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The Rise of Hindu Nationalism and the Failures of the Indian Left

India’s once-powerful left-wing movements are facing the gravest challenge in their history as Narendra Modi’s ultranationalist party consolidates its grip on power. This moment of crisis calls for a wholesale rethink of theory and strategy by Indian socialists.

BJP supporter holding up an image of Narendra Modi at a public rally in Kolkata, India, 2019. (Atul Loke / Getty Images)

India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), firmly entrenched in power, is pursuing a vendetta against its enemies — in particular, Indian Muslims and the country’s left-wing movement. Leading figures of the Indian left have been arrested under repressive legislation such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and branded as “Urban Naxalites.” Citizenship laws have targeted Muslims, stripping them of legal status.

There have been big demonstrations against these discriminatory laws by Muslims and student activists. Narendra Modi’s government used the pandemic curfew as an excuse to clamp down on such protests, and the authorities subsequently arrested some of the organizers, accusing them of having instigated the Delhi riots in February. But where have India’s left parties been while this was happening?

The Indian left is at a low ebb, probably the worst moment in its history. The mainstream, parliamentary left, represented by the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has no vision of anti-capitalist struggle, and is losing its electoral base. The Maoist organizations are confined to the forests of central India, isolated by their political sectarianism.

Achin Vanaik seeks to address this dangerous political moment in his new book Nationalist Dangers, Secular Failings: A Compass for an Indian Left. It serves as a follow-up to his earlier work The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism: Secular Claims, Communal Realities (2017). Nationalist Dangers, Secular Failings is a collection of previously published articles, thematically linked by the two issues of Hindu-nationalist authoritarianism and the challenge of building a left alternative to it.

Theories of Nationalism

Vanaik agrees with Benedict Anderson’s celebrated definition of the nation as an “imagined community.” It is a state of mind, and as such, nations can form or disappear. A sense of national identity and consciousness is of pivotal importance, based on a variety of factors.

There can be no checklist of features that define a nation, as Stalin’s overly rigid and highly influential conceptualization sought to do. In Vanaik’s words: “A nation emerges when a significant number of people see themselves as constituting one and seeks political control over a territorial space.”

The book begins with a theoretical summary of different, sometimes contending views of what constitutes a nation. There is a traditional, essentialist view, usually associated with right-wing nationalism. It sees the nation as an entity that has existed since time immemorial, or at least from ancient history onward. The essentialists believe that the nation possesses an innate character embodied in a mythical golden age.

This golden age might have been disrupted by an alien intruder, making it necessary to restore the nation’s character through a revival. This view invokes a common culture shared by the whole population, which could be real or fictitious — usually the latter, since a given territory tends to contain several cultures.

On the other hand, we have modern theories of nationalism, which link the phenomenon of nation-states to the rise of mass politics and popular sovereignty. While traditionalists give culture central importance in their understanding of the nation, modernists see politics as key to the construction of national communities.

Vanaik notes that the modernist school of thought includes neo-Weberians and Marxists. The latter associate nationalism with the rise of capitalism, which creates the conditions for national consciousness through print capitalism and standardized languages, along with state practices such as education and national armies. One problem with this view of nationalism as a modern phenomenon is the difficulty it has in explaining the presence of nationalism in pre-capitalist societies, or anti-colonial struggles in agrarian and tribal societies.

In anti-colonial struggles, we see traditional-essentialist nationalism constructed, as was the case in India, in order to counter the ideological superiority foisted upon the colonized nation by its colonizers. The intellectuals of countries like India ingeniously fashioned common symbols and histories to provide the cultural ammunition with which to fight the colonial power.

This process could be reactionary or progressive, depending upon the character of the intellectual class engaged in this project of building a counterculture. In the Indian case, that class was predominantly composed of upper-caste Hindu men.

The two seemingly competing versions of cultural nationalism in India have a shared origin in the myth of Hindu cultural uniqueness, invented by the nationalist Hindu intelligentsia during the fight against British colonial rule. The two mainstream parties which have successively dominated Indian politics since independence broadly represent the two versions of this myth.

First, there is the idea of India as an inclusive “composite culture,” characterized by “unity in diversity,” followed by the Indian National Congress (INC). The left-liberal section of the Indian intelligentsia also tends to follow this first variant. Secondly, there is the view of nationalism as the legacy of “Hindu religion and culture” adhered to by the BJP.

Two Hegemonies

Vanaik describes the period after the end of colonial rule as having been characterized by two phases of political hegemony. During the first phase, from independence onward, Congress was the dominant party. Its hegemonic ideal was of a developmental, welfarist (but still capitalist) state.

By the end of the 1960s, a huge chasm had begun to open up between the claims of the political establishment to foster development and social welfare on the one hand, and the reality of its social and economic failures on the other. Endemic poverty, the shortcomings of public-health and education projects, and the collapse of land reform eroded popular confidence in the Congress-led state.

During the interregnum that followed, regional political forces began to emerge, along with rural-based capitalist classes. In the face of this ideological void, Congress fell back on its latent softcore Hinduism.

At the same time, a far-right electoral force, the BJP, established itself on the Indian political scene, basing its appeal on three issues: 1) the building of the Ram Mandir temple on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque, supposedly located at the birthplace of the god Rama, 2) the withdrawal of autonomy from the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, and 3) the promulgation of a universal civil code, intended to victimize Christian and Muslim minorities.

The BJP consolidated itself as the major electoral power to inaugurate the second hegemonic period. As neoliberal capitalism took root in India and state intervention in the economy receded, popular support for Congress declined sharply. The BJP’s version of nationalism served as a pan-class social glue, providing India’s capitalist economy with a stable polity.

Of all the world’s far-right movements, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliated organizations, loosely known as the Sangh Parivar, constitute the best-organized force. It has a strictly hierarchical character, with orders flowing vertically from top to bottom. In its organizational history, now almost a century long, it has not experienced any major split.

The RSS has about three dozen affiliated organizations, India’s largest network of private schools, and more than eight hundred NGOs working in the areas of disaster relief, health care, and development. At base level, the movement has fifty-eight thousand local branches. Over the past seven years of BJP rule, the Sangh Parivar has managed to suborn the democratic institutions formerly held up as the safeguards of Indian democracy, namely the electoral commission and the Supreme Court.

Left Behind

The response of the mainstream Indian left has been disheartening. Instead of categorically rejecting the forward march of Hindutva and its projects, left-wing forces were equivocal about the recent cancellation of Kashmir’s autonomy and the Supreme Court judgement which allowed the construction of Ram Mandir on the site of the historical mosque. For the sake of expediency, the Left does not dare to forcefully oppose a Hindu nationalist sentiment that has sunk deep roots in popular opinion.

India’s electoral left theoretically adheres to Stalin’s definition of nationalism and believes that India is indeed a nation. According to this perspective, Kashmir, as part of India, does not have the right to self-determination, although the parliamentary communists do support limited autonomy for Kashmir under the terms of the 1947 accession agreement negotiated with its then-ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh. However, the recent silence of these parties on Kashmir testifies to their fear of losing their electoral constituency.

On the other hand, the various Maoist factions, evoking the same Stalinist tradition, contend that India is a “union of nations” and firmly support the right to self-determination for Kashmir and various other groups they recognize as “nationalities” in India’s north-eastern states.

The Maoists have been strong supporters of Kashmiri self-determination over the space of five decades. Their position is not without its own problems, however: the rigid Stalinist definition of national communities has brought them to the point of recognizing the Sikh fundamentalist demand for “Khalistan” as a national question to be resolved.

“Khalistan” is the name for a separate nation-state based on the tenets of Sikhism in the state of Punjab, where 58 percent of the population is Sikh. The Maoists assume that, since Punjabi society fulfills all the requirements of the Stalinist checklist for a nation, the demand for Khalistan is a manifestation of that nation’s desire for self-determination and therefore should be supported. However, the idea of Khalistan is at odds with the popular consciousness of Punjab itself.

The Left needs to construct an alternative to both dominant versions of nationalism, that of the Congress and that of the BJP. This alternative will need to be secular, and democratic — democratic in the sense that the nation should not be imposed on the people; they must have the choice to accept or reject it.

An Inclusive Nation

For Vanaik, the claim that nation-states are losing their importance because capital has assumed a global character does not hold water. He argues that the separation of the political from the economic which manifests itself at the level of the nation-state is fundamental to capitalism. While it may be correct to argue that the struggle against capital must be international, when far-right forces dominate the national stage, it is essential to challenge them at that level with an alternative form of nationalism that is open and inclusive.

The rallying cry “Defend The Constitution” put forward by India’s liberals and some on the left is inadequate. The far right has already taken great strides in the implementation of its project by working within the bounds of the Indian constitution. Moreover, that constitution, as a bourgeois, liberal document, can hardly assist the struggle for a post-capitalist society.

Vanaik argues that Hindutva’s broad hegemony, which rests upon strong organizational foundations, is going to remain in place for a long time to come. The opposition forces are weak and fragmented. The mainstream left has turned into a primarily electoral movement, which seeks to win elections as a goal in itself, rather than use them as a tool for mobilizing working people. Their trade-union affiliates issue calls for general strikes, but according to Vanaik they have “lost the capacity to relate to working-class struggles.”

The electoral successes of the Indian left in states like West Bengal and Kerala have increasingly come at the expense of class struggles. In 2007, the CPI–Maoist led a struggle of Adivasis in the town of Nandigram against a project of the Communist-led Left Front government to establish special economic zones in West Bengal. The clashes and police killings in Nandigram helped precipitate the fall of the Left Front government after more than three decades of rule.

The West Bengal leaders saw the task of attracting multinational corporations to their state as necessary to foster capitalist industrialization, which they considered an obligatory stage on the road to socialism. They ended up in the position of “left neoliberals.” Far from advancing socialism, the restructuring of the workforce in formerly state-owned sectors after privatization has pushed the Communist-affiliated unions out.

In Kerala, the Communists regularly alternate power with Congress every five years, and their governments have significant achievements to their credit, saving the health and education sectors from the ravages of privatization. But their goal is clearly to manage and (hopefully) tame capitalism, rather than to erode its power, even if — as Vanaik notes — their electoral decline has not been as sharp as in other regions, because the challenge of competing with Congress “has forced the party to periodically behave as a pro-people’s militant opposition.”

On the other hand, India has an extra-parliamentary Maoist movement. The Maoist understanding of Indian society as semi-feudal and semi-colonial underpins their strategy of Protracted People’s War. In theory, this would mean gradually surrounding the country’s urban areas with an armed struggle waged in the countryside.

Over the last decade, however, instead of surrounding the cities, the Maoists have found themselves under siege by the armed forces in small pockets of central India. The well-equipped forces of the Indian state are likely to gain more ground as time goes on. As the author rightly observes, the politics of Indian Maoism constitute a cul-de-sac.

Roads to Power

Vanaik argues that the only real option for the fight against Hindutva neoliberalism is a long-term project of building up a new Indian left. The last chapter of Vanaik’s book engages with a debate that has developed over the past few years around different strategies for taking power, inspired by the emergence of left-wing forces in Europe and the United States. As such, it is of wider relevance than to the Indian context alone.

He distinguishes between two broad theories of socialist transformation and how it should relate to the existing political institutions (parliaments, presidencies etc.). The first, which Vanaik calls the “gateway thesis,” sees those institutions as a channel for socialist transformation, allowing a socialist party to form a government and push through reforms until the balance of power shifts in favor of the working class. Vanaik himself argues for the “bastion thesis,” according to which socialist movements must follow a different road to power, coming into conflict with the old institutions of government.

An opportunity will arise in a moment of grave crisis to capture state power and transform the class character of the state. This will involve a period of dual power, when the existing bourgeois state power faces a challenge from parallel structures under direct popular control. This is a model that looks back to the Russian soviets of 1917 in Russia, the abortive revolution in Republican-held areas during the Spanish Civil War, and other such episodes.

Vanaik concludes without saying a great deal about the future of the Indian left in particular. He is dismissive of the existing left-wing formations: “The only realistic option is the creation of a new, much more radical Left force through a process which for a long time will be one of molecular accumulation, but also through splits and fusions among existing left forces.” He does hold out the hope that “dramatic popular upheavals” can enable this new left-wing movement to “achieve a growth that is much more sudden.” But the timescale governing such upheavals cannot be foreseen at present.

Left Populism, Indian-Style

There are some peculiarities of Indian politics and society that must be considered if we are to formulate a viable left strategy for the country. Firstly, India is a country where more than half the population still depends upon agriculture, in spite of the accelerated proletarianization of the last couple of decades.

Most of these people, in Marxist terminology, are petty commodity producers, who do not confront their exploiter on a daily basis, as members of the working class do. They cannot fight for higher wages or better conditions from their employer. They cling on to small plots of land in the absence of better employment opportunities, producing enough grain to satisfy their basic needs for sustenance.

Secondly, 52 percent of India’s total workforce is self-employed. Along with the farmers we have already mentioned, who account for 60 percent of the self-employed, there are street vendors, small shop-owners, and so on. Just 4 percent of these people employ another wage worker in their trade. Formal employees account for just one-quarter of India’s workforce. The mass exodus of poor people from India’s cities to their native regions during the pandemic-induced lockdown has exposed the precarity of their working lives.

While Indian democracy under the present Hindutva regime is fast losing any liberal aspect, the country’s electoral system has remained quite resilient since independence and could still be used to challenge the far-right forces. For the majority of India’s toilers who are self-employed, left-populist demands directed toward the state have a more tangible appeal than class struggle at the point of production. Farmers’ protests are gathering strength around the issues of debt relief, procurement of their harvest by government at fixed prices, and job creation.

The Indian left needs to come up with a coherent plan along the lines of the Green New Deal or Medicare For All in the United States to rally popular support. This is something that the country’s left-wing movement can set about doing in the here and now to start reviving its fortunes and bring Indian politics out of its currently dire predicament.