The Sin and the Error : Ravi Sinha

Guest Post by RAVI SINHA

…it takes an error to father a sin. ─ J. Robert Oppenheimer[1]

Future historians of India may well describe the past year as a year of political sin. This was the year in which the man who had earlier presided over the Gujarat Carnage was awarded the ultimate prize. The year saw an election that touched a new low marked by shallowness, vulgarities and lies – in no small measure by the labors of the man himself. Equally appalling have been the exertions of a large class of literati and glitterati to portray philistinism and inanities spouted by the most powerful mouth as wisdom of a visionary leader.

An entire country seems to have gone blind – unable to see that the emperor has no clothes. In this age of incessant television it should be obvious to anyone that the supreme leader does not carry conviction even when enunciating relatively higher banalities. He is at his natural best only when he mocks someone as a shehzada or slanders and vilifies an entire community through phrases such as ame paanch, amara pachees. It is an irony of history that the republic which had Nehru as its first prime minister has one now for whom even common mythology is too cerebral. He must vulgarize Pushpak Viman and Ganesha and reduce them to quackeries of aviation and surgery.

Misfortune of the nation goes beyond the man. Forces of the diabolic housed in the hydra-headed Parivaar can now accomplish the impossible. They can now occupy the political center stage without leaving off the lunatic fringe. They can adopt Gandhi without renouncing Godse; erect world’s tallest statue of a leader who had punished their forefathers for assassinating Gandhi; even co-opt Bhagat Singh without batting an eyelid about what he stood for and what he had to say about ideologies like theirs. They can further refine the art of doublespeak. Their “statesmen” can pave the way for corporate plunder and call it sab ka vikas (development for all). Their “ideologues” can advocate sab ka saath (inclusion of all) by exhorting Hindu women to give birth to a minimum of four children each, lest Hindus are reduced to a minority “in their own country”.

All second comings are farcical but none more so than the ones in which caricatures come alive. It would be a cliché to invoke Hitler’s example while describing the megalomania of the current prime minister. But it would not be entirely wrong. He is larger than life because no one else – whether in the government or in the party – is allowed to be visible even as a pygmy. The Cabinet of Ministers seems to have been demoted lower than the back-room boys who formulate policies, write speeches and take sartorial decisions for the supreme leader. Even those stalwarts of yesterday, who brought the party to the center stage by unleashing havocs such as the Ram Janma Bhoomi Movement, have been consigned to the political dustbin. But, rather than a second coming of Hitler, this sordid episode appears more like Chaplin’s Great Dictator coming to life. The prime minister’s relentless globe-trotting and hobnobbing with the rulers of the world without any significant diplomatic achievement or concrete gain for India so far – except, perhaps, getting the United Nations to declare June 21st as the International Day of Yoga – evokes memories of a scene in Chaplin’s movie where the dictator plays around with an inflated globe.

The prime minister’s telling the Japanese corporate honchos that he has money in his blood, his frequent recounting of uncountable things that India’s ancient wisdom can teach to the world, his recent observation that Indian grandmother’s recipes are enough to save humanity from environmental disasters and this makes India worthy of leading the global endeavor to save the planet, and other such gems that he scatters regularly across the globe, also bring to mind one of Kurosawa’s later movies, Kagemusha. In the movie a political decoy was deployed to impersonate a dying warlord who had kept his enemies in awe for long. The impersonator manages to get over his many temptations and actually learns to act like the warlord within the royal house as well as on the battle field.

That day may yet be far in this case. The body-language of the prime minister – while posing with a world leader or posing conspicuously to the camera when all other statesmen and diplomats around the table are busy with their papers – betrays the countenance of an imposter, even if anointed to the throne through a process every bit constitutional and politically legitimate. The acts and demeanor of the prime minister are constant reminders that Indian people have been tricked into committing a political sin. And the irony is that they have committed it against themselves.

