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1989 AS A CAUTIONARY TALE
- Towards a Congress-mukt pluralism?

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, there existed in Western Europe and most other parts of the world, a Marxist intellectual culture independent of (and vehemently critical of) Soviet-style socialism. Paris and Frankfurt nurtured Marxist (or marxisant) intellectuals who thought the Soviet Union was a political abomination, whose socialist aspirations and prescriptions shared nothing with the reality of ‘actually existing socialism’.

A remarkable generation of British historians and public intellectuals like Christopher Hill, Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson, Rodney Hilton and E.J. Hobsbawm both acknowledged an intellectual debt to Marx and affirmed a commitment to a broadly socialist politics. In 1980, Perry Anderson, one of the founders of the New Left Review and Verso, could publish Arguments Within English Marxism, a book-length evaluation of the work of E.P. Thompson, framed as a fraternal conversation between fellow Marxists.

If you had suggested to Anderson or Thompson in 1980 that their politics and their intellectual universe were in some way dependent on the life of the Soviet State and the ‘actually existing socialism’ that it claimed to champion, they wouldn’t have believed you. After Hungary and 1956, their socialist practice had been built around an opposition to the Stalinist socialism of Iron Curtain countries. They would have read the collapse of the Stalinist State system as a vindication of their intellectual evolution, not as the loss of an ideological anchor.

But the truth is that the disintegration of the Soviet Union did trigger the collapse of anything that could be described as a Marxist or socialist political culture in both Europe and most other parts of the world. Individuals remained socialist in their intellectual and political commitments, but the buoyancy that the sense of being part of a broad political current brings was gone.

A quarter of a century on, Indians committed to a pluralist politics who see the majoritarian nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party as a threat to the idea of an inclusive republic, should ask themselves if 2014 is their 1989 moment and if there are lessons to be learnt that might avert the marginalization of their political and intellectual commitments.

If the brutal Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 weaned Western European socialists off their dependence on the Soviet Union and their default tendency to treat ‘actually existing socialism’ as the rock on which to build a better world, the 1984 pogrom in Delhi was the event that demonstrated to liberal and secular Indians that the Congress that Indira Gandhi built had no claims at all on the pluralist values that had constituted the republic.

In the three decades after that monstrous pogrom organized by the Congress, socialists, liberals, pluralists, call them what you like, raged against the Congress in print, voted against it in elections, savaged its dynasticism and condemned it for betraying the values of its great predecessor, the Indian National Congress of blessed anti-colonial memory.

The politics of the bien pensant were constituted, first, by their understanding of the Congress as a cautionary tale and, second, by their recognition that the BJP was the largest menace to the peace of a pluralist republic. We looked for alternatives — the Mandalist politics of the Yadav parties, the Bahujan Samaj Party’s Phule-esque attempt to build an inclusive plebeian coalition, the many jerry-built Third Front alternatives that came and went, a Left that lived in its politburo — but nothing politically plausible at a pan-Indian level emerged.

But whether we acknowledged it or not, the mere existence of the Congress as an alternative to the BJP rescued us from the sense of crisis induced by the razing of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the savage political violence it encouraged that climaxed in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002. I can remember the enormous relief I felt in 2004 when the Congress pipped the BJP to the post in the general elections. Had Vajpayee won that election on the scale that the India-Shining-wallahs had predicted, desi liberals would have had to confront the prospect of marginality a decade earlier. As it was, if the Nineties and the turn-of- the-century belonged to the BJP, the Noughties belonged to the Congress.

Manmohan Singh’s decade is interesting because it illustrates how important the existence of a United Progressive Alliance government was to liberals. Even those who saw the Congress as a political dead-end, were comforted by the thought that the government was run by a party that paid lip service to the liberal and pluralist ideas they affirmed. The knowledge that the Congress was the party of Old Corruption, that it was capable of being opportunistically communal when it suited its purpose, that it was a grotesque dynastic excrescence in a republican country, was offset by the undeniable fact that it wasn’t the BJP.

This is not to suggest that using the UPA to enact liberal or welfarist policies or preferring it to the BJP was wrong or culpable. It wasn’t. But it is to suggest that in the ten long years of the Manmohan Singh interregnum, desi liberals, consciously or in a taken-for-granted way, got used to working with the notion of an ‘actually existing secularism’. Even those on the ideological Left were happy to work with the Congress’s High Command apparatus and its more kosher apparatchiks to influence this policy or that.

Now that the Congress is reduced to a leaderless rump in Parliament with no real prospect of revival, we have to reckon with the extent to which the hazy sense of a ‘secular’ establishment underwrote our existence. All of us believe that we come by our intellectual convictions individually, that they are hard won. And we do, and they are, but it would be unwise, in this politically inhospitable moment, to underestimate the extent to which the common sense of the republic sustained our beliefs.

This is the first decisive political victory for the majoritarian Right and it’s reasonable to believe that the republic’s ‘common sense’ will shift rightwards. Liberals, pluralists, leftists have never before experienced a world where an explicitly Hindutvavadi leadership can claim a popular mandate, with all the legitimacy that this confers. It is a world whose institutions are already reconfiguring themselves to embrace the new Zeitgeist.

Indian liberals (which I use as shorthand for the country’s pluralists and secularists and social democrats and leftists) mustn’t repeat the mistake that the independent Left made in 1989, which was to assume that its intellectual positions were sustainable because they were self-evidently virtuous and deeply felt. Without reckoning with the new reality of a public world re-oriented to the Right, without accounting for how much harder we will have to work to make our case, without learning from the mistakes we made while using the Congress, wittingly or otherwise, as a crutch, we might become rare and exotic orchids in a political landscape whose ecology has been radically changed.

We could make a start by not rounding on every liberal who thinks aloud about why things went wrong. When beleaguered by the enemy, it’s useful not to start attacking your friends. We could also stop looking for sociological succour. It’s one thing to factor in the relevance of caste or community to Indian politics and its political arithmetic; it’s quite another to assume that adding up the fractions is a substitute for a pan-Indian political ideology.

For some considerable time India’s bien pensants have subcontracted the political work necessary to sustain a secular, pluralist culture out to ‘other people’ who live in the Great Indian Hinterland. Now that Mr Modi has done us the unexpected favour of demolishing the convenient props that sustained this secularism-at-one-remove, we need to think about how we can contribute to creating a Congress-mukt pluralism. The Aam Aadmi Party, whether it falls apart or forges on, has in its brief career, shown us the political potential of an inclusive populism. For this, if nothing else, we are all in its debt.