India at 70

From revolution to counter-revolution

Print edition : September 01, 2017

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. By the end of the 1950s, he was worried enough about the growing wealth and income inequality to set up the Mahalanobis Committee to inquire into it. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In an atmosphere of communal polarisation and social divisiveness, he promises greater neoliberalism. Photo: PTI

Demonetisation dealt a blow to spheres of petty production. The effect was felt even months after the move, with vegetable prices shooting up. Here, a retailer carrying tomatoes for sale at Azadpur Mandi, Delhi, in July, when they were selling for Rs.100 a kg. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Anant More inspects his destroyed crop of sugarcane in Maharashtra’s drought-hit Marathwada region in May 2016. A tragic consequence of state neglect of the farming sector has been a steady persistence of farmers’ suicides. Photo: Manish Swarup/AP

Children at an anganwadi centre in Vellore eating their noon meal. The per capita annual foodgrain availability was 200 kg at the beginning of the 20th century in “British India”. It declined in the decade preceding Independence but went up by the end of the 1980s, close to 180 kg. It fell again over the neoliberal period and was 163 kg between 2012 and 2014. Photo: C. Venkatachalapathy

Members of Airport Employees Union demonstrating outside the Labour Ministry in New Delhi in March 2015. Scores of contractual workers engaged in loading and packing jobs of the Airports Authority of India and Indian Airlines at the Indira Gandhi International Airport were on protest demanding permanent positions. Photo: Kamal Narang

As India celebrates seven decades of independence, the country is in the midst of a veritable counter-revolution where rapid strides are being made towards a corporate-backed Hindu Rashtra. Summoning the political will to mobilise people for carrying forward the democratic revolution enshrined in the Constitution is essential for saving the republic.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries in India had seen two historic movements, the anti-colonial struggle and the social emancipation movement associated with Jyotirao Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and B.R. Ambedkar. These two movements, often seen as standing in conflict, had actually reinforced each other at the grass-roots level and effected a general awakening among the people. This was reflected in the Karachi Congress Resolution of 1931 which presented a vision of free India as a fraternity of equal citizens, each enjoying certain fundamental rights and together electing, on the basis of universal adult franchise, the legislature, and indirectly the executive, of a state that had no religion of its own. The Constitution of independent India enshrined this vision.

In a society characterised by millennia of institutionalised inequality embodied in the caste system, this was a remarkable leap, a veritable social revolution. Today, as we celebrate seven decades of independence, we are alas in the midst of a veritable counter-revolution, where goons belonging to vigilante squads of the Hindutva brigade roam the streets with impunity to terrorise Dalits and religious minorities; where a shrill jingoism drowns out reason; where rational thought and academic institutions pursuing truth based on reason are under attack; where the political opposition is victimised in various ways; and where rapid strides are being made towards a corporate-backed Hindu Rashtra.

It is no accident that at the helm of this counter-revolution are the Hindutva forces, which had nothing to do with either of the two struggles mentioned above. None of their leaders had participated in the anti-colonial struggle, with the sole exception of V.D. Savarkar who too had later withdrawn from it. Indeed, on the contrary, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief M.S. Golwalkar had so little sympathy for the anti-colonial struggle that he thought that the British would have to be invited back shortly after Independence in order to govern India. Likewise, since the essence of orthodox Hinduism, as the historian Suvira Jaiswal has argued, consists of the caste system, the Hindutva elements who swear by it have always had a basic antipathy towards the social emancipation movement and its agenda, no matter how much they laud Ambedkar today for sheer opportunistic reasons. While Hindutva leading the counter-revolution is therefore to be expected (after all, it was one of its adherents who had killed the Mahatma), the real question that arises is: how do we explain this transition from revolution to counter-revolution?

Chain effects

In answering this question we must keep one important fact in mind. A thrust towards equality and democracy in one sphere of life tends to stimulate a similar thrust in other spheres. Likewise, a regression from egalitarianism in one sphere stimulates similar regression in other spheres. In fact Ambedkar himself had underscored this point about the complementarity between movements towards equality in different spheres in his concluding speech to the Constituent Assembly, arguing that the political equality guaranteed by the Constitution would get jeopardised if there was no corresponding movement towards social and economic equality.

The first setback to India’s democratic revolution had been the independent Indian state’s inability to carry out any significant land redistribution, which had also meant reneging on a promise made earlier, in the run-up to the elections of the late 1930s. To be sure, the land reforms enacted after Independence did force erstwhile landlords to shift to capitalist farming and did entail some loss of land for large feudal estates in favour of rich tenants (belonging to intermediate castes) so that a tendency towards an admixture of peasant and landlord capitalism in the countryside did get under way; but land concentration was not broken: the top 15 per cent of landowners, for instance, continued to hold the same percentage of land area as before, though the composition of this top 15 per cent underwent some change.

Fallout of persisting land concentration

The persistence of land concentration had an obvious economic implication. It kept the size of the domestic market, so crucial under the dirigiste (Nehruvian) economic strategy, restricted, as well as its rate of growth (owing to the constraint on the rate of growth of agriculture within an unreformed agrarian structure); it thereby contributed to the debility of this strategy.

In addition it had serious social implications. On the one hand the social power of the landlords who had presided over the old oppressive, hierarchical, and patriarchal “village community”, remained largely intact (with some intermediate castes moving up at the most to buttress the old structure). On the other hand, Dalits who constituted the core of the landless class and who had been denied the right to own land under the old system (to ensure that a sufficient number of labourers were always available within the village despite the existence of uncultivated land outside of it in pre-colonial times), continued to remain landless and therefore both socially and economically disempowered. A movement in the direction of social and economic equality was thus thwarted owing to the absence of land redistribution.

But foregoing land redistribution was closely linked to the pursuit of the capitalist trajectory of development, a consequence of the fact that the bourgeoisies in all countries coming late to capitalism avoid launching any serious attack on landed property lest it rebound into an attack on bourgeois property. And the pursuit of capitalist development itself was to unleash, in addition to what eschewing land redistribution had done, an immanently inequalising tendency of its own.

The political leadership of the time believed that it could check such inequality, that is, restrict the spontaneity of capitalism; that it could make use of the capitalist sector, even while controlling it through a system of licensing and through fiscal means, within an overall arrangement dominated by the public sector. But already by the end of the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru was worried enough about growing wealth and income inequality in the country to set up the Mahalanobis Committee to inquire into it.

The dirigiste regime had much to its credit, certainly a lot more for the common people than the later neoliberal one. This is a point worth emphasising at a time when that regime is being systematically debunked; and it can be established with just one telling statistic. The per capita annual foodgrain availability, which had been around 200 kilograms at the beginning of the 20th century in “British India” and declined to 148.5 kg during the quinquennium 1939-44 and even lower to 136.8 kg in 1945-46, was pushed up close to 180 kg in the Indian Union by the end of the 1980s; it has since declined, over the neoliberal period, reaching 163 kg for the triennium of calendar years 2012-14.

In addition, the dirigiste period diversified the production structure of the economy, established an industrial base, and built up the capacity for producing trained personnel. Its weakness lay in not doing enough in the spheres of literacy, elementary education and public health (spheres in which the neoliberal regime with its penchant for privatisation has done no better), and in the fact that economic inequality widened under it despite the network of controls it had established.

The spontaneity of capitalism, in short, was breaking the bounds set by state control under the dirigiste regime. And soon it was to jettison the dirigiste regime altogether and institute a regime of neoliberalism, under which the domestic corporate-financial oligarchy got closely integrated with globalised finance capital.

Transition to neoliberalism

It can be argued that an entity like international finance capital was powerful enough to break down all opposition to its global movement. It was perhaps powerful enough, in the post-Soviet era, to anyway undermine all dirigiste regimes, whose essential feature had been restrictions on trade and capital flows and the use of the state, apparently as a body standing above all classes, to acquire a degree of autonomy vis-a-vis metropolitan capital (through setting up, for instance, a public sector that strove for self-reliance by overcoming the technological monopoly of multinational corporations). But the economic travails of the dirigiste regime arising from the sluggish growth of the home market owing to growing economic inequality, its loss of social support among the people for the same reason, and the big bourgeoisie’s wish to break out of it (as it was no longer adequate for its ambitions), no doubt also contributed towards effecting a transition from dirigisme to neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism greatly accentuated the increase in economic inequality, though it also accelerated the growth rate of the economy, especially in the tertiary sector. The contradiction between growing inequality, which ceteris paribus constrains demand, and an acceleration in growth rate was resolved through larger exports of services (owing to the outsourcing of service activities from the metropolis), larger elite consumption through the removal of all restrictions on the production and consumption of luxury goods, and the effects of international and domestic asset price bubbles. The estimate that the top 1 per cent of households in India currently owns close to 60 per cent of the country’s total wealth puts India’s degree of asset inequality above that of the U.S. and places India among countries with the fastest increases in asset inequality.

Primitive accumulation

But the increase in asset inequality does not tell the whole story. At the core of neoliberalism is what Marx had called a process of “primitive accumulation” of capital whose effects are not adequately captured by the statistics on asset inequality. This process entails an expropriation by the capitalist sector of pre-capitalist producers, including the peasantry, both directly and through the instrumentality of the state. Primitive accumulation had also characterised dirigisme, but that was imposed within the agricultural sector, as part of the development of capitalism from within; and its scope had been relatively restricted. Under neoliberalism primitive accumulation is imposed by the outside capitalist sector upon peasant agriculture and the petty production sector.

This process of primitive accumulation has a “stock” aspect, namely, the taking over of peasants’ land “for a song” for corporate projects (a phenomenon likely to become even more acute with the launch of projects like “industrial corridors”); and a “flow” aspect, namely, a squeezing of the peasants through higher input prices (owing to the withdrawal of subsidies and the drying up of institutional credit) but not commensurably higher output prices. These output prices, moreover, especially of commercial crops, are allowed to fluctuate widely, owing to the removal of their insulation from world market prices and the abolition of the “procurement and marketing function” of Commodity Boards. Even apparently unrelated phenomena like demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax are also mechanisms for imposing primitive accumulation upon the petty production sector.

A tragic consequence of this primitive accumulation at the expense of peasant agriculture has been the suicides of over three lakh peasants over the last two decades. In addition, large numbers of peasants have also left agriculture and migrated to cities in search of jobs, which, however are not being created to an adequate extent despite the apparently high GDP growth. (Between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the annual rate of growth of “usual status” employment, according to the National Sample Survey data, was a paltry 0.8 per cent, far less than even the natural increase in the workforce.) The net result has been an increase in the reserve army of labour, though it is no longer visible as a reserve army. This is because employment rationing in the neoliberal period takes the form not of a binary, the active army and the reserve army, but of a proliferation of casual employment, intermittent employment, part-time employment, and “disguised unemployment” (disguised as “petty entrepreneurship”).

Weakened trade unions

Both the growth in the reserve army of labour and the casualisation of employment have contributed to a weakening of trade unions, though there have also been powerful additional factors working in the same direction. One of these is the privatisation of public sector units. Since, all over the world, trade unions have been stronger in the public sector compared with the private, privatisation serves to reduce their strength. A second factor, quite obviously, is the phenomenon that while capital is international, workers are still organised along national lines, which makes such national unions rather ineffective.

The economic consequence of all this has been a reduction in the rate of growth of real wages in all four categories, regular urban, casual urban, regular rural and casual rural, in the period after 1993-94 compared, say, with the period from 1983 to 1993-94. Since casualisation has increased between the earlier and the later periods, the rate of growth in real wages has been even more paltry. But since the rate of growth of labour productivity has increased greatly between the earlier and the later periods, there has been a marked increase in the share of surplus in the later period compared to the earlier one, which explains the accelerated growth in economic inequality.

This weakening of trade unions has also had a social consequence, namely a weakening of the intervention capacity of the working class even on non-economic matters. Primitive accumulation against the peasants, in short, has also affected the bargaining strength and the social weight of the workers.

Alongside the growth in economic inequality there has been a growth in social inequality, both because of it, and also for a number of other reasons linked to neo-liberalism. First, the privatisation of public sector activities has eroded affirmative action in the form of reservations for Dalits, since there is no reservation in the private sector. Secondly, the privatisation of education has, in addition, put education beyond the reach of the socially and economically oppressed. Finally, there has been a more subtle reason as well, which is the following.

The middle-class segment that has done well out of globalisation, owing to the outsourcing of services from the metropolis, and owing to the rise in the share of surplus (which supports a range of activities from finance to advertising), has expectedly belonged to the upper castes which have been privileged enough to acquire the skills to make use of the opportunities that have been opening up. Since these beneficiaries however, not surprisingly, attribute their own success not to their privilege but to their talent (which conforms to the ideology of capitalism), the inevitable conclusion is drawn that those who are excluded from such jobs are untalented. An impression spreads that children from the oppressed castes do not “make it” because they lack talent, which boosts casteist prejudice.

Post-Independence development in India, in short, started on a wrong foot, by eschewing radical land redistribution; the pursuit of capitalist development with its immanently inequalising tendency further contributed to growing socio-economic inequality. Such a tendency got a free run under neoliberalism, which can be said to mark the beginning of a social counter-revolution. But with communal-fascists, the adherents of Hindutva, in power, this social counter-revolution is now being carried forward with a vengeance. To be sure, India is not a fascist state; but with the fascists leading the government, a transition to a fascist state is being attempted, which would mean, as Ambedkar had feared, growing socio-economic inequality destroying even the constitutional provision of political equality.

Fascist upsurge

The fascist upsurge that we see in India today is part of a worldwide phenomenon; witness the election of Donald Trump to the United States presidency, which had initially appeared unlikely, and the growing influence of fascist parties in Europe. It is closely linked to the world capitalist crisis that erupted in 2008 and shows no signs of abating. It is an expression of the complete dead end into which neoliberalism has run.

There is a belief that fascism arises when the system, besieged by crisis, is challenged by a threat from the revolutionary forces whom fascism is used for eliminating. Such a description, however, though true of death squads, murder squads, “Black Hundreds” and such like outfits mushrooming at the instance of big capitalists at such junctures to target the Left, is not true of fascism. The members of such outfits may have fascist views, but fascism is much more than merely such an outfit: it represents a movement. And such a movement thrives, as Walter Benjamin had noted, when the working class movement is weakened, not when it is strong enough to pose a threat.

Fascism grows when the system is at a dead end, manifested in a crisis that refuses to abate, when the liberal bourgeoisie has no solutions to it, and when the working-class movement is not in a position to mount a challenge. That is when large sections of the people, notably those belonging to the middle class, segments of the petty bourgeoisie, and even some groups of workers, flock to fascist movements, not because it provides a credible way out, but because it does not: it projects a messiah, it resorts to flamboyant but meaningless rhetoric, it appeals to unreason, and it holds not the system but the “other” (the Jews or the Muslims or whatever) as responsible for the travails of the people.

It may seem intriguing that when neoliberalism has reached a dead end, a Modi promises even greater neoliberal reforms while a Trump rails against neoliberalism. But this contrast between two current manifestations of fascism arises because neither has a coherent programme anyway for overcoming the crisis and the frustration gripping the people. Both are essentially purveyors of unreason for whom the economic agenda as a thought-out rational programme (as distinct from catchy slogans like “development” or “saving Western Civilisation”) is incidental.

Corporate capital and Hindutva

The corporate-financial oligarchy adopts the fascist movement, finances the fascist movement, and promotes the fascist movement, which exists independently of it, not so much because it is afraid of the power of the Left, but because it is afraid of “instability”, of “chaos”, of a threat to “order”, of a general and imprecisely perceived threat to its hegemony. Fascism provides “stability” and also an ideal ideological prop for neoliberal capitalism. Fascists in government represent, in the Indian context, an alliance between corporate capital and Hindutva.

There is however a difference between classical fascism and its current incarnation. Classical fascism in the 1930s, by adopting what one may in retrospect call “military Keynesianism”, had overcome the Great Depression in countries where it had power, before leading them to war and destruction. Contemporary fascism, however, lacks the ability to overcome the crisis, since even “military Keynesianism”, in order to boost demand, needs to be financed through either a fiscal deficit or a tax on capitalists (taxing workers to finance larger state expenditure does not boost overall demand since workers consume much of their income anyway); both these ways of financing however are strongly opposed by globalised finance capital. In other words, the fact that capital is globalised while the state remains a nation state entails that even a fascist nation state must abide by the wishes of globalised capital (to prevent capital flight); and this fact restricts its ability to overcome the crisis.

Scope for Left and democratic forces

But this is also what gives the Left and democratic forces the opportunity to roll back the counter-revolution. They can do so however only by having an alternative agenda that promotes equality, that strengthens democracy, and is willing to withdraw from the neoliberal regime to achieve this end. They should for instance have an agenda of introducing a set of universal, justiciable economic rights, to supplement the political rights that the Constitution guarantees.

Among these, one can immediately include the right to food, the right to employment, the right to publicly-funded free and universal quality health care, the right to publicly funded free and universal quality education up to a certain level, and a right to adequate old-age pension and disability benefits. The implementation of these rights together would cost less than 10 per cent of the GDP annually, which the country can easily afford.

The real point is to summon the political will to mobilise people for carrying forward the democratic revolution by widening the 1931 agenda of the Karachi Congress. As independent India completes seven decades of its existence in the midst of a serious threat from communal fascists, summoning this will becomes essential for saving our republic.

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