit, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have an advantage over the Congress today not only in their more extensive organisational network, but also in the fascist ideology of naked communalism they pursue and propagate by their appeal to the so-called ‘85%’ (the Hindu majority) and crass chauvinism. The RSS’s opposition to the National Movement and its hand in creating the atmosphere of hate that brought about the murder of Mahatma Gandhi are now, for many, forgotten events. All this makes the potentially fascist character of the BJP regime a grave danger to democracy and civil rights in India. The more the regime’s failure in the economy and social welfare sector manifests itself, the more it resorts to open communalism, encouraging violence against Muslims and Dalits (Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, can in parliament hold beef-eating a worse crime than the lynching and murder of Muslims). The BJP has seen so well that the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2004 gained votes for it on an impressive scale in that state in successive elections, and this ‘Gujarat model’ is now being successfully applied to the whole of India. To this have been added gimmicks like the demonetisation of November 2016, taken in the name of the poor, the very category of people that was hurt most by the measure. It seems unlikely, however, that in any fair elections the BJP can raise its vote share to much above a third on the all-India plane.

A great responsibility, therefore, falls on democratic and secular parties, whatever be their differences on policy matters, to come together and make electoral adjustments to face the BJP as a united bloc. The absence of proportional representation in India makes such electoral adjustments essential in order to deny the BJP a parliamentary majority. A great responsibility falls on the shoulders of the CPI(M) and other Left parties to work out minimum welfare and developmental programmes behind which a wide anti-fascist front can be built up. Such broad unity in defence of democracy against the BJP-RSS axis is the need of the hour, because one should realise that even for the pursuit of the cause of socialism, it is necessary that India should be, not simply in name but in actual fact, a truly democratic republic.

It is important to recall today that in the 70 years that have passed since independence, everyone has benefited from that change. If the mass of our poor have gained less than the rich and powerful, they too have still gained. It is to them that our appeal for the defence of secularism and a socialist future needs to be made, for it is ultimately in their hands that the future of the country lies.

This paper was first presented by the author at a seminar organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust on August 12 in New Delhi.

Irfan Habib is a renowned historian and professor emeritus at Aligarh Muslim University.