The question that is uppermost on most people’s minds today is what will happen to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and how long will the protests continue? The home minister Amit Shah declaring that the Act will not be withdrawn and the government will not move an inch, regardless of the protests, is a direct challenge to the people of India. With the Supreme Court looking the other way, taking up challenge thrown by Shah can only mean one thing now: if the Act does not go, the regime must. Mass movements have been known to bring down oppressive regimes, and even in the recent past, we have seen that happen in different parts of the world.
Subsequent developments, however, also indicate that often forces emerge that basically take advantage of the mass movements to hijack them and install equally unpopular regimes – a matter we need to discuss very seriously. I will briefly return to this ‘political question’ later as it is of utmost importance that we grasp the possibilities and dangers inherent in the present moment.
During his recent visit to Kolkata, Congress leader P. Chidambaram appealed to all political parties opposed to the CAA, National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) to come together on one platform. While visiting the protest at Park Circus Maidan, he underlined that the fight today was to “save the Constitution of India” and that he was proud that “the students are fighting for intangible things like constitutional integrity, constitutional morality.”
The irony will not escape a discerning observer, however, that today it is only the students and ordinary citizens who are interested in fighting for such “intangible” things as constitutional integrity and constitutional morality. Political parties, almost without exception, including Mr Chidambaram’s own, are busy counting the tangibles of electoral gain. The electoral ally of the Congress in West Bengal is a nominally Left party that had no compunction in mobilizing votes for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the general elections last May, with its cynical “ebar Ram pore baam” [Ram now, Left later) slogan.
Quite tellingly then, a placard outside Park Circus Maidan reads: “No CAA. Welcome to Park Circus. Kindly leave your political party affiliation and the banner outside the gate.” Political parties however, have yet to gauge the depth of distrust earned by them over the years.
This widespread sentiment against political parties arises out of years of experience of betrayal by parties who enter spontaneous popular movements simply to hijack them. Those on the Left have their own fantasies of being ‘vanguards’ who are destined to lead the “unorganized, inexperienced masses”. The historical experience of such mass struggles in India in the past has been precisely that political parties enter the scene, either to take them over or simply split them and derail them. That is how a movement of students against corruption and inspired by the idea of a “total revolution” was ultimately reduced to the the sorry spectacle of the formation of the Janata Party and its rule after the Emergency. That it also became the thin edge of the wedge through which the RSS and Hindutva forces gained political respectability, also has to do with the fact there there was never any serious reflection on the dynamics of mass movements and their relationship to the political domain.
It should be noted, in parenthesis, that this sentiment of distrust towards political parties is very widespread, and we have seen its recurrence all over the world in recent years and written about it on Kafila earlier – in the Arab word during the Arab Spring and in Europe subsequently. This global sentiment against political parties also made its appearance in the Occupy Wall Street protests in the United States of America later that same year. It was also quite prominent in India during the Indian Against Corruption (IAC) movement – an aspect of the movement over which a lot of heated arguments and often acrimonious debate took place. Interested readers may sample some of that in the Kafila archives here.
The divide is stark and tragic. When the struggle is on and masses of people are out on the streets, they work more or less unitedly – on the condition that they manage to keep political parties out. That is what the notice outside the Park Circus Maidan seeks to do. Come elections and the picture changes. For citizens and students don’t fight the elections themselves and have to depend, yet again, on parties that have endlessly betrayed them. And yet, if the regime has to be defeated, a strong electoral coalition has to be in place where energies released by the movement/s can find political expression. But that is precisely what looks so remote and improbable today.
There is no doubt that the defence of the Constitution is the key issue today, for it is not just a legal document in the Indian context but quite literally, the charter of modern India. It was a “social contract”, hammered out by diverse and even opposed political forces that sat together in the Constituent Assembly (CA) for the first time. Political tendencies and currents found representation in the CA – from the Congress (Gandhians, Nehruvians, “nationlist Muslims”) to the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha (often also Cogressmen), from Ambedkar and Jaipal Singh to the communist Somnath Lahiri – and a whole host of regional representatives – all partook of that exercise. The only current not represented was the one that had studiously stayed away from the anti-colonial struggle and is in power today.
If that be the case, why should it be so difficult for the parties to put aside their petty ideological differences even for a brief while, in order to come together on a common platform and foreground the struggle for the constitutional vision? The answer is obviously that they are always not only interested in the tangibles of power, they are also all keen to ‘capture’ the movement to suit their own purposes.
This myopic party-centrism, I want to reiterate, afflicts all parties today. And so protesters in Park Circus and elsewhere are absolutely right to insist that while all are welcome, people must leave their political party identities and slogans outside.
However, recent historical experience in India and elsewhere suggests that it is of critical importance that we start thinking, right now, beyond the movement/party dichotomy. The unfortunate experience of the Arab Spring, where nine years down the line, the people are having to come out on the streets once more to fight equally corrupt and repressive regimes should alert us to the fact that a mere regime change will not help. Also worth remembering here is our own experience with the counter-revolution of 2014 and the rise of Modi to power. Even as people fought on the streets – the IAC movement, the struggles against land acquisitions, against privatization of higher education etc – the plan was being put in place to take advantage of the high levels of unpopularity of the UPA government to install a supposedly “strong leader” who will be able to take “hard decisions” and overcome the “policy paralysis” that the corporate sector saw as the hallmark of the UPA government. What was being fought for on the streets was systematically sought to be subverted by bringing in an agenda that was precisely its opposite! We have all seen how that happened with the active connivance of the corporate sector, the big media and other known and unknown forces.
This is indeed the classic scenario of what, in an extremely valuable insight, the Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci characterized as that of the crisis of hegemony and the emergence of “men of destiny”. The context in which Gramsci talks about the loss of hegemony of parties, though hugely different from ours, in a way actually speaks to our situation also. This is what he has to say:
“At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organizational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognized by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny’.“
The point here, for our purposes, is very simply about the disjuncture between the traditional parties in general and the masses, with whom they have lost all connection. What we have seen once the exhilarating moment of the Arab Spring was over, or the moment of elections came in India in 20014, was the entry of such unknown forces or “men of destiny” – either in the form of the armed forces or individuals backed by them – or in our case, the Modi counter-revolution.
The inability of the traditional parties – in our case the Chidambaram’s Congress or the Left in general – to rise to the occasion and reinvent themselves, is precisely what leaves the field open for further disaster. Their continuing myopia can cost us heavily. What reinventing means in this case, is also suggested in Gramsci’s reference to the party bureaucracies as “the most dangerously hidebound and conservative” forces and their “inability to react against the force of habit.”
Reinvention requires parties to think in tune with the changing times and grasp the new challenges, rather than continuing to repeat old shibboleths.