One hundred and eighty million workers in India went out on strike on 2 September. It is the largest strike in human history. Workers came from all sectors – from the mines and crèches, from the rail yards and the banks. All trade unions – except the one backed by the RSS – backed the strike. Even workers in the RSS union joined the action. What was most notable about the strike was that it crossed lines of formal and informal sector, with the unions fierce in their determination on working-class unity at the deepest level.
A few days later, at Jawaharlal Nehru University, long-time campus adversaries – the Student Federation of India (SFI) and the All-India Students Association (AISA) – put up a united left slate to defeat the RSS-BJP’s student wing, the ABVP. The campaign was hard fought. In the name of JNU’s integrity, the Left fought to define the ABVP as party to the attack on freedom of expression and the rights of students across the country – from Hyderabad Central University to Jadavpur University to Himachal University. Student struggle against the pressure from the BJP-led government at the Centre has been fierce. The Left slate in JNU triumphed, winning the entire central leadership panel and most of the councillor seats in the various schools. SFI, AISA and the All-India Student Federation (who campaigned with the Left) understand that this is the time of Left unity. There were principled disagreements between the SFI and the AISA, but these were articulated in an honest and comradely fashion.
A few weeks before, in Una (Gujarat) and in Mumbai (Maharashtra), mass demonstrations took place that brought Dalit groups and the Left together to combat the atrocities against Dalits and the disregard shown to the legacy of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. Despite great divides that still come between Dalit organisations and Left parties, all sides recognize that building bridges is the task of the present. As Brinda Karat, CPI-M Politburo member wrote at the LeftWord Books blog, ‘The slogan of class unity will have more meaning for a Dalit worker if working class and agrarian class organisations and movements, mobilize all workers against the specific oppression and exploitation that a worker faces as a Dalit’.
In this atmosphere, with Left Unity in the air, historian Jairus Banaji comes out with a harsh denunciation of CPI-M Politburo member Prakash Karat. It is a nasty piece of writing, ad hominem by definition, starting with crude statements to describe what Banaji thinks is Karat’s character. If Banaji’s larger point is that the need of the hour is unity of all forces against fascism, then his own prose fails the test – there is no comradely tone here, no attempt to win over Karat to Banaji’s view. The essay by Banaji oscillates between condescension and juvenile derision. To disagree is necessary and important. But how one disagrees is as necessary and as important.
Why would Banaji write in this vein? It is as if Banaji is fighting ancient battles, the contest of Stalin versus Trotsky on the one hand, and the squabbles at JNU in the 1970s between the SFI and the Trotskyites on the other. His is not the tone of the United Front or the Popular Front, but one that emerges from the deepest wells of sectarianism. Must the Left return to those old debates to find its way in the present?
In most contexts, including in India, the debates between ‘Stalinists’ and ‘Trotskyites’ are of little concern. These are the parlour room discussions of hardened militants who find it hard to come to terms with the new debates over questions of strategy and tactics to organise the large segments of the ‘informal sector’ of workers who have been politically disarmed by neo-liberal policy and the mass media. But this is not Banaji’s interest. He is in the mood to score points.
Defending the BJP?
Prakash Karat makes a distinction in his short essay in the Indian Express between a fascist regime and an authoritarian one. What is the basis of this distinction? It is that fascism is an extreme form of rule sanctified by the bourgeoisie when the capitalist system faces great threats of collapse. No such signs are evident in India today. There is no imminent crisis to the fractured and complex Indian bourgeoisie, nor is there any indication that the BJP government has the stomach to move against the Constitution or even towards an Emergency regime. The BJP pushes its right-wing agenda, but it is hampered by a host of political adversaries – not only political parties, but also pressure groups and mass sentiment that will not allow it to enact its complete agenda. The fact that one hundred and eighty million workers went on strike shows that there remains wide opposition to the BJP’s ‘labour reform’ agenda, one that is otherwise quite acceptable to large sections of the parliamentary opposition (including the Congress Party).
The BJP itself, Karat acknowledges, is ‘not an ordinary bourgeois party’. It is, after all, part of the Sangh Parivar and linked, therefore, to the RSS. The RSS, Karat notes, ‘has a semi-fascist ideology’. What makes it ‘semi-fascist’, asks Banaji? It is semi-fascist or fascisant because it can never hope to achieve hegemony over the popular imagination, but has to impose its fascistic ideology from above, through the institutions, by manipulation of the media, by deceit rather than by the creation of conviction. Fissures along caste and regional lines are too deep to allow the RSS to dig its roots into the Indian popular imagination. If it elevates Hindi, it will alienate Tamils. If it pushes the Ram Mandir, it does not speak as loudly to Bengalis as those who read Tulsidas. The BJP – the electoral arm of the Parivar – finds it hard to break into regions of India where the RSS is not as powerful. It makes alliances. These are opportunistic. These alliances strengthen the BJP in Delhi, but do not allow it to penetrate the popular consciousness elsewhere.When the BJP is on the RSS’s (and VHP’s) turf, then matters are different. The Gujarat pogrom of 2002 took place in a setting where the RSS and the VHP had prepared the terrain. All this is well-described in TeestaSetalvad’s forthcoming memoir from LeftWord Books.
