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Breeding ground for communalism

Print edition : Jun 20, 2008 T+T-
Trained electricians seeking jobs in the Punjab State Electricity Board being dispersed with water cannons during a demonstration in Chandigarh. A file picture. Mass unemployment provides fertile ground for the spread of fascist politics. In India, unemployment in 2004-05 was higher than it had ever been in the post-Independence period.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Trained electricians seeking jobs in the Punjab State Electricity Board being dispersed with water cannons during a demonstration in Chandigarh. A file picture. Mass unemployment provides fertile ground for the spread of fascist politics. In India, unemployment in 2004-05 was higher than it had ever been in the post-Independence period.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Hindutva may be electorally successful in the short run. But the conjuncture in which it has been thriving is beginning to change.

Economic crises, involving in particular mass unemployment, provide fertile ground for the spread of divisive, especially fascist, politics. Hitler had come to power in the midst of mass unemployment in Germany; the fascist wave in world politics had come in the wake of the Great Depression; and the present unfolding crisis of the capitalist world has already seen the emergence of Berlusconi and Sarkozy who may well precede worse. Unemployment can always be conveniently blamed on the other community, which, already excluded and marginalised, gets further excluded and marginalised; and the hopelessness and criminality among its youth engendered by this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy about the social menace represented by this other.

The neoliberal era is universally characterised by an accentuation of unemployment, not just in economies witnessing stagnation and recession such as sub-Saharan Africa, but even in rapidly growing economies such as China and India (where of course things will become even worse when recession strikes). In India for instance, notwithstanding the much-celebrated recent acceleration of growth, current daily status unemployment in 2004-05 was higher than it had ever been in the post-Independence period. A similar story can be told about China, and indeed about every other developing economy. The reason is simple: the sharp increase in income inequalities associated with neoliberal policies creates demand for a variety of luxury commodities that constitute a part of affluent Western lifestyles and are products typically of labour-displacing technical progress. Their employment-generating capacity being therefore minuscule, their growing share in output perpetuates, and indeed accentuates, unemployment, thereby further contributing to the increase in income inequalities. Neoliberalism invariably sets up this vicious cycle of worsening unemployment (and hence poverty), and thus creates the conditions for divisive politics including fascism, or more aptly in the Indian case communal fascism. The recent happenings in South Africa where a spate of attacks has taken place against immigrant workers from other African countries illustrates this point.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the original fascism of the 1930s and its latter- day Third World counterpart. This consists in the fact that the former had an independent economic agenda, no matter how abhorrent, which the latter lacks. Both Nazi Germany and militarist Japan did resolve the problem of unemployment, and pulled their countries out of the Depression through the simple but odious expedient of promoting armaments expenditure. Hitler kept his promise of removing unemployment, but in the process pushed Germany and the world into a cataclysmic war, as did the Japanese militarists.

Fascism, though a product of liberal capitalism, did mark a break from it. This explains why for a while (before the horror of the war was fully experienced) there was even an increase in Hitlers popularity in Germany. But communal fascism in India has no independent economic agenda. The Hindutva political formation promoting it is every bit as neoliberal as the liberal bourgeois formation opposing it. This has an important bearing on the nature of both formations and their mutual relationship.

The communal fascist formation, for which the Muslim constitutes the other, is tame vis-a-vis imperialism, by which I mean the prevailing architecture of hegemony characterising world capitalism. All it wants is accommodation within that architecture, for which it is willing to go to any length to please the leading imperialist power. And it sees an excellent opportunity for such ingratiation in the present conjuncture. Since the opposition to contemporary imperialism for a variety of reasons is coming at present from Islamic extremists, it seeks to dovetail its own anti-Muslim agenda with the throw-back-to-the crusades anti-Islamicism that characterises current U.S. imperialism.

Indian communal fascism, of course, has never been anti-imperialist, not even during the heyday of the freedom struggle. Today it is explicitly, proudly and aggressively collaborationist towards imperialism. The occasional noises of belligerence it makes vis-a-vis imperialism are not only not on issues that touch the material lives of the people, issues having to do with basic economic policies, but are also phoney, as was underscored by the U.S. government spokesman who revealed that the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was opposing the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal for its own reasons had been prepared to sign a far worse deal with the U.S. when in power.

On the other side, the secular bourgeois formation, since it too is neoliberal to the core, and no less keen to ingratiate itself with the leading imperialist power, has a secularism that is necessarily tainted by this urge to collaborate. You cannot be hell-bent on collaborating with imperialism (the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal being a clear example of such intent) without some of the throw-back-to-the-crusades anti-Islamicism rubbing off on you. And in any case, your capacity to mobilise the people against the communal fascist forces of Hindutva is circumscribed by the limitedness of your capacity to mobilise the people at all, since on issues affecting their material lives such as inflation you are on the wrong side of the fence: your commitment to the neoliberal agenda precludes measures such as a universal public distribution system that could provide relief to the people.

In short, the fact that you cannot attack a Narendra Modi on his economic policies, the fact that most Congress Chief Ministers envy Modi his success in ushering in what they think is development, and would secretly like to emulate him in this regard, is not unrelated to the fact that you counter Modi with a Waghela, that you counter Hindutva with soft-Hindutva. The commonality between the communal fascist and the secular formations on the neoliberal agenda also implies a muting of their differences even on the question of communalism versus secularism.