One can go on and on with the sin part. But one must resist the temptation. After all, those who agree with what is being said do not get any wiser by descriptions of the obvious, and those who do not agree are unlikely to see it as anything but unwarranted provocation. It would be far more fruitful to move on to the error part. Experience shows that even those who may readily agree to the characterization of the previous year as the year of sin, would argue vehemently about the error that may have gone into fathering it.

Actually it has taken more than one error – indeed a whole bunch of them. One could start with the Congress Party. It gave an impression as if it was doing its best to rout itself and offer victory to the opponent on a platter. But I am not interested in Congress even if it was the fattest among the errors. Lessons which this party may or may not draw from its near decimation are unlikely to be of much use to those committed to transformative politics. Instead it may trigger a wholly unhelpful discussion about whether it was part of the error or part of the sin.

The Left Front too has been on a path of self-destruction. Its precipitous decline has been a major cause behind the troubling emergence of the current political scenario. One can safely ignore claims of its constituents about being a communist party of one kind or another. Whether they truly have revolution lodged deeply in their hearts or only pay occasional lip service to it, is not relevant for analyzing their role in the recent political developments. Their role needs to be evaluated principally on the criterion of being a force for the good within the arena of bourgeois parliamentary politics. And they have failed miserably on this count.

Roots of this failure are not easy to unearth. It has become all too common for all shades of political commentators to heap ridicule on the Left. Post-leftists and other varieties of ex-leftists are especially vituperative in this regard. As if they know better. It takes a reflective attitude and a certain sense of history to realize that Left’s woes do not arise solely from its own mistakes. At a deeper level they arise from a tectonic shift underneath the surface of history. Existing Left is a product of the early twentieth century. Someone said – past is a foreign country. But it depends. For someone made by the past and caught in it, present may be a foreign country. This predicament is not peculiar to Left alone. Every major political force passes through it at one time or another, although different forces pass through it at different times.

In any case, these comments are not meant to explore the subterranean. At the surface level of day-to-day politics, Left Front committed a historic blunder when it walked out of the UPA-1 citing Indo-US Nuclear Deal as the main reason. Arguably this one was far more damaging than the previous one (disallowing Jyoti Basu to become the Prime Minister) in the pecking order of Left’s historic blunders. It was disastrous as a political judgment and ridiculous as an ideological argument. There are times in politics when one misstep can lead to an avalanche. This is what Left Front has suffered and it does not yet know how to recover. More importantly, the entire political scenario would have been very different if Left had managed to avoid this blunder.

The third component of the error leading to the sin has been far more spectacular. Like a rapidly burning comet it suddenly lit up the Indian political sky filling innumerable hearts and minds with awe, admiration, hope and confusion. It started with the anti-corruption movement spearheaded by India against Corruption and currently it is passing through a phase where it is visible more through the internal fireworks of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). This phenomenon has played a much larger role in conjuring the current political scenario than its actual size and scope would indicate. Despite its sensational victory in the Delhi assembly elections, its actual impact cannot be measured by electoral arithmetic. It mystified the people on a far wider scale and helped generate a political mood that ultimately helped BJP and the Sangh Parivaar in their anti-Congress crusade. If one looks at all that has happened in the political arena during the last decade or so, the significance of Left’s blunder pales in comparison to the damage done by the sudden rise of the AAP.

There are many reasons why such a reading of the situation remains counter-intuitive, if not totally unacceptable, for a large number of people. It may be fruitful to engage with two broad ones among them applicable respectively to two different sets of people. One set comprises of activists, politicians and ideologues which some of these ideologues themselves describe as post-ideological. The other set is of those who remain committed to the transformative and emancipatory politics of the good old days but are desperately looking for new movements which this politics can ride.

