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Maligning the Left

Published : Mar 25, 2005 00:00 IST

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The Left parties are under unprecedentedly vicious attacks from the corporate media driven by an evangelical obsession with "free-market" agendas and Social-Darwinist prejudices. Censorship of radical ideas and the witch-hunt of the Left spells bad news for the future of our public debate.

A NEW form of McCarthyism is becoming fashionable in the Indian media - one which paints the Left parties as the worst villains of politics and the principal obstacle to India's growth and progress. Unlike the original anti-Communist crusade of United States Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early Cold War years, the present campaign is not centred on the "external" or international links of Left-wing intellectuals and progressives - then, allegedly, with the demonic Soviet Union.

Rather, it bashes the Left for pursuing allegedly retrograde economic and social agendas, opposing neo-liberal globalisation and indiscriminate liberalisation, demanding increased social sector spending, and espousing an essentially Nehruvian emphasis on distributive justice and equity and balance between regions and classes.

In the tawdry, extremely shallow, semi-literate, tabloid-style journalism that has become the norm within the corporate media, it is rare to see even the Left's official policy statements being reported without derogatory adjectives and outright distortion. Unlike the Hindu Right, towards which the media is forever deferential, the "comrades" always come in for abuse and slander - often even for arguing a coherent position on, say, secularism in education, solidly rooted in the bedrock principles of the Constitution.

Vile, unsubstantiated and often downright concocted stories about sympathisers of the Left working in league with the Forces of Darkness to subvert institutions have become routine. Television anchors, innocent of the history of ideas blithely introduce critics of such diverse things as militarism, rampant consumerism and corporate criminality as "Leftists" - whose views must be discounted for that very reason.

Recently, a major newspaper ran a series of wish-list features on the Budget, including one by a Jawaharlal Nehru University economist, among many corporate bigwigs, bankers, and so on. He was singled out as a "Left-leaning economist". The appellation "Right-leaning" or "conservative" is never used for other contributors. This is a classic form of typecasting "suspects" and creating prejudice - a characteristic of McCarthyism.

Matters are worse in the opinion columns. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can cavalierly attack a serious social scientist, like, say, Jean Dreze (co-author of Amartya Sen) by branding him a jholawalah and accusing him of indulging in "Lies, Near Lies and Falsehoods" about India's employment scenario. In the editorial pages, writers make forced attempts at humour through captions like "Left Baggage" and "Left Out".

Here is a sample from recent editorials: "The Left's advocacy of a high corporate tax is antediluvian." (The "high" is 35 or 40 per cent, not 70 or 90 per cent. The premise here is that taxing corporate profits is evil in itself.) Again, "the most extraordinary anomaly... is the belief... that throwing enough public money at a social problem will solve it. Leftists are monarchs of this madness. (Emphasis added.) Thus their pre-budget demand for an extra Rs.50,000 crore to `implement the common minimum programme'... "

Along with the Communist parties, the corporate media also targets members of the National Advisory Council (NAC) constituted by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. On President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's February 25 address to Parliament, an editorial entitled "Added Nauseam" commented: "... February 25 was to be the jholawalah's day out. This hyper-activist breed stormed policymaking war rooms ever since a polyvalent entity called the National Advisory Council morphed into the UPA's conscience-keeper. Dr. Kalam, accordingly, unveiled a soliloquy straight out of the NAC brain-barn... . Like last year, ... there was something in it for everybody, except anybody with the misfortune of being fortunate."

As for the idea that Rs.50,000 crores, or 1.5 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP), should be allocated to the social sector, another newspaper commented: "[T]he Left has presented... its list of demands. As usual, they are well meaning and true to the rhetoric expected of the Left. And that, precisely, is the problem; the ways and means proposed to raise the additional funds will be acceptable only to the ideologically straitjacketed. The Left wants the FM to withdraw tax exemptions for corporates to fund social sector initiatives.... "

Then, it goes on to advise the Left: it "has to stop seeing a red rag in private capital. Instead, it should encourage it, while ensuring that proper regulations and mechanisms are in place." And it concludes in a burst of philistine opportunism: "It is not heresy in the Marxist tradition to tailor ideology to suit the requirements of the time, especially when such changes could fetch political dividends!"

As the Budget approached, the anti-Left campaign got hysterical. The lead story featuring The Economic Survey in a major paper read: "Jump Red Light, Zoom Ahead". Another paper ran a comment piece: "The Left wants the country in a doghouse." The writer takes the Left to task for speaking its mind, unlike, say, the "tactful" Chandrababu Naidu. After condemning the Left's candour, he says: "Such conduct is indefensible. Worse, its foundation is an economic thesis that would have been a joke (emphasis added) had the Left not insisted it was dead serious."

The same author in another piece that day argues against "a cess on alcohol and cigarettes to fund social sector programmes" because that is "iniquitous" and "awful economics"; "it distorts the revenue-expenditure system" - an argument that even the most committed Western Right-wingers in the United States discarded long ago. Even more specious is the plea that the government should not spend very much on "education and health" because, such "allocations in general are either not fully spent or wasted".

Another major newspaper captioned its story thus: "Survey: All is not lost in Red corner". It deplores the Left's "autarkic, tax-and-spend" economics and predicts: "The Left's main crib could be about the Survey's coolness towards the controversial and possibly costly Employment Guarantee law."

Attacking the Left has meant minimising the importance of major issues such as health. Take patents and the likely impact of drug monopolies on health care. Even The New York Times wrote a double-length editorial on why India should amend the recent Patents Ordinance and protect its people's access to health - rather than cave in to World Trade Organisation (WTO) and multinational pressure. Barring a handful, no major Indian daily has raised a serious debate on this life-and-death issue - so supremely important is compliance with the WTO and the need to enhance India's attraction as an "investment destination". Many papers support the Ordinance as worthy.

It is as if much of the Indian media lived in a time-warp. It gravitates towards worship of the market just as the rest of the world recoils from the injustices of corporate globalisation and old orthodoxies break down (as Joseph Stiglitz's recent work demonstrates). In reality, the time-warp is an interest-warp: gross disproportion between the interests of the elite, which the media identifies with, and the Indian people, with whom it has only a distant relationship.

The UPA government has by no means played a neutral role in this media-based campaign. Its bureaucrats and Ministers have fed stories assailing even mildly Nehruvian proposals as outmoded, obsolete and outlandish. That's how the government has justified the new Patents Ordinance and the need for a new labour law regime that will destroy the hard-earned gains of working people and allow, for instance, a 72-hour week. This is described as creation of "quality jobs".

Even "sources close to Manmohan Singh" have briefed the media to sow anti-Left prejudice. A report based on such briefing (The Telegraph, February 24) says that Manmohan Singh would handle the Left on the firm belief that the "`world' expects India to emerge as a second `Asian tiger' which can countervail China... . But this is not possible even half way unless we get the infrastructure in place" for which neo-liberal reforms, including foreign investment, are essential.

The report goes on: "The most charitable view the Prime Minister's Office is willing to take of the Left's stand against reforms is `it is a part of the internal power struggle' within the Communist Party of India (Marxist). `The CPM and the BJP are facing a similar crisis of a generational shift from the old guard to the newer leaders. The newer leaders are basically bureaucrats who were created by the (party) system and not by people. By raising economic issues, they hope to create a mass base for themselves,' the source said." This bizarre argument wholly misses the point that there is a strong consensus on economic policy not just among the Left's new-generation leaders, but the bulk of its cadres.

The present Left-bashing campaign is different from the crusade launched in the 1980s by people like Arun Shourie, who focussed on the Left's alleged lack of patriotism or vilely accused it of collaborating with the British.

Today's campaign blames the Left for just the opposite, for being nationalist in the sense of defending popular sovereignty against predatory globalisation. The Left is a villain because it does not suborn livelihoods and people's rights to the needs of corporate capitalism and argues for equity, compassion and popular empowerment and links these to growth.

WORSE, the Left is equated, of all things, with the Hindu Right in particular, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch which too oppose some neo-liberal policies inconsistently, and from a parochial viewpoint shaped by predatory domestic interests such as traders and monopolistic industries which fear competition. The sources of the two currents' opposition are considered identical: anti-modernism, xenophobia, hatred of all that is foreign, dogma springing from profound irrationalism, and an obsession with protecting "vested interests".

Nothing could be further for the truth. The Indian Left, especially the Communist parties, are rooted in an intellectual tradition that is committedly modernist, solidly internationalist and robustly rationalist - the precise opposite of what the Hindu Right represents, with its obscurantism, false religiosity and exclusivism. As the culture critic Frederick Jameson has said, Marxists swim as easily as fish in the sea of modernity.

The range of concepts encompassed by the old slogans of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity remains central to the Left's agenda. India's Communist parties have survived the demise of the Soviet Union fairly gracefully because they freed themselves from certain dogmas and undertook some innovation (not enough, one might argue), and because they are deeply rooted in this society. Their policies have evolved through a live relationship with underprivileged people and their struggle for justice and equality.

The Left's radicalism of course demarcates it from liberalism, but the two share a great deal in common - unlike the religious Right or other species of conservatism. The Left and the liberals both derive their foundational values from the Enlightenment, itself understood critically and with its limitations. The Left's project seeks social emancipation and freedom from exploitation so that a compassionate, humane and just world can be constructed, an open society where equality rules at some basic level.

The collectivism of the Left is qualitatively different from the collectivism of millenarian religious movements or extreme right-wingers (for instance, fascists). The latter only grudgingly grant (limited) space to individual freedoms. The contemporary Left's collectivism is not only accommodative; it recognises and values individual rights and seeks to enhance and extend them through the fulfilment of the larger social objectives of equality and justice.

The bulk of those who attack the Left have no comprehension of, even acquaintance with, its intellectual roots. Even less do they understand the Left's historic contribution to building institutions and values which even enlightened liberals cherish, such as freedom from bondage, universal suffrage, representative democracy, dignity of the human person (and of labour), gender equality, sexual freedom and social security. These did not materialise through the charity of benevolent rulers but were the creation of long and bitter struggles of working people, of which the Left was a crucial, and often a leading, component.

Not just ignorance, but authoritarian intolerance and Social-Darwinist callousness towards the underprivileged, are central to the neo-liberal Right's critique of the Left. In a deeply hierarchical and unequal society like India, where the vast majority of people live at or just above subsistence level, the Right's agenda of necessity acquires an anti-democratic character. It is only through repressive laws, mis-education, media manipulation and ritual perpetuation of hierarchy that an elite minority can impose its will on the majority and push through its narrow agendas.

In a country such as India, the natural centre of gravity of politics clearly lies in the Left-of-Centre space of the spectrum. The actual political centre is determined by the correlation of various forces and can shift as easily to the Right as to the Left. That happened for about 15 years during the period of Hindutva's ascendancy. The National Democratic Alliance rule combined Hindu nationalism with economic neo-liberalism.

That political spell was broken nine months ago but the ideological hold of neo-liberalism over the elite remains unbroken. It knows nothing represents its own interests better than neo-liberal ideas. Neo-liberalism has produced a burgeoning middle class that has all but intellectually, psychologically and morally seceded from the people. A large section of the Indian media represents and seeks to reflect this very elite's aspirations and ambitions - and its corrosive insensitivity to ordinary people. The processes of media corporatisation and Murdochisation have accentuated this.

Leading media institutions now see themselves as the ideological outriders of neo-liberal globalisation. However, performing this role necessarily means censoring, suppressing or lampooning critical and serious thinking that interrogates "free-market" ideas and discrediting concerns such as balanced development, distributive justice and equality.

Without the full articulation of such concerns, there can be no corrective to the distorting and disruptive processes under way in this society, with its growing economic dualism and widening regional imbalances. Nor can there be a quality debate on public policy.

Lack of debate spells degradation of democracy, no less. But perhaps, low-intensity or tokenist democracy is precisely what our strutting, arrogant and supremely callous elite wants. The public stand warned.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Mar 25, 2005.)

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