To say this is not to make the jejune point that there is no difference between the communal and secular formations, that they are all the same and that one need not choose between them. It is to underscore the difficulty of fighting communalism alongside a bourgeois formation that is as committed to neoliberalism as the communalists; one cannot abandon its side, but one cannot ignore its limitations either. Not surprisingly, since both the formations have the same neoliberal agenda and the same urge to ingratiate themselves with imperialism, the monopoly bourgeoisie that approves of both these agendas, is equally comfortable with both formations, and can easily switch back and forth between the two (with the BJP being perhaps marginally preferable from its point of view since it is never encumbered with Left support).

And even as far as the people at large are concerned, the closeness of the economic agendas of the two formations makes them switch from one to the other with greater ease than would otherwise have been possible.

At the same time, the persistence of the communal agenda implies that this discourse occupies centre stage, to the exclusion of any discussion of the possibility of alternative economic trajectories. There is, in other words, a discourse shift that takes place where the centrality of choices affecting the material conditions of the people is pushed into the background, and politics becomes focussed exclusively on the need to defend secularism.

This is not to say that the need to defend secularism should become secondary; it is only to draw attention to the fact that communalism continues to remain with us like an incubus. The conjuncture that produces this discourse shift itself tends to become self-perpetuating; it does not disappear. The need to defend secularism keeps coming back like a recurring dream. Sometimes this defence succeeds; sometimes it fails. But a change in conjuncture such that this particular choice can be transcended never occurs. This change requires a focus on issues affecting the material lives of the people, but such a focus gets ruled out precisely because of the exclusive, almost perennial, preoccupation with the need to defend secularism. Communal fascism, which gets strengthened in the neoliberal regime, also therefore serves a very useful purpose for that regime by essaying a discourse shift that deflects attention from the ills of that regime.Michael Kalecki, the renowned economist, had, in an essay written in the 1960s, described fascism of our times as a dog on a leash. It got occasionally unleashed to remind one of its savagery; and even when it remained leashed, the possibility of its getting unleashed was enough to induce good behaviour. Kaleckis description is an apt one for communal fascism in India in the contemporary period of neoliberalism. This dog is both a product of neoliberalism as well as its perennial accompaniment. It is a product insofar as the unemployment and insecurity caused by neoliberalism create the conditions for its development. It is a perennial accompaniment insofar as its being there also deflects attention from a confrontation with neoliberalism and hence perpetuates the conjuncture that sustains both.

It is in short neoliberalisms own specific and spontaneously-generated defender. To imagine that we can one day get rid of this dog even though neoliberalism remains intact is fatuous. To imagine that neoliberalism itself one day will help us get rid of this dog (by ushering in modernity that overcomes the backwardness on which Hindutva thrives) is equally fatuous. The dog can be got rid of only when neoliberalism itself is overcome.

Communal fascism to be sure is not the only accompaniment of neoliberal economics. Since there are no differences between various bourgeois parties about the basic issues affecting the material conditions of peoples lives, since all of them willy-nilly subscribe to neoliberalism, the differences are about other things. And each of them, to project itself, has to find some novel product to sell, some specifically outlandish demand with which to woo the electorate.

A Raj Thackeray, finding himself increasingly marginalised, and incapable of raising any basic issues affecting the peoples lives, decides to ignite local anger against the poor immigrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh into Mumbai. A Bal Thackeray, concerned that the nephews antics may hurt the sons interests, decides to outdo the nephew in immigrant-baiting. A Vasundhara Raje, unsure about how far the appeal of Hindutva alone will carry her, decides to spice it up by promising Scheduled Tribe status to the Gujjars, which she has no serious intentions of implementing.

In short, the absence of differences on basic issues causes a destruction of politics, takes away effective choice from the people on bread and butter questions, and unleashes a political Greshams Law whereby only divisive issues come to the fore. And the leaders of the land, from the Prime Minister downwards, by appealing to everybody to keep development above politics merely aid this political Greshams Law. Their eagerness to promote the neoliberal agenda makes them complicit in the emergence of this divisive politics, in which communal fascism is only the leading species of a large genus.

But how is this conjuncture to be overcome, given, especially, its self-perpetuating nature that we referred to earlier? The stability of the neoliberal system is undermined, notwithstanding its self-perpetuating nature, by its own immanent economic tendencies, which precipitate a crisis in it, as is happening at this moment. By crisis I do not just mean crisis for the people: the people have been facing such a crisis for quite some time. I mean a crisis for those whose interests the order is meant to serve, the financiers, the multinational corporations, the corporate elite, who today face recession, threats to the financial system and political instability arising from inflation rates unprecedented in recent past. This crisis is global and will have its impact inevitably on India.

It will not, of course, overcome communal fascism on its own; indeed it may even strengthen it for some time. But it does open up space for political action; it does throw up for discussion once more alternative economic agendas; it does foreground once more the need for social control over the economy; and it does create conditions once more for overcoming the process of destruction of politics that neoliberalism had unleashed. Hindutva may be electorally successful in the short-run. But the conjuncture in which it has been thriving, is beginning to change.