A Chance for Social Change Like Never Before: Shankar Gopalakrishnan

Guest post by SHANKAR GOPALAKRISHNAN

For those who don’t like Modi-Sangh politics, February 10th was a day of joy. When this note was drafted a month ago, the provisional title was “This is No Time for Despair.” But last Tuesday has not only dented Modi’s invincible image – it has also dented the sense of being besieged. Since May 2014, almost every progressive force in the country has been on the defensive. The AAP’s politics and the popular tsunami that drove it to power have shattered this gloom.

But the key question at this point – is the eventual defeat of the NDA in an election the only goal? I argue that here that that is just the beginning. The end of this period – which, notwithstanding February 10th, is obviously some time away – will offer a space that has not existed in Indian politics in decades. Whether that space gets used or not will depend on how the struggle develops in the interim period.

The potential of this period is rooted in three basic flaws that the current ruling coalition (between big business and the Sangh) suffers from. First, its key forces are fundamentally myopic and delusionary in character. Second, it is internally contradictory – the two pillars of this formation will undercut each other in organisational (not just political or rhetorical) terms. Finally, it embodies a peculiar combination of organisational strength and political weakness.

The Myopia

This government is clearly the purveyor of two ideologies: business-friendly economic reforms and Hindutva-driven authoritarianism. Opponents of these ideologies mostly focus on demonstrating that they are morally wrong. But they are not just wrong. They are essentially delusionary in character, based on intellectually impoverished thinking – to an even greater degree than most ideologies of their kind.

The “reforms” ideology is now so deeply embedded in our public discourse that disentangling its problems takes more effort. A good place to start is the yawning mismatch between the reformists’ rhetoric and their actual demands. In 1991, Manmohan Singh declared in glowing terms that “India is now wide awake. We shall prevail. We shall overcome.” Even today, acolytes of the reform process sing paeans to the “freedom of the individual” and the “unleashing of suppressed energies.” But all this talk eventually comes down to only four “big bang” reforms: making environmental clearances and land acquisition easier; diluting labour laws; reducing taxes on corporates (especially foreign investors); and cutting social spending. None of these demands is likely to address the problems of most Indian businesses, leave alone those of the majority of Indians.

The first demand – cheap and easy access to natural resources – will only benefit speculators, fixers and rentiers, which also, of course, happen to include India’s biggest companies. Moreover, even as reformist commentators howl about these “bottlenecks”, they overlook the fact that their demand has already been met. The forest clearance rate, for instance, is currently 99.97%. How exactly is 99.97% to be made “less rigid”? The second demand, dilution in labour laws, would also only affect a small minority of companies. Many of these supposed beneficiaries are not even aware of the provisions that are supposedly harassing them out of existence. Reformist commentators write of the midnight knock of the labour inspector” when there are hardly any labour inspectors in the country, and they inspect a tiny fraction of Indian factories. Thus the first two demands are not just oppressive; they are irrelevant. Indeed, as some commentators have hesitantly begun to point out, “Make in India” is not likely to go far when none of its proposed “reforms” actually addresses manufacturing.

The second pair of demands – cuts in taxes and reduction in social spending – are actually two facets of one demand, namely cheap cash for financial sector and their big corporate allies. This is why some commentators can simultaneously demand more tax “incentives” and cuts in the fiscal deficit, though these demands are mutually contradictory. This is then echoed in the repeated complaints about high interest rates (which are actually lower, in real terms, than they were when the economy was ‘booming’). However, as with the environmental and labour law “reforms”, there is no reason to believe that these measures will address the actual issues plaguing the economy. On the contrary, given the staggering level of bad loans that Indian banks are experiencing, India’s corporates have already received a gigantic infusion of money (which will eventually come from the public, in the form of bank bailouts). Clearly, transferring more and more money to private finance and big business has done little to arrest the slide of the indices that reformists hold dear.

But none of this seems to even register on the reformist radar. In this sense, today’s “reforms” agenda essentially consists of advocating the interests of India’s top 100 companies (or, more accurately, their promoters). None of this is new, or unique to India; it is typical of “liberalisation” everywhere. However, in the Indian context, “reformists” advocating these measures now face a three layered political dilemma.

