India: Political instability writ large in Karnataka

In the Karnataka Legislative Assembly election of 12 May, India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got 8 seats short of the half way mark but won the “prize”. Its party leader, B.S.Yeddyurappa, who has previously spent time in prison, got to be sworn in as the new Chief Minister. He “enjoyed” the throne for just 55 hours. The BJP had made a bid to usurp power but had to give way unceremoniously, even before a test on the floor of the house to prove its majority. 

The buying off of legislators to “adjust the mandate” has become almost a norm in India’s Parliamentary practice, with deft ‘Horse Trading’ going on. But unfortunately for the BJP, the Supreme Court’s decision in Karnataka came as a rude surprise. It meant its claim of having a majority in the newly elected house of legislature had to be proved immediately.     

The turn of events in Karnataka over the past week, is yet another chapter in the sordid saga of the degeneration of India’s so-called democracy. Since the last General Elections in 2014, which brought Narendra Modi to power with a mere 31% votes, the BJP has bull-dozed its way into government formations in at least four states, despite not having the required majority – in Goa, Manipur, Meghalaya  and now in a botched-up attempt in Karnataka. 

A master stroke was carried through in Bihar last year. Within 18 months of the formation of a government, with Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister of a coalition of Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress, the BJP lured the chief minister, Nitish himself, to defect to them. Yet this political thuggery receives accolades across India, irrespective of the political party practicing it.

It is no accident that every decent member of Congress is profusely thanking the Supreme Court for decreeing the tight deadline of two days for the floor test, preventing the BJP from mustering the requisite numbers. There was simply not enough time to seduce or threaten members of the local assembly (MLA) to cross over from Congress and Janata Dal (S). Neither of these two parties is any more virtuous. They are no less wily and cunning than Amit Shah (president of the BJP) and Modi. It is anyone’s guess as to how long the new found “friendship” of exigency will last, before the daggers are drawn to spill blood.  

This circus shows the fragile nature of bourgeois democracy in India. The ruling class can boast about having the largest electoral machinery, working round the clock thoroughout the year the length and breadth of the country spanning 3,287,263 km. But the glaring fact is that, despite its political age of 70 years, India’s democracy is still frgile – plagued by casteism, tribalism, regionalism, linguistic fanaticism, religious strife and parochialism. 

Karnataka’s “democracy” in 2018

Karnataka is considered one of the economically forward states in the country, occupying 6th place among with a GSDP (Gross State Domestic Product) of about US$115.86 billion – contributing 7% to India’s GDP.

In the past, the state claimed to run the manufacturing hub with public sector industries. But in the last 25 years of a neo-liberal offensive, the state has seen the loss of tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs. With public sector industries losing ground to the private sector and with the dumping of manufactured goods due to capitalist globalisation, youth unemployment has grown phenomenally. According to a business think tank TeamLease report, Karnataka’s unemployment percentage will go up to 23.7 per cent by 2020. Karnataka has an estimated poverty ratio of around 21% which is the same as the national ratio.

According to the 2011 Socio-Economic and Caste Census, 14.4 per cent of rural households in Karnataka are considered ‘deprived’, as against a national average of 8.9 per cent. The salary of the highest earning member of 70% of households is less than Rs 5,000 per month ($74).

The 2018 Karnataka elections were against the background of rural and farm distress and growing unemployment, yet none of these issues figured in the manifestos or promises of the three major political parties – the BJP, Congress and the secular Janata Dal (Secular) (JD(S)).

These establishment parties kept repeating their favourite vote-catching phrases with casteist and communal overtones. None of them addressed the fundamental issues of poverty, unemployment or rural agrarian distress which has resulted in no less than 3,515 suicides of peasants in the last four years. Neither the minimum wage nor youth employment featured in the campaign. 