What we have in the BJP is authoritarianism – a strong determination to use force of various kinds to gets its way, to use fear to stifle dissent, to use intimidation to transform culture. Modi moves the authoritarianism of the BJP to its extreme. The leader is venerated, the style of politics is menacing, and the agenda is business-friendly. Echoes of Turkey’s AKP are loud, as Karat notes, but so too are there echoes of the Eastern European right-wing.
But in Turkey or Bulgaria, these right-wing parties are able to formulate a stable kind of racist nationalism. The societies appear more homogeneous. India is, in that sense, different. It is a multi-national state, with caste as a fissure that tears through society. No simple racist authoritarianism can succeed in India. That is why the BJP attempts to change the idea of India, push against the multi-national consensus towards what first appears as an anodyne One India politics but which later could provide the cultural basis for the Hindu Rashtra. But this feint is being contested openly and successfully. The BJP foists its representatives on the cultural institutions, but they are not obeyed. Legitimacy is not going to be easy to earn.
Because Banaji does not like Karat’s distinction between fascism and authoritarianism, he suggests that Karat is defending the BJP. That is outrageous. None other than the Left has been the fiercest combatant against communalism of all kinds. Others truck with communalism when it suits their electoral purposes. But the Left is principled on this issue. To make a distinction so as to clarify one’s tactics does not amount to a defence of the BJP.
Alliance with the Congress?
Banaji’s insistence that the BJP is a fascist party is not merely a technical discussion nor a debate about Germany in the 1920s (although it sometimes reads that way). This is an argument about the strategy for the Indian Left. Banaji seems to suggest – by analogy from Germany’s 1920s – that the Congress Party could be the Social Democratic ally that the German Communist Party of the 1920s rejected in the fight against Nazism. If the Communists in India today join up with the Congress Party, he implies, then they will be able to take on the BJP.
There are two strikingly peculiar premises to this assessment. First, the assumption that the Congress Party today is Social Democratic would be hard to sustain. The only reason that the Congress Party-led UPA 1 government adopted parts of a watered-down social democratic agenda was because of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) it had to sign with the Left.
The CMP, even with the addition of the Left’s social welfare demands, remained neo-liberal in its orientation. There was no illusion about that. At that time, the Left had a bloc in parliament that made a difference to the stability of the government. It was able to force the Congress Party, whose temperament on economic matters is shared with the BJP, to pay attention to the acute crisis in the country. No such Left parliamentary bloc exists today.Evidence of the Congress Party’s social democracy is weak. Apart from the occasional speech about poverty, Congress leaders are utterly committed to the same kind of economic policies as pursued by the BJP.
The second assumption of Banaji’s text is that the Left – by abjuring an electoral alliance at the national level with the Congress Party – is somehow sectarian. In fact, the Left unions worked closely with the Congress unions for the September strike.
Sectarianism from below is not the agenda at all. In fact, it is the opposite – to build the largest coalition from below to confront the exercise of authoritarian power by the BJP government and semi-fascist power by the RSS in its boroughs. There is ample evidence of non-electoral joint struggles on the ground.
Banaji does not register this joint action. The Left’s hesitancy about the Congress is not a repeat of the Comintern’s social fascism doctrine, where actions with the social democrats were forbidden. If Leon Trotsky were to have appeared in India on 2 September and give his December 1931 speech, his words would appear to be quite ordinary: ‘Should fascism come to power, it will ride over your skulls and spines like a terrific tank’, he said. ‘Your salvation lies in merciless struggle. And only a fighting unity with the Social Democratic workers can bring victory’.
The Left mass organisations work closely with the mass organisations of other groups, and with workers and peasants who are not in any formal organisation. They are already building that ‘fighting unity’. The building of mass struggles – such as the strike of 2 September and the post-Una protests – is the task of our time.
Banaji’s ill-toned attack on Prakash Karat is evidence of the kind of sectarianism that the broadly defined Indian Left needs to shed. Left unity is essential if the Left in India is to create the unity of the workers and peasants whose lives and hopes depend on it. As Trotsky said in that 1931 speech, ‘Make haste, worker-Communists, you have very little time left!’
Vijay Prashad is the Chief Editor of LeftWord Books. He is the author of No Free Left: the Futures of Indian Communism (2015) and the editor of Communist Histories, vol. 1 (2016), both published by LeftWord Books