WHILE India’s communists may be grudgingly opening up to the probability, if they ever do, that fascism is knocking hard on India’s doors, a first-time woman MP from West Bengal’s Trinamool Congress — the left’s hyper bête noir — took the Lok Sabha by storm recently with her recounting of the stark warning signs of the menace stalking the country. Defiantly, Mahua Moitra pushed back hecklers from the treasury benches to raise the alert.
It was unusual coming from the opposition benches, who haven’t recovered from their defeat in May. For her speech and more, she became an instant star with whatever remains of critical media in the country. Mahua quit a lucrative banker’s job in the US a few years ago to do grass roots work in her native Bengal. And, tellingly, she spoke with the vigour once associated with the left. In her compelling analysis, she harked back to the times when Bhupesh Gupta or Hiren Mukherjee spoke her language and gave hope to millions, usually with a Mahua Moitra-like warning. Before discussing the signs of India’s democratic erosion let’s, however, fill in an important blank Ms Moitra left in her dire summation of where India is headed.
It was in the early 1990s that I learnt a few useful things from several discussions I had with Sharad Pawar, then chief minister of Maharashtra. He was supervising relief operations from a camp near the site of a devastating earthquake that killed thousands in and around Latur. I was assigned to report from ground zero. Pawar told me he was defence minister when he met then Chinese premier Li Peng, who had expressed his worry for India’s unplanned and equally unpopular transition from a state-planned economy to a free market system. MPs were bribed and subsequently jailed for helping the wafer-thin majority that ushered India’s free-market system.
There was a price to pay, and that was the tearing down of India’s social fabric.
Li cited Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the fall of his powerful communist state by trying to create a new country in the image of the West. “Had Gorbachev followed perestroika (restructuring) before allowing glasnost (openness), the results would perhaps have been less damaging. But he went for economic change and democracy simultaneously.” Li’s reference was to Gorbachev’s recasting of the Soviet Union into a hazy imitation of the West’s liberal democracies in which he failed miserably. He hadn’t fathomed how the seductive charm of capitalism — The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie — was raised on Dickensian nightmares with decades of colonialism and slave trade. “Your government hasn’t taken the last man into confidence,” Li cautioned Pawar. It wasn’t as if China had conferred with the poorest for its own adventurous departure from Maoist socialism. But it had the political muscle to absorb or, where necessary, suppress the pain.
Years later, I met Rahul Gandhi for the only chat I was going to have with him. Manmohan Singh had just become prime minister and I told him to be careful of his direction. He looked unwilling to continue the conversation. “You mean Jaswant Singh,” he probed, referring to the genial BJP MP. I said I was referring to Manmohan Singh. The soft-spoken economist was credited with ushering India’s IMF-advised market-friendly policies, but he had put the poorest of the poor right at the back of the prescribed never-ending queue, lined up to collect the manna from the promised trickling down of the magical nectar.
Nearly the same problem had occurred in China when Deng Xiaoping ushered state capitalism in the 1970s. It, however, had the steel frame of the party together with the powerful state both equally determined to push through the haemorrhaging changes. Also, when the Chinese caught their variants of Harshad Mehtas stealing from the leaky public kitty — and there were and still are those around — they dealt with them as only the Chinese do.
Unlike the Soviet Union or China, the argumentative Indian never needed state intervention to inaugurate political glasnost, a genetic centrepiece of the national character, a factor no doubt in the burgeoning sales of mobile phones and related bandwidth corruption. Introducing Singh’s painful perestroika in India required a distraction, a foil to the pervasive native glasnost, curtailed briefly by Indira with a cost. L.K. Advani’s chariot race and Singh’s economic jig courted each other, and in doing so foiled Li Peng’s worry momentarily. There was a price to pay, and that was the tearing down of India’s social fabric.
Should any proof be needed, the finance minister was presenting the budget in parliament when people were being raped and lynched in Gujarat on Feb 28, 2002. Evidence that neo-liberal economics would fail with an open society came from West Bengal during the rule of the Left Front. Hobnobbing with big business, offering them land that belonged to the peasants, while ignoring Li Peng’s warning that democracy and neo-liberalism don’t mix, the left was saddled with a political cost from which it hasn’t yet recovered.
The communists may blame the BJP’s rise on Mamata Banerjee’s alleged appeasement of Muslim communalism. It doesn’t wash. They would be better off explaining honestly what it meant when they urged Indians not too long ago to “defeat the Congress and isolate the BJP”. How was that meant to translate in the polling booth in a one-on-one contest between the BJP and Congress? Defeating the Congress was a doable command, but seeking the BJP’s isolation in the booth?
Anyway, if she considers how neo-liberal depredation drives and funds fascism in India, Mahua Moitra’s ominous pointers would be truer. Her list includes powerful and continuing nationalism; disdain for human rights; identification of enemies as a unifying cause; rampant sexism; controlled mass media; obsession with national security; religion and government intertwined; corporate power protected; labour power suppressed; disdain for intellectuals and the arts; obsession with crime and punishment; and rampant cronyism with corruption. Tick the boxes.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, July 2nd, 2019