The first set would like to believe that it has rescued populism from the netherworld of dictators and demagogues and elevated it to a lofty principle. There is a priesthood of high theory that can read bird-signs in the post-ideological political sky. In each little movement – if it is spontaneous, has no well-defined goal, espouses no ideology and has no organized leadership – it hears intimations of the much awaited deluge of insurrections by little men. Bird-signs, however, are never a reliable tool for forging political strategies. The Laclaus, the Negris, and all the tenured radicals of exalted academies cannot put together the shattered high hopes that were raised by World Social Forums, Occupy Movements, or even the Arab Spring. Prophets of the plebian irruptions would be hard put to explain why such a movement either results in the rise of a new dictator, a new demagogue, a religious-fascist regime, or a military junta, or else it simply fizzles out leaving a residuum of a few professors along with fewer students pouring over pamphlets in Zuccoti Park and occasionally walking around the park with placards to the amusement of indifferent bystanders.

Such questions unfailingly invite the wrath of the post-ideological ideologue which appears in the form of launching yet another attack on the Left. The assumption is that such questions can be asked only by an incorrigibly dogmatic and sectarian leftist. The lethal weapons used in this attack are rather well known – announce to the imagined adversary that Berlin Wall has fallen, Soviet Union has collapsed, China has gone capitalist and CPM has lost West Bengal. Remind him that Marxism is beyond its date of expiry and socialism exists only as a daydream of the die-hard. Curiously, such ideologues are ever so convinced that Left is a spent force and yet the loftiest historical task they can assign themselves is to continue flogging it. When they declare 1989 as the biggest watershed in history and do not tire of celebrating the fall of the Wall, they do not care to cast a side glance at the rest of the festive assembly and take notice of who the other revelers are.

And yet questions must be asked and prophets of populism must be challenged. It is important for actual politics on ground, more so in the prevailing political atmosphere. One could have safely ignored the matter had it been confined to esoteric discourses on Populist Reason. It should also not be assumed that these questions arise necessarily from dogmatism and sectarianism. Contrary to the stereotypical image, mourning the Wall or the Soviet Union does not define a leftist. To redefine a leftist when times have changed is no disgrace but that would take us to another discussion.

For the issue at hand it may be necessary to point to the obvious yet again. The kind of movement much admired by the post-ideological types and joined in mass by naïve idealists and other undiscriminating worshippers of mass movements has once again given rise to a narcissistic and dictatorial demagogue. It is remarkable how indulgent certain ideologues and many practitioners have been regarding such an outcome that they would have decried in every other instance. It is understandable if political careerists and power-hungry opportunists hang on to the coattails of Kejriwal because only he, not Yadavs and Bhushans, can win elections. But it is a sin without pleasure when ideologues deploy their scholarly flourish and theoretical playfulness in praise of the new megalomaniac on the block.

Indians do not need theory to be convinced about charms of populism. In their love for demagogues they can be surpassed by none, except, perhaps, by the Non-Resident Indians. (Remember the rock-star reception of Modi at Madison Square Garden in New York when thousands of New Jersey Indians lapped up every indelicacy that came out of his mouth, but also do not forget the euphoria that Kejriwal has created across a wide spectrum of NRIs.) If popular support were to be taken as sole proof of good politics then Modi would be far more saintly a politician than Kejriwal. Popular acceptability is a must for good politics to come alive and become effective, but that does not mean the former defines the latter.

Modi’s politics is well-defined in its own right. It is crafted with interwoven threads of Hindu supremacist fascism and servitude to the corporate capital. The fact that it has wide popular support does not make it any less anti-people. As simple a truth as this one is forgotten when Kejriwal’s politics is evaluated by many who might have in their hearts noble desires of shaking up systems and cleansing politics. Stating a goal that is incurably nebulous and which can be interpreted conveniently and variously by a wide spectrum of political forces hardly suffices when it comes to defining one’s politics. The legendary Hindi poet, Muktibodh, used to ask, “What is your politics, partner?” This question would never be old-fashioned nor would it ever be outdated.

Kejriwal says that he is neither left nor right and he is beyond ideology (an assertion that gladdens the hearts of the post-ideologists). He goes to FICCI and CII to put on display his credentials for good governance and to play Maggie Thatcher to them (“it is not the business of the government to do business”). To the Aam Aadmi he promises Bijli, Paani and Swaraj, and puts on their table his charisma, honesty and a no-nonsense authoritarianism as a guarantee for achieving these objectives. His concrete plans for eradicating corruption finally come down to people being ready with their mobile phones for sting operations. And he never forgets to remind them of the sacrifices he has made, such as resigning from a government job or sitting on a hunger strike or going to jail for a few days. Facts are such that merely counting them may make one appear sarcastic, but that is not the aim here. The real point is that all this adds up to a politics of mass depoliticization. And, in the end, this kind of politics invariably serves the rightwing.

The other set of people who thought they had found in AAP that long sought vehicle which emancipatory and transformative politics could ride, had their own reasons to consider any criticism of the phenomenon unacceptable. Chief among them was an assessment that such a criticism comes from a purist and elitist version of radicalism that has no chance of gaining popular support. In the aftermath of a messy split in the Party they may not be as dismissive of such criticisms. But there are no significant indications that they are learning the right lessons from this expected debacle. They continue to mouth the same platitudes about shaking up the system and cleansing the politics without adding one bit of clarity or detail about how indeed are they going to accomplish that.

The fact that they can now see Kejriwal in his true colors can hardly be a solace. He is gone as far as they are concerned, but more importantly he has taken much of the popular support with him. The desperate revolutionaries, who are in a hurry to notch a few victories in political arena by any means, are unlikely to win elections on the basis of their purer hearts, better educated minds, and nobler goals. They have lost that very vehicle for which they brought their revolutionary politics down to the level of populism. If they manage to have any significant level of electoral success, they will discover that they have done so by turning themselves into clones of Kejriwal.

The trouble with seeing things as they are is that the description may at times read like the song of the cynic. This is because one is describing only a part of the entire political arena. It is a misfortune that in the present times this is the larger part. But it does not mean that other processes are not at play and other political actors are altogether absent. Telling the story of the sin and the error does not mean that virtue has altogether disappeared and there is no one left to do the right thing. That account, however, will have to be kept for another time.

[1] As quoted in Ray Monk, Inside the Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Vintage, London, 2013, p. 174

(Ravi Sinha, by training a physicist, is a political thinker and an activist. He is also a leading member of New Socialist Initiative.)

6 thoughts on “The Sin and the Error : Ravi Sinha”

  1. You forgot one important piece in the jigsaw. The left is seen as vehemently anti-hindu and most of the ideologues are from the upper castes. You simply do not connect with the electorate particularly the OBCs and lower caste hindus.

  2. The author denounces the denunciatory business of the post-ideological left and yet he himself does nothing but only denounce! For him, everything – from IAC to AAP, Occupy to Arab Spring – had problems. One wonders, which left had said that they didn’t have problems? The more relevant question has been whether these phenomenons have opened up critical space for meaningful progressive intervention. While the left in India is sharply divided over IAC and AAP, the entire spectrum of the progressive camp has been unanimous about the positivity brought by Arab Spring and Occupy.

    I cannot fathom, what on earth, according to the author, the left should have done, when Arab Spring was underway in one of the most regressive region of the world or when Occupy was raising important questions about neo-liberal capitalism in the heartland of global capital? Tell the Arab Youth that do nothing or else Muslim Brotherhood would come? Tell the Indian youth not to question the corrupt Congress regime or else BJP would become stronger? This is like blaming the Indonesian Communist Party for the white terror unleashed in the Suharto period, or blaming the KPD for the rise of Fascism in Germany! This is nothing but crooked logic.

    Despite their differences, the sensible left of different shades have been doing their bit in these movements; many of them have been sharply critical of them and have suggested alternative ways of organising and moving forward. Old and This is how things are done; not to stand aloof and criticize everybody else. Many leftists in India have felt that IAC and AAP didn’t have much space for the left while some others felt the opposite. But nobody apart from Mr Sinha has gone to the extent of saying that AAP helped in the consolidation of BJP. If he is making this claim, he needs to show it empirically, rather than assuming it to be the necessary truth.

    Mr Sinha writes, “But it does not mean that other processes are not at play and other political actors are altogether absent. Telling the story of the sin and the error does not mean that virtue has altogether disappeared and there is no one left to do the right thing. That account, however, will have to be kept for another time.”

    One wonders, what are those processes? Who are those political actors? If the author is so harshly critical of everybody else, he needs to give some indication of these actors and processes and their real or potential achievements.

    1. My argument is not with the movements – Occupy, Arab Spring or any other. People will resist what they find unjust and arise against whatever is unacceptable. One can’t have an argument with that, just as one can’t have an argument with the waves in the ocean. My argument is with those who theorize that such movements are a new phenomenon heralding a new post-ideological era in which ideology-based organized political forces are passé and spontaneous mass upsurges would, on their own, reconfigure the world. And of course my argument will be with those leaders who ride the waves to their own selfish ends.

      I am in solidarity with the Occupy activists I sought and met in Zucotti Park in the latter half of 2013, and I do not criticize the activists, including the leftists, who saw in such movements “critical space for meaningful progressive intervention”. But that does not mean one cannot ask the question – why do such movements end the way they do? Thinking about issues of the times and asking critical questions are not by themselves a proof that one is standing aloof and criticizing everybody else. I also realize that the great revolutions of the 20th century that I uphold with pride have themselves met a sorry end, but their situation is not comparable to the movements under question.

      My logic does not translate into blaming the Indonesian communists for the massacre they were subjected to, or into blaming the KPD for Fascism. But I stand by what I have said about the AAP phenomenon. Unrestrained populism, nebulous hope mongering and mercurial opportunism of its top leadership definitely added to a political atmosphere that, in the given conditions, aided the rightwing forces. This is a matter of political assessment and I do not know how to show this empirically other than sensing and analyzing the political developments themselves.

      I concede that the article is largely polemical and argumentative and it does not clearly state the positive positions I hold – the location from which I make the criticisms. But even as infrequent a commentator as me has written often enough about that. And I may come back to that yet again because that is a vast and ever evolving subject.

      For now let me state very briefly that I see progressive and transformative politics operating at two layers. At the level of day-to-day politics it comprises of effective political strategies against neo-liberal policies of corporate plunder and for bringing back an enlightened welfare state that, despite being a bourgeois state, offers protection to the poor and the working people. Populism of the Modi-kind as well as the Kejriwal-kind falls against such enlightened bourgeois politics. UPA-1 did a far better job, in no small measure by the efforts of the Left Front as well as of the relative left-wingers within the Congress.

      At the other layer – the layer of revolutionary politics – the path is yet to be charted out. Twentieth century strategies would not work – whether in the Parliament, or in the mainstream movements, or in the red corridor where armed struggle is supposedly going on. But all this requires a much deeper discussion, hardly possible in the comments on the comments on a commentary.

  3. I agree with John . What Mr. Ravi Sinha fails to recognise is that when the Traditional Left faces debacles – one after the other – here is a force which has succesfully challenged some aspects of neo-Liberalism like: its antipathy towards the so-called Subsidy Raj, Casualisation of Labour etc. along with Corruption which remains as the major issue but definitely not the only one.
    And has it not posed a real and tangible challenge to the BJP – perhaps the only one at the present juncture ?
    Other than Maoists , are not all Parties within the entire spectrum of the so-called Left fighting for some relief for the masses within the present structure and not for a Transformative Revolution?
    For the benefit of Mr. Sinha, I am not a Post-Ideological animal, but look forward for the day when the Left is able to integrate with all Anti-Establishment movements across the Globe and then try and wean away the participants instead of remaining an idle by-stander and adopt a holier-than-thou attitude amounting to intellectual snobbery and – if I may dare say so – Elitism.

  4. Finally some mature political analysis!
    “There are many reasons why such a reading of the situation remains counter-intuitive, if not totally unacceptable, for a large number of people. It may be fruitful to engage with two broad ones among them applicable respectively to two different sets of people. One set comprises of activists, politicians and ideologues which some of these ideologues themselves describe as post-ideological. The other set is of those who remain committed to the transformative and emancipatory politics of the good old days but are desperately looking for new movements which this politics can ride.”
    This is the best summation of the way things are currently in India.

    Although the author goes a little too far with words like megalomaniac and authoritarian, the fact is that populist and supposedly post ideological politics gives rise to vainglorious leaders who do not like to be contradicted.
    The root of this phenomenon goes back to the end of the second world war,when surveying the carnage many thinkers including socialists lost faith in the enlightenment ideals of reason and progress. The belief in a fixed self diminished and fragmentation of identities came to be emphasised. In a way this was a good thing especially in cases of race and gender struggles. But nevertheless the basic conceit of postmodernism remains ‘the present, but better’. We have stopped believing in the idea of a better future. Indeed any kind of belief is treated with suspicion. People resist classification.
    Absence of ideology is itself an ideology. One that goes perfectly with our flexible and ‘just in time’ production processes ie neoliberalism.
    I would suggest reading David Harvey’s book on postmodernism.

    Another poster mentions occupy and the Arab spring. The soundbite friendly slogan of ‘the one percent’ itself is dishonest as it refuses to acknowledge even basic class analysis. But I will agree that it started a conversation in the United States.
    As for Arab spring it was a struggle for democratic reforms by an emergent middle class against (often west sponsored) dictators. It predictably failed given that the proletariat continues to seek solace in a faith which does not favour democracy. It predictably failed. Just look at the farce in Egypt.

    As an aside,might I be right in guessing that the author is a fan of Perry Anderson?

  5. The author is overly harsh about the AAP movement. There are no ideal movements in the world. There is no movement which has never suffered downs and every movement suffers ups and downs. In fact, I would be highly suspicious of any movement which faces no resistance and keeps going from glory to glory. The only such movements would be those who promote the status quo and bring no change to society. Nor do movements exist in a vacuum. Every movement is born in a society and even if it challenges the status quo, will bear resemble the society in which it was born. Specifically about the AAP, I believe every organisation has a reasonable right to establish discipline in its cadre. Shanti Bhushan criticised AAP at the height of the elections and it was the right and duty of the party to discipline him. Why then did Prashant Bhushan, the head of the disciplinary committee at the time, not take action against him? Prashant Bhushan himself admits in his letter to Arvind, that he campaigned only for one candidate in the Delhi elections, that when he was one of the tallest stalwarts of the party. Why? Yogendra Yadav, instead of relying upon the inner party democracy of a party of which he was a member, chose to go to the media instead to the degree that EVERY one of his letters to Arvind Kejriwal became freely available and started giving interviews left and right to every channel. Contrast this to the behaviour of Arvind Kejriwal. He has for the most part, remained completely silent and publicly announced that the administration of Delhi was of greater concern to him. Finally Sir, I’d like to describe a phenomenon I call the Eternal Rebel. The Eternal Rebel is a person who eternally rebels against every institution, against every revolution because he cannot find a PERFECT revolution that fulfill s his every criterion. The Eternal Rebel is of course a fool who will never achieve anything of import, because by his very nature, he can have no allies. Take for example Kafila itself. A year back, it strongly criticised the Shiv Sena because they had protested against Pakistani musicians in Mumbai. A few weeks or months later, Kafila itself committed the hypocrisy of submitting a public petition for the boycott of Israeli artists in India without seeing the irony. I chose not to play the Eternal Rebel and stop reading Kafila. Perhaps it’s because I still see the relevance of a public forum which by its own admission, ” runs away from big media”. Perhaps I chose to see the greater principle over a petty mistake.

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