First, their policies exacerbate the already extreme uncertainty that most Indians face in their daily lives. They make income, prices, livelihoods and public services more unstable and volatile. This has political implications – and very specific implications for the current period, as discussed in the next section.

Secondly, the reformists are unable to achieve even the targets they set themselves. With their dominance over public discourse, they have succeeded in convincing a significant part of the population that GDP growth and stock markets are true reflections of the health of the nation. But they are now victims of their own success – for those indices are clearly out of their control. Since 1991 Indian stock markets have been, and continue to be, driven almost entirely by foreign portfolio investors. Contrary to what most reformists would have us believe, such investment is driven by a range of dynamics, and no amount of tax incentives and regulatory loopholes will provide an ironclad guarantee of its presence. Indeed, at present, the vast majority of foreign inflows are in the debt markets – drawn by precisely the high interest rates that Indian industry wants lowered. The extreme fragility of this “boom” was indicated by the sudden crash of the Sensex on January 5th, its largest fall in over five years, triggered by predictions of Syriza winning the Greek elections. As a result of “reformist” policies, GDP growth too is now closely linked to these volatile processes, as is the strength of the rupee. Finally, last week we were informed that essentially all the reformist commentary since 2012 was off target since the GDP number was incorrect. Having set a very narrow agenda as the goal of India’s entire economic policy, the reformists can’t figure out how to get there. With every failure to do so, they threaten their own legitimacy and that of their allies.

Thirdly, these days the reformists are becoming a liability to their own constituency – finance and big capital. Bad loans continue to spiral upwards. The reformists blame most of these on land acquisition and clearances, but there is literally nothing the government can actually do to dilute those further. In the last six months not a single company has managed to exit ‘corporate debt restructuring’ – while increasing numbers are either “failing out” of it or entering it. As RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan pointed out, reformists clamouring for lower interest rates ignore the fact that bad loans have contributed much more to high interest rates than anything the RBI has done. The latest episode in this tragicomedy is the Mid Year Economic Survey, where the impeccable reformist Arvind Subramaniam has declared that the fiscal deficit not only will increase but should do so. The stated reason is that the private sector has no money to invest in infrastructure, and hence has to be rescued by good old fashioned public spending. This argument – articulated without even a hint of embarrassment – comes after decades of dire warnings about the fiscal deficit and repeated claims that PPPs are essential because the government can’t afford infrastructure spending. To their credit, at least some reformists have been unable to keep up with this U turn, even as others tie themselves into knots in order to justify it.

India’s reformists thus find themselves headed into a political and intellectual cul de sac. They have always had little to offer to the majority, and these days they have little to offer anyone else either. Pushing policies that worsen the problems they claim to address, undercutting the essential elements of maintaining political popularity, and making arguments that would have been outdated a decade ago, their approach now conveys nothing more than a sense of being badly stuck. One of the most respected reformist commentators, Swaminathan Aiyer, essentially threw his hands into the air in a recent edit piece, while the fiercely pro-Modi R Jagannathan ran a December article asking Modi to give more power to states since there is “very little the Centre can do”.

But the reformists are still too dominant for this crisis to be apparent. With each failure they apply another ideological band-aid to their edifice – talk of “institutional failure”, “bad governance”, or just bad luck abounds. This band-aiding can continue for a long time, other things being equal; but other things will not be equal, as discussed below.

What then of the other half of this regime – the Hindutva brigade? Until February 10th, this group seemed to have their strategies in place. Sangh Parivar leaders have been appointed to almost all key positions. Since 2013, India’s public discourse has descended into some of the most vicious hate-mongering in the world.

But February 10th exemplifies the fundamental myopia of this ideology too. At the level of public discourse, Hindutva – and ideologies like it – are never able to survive very long in a nationally dominant position. As slowly growing, seeping majoritarianism, they can go on for a very long time. But once they become truly powerful, it rapidly becomes apparent that they not only defy secularism and freedom – they also defy common sense. They delude themselves that their terror can exist for eternity, and that everyone else will accept silencing or extermination without protest. In reality, violent majoritarian politics has no answer for the violence and counter-violence that it unleashes. It ends up in a constant race to prove, and keep proving, that safety lies in its delusions rather than in rejecting it. In Delhi, the Sangh seems to have lost that race for now – given that the AAP won all the seats, with huge margins, where the Sangh had attempted violence.

