The Indian radical grapples with globalisation

3 09 2012

There has been a major transformation in India over the last two decades – economic, political, social and cultural. Some of this has been a result of the liberalisation of the economy, a significant part of which has been the opening up to global capital. The Left in India, across organisations and ideologies, has viewed globalisation as a disaster for India. However, even a cursory glance at the actual history of globalisation in India will show that it has been as much about India reaching out to the world as the world coming to India.

This paper argues that the  Indian radical has been unable to come to terms with this phenomenon. He does not know how to define it, he does not know how to engage with it and he invariably falls back on understandings and explanations from another age which have little salience today. It is this last feature which brings out a streak of conservativeness in him.

This paper tries to identify the main features of the Indian radical’s fear of globalisation, the function of nationalism in this, the role which foreign goods and capital play in building this and the consequences for radical politics.

(This is not a fully developed position but rather an attempt to think through some ideas. Further, the text here is a rough draft which was used to make a presentation at the workshop on Spectacle of Globality organised by Ravinder Kaur and Thomas Blom Hansen at the University of Copenhagen on 29-30 August 2012. Please do not quote from this article without asking me.)

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In 1991 the Indian state inaugurated a set of policy shifts, primarily economic, which were meant to liberalise the rules of business for private capital, allow this private capital to access and own many assets which had previously been off-limits to it (including the commodification of many resources which had till then remained outside the ambit of the market) as well as open up the economy to foreign capital. Many of these policies have antecedents to the 1980s, but it is arguable that the budget presented by then finance minister, Manmohan Singh, marked a significant point of departure. This was so not only because of the economic measures announced but for the open espousal of a new ideological and political programme which self-consciously broke with the leftish populism of the previous decades. A new world-view was promulgated which fore-grounded the market, claimed an inherent “efficiency” of private capital and argued the inevitable “realism” of opening up the Indian economy to global capital and re-aligning India’s foreign policy.

The first, and most significant till date, opposition which emerged to this policy shift was from the Indian left[1]. The left opposed this shift not merely in terms of economic policy but equally for the major political and strategic shifts it implied for the Indian state. It was seen as linked with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the change in international relations, as well as the rise of a rightwing mass politics around the issue of Ramjanmabhoomi. While it was unable to change the policy direction announced in the summer of 1991, or even stall the more important measures, the left in India did manage to gather a sizable opposition to “liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation” (or even LPG), as the policy framework was commonly referred to. This opposition, at the very least, moderated the rate of opening up of the economy to foreign capital while also making the process of privatisation much more contested and negotiated than the State policy envisioned.

The success of the left’s opposition was not merely that it stalled some measures or moderated the amount or speed of privatisation or globalisation, but more so in that it has managed to start a national conversation over these policies and keep it going for over two decades. Its success is in the building up a pool of intellectual and political resources which today inform a range of movements, political positions and activists. Political parties and groups which want to oppose one or the other aspects of the Indian state’s economic policies invariably draw on this pool of intellectual and political resources created by the left.

Defending the Nation

The foundation of the left’s opposition to the triad of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation is based on a defence of the radical national project which emerged during the anti-colonial struggle and which informed the socialistic policies of the post-Avadi Congress India[2]. In the past two decades, it has rallied around the defence of India’s sovereignty and against the selling out of India’s “national interest” as a result of the new policies. This is not to suggest that there are no other aspects to the left’s opposition. However, even a cursory look at the various left organisations and movements over the past two decades makes it amply clear that the central pillar of their opposition to the Indian state’s economic and international policies since 1991 has been the defence of sovereignty and national interest.

If in 1992 the CPI(M) was talking about how the “humiliating conditions” of the International Monetary Fund on India would “endanger economic sovereignty” (CPI(M) 1992: p 13), in 1993 the CPI(ML-Liberation) was warning that India was on its way to becoming a “banana republic” (Mishra 1993). A major national seminar organised in New Delhi in June, 1992 was titled “In Defence of Sovereignty” and included “left Congressmen” of a Nehruvian persuasion, members and sympathisers of the CPI, of the CPI(M), of various Naxalite and Maoist parties, of social movements which emerged out of socialist parties of the 1960s, Trotskyites and others.

I do not argue that it was necessarily wrong to foreground the defence of sovereignty as the rallying slogan at that moment. The strategy of the left was to unite the largest possible spectrum of political opinion in the country against these policies. It was assumed, given the experience of various other post-colonial countries, that these policies would lead to the takeover of the Indian economy by foreign capital, leading to political subservience of the Indian state to Western powers, especially the United States of America. In short, it would lead to India becoming a neo-colonial state. This control of the Indian state by Imperialism would, as experience in Latin America, Africa and West Asia had repeatedly shown in the second half of the 20th century, at the very least, reduce the ability, already curtailed by the presence of powerful domestic private capital, of the Indian people to influence state policy.

There was, also, a fair amount of unease across different classes about the implications of the reforms initiated, specially globalisation, which was seen exclusively as the opening up of the domestic market to foreign capital. Even among the industrialists and business classes, there were important sections which feared decimation at the hands of foreign capital leading to influential industrialists like Rahul Bajaj, Nusli Wadia, Jamshed Godrej, Hari Shankar Singhania, C K Birla and Lalit Thapar, among others, forming the “Bombay Club” (Pragya Singh 2011). Even the Confederation of Indian Industry, after its first flush of enthusiastic welcome to these new policies, had its moment of unease in the mid-1990s, accusing foreign companies in India of behaving “marauder-like”, providing obsolete technology and trying to muscle out their Indian partners (Periera, Mukherjee, Ghosh, 1996).

This opposition to globalisation was also widespread within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and some of its affiliates like the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, their trade union the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, and even their electoral front – the Bharatiya Janata Party. This unease with globalisation was shared by various sections of the urban middle-classes which sometimes looked suspiciously at measures which could rock the stability of their lives.  The rich peasantry, which had taken baby steps towards capitalist agriculture only a decade or two prior to this opening up of the economy, was also unsure about the effects of this opening up of the economy and viewed globalisation with some trepidation. The poor peasants, the landless labourers, the urban workers and various other sections of the marginalised and oppressed too, in as much as they had an organised voice, expressed deep reservations towards these policies.

India also had a long history of struggle against foreign domination, which remained a strong living memory of its people.

Given this context, it was understandable that the left built its opposition to the new economic and international policies around the slogan of the defence of sovereignty and national interest as perhaps only this could bring together a political alliance of these disparate social classes, wide enough to effectively challenge the Indian state. Yet, it should not be forgotten that the core support for this strategic shift in the policy framework of the Indian state came from among the private industrial houses and big business interests as well as the urban professionals, rentiers and the rural rich and this strategy of the left never really managed to break this class alliance.

Digging in their Heels

However, it was apparent that by the turn of the century this strategy of the left to build a wide spectrum opposition to the policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation was, if not a failure, surely providing diminishing returns. One, there was little evidence of a swamping of the Indian economy by foreign capital, rather it led to an unprecedented prosperity among urban social classes and real, even if small, openings among traditionally marginalised and oppressed social groups for upward mobility (Kapur, Prasad, et al 2010).

Two, a decade into the accelerated opening up to the global economy, a new trend emerged. Indian companies, both private and public owned, started acquiring assets abroad. The first big-ticket global acquisition was by the Tata’s of Tetley Tea for $413 million dollars in the summer of 2000. Since then, till June 2012, Indian companies have announced about 2000 acquisitions of foreign companies with a total investment of about $116 billion (Economic Times, 2012). As a comparison, in the same period of time, about $162 billion of foreign direct investment came into India (DIPP, 2012)[3]. Three, even in terms of the Indian state’s independence vis-a-vis the United States and other Western powers, the nuclear tests showed that the Indian state could take decisions which were strongly opposed by these powers and had the strength and room for manoeuvre to brazen it out.

The slogan – “Defence of Sovereignty” – had lost much of its ability to bring about a wide ranging political alliance of disparate social classes. Thus the “Bombay Club” quietly disbanded while the urban middle classes have become a solid bloc of support for globalisation. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sidelined its Swadeshi warriors as the Bharatiya Janata Party became the party of economic reforms. The left was unable to build a strong enough opposition on its own which could stop and reverse these policies. Slowly, state governments run by the left joined the scramble for inviting foreign capital at increasingly competitive terms. The instrumental utility of the “defence of national interest” line had failed by the time of the new century.

However, despite these changed political conditions, the formal politics of the left did not change. Even if there was some grudging acceptance of the fact that this slogan had been unable to build the wide ranging political alliance it was expected to, the continuation of this political position (line?) was argued on the basis of a higher, political morality. The left became the defenders of the Indian nation which had been abandoned by its ruling / dominant classes. There was not even a change in the words and language used to describe what globalisation would do to India, its economy and its people from the time when it was first deployed in the 1980s and early 1990s and the early 2000s.

Thus Sitaram Yechury was warning in October 2001, “India is moving dangerously towards being enslaved again economically by the industrialised west”, while the National Alliance of People’s Movements (2001) was passing resolutions that globalisation would erode the country’s sovereignty and lead to “life long slavery and dependency”. The NAPM’s central slogan is “Desh Bachao, Desh Banao” (Save the country/nation, Build the country/nation). The Maoists, too, framed the issue as one of globalisation being an attack on India’s sovereignty (Ghandy 2004). For our discussion it’s important to remember that the Maoists represent a political stream which had celebrated it lack of concern for Indian nationalism by its slogan “Chairman Mao is our Chairman”. Whatever the other problems with its politics, this slogan indicated a lack of concern for nationalism. For the Maoists to now talk of defending India’s sovereignty, indicates how hegemonic this idea has become within the various shades of the left in India, whatever other differences there may be.

Among the three components of economic reforms in india, globalisation continues to face the strongest opposition and the terms of this opposition are fairly similar. Whether it is foreign direct investment or the India – US nuclear deal or even “cultural” issues like affect on women and gender relations, there is a large overlap between all the shades of the left on globalisation.

Gaming the Left

Thus FDI has become the most contested of policies, irrespective of what its implications would be. Its default use in public conversations is negative, an attribute which has come handy to various industrial groups which have used this, often with remarkable success, to protect their turf in business battles. One illustration of this is the manner in which the left’s opposition to increasing the FDI allowed in telecom to 74% was used by the Ambanis’ Reliance to deny capital infusion into the Ruia brothers’ Essar joint venture Hutch and Sunil Bharati Mittal’s Airtel. Tellingly, the primary reason proffered by the left to oppose 74% FDI in telecom was the danger to national security. What it actually did was delay the infusion of foreign capