Current Trends in Indian Politics

The Center for Modern Indian Studies hosts weekly colloquiums that host engaging speakers who analyze history or current events. Yesterday's topic on democracy and current trends in Indian politics was also very thought provoking and incited many comments. This post is an attempt to summarize the points and questions raised by visiting professor Ajay Gudavarthy's presentation, titled "Maoism, Democracy and Globalisation: Cross-Currents in Indian Politics." The talk is based on chapters from his new book Maoism, Democracy and Globalization. He teaches Political Science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. 

What is the new middle class discourse?

In the 1960s and 1970s, series of social movements such as feminism, Dalit, and Other Backward Class (OBC) and their leadership, agenda and social base are drew from middle class, and they met at places such as the Calcutta Coffee House (aka College Street Coffee House). In the past two decades, a new middle class emerged in the context of social "mobility with insecurity."

Calcutta's India Coffee House on College Street, place where many leftist intellectual discussions took place
There is an increase in popular participation with increasing centralization of the state, as well as more technocrats and state surveillance. Recently, despite critics, Gujarat has made voting compulsory, which stems from these pressures. In an interview with the Indian Express, a election commission officer said in disagreement that "forcible voting is against the Constitution. Right to vote is a statutory provision, and compelling (voters) may not work. The basic feature of our electoral system is free and fair elections. Compulsory voting is not free. You can’t herd people into polling booths and make them vote.” Gudarvarthy said that if one reads David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism and look at India, "nothing matches." Contrary to the decline of the state, he sees a resurgence of surveillance and welfare as well as increasing notion of human rights language. (Dr. Ahuja later disagreed and does not see India as a case of exceptionalism from Harvey’s observation of neoliberalism. Welfare is not necessarily the same as the 1970s.)

In Dr. Gudavarthy's opinion, Anna Hazare's years of protest is the political and social face of the old Indian middle class. Hazare-led protest movements focuses on anti corruption, anti-sexual violence issues. But Gudavarthy observes that the protest against of corruption is empty and socially-displaced category. Corruption has a scope so wide that any act, regardless of size or whether it is committed by the poor or middle class, can fit into this category. 

Now, the new middle class have transformed “social justice” discourse, shifting the focus from social justice to representation, from contestation to negotiationsFirst question the backward caste leaders ask Modi was, "How many Dalit ministers have you appointed?" He has appointed three Dalits in contrast to five in the previous leadership tally. Secularism and left/right/center stances do not make sense in Dalit politics. They are concerned with representation. Reservation as the catch-all policy preference and subsequently supplanted land reform, rural urban divide, and questions of poverty. However, Dr. Viswanath points out that it is because there are increasing presence of Dalits in politics and this is left out of the account."When was there even this mass of Dalit politics for us to distinguish between left, center, and right?" She also points that there are formal complaints and political interventions regarding land in Tamil Nadu, showing a resurgence in land issues. Furthermore, NGOs are taking up the poverty and land issues, which is why there is a decline in political mobilization for these concerns.

How does the old left view the Dalit, OBC and Maoist movements? There seems to be a new preoccupation with caste stigma and reservations.

Traditionally, people in Maoist leadership were from (the newly created state of) Telangana. (Dr. Gudavarthy related a joke in which Telangana Maoists were caught due to a complaint in the north, Orissa, and they were all speaking Telegu despite being in the Hindi belt. The police were confused and asked, "Why did this happen in Orissa?") Nowadays, Maoist sub-command and district areas have organic tribal leadership and they speak in their own tribal language. When Dr. Gudavarthy visited, he had to bring a translator. 
This arrangement is in contrast with the Dalit movement that has middle class leadership. This group does not talk with the Maoists and these two groups do not share the same political language. Maoists only see Dalits as the new social elite, and they do not see caste as a significant political factor.

Subalterns like Maoists have vacated the streets and they are caught between powerlessness and militancy. There are no trade union movement and migrants are demobilized while at least 3,146 farmers committed suicide in Maharashtra in 2013. Theses streets now are occupied by new middle class such as Gujjars, Jats, Rajputs, but they are clashing with each other when taking protests onto the street. Furthermore, the old revolutionary spirit is dying out in Maoist movement. Similar to the trend of Dalits focusing on reservations, tribals also focus more on concrete issues such as their forest threatened by mining companies, mobilizing under the slogan for "Jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest, land)."

File photo from Muzaffarnagar riots. AP

There are growing inter-subaltern conflicts in Indian politics, such as conflicts between OBCs and Muslims (see Muzaffarnagar riots) and Dalits v. Muslims in Dehli and Western Uttar Pradesh. What used to be a collective, wide-scale  farmer’s movement movement has now become an OBC-led movement that targets other competing rural interests.  Gudavarthy observes, “The RSS is reaching out to Dalit politics. There are larger representation for Dalits in politics of the right. We see the de-Brahminization of the right and a renewed Hinduization.” In relation to these comments, I found this similarly eye-opening analysis in The secret of BJP's success in Uttar Pradesh--

The BJP-RSS combine adopted a special strategy for appropriating Dalit and backward caste votes. Amit Shah, the coordinator of the UP chapter, along with RSS preachers took more than an active interest in such caste associations. Shah projected backward and Dalit faces and engaged in Hindu polarisation in the wake of the Muzaffarnagar riots. The message disseminated among Dalits and backward castes was that the Congress, BSP and the SP were so busy polarising Muslims, they had no concern for Hindus.

I was not quite sure how heatedly contested current Other Backward Caste politics were until I looked up and found this dire analysis in the one of the English reports in 2007 Caste in Conflict--

In Rajasthan, if a caste feels better off and secure within any reserved category, it opposes inclusion of any other caste that might threaten their monopoly. So if Jats faced resistance from existing OBCs while attempting entry in that category, Gurjars are opposed by Meenas. Off the record, political parties admit to Meenas' political clout and even the need of reservation for Gurjars in certain pockets, but none will admit this in public.

In 2008 protests occurred again and clashes with security forces ended with 36 deaths.

Thus, Dr. Gudavarthy proposes that inter-subaltern conflicts signal a new kind of subaltern agency. Using middle man with culture capital, the subalterns undermines traditional Patron-client relationship with hegemonic forces. When he mentioned that Dalit movements have moved from contest and conflicts to pragmatic negotiations to scholar Partha Chatterjee, Chatterjee replied that: I noticed this 20 years ago. 

5 Points that show the breakdown of different groups' social contract with the state.

1. As aforementioned, the old middle class is withdrawing its consent with the state, with Anna Hazare's movement as the front. He has contempt for representative politics, he sees that people are giving their votes for drinking and smoking. Thus, by deriding representative politics, Hazare has gained a moral consensus outside of the political representative domain. 
2. The new middle class also undermines state’s sovereignty that calls international organizations for understanding “caste as race” through human rights discourses.
3. Maoist movements also undermine state sovereignty.
4. The Right to Information Act, while positive, also undermines parliament and state institutions.
5. (BJP supported supposedly democratic idea of) small states, but this has also produced a strong center. We understand the catch in public knowledge. What political language can we use to analyze this? 

Media as a site of understanding middle class democratic values
Gudavarthy joked that,TV anchor host Arnab Goswami, who is famous for his bombastic presentation style, "has made our lives very easy, we know what is wrong in the view of politics just by watching him." But Dr. Srirupa Roy also finds the media downplaying leftist movements that could have national potential to just a local scope. She questions, "Why is there no organized formation of left on a national level? One reason is that, "Its easier for local movements to link up globally rather than locally."

Related to the media and law, there is also a shift from investigation to the construct of popular pressure, what Gudavarthy calls "the demonstrative effects of popular democracy"  and “encounter killings.” Often, suspects are charged and convicted with no legal evidence, such as the suspect in the 2001 Parliament attack case.

Some remaining questions
1. What will the current regime do to welfare? Modi is cutting down on MNEGRA but welfare is still at the center of politics. Dr. Chandra also points out that one should beware of neo-welfarism as connected to the labor-thirsty nature of capitalism: MNEGRA reproduces colonial schemes from the past: you have to work in order to get food. Welfare becomes a new way to manage of labor.
2. How to explain regional differences in movements and party formations? Why do some right-wing parties emerge in some regions and and not parties similar to the Aam Admi Party?

Every talk stimulates a lot of ideas and things to further investigate or revisit. Here are some I have organized:

1. Read Moyn's The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History
2. Understand religious polarization in Telangana
3. Rewatch film about media phenomenon and Indian farmer suicide Peepli Live