But that, of course, does not stop the Sangh from trying more – and hence this is the start of a very dangerous time, as many have pointed out. As its unpopularity increases, the obvious way out for this government is to resort to a combination of fearmongering and repression. Gujarat in 2002 is an obvious template. Some trigger event would occur: a repeat of the Mumbai massacre, an attack blamed on ISIS or Al Qaeda; etc. Such triggers might be manufactured, or they might be real, but that distinction will not really matter. Hysteria will be whipped up, along with an intense crackdown on resistance and dissent. The Sangh would then attempt pogroms against minorities in various parts of the country, while portraying the government and itself as the saviours of the nation. This pattern has been seen so many times, both in India and elsewhere, that it is almost tiresomely predictable.

Notwithstanding the popular discontent visible in the AAP victory, the Sangh and the BJP remain popular enough – particularly in north and central India – that such a strategy could work in the short term. The government could regain its popularity and the Sangh its centrality. But, again, the key point is that this is true only in the short term. The reasons are two fold.

The first is that combining fear and repression is the oldest trick in the book of politics – and it is considered a last resort precisely because it does not work for very long, even when there is a genuinely “existential” threat. The second is the specific nature of the current regime. Authoritarian crackdowns can only paper over its fundamental problems – and specifically the organisational contradiction and political weakness that threaten its basic coherence.

The Contradiction

Out of these two forces, there is no doubt about which one has the mass political base. The raw brute power of finance and big business – the forces behind the reformists – has never translated into open mass support for their politics (in contrast to countries in the first wave of neoliberalism). This political weakness is one reason for the sycophancy of so many reformist commentators. The Sangh, on the other hand, can credibly claim to be the largest political force in India today. Hence, despite its disproportionate reflection in our editorial pages, reformist discomfort over Sanghi violence is not a real political contradiction. The reformists are politically irrelevant on their own and most will come around in time, as they have done in the case of Gujarat. The real contradiction in fact goes the other way. It results from the threat to the Sangh’s mass base that reforms are creating.

The nature of this mass base is something that is rarely discussed. Analyses of the Sangh’s political success mostly rely on two explanations. Many claim that Hindutva “diverts” people from the “lack of development” or from their economic problems. Others claim that Hindutva caters to deeply rooted Hindu and/or authoritarian tendencies in Indian society. Both these explanations are undoubtedly true, but they are also incomplete. Neither can fully explain why so many people – including those from lower castes and classes – are so committed to these organisations. It is difficult to accept the notion that (as Gramsci put it) history consists of a “marche de dupes“.

At the local level, though, it is immediately obvious why people join the Sangh. Most of us know from personal experience how Sangh Parivar groups recruit people. They act as the disciplined, selfless volunteers, those who are dedicated to their country and willing to give their lives to “social service.” The local stereotype of the RSS patriarch is the kindly old gentleman who lives a simple life, works quietly for charitable causes, and stands above all the frivolousness of daily life. Invariably he is from the upper castes and comfortably middle class, but “gives up” so much to “help the nation.” Most importantly, all the “educated” and “high class” people respect him.

At the cost of some oversimplification, the Sangh’s formula can thus be reduced to a core appeal – they are the “good” people who, most importantly, are accepted as good by the upper castes and classes. Thus the Sangh not only represents status, power, security and dignity – it promises individual access to these things for those who are, or believe themselves to be, deprived of them. Women are given the assurance of safety and the chance to participate in public events, including meetings, rallies, and riots. As one feminist researcher put it, families that prevent women from even going outside will often allow them to join Sangh charity activities, since this is all “decent work”. Dalits are assured that all Hindus are actually one; they are allowed to eat with upper castes, treated with kind words about how they have drifted off course. Adivasis are told that they are backward children, but that they too can learn how to be good Hindus. Daily wagers and rediwallahs are made part of the local temple committee. In turn, all of this is accompanied by generous handouts of cash, open public acceptance, leadership opportunities and the chance to “serve others” – with the blessings and patronage of the powerful. Money flows freely throughout the structure, including to a large number of people who actually do nothing. This core modus operandi is then combined with more “normal” methods of political recruitment (patronage, money, etc.) through organisations like the BJP and the Bajrang Dal.

In the Sangh, these ideas are closely integrated with Hindu identity and colonial interpretations of the Hindu faith. But there is nothing uniquely Hindu about them. This is the classic bargain every authoritarian force offers its followers: we will give you a sense of status and a sense of safety, provided, however, that you give up your rights and are prepared to trample on the rights of others. We will provide you qualified access to be someone that you never believed you could be – but only if you accept and defend your own oppressors’ interests. Narendra Modi may or may not have been a chaiwala, but he was not a member of the Indian elite. He did indeed rise in the Sangh on the basis of his ‘merit’ – merit that was measured by his willingness to abandon everything except the interests of the castes and classes above him. The benefits the Sangh offers are real, but they are conditional.1

This bargain then crosses the line to fascist politics when it is combined with the use of hate-driven mass violence. The underlying message is that one’s anger is justified, but use it as your patrons tell you to, because that is the safest and the most beneficial route. Failure to obey orders – or, worst of all, turning on one’s oppressors – means losing what the Sangh has offered.

Of course, this bargain is not very attractive if there is a genuine alternative available. Real struggles for liberation and dignity are inherently more attractive than this kind of half-baked pseudo empowerment. This is one reason why the Sangh is rarely able to dominate wherever there are real liberatory movements (see here for a historical discussion on this point). However, if there is really no alternative available, the Sangh’s offer is immensely appealing – as it would be, given the deep-seated indignity, insecurity and humiliation that characterise many Indians’ lives. Faced with a choice between stagnation and the possibility of some kind of limited change, many people would and do choose the latter. Indeed, this is one reason why the Sangh expands fastest where other movements have flowered and failed (such as among the mill workers of Ahmedabad).

For precisely these reasons, though, the Sangh now faces a problem. The Sangh claims to offer stability, pride and safety. But it has just ridden to power through an alliance with forces whose chosen policies create ever increasing instability and volatility. The Modi government promises “development” and a “strong state” – an anodyne statement, for today’s world, of the Nazis’ twin strategies of full employment and fascist politics. In reality the Sangh can offer fascist politics, but not even basic economic security. As we saw, the reformists have no idea how to fulfill the false expectations that they themselves have created – leave alone any genuine economic change for the majority. This contradiction is not limited to the Sangh’s mass base alone. At the level of public discourse as well, the Sangh keeps running into problems in translating its rhetoric around character and leadership in a world of hot finance – the “black money” farce being the latest example. All of this backfires heavily on the Sangh’s ability to appeal to its own followers, and in fact on the Sangh’s understanding of itself.

In the short run the Sangh might gain from this in pockets, since insecurity is a fertile ground for hate politics. But in the medium term, this will not solve the problem, for – at its proudest moment – the Sangh has also lost its biggest strength.

The Weakness

For decades, Indian Marxists heatedly debated the precise constitution of India’s ruling class. Some of us joke that all that became unnecessary on May 26th, 2014. One need only look at Modi’s swearing in photograph. Arranged there are India’s biggest capitalists, its most vicious communalists, its most diehard casteists, its most patriarchal leaders and its most dictatorial officials. While Sadhvi Prachi rails about the need for Hindu women to become babymaking factories, CII issues ads to campaign for Modi. Never before have we had such a right wing government, many have said; but it’s equally true that never before have we had such an obvious one.

This consolidation of the powerful also includes forces whose political role has rarely been challenged. The largest of these is the mainstream media, who played such a massive role in Modi’s victory. Then there are the security and intelligence services, who are handmaidens of every government in power, but who are known sympathisers of the Sangh. There is also the higher bureaucracy, which has been the engine of neoliberalism in this country. All of these agencies are united behind the current regime – in an increasingly brazen manner.

But there is a problem. What happens when things go wrong?

The disadvantage this creates is most obvious in the case of the Sangh. For nine decades this outfit has hidden behind the fiction of being a “cultural organisation.” This was not merely a tactical lie aimed at the state (which in any case always connived with it). The notion that the Sangh is above politics is vital to preserve its aura of “goodness” and its ability to offer social status. Being “honest” is the entire raison d’etre of the Sangh.

Yet, just seven months into the NDA’s rule, this facade has been badly damaged. The RSS is being talked about all the time. It is being made fun of on Twitter, ridiculed in tea shops, and is even the subject of rare satire articles in newspapers. Naturally all of this is outmatched by the hordes of screaming saffronites. But the very fact of its occurrence is a major blow to the Sangh. Indeed, in the ghar wapsi controversy, both the RSS and the BJP strenuously tried to maintain the old dualities – it’s not an issue of the Central government, they said; even if it is, it’s not an issue of the RSS, because these “fringe” groups have nothing to do with the wise old Sangh. Even the pliant mainstream media did not take this tripe seriously. Then Mohan Bhagwat came out, defended the agenda in public, and thereby unmasked the obvious to everyone. Bhagwat is no idiot. He realised that the RSS can no longer hide, it has to act in order to protect itself – but in doing so it also undermines itself.

This dilemma is not confined to the RSS. Despite the most crude forms of bribery and intimidation, Reliance finds itself in public debate far more than it would like. Modi’s government has not escaped the taint of being the “Ambani Adani sarkar,”, and most likely will never do so. Statements about women’s morality and dignity are provoking outrage, and now few people believe that those making them are on the “fringe.” The media itself is being questioned and its attitude has become a topic of growing discussion. Thus those whose power was taken as an open secret, the truth that everyone knew but no one mentioned, now find their rule becoming an open wound instead. The process is slow and still no more than an irritant – but what matters is that it is happening at all.

Thus the blatant nature of this government is not a victory for the right wing, notwithstanding what some of its more naive representatives would like to think. It is actually a setback. It shows that India’s most powerful forces were not able to get what they wanted through behind the scenes manipulation. It reflects what one might call the Bhagwat dilemma – if you’re getting exposed anyway, do you have any alternative except to shed the mask and emerge, guns blazing? And if, like the powerful throughout history, you overestimate your ability to crush your opponents, why wouldn’t you do so? Thus so many corporate captains and Hindutva acolytes end up sounding like teenage boys, fantasising about what a 56 inch chest can achieve.

But no chest can achieve what they want, because what they want is a delusionary fantasy, as we saw in the last section. The myopia is not an intellectual defect. It is a political contradiction, where their actions end up undermining their own goals. The stronger they become the more their goals recede. Having built their entire existence on promising individual gains to their bases – the big corporates and those drawn to Sangh-style half empowerment – the impact on their own unity and organisational integrity will be profound. This is not merely a case of failing to deliver. Rather, it is undercutting the very foundation of these forces’ existence as coherent political actors.

The Opportunity

This disintegration offers one half of the opportunity for struggle. The other half is exemplified by February 10th.

Slowly, just as the ruling class has consolidated, resistance is also consolidating. This is not limited to electoral politics, Delhi or the AAP. The same phenomenon can be witnessed in all kinds of forms. Journalists who have some integrity increasingly find themselves on the ‘same side.’ Social movements have much more common ground. At the broadest level, everyone – teachers, historians, scientists, satirists, political parties, judges, popular leaders – all find suddenly that they have a decision to make. They can join the Sangh-government-media chicanery, or they can stand up.

If there is a period of crackdown and violence, the space for all of this will naturally shrink sharply. But when that period passes, certain tendencies will be naturally brought to the fore.

At that point – when the true crossroads may come – taking on the Sangh and the corporate sector will be easier, as a result of their increasing incoherence. There will also be no choice but to do so, since anything less would be so obviously compromised that it would suffer from its own legitimacy problems. If this builds into a real attempt at change, it will force confrontation with the deeper actors discussed above. Practically the entire edifice of reactionary tendencies in the Indian polity will thus stand exposed – if, once again, the resistance can organise itself sufficiently. This would be the opportunity.

Of course, this is far from inevitable. Notwithstanding AAP’s victory or all the possibilities that have opened, these forces may still succeed in crushing the resistance so totally that their disintegration will be followed by more barbarism rather than less. Competing fascist forces and the dominance of corporate cronyism could set back the struggle for change by a generation. Contemporary history is littered with examples of this kind.

If this overall analysis is correct, three consequences follow for those of us who wish to democratically resist this onslaught.

The first is that strategies need to focus on the long term. Obviously this is always true, but now more so than ever before. We are still some ways away from the end of this regime. Creating and preserving organisational, intellectual and political movements/forces that are committed to a progressive democratic politics is vital. Without having many such centres, the opposition is likely to remain fragmented, incoherent and individualistic, even after the Sangh’s fall.

The second is that resistance strategies cannot be limited to ideologies, but have to extend to opposing the organisations in question. For instance, “secularism” is not the sole issue. The issue is the corruption, brutality, authoritarianism and stupidity of both the corporate sector and the Sangh. These forces have been forced to come on to the open stage of politics, and they should not be allowed to hide behind their rhetoric. AAP’s victory demonstrated that the public discourse has already moved to this stage – reflecting precisely the phenomena discussed above. Besides, the fact that these forces are composed of self-seekers looking for individual gain (behind the facade of unity) makes them essentially brittle. When status, prestige and benefits decline, their disintegration can be swift.

Third, progressives need to seek out and understand the wide range of forms of resistance that are occurring. This includes many that might not be political, conscious, or organised. This point should not be confused with the old appeal to overcome sectarianism between organisations. Rather, we need to recognise that resistance is a universal reality, and most of it is outside the realm of what is called politics (and even further outside what is called “activism”). This period is an opportunity to confront some of the deepest sources of oppression in Indian society, and these are precisely the sources that extant circles of progressive politics have failed to defeat. Celebrating AAP’s victory is necessary but not sufficient. The chances of both survival and eventual victory are directly proportional to the ability to provide some coherence to as many forms of resistance as possible, ranging from ‘traditional’ mass-based organising all the way to forms that are not even recognisable as resistance. In this way this period is also a chance for self-renewal, for overcoming limits and dogmatism. When it ends, not only the landscape of the right, but also the landscape of the left are likely to look very different.

In his seminal book The Origins of the Second World War, British historian AJP Taylor discussed the nature of Hitler’s policymaking:

Now, of course Hitler speculated a good deal about what he was doing, much as academic observers try to put coherence into the acts of contemporary statesmen… As it was, he became involved in the world of action; and here, I think, he exploited events far more than he followed precise coherent plans… He announced persistently that he intended to seize power and would then do great things. Many people believed him. The elaborate plot by which Hitler seized power was the first legend to be established about him and has been the first also to be destroyed. There was no long-term plot; there was no seizure of power. Hitler had no idea how he would come to power; only a conviction that he would get there. Papen and a few other conservatives put Hitler into power by intrigue, in the belief that they had taken him prisoner. He exploited their intrigue, again with no idea how he would escape from their control, only with the conviction that somehow he would. This revision does not vindicate Hitler, though it discredits Papen and his associates… Hitler in power had once more no idea how he would pull Germany out of the Depression, only a determination to do it… The abstract speculator [eventually] turned out to be a statesman on the make who did not consider what he would make and how. He got as far as he did because others did not know what to do with him.

Behind the Third Reich, the most powerful nation of its day, was a confused bunch of venal cowards, not one of whom had the guts to defend his ideology when put on trial at Nuremberg. Much the same could be said about the present government. The challenge is for the rest of us. Will we be able to build something new on the ruins that they will leave behind?

10 thoughts on “A Chance for Social Change Like Never Before: Shankar Gopalakrishnan”

  1. I wonder why there are only so few comments. I think this article cuts through all the superficial bullshit(thrown at each other at sundry TV debates) and exposes the inherent dichotomy in the bjp-model. If you observe the ongoing farmers’ movement in Delhi, govindacharya and anna hazare both are pressing for a better deal for the farmers vis-a-vis corporate interests. Couple of people in debates also reiterated that current bjp regime is paying only lip service to integral humanism of deendayal upadhyay.

    bjp can’t afford to ignore this issue. In the past, it has suffered losses due to high inflation in food prices or when unhappy rss cadre decide to sit at home on the election day.

    If bjp is trying to replicate US model of getting people to vote against their own interests, it would fail miserably. We have too big a population to be manipulated by TV propaganda(though it is try to exploit radio as well).

  2. Truly excellent, in writing and argument. A refreshingly coherent and rhetoric-free analysis of the ways and the fundamental weaknesses of the current politico-economic regime in India. This has been an achingly depressing time–the last decade and more, really, but especially the last year or so–for many of us who care about where the nation is going, so thank you for lifting the gloom a little and showing a glimpse of…well, I’d say “better days”, but that phrase feels too tainted. So then, a glimpse of hope.

    One is tempted to ask, “Where do I sign up?”

  3. Pingback: Vikas Dubey

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