Why the BJP gained

Polarisation on communal and casteist lines started right from the period of BJP-JDS coalitions. The RSS (Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and other Hindutva forces have never ceased to be active and seized every opportunity to keep up increase the divisions. Modi and Shah were so arrogant that they brought in as Chief Ministerial candidate someone who had been convicted and jailed for embezzlement and corruption in the past.  They made allowances for Karnataka’s well-known looters and robbers – the Reddy Brothers, who enriched themselves to the tune of billions of dollars from Granite quarrying . The writing on the wall was always there, with very conspicuous saffron coloured fonts, the polarisation of the electorate particularly the middle class and upper caste segments.

Unfortunately, the so-called “progressives’ lobby” never wanted to face reality, painting the neo-liberal Congress as secular and progressive. They put all their hopes in the charisma of Siddaramaiah, the out going Chief Minister, to carry the campaign but they didn’t see the rot that had set into Congress, finishing off whatever Social Democratic content was left in it. It is understandable why Siddramaiah’s was reluctant to play the divisive Lingayat card, to give them a minority religion status and that way loosen the hold of BJP’s Yeddyurappa who comes from the same Lingayat caste. It neither brought the expected results nor weakened the Hindutva grip on the party; in fact it might have increased it. Some intellectuals and activists are expressing regret and even suggesting that Congress should have gone into a pre-poll alliance with JD(S), instead of committing Harakiri. 

BJP and RSS strategy

While Congress considered Karnataka as its last bastion, the BJP and its extended family called Sangh Parivar chose the state as a challenge for entering the South of the country. They had communally “nurtured” the state with all their time-tested divisive tactics, with no holds barred since 2013 – their aborted stint as ruling coalition partners with JD(S), for namesake, the secular Janata Dal, got weakened in the bargain due to its own internal conflicts and partisan caste rivalries. But the RSS  and its political front – the BJP – enormously gained and consolidated the Hindutva votes. It used the interregnum after 2013 to belligerently identify itself as a party that stands for Hindutva. Be it the ‘Love Jihad’ (Inter-religious relationships) or Beef Ban (restrictions on beef consumption),  or the controversy around Valentine’s Day celebrations, it used every opportunity to polarise the situation against the religious minorities, particularly the Muslims.  True to its communal nature, like in Uttar Pradesh, in Karnataka too it did not field even a single Muslim candidate in this just concluded elections.

The severely weakened Congress Party is increasingly looking like a party of the past. Since adopting neo-liberal policies, Congress can no longer put a claim on its once formidable Social Democratic constituency. Yet even today a significant section of religious minorities and to some extent Dalits (Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes) favour Congress.

Is the Modi magic over?

While it is too early to give a categorical answer to this important question, what is  certain is that the Modi model has run out of steam. In the multi-coloured manifesto distributed during the Karnataka elections, the “achievements” of Modi’s four year rule were conspicuous by their absence. Instead it was a vitriolic list of Congress’ failure under Siddaramaiah. Even during the month-long campaign of the BJP, led by Amit Shah (Modi’s Henchman, President of the BJP and Modi, they hardly beat their chest about their own accomplishments. They strategically down-played ‘Demonetisation and GST’ and there was no significant mention about their star promise of bringing back ‘Black Money’ from foreign shores.

The mass perception of the BJP in 2014 being a party with a difference is increasingly waning. All its rhetorical promises are getting exposed. There is a sure discomfort at the top, with a feeling that Modi’s authoritarian style is detrimental to the party’s prospects. Some disgruntled old guard have already jumped ship, and have come out openly against the Modi-Shah duo. While the “mentor” RSS is yet to make its move openly, it is no secret that rumblings are being heard among the extended family of the Sangh (RSS). There is a near revolt in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – a powerful front of the RSS – against Modi’s failure to build the Babri Mosque, the former General Secretary, Praveen Togadia, has resigned in protest and formed a new virulent outfit, which voices open criticism of Modi, and demands the re-building of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya, where once a Mosque stood, allegedly built in the memory of Babur, the 15th Century Persian/Moghul king.

As 2019 approaches, with the country’s general election to be held before May next year, many of these promises and failures of the Modi regime may return to haunt him. Many shouted themselves hoarse about the Hindutva “fascist Modi” have already changed their tune. The rise of the RSS/BJP, represented by an authoritarian leader of the Hindu right, Narendra Modi, signifies that India’s political and economic crisis has intensified to unprecedented proportions. There is no doubt that the Hindutva right-wing forces have drawn lessons from the handbook of fascistic methodology – creating fear and using a strategy of divide and rule. 

But there has been disenchantment with Modi after his whimsical demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which has put an enormous tax burden on the general population.

The growing discontent among the working population and unemployed youth – particularly among the Dalit youth – goes to show that there are limits to authoritarianism, in whatever form it appears – be it Bonapartist Indira Gandhi or the semi-dictatorial Modi, with parliamentary trappings. 

Certain sections of industrialists have put their investment into Modi’s BJP for fast returns and it is in direct corollary with the failure of the bourgeoisie to solve any one of the fundamental socio-economic challenges faced by society in general. 

Contrary to the claims for the benefits of capitalism, the growth and GDP figures, even taken at face value, show it has utterly failed to lift the majority of the masses in this country out of extreme poverty and depravation. To put it in perspective, states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which are much larger than some major countries of Europe, are still suffering deaths from Malnutrition, lack of clean drinking water and medieval sanitation facilities. Uttar Pradesh is India’s most populous state with a population of 200 million, yet it spends only Rs452 ($6.74) per capita on health – 70% less than the national average. As recently as August last year, more than 80 infants lost their lives for want of oxygen cylinders at a public hospital in Gorakhpur.  

Law of diminishing returns

Both Modi and Shah, in their speeches after the Karnataka assembly elections, spoke of attacks on minorities, the need for a ‘Welfare Society’, the benefits of federalism, against Hindi imposition (trying to woo the Southern states with four Dravidian languages), for democracy and constitutionality etc.. In fact it sounded like devils quoting the scriptures! Yet this is a pointer to the fact that, contrary to popular expectations of Modi becoming more and more aggressive, he can be expected to play a defensive bat in the coming period to buy more time.

Modi’s rhetoric about “development” was given an unceremonious burial a long time ago. If he dared to bring it back, it will only boomerang. The coming elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh this year, are crucial in setting the tone for 2019. The BJP is facing severe anti-incumbency sentiment, especially in Rajasthan. In all these states, the BJP is going to throw in everything at its disposal to win. The elections will be too close to the 2019 election for comfort. We should not be surprised, as it draws closer, if a Muzzafarnagar type situation (engineering an anti-Muslim riot) or a Kargil variety (small scale war with Pakistan) is tried out. 

Is there an Alternative?

Millennial youth have a phrase “think outside the box”. India’s working people comprising of all oppressed sections – Dalits,Tribals, women, Muslims and other religious minorities and struggling nationalities are craving  for a genuine alternative, they have all the combativity to take on their enemies of all varieties. They are very aware how the so-called “secular and communal” wings of capitalism switch sides according to their convenience and will. 

But it is the Left; particularly the two dominant Communist parties, CPI(M) and the CPI who have misled the militant youth and working class time and again, tying them again and again to the different wings of the bourgeois class as being progressive, they have never shown independent way forward to unshackle the working class and other oppressed from the capitalist clutches.

A genuine Democratic Socialist Aternative political force that includes Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, women and organisations for whom the question of anti-communalism and anti-casteism is not an election time strategy or a vote-gaining tactic but a life and livelihood question. None of the establishment parties can play that role, however many sincere individuals are in them. They are all clinging to these parties masquerading as secular for want of an alternative.  

There is no other path to be taken than the rebuilding of the workers’ movement, particularly of a new mass party of the working class rooted in struggle but under the banner of the genuine ideas of Marxism.

The working class will not find a way out through the present organisations or with its present leadership. There is no alternative but to construct a new force, a mass workers’ party, which can win the confidence of the Indian working masses, to politically re-arm them, for the struggle for socialism in India and throughout the world.

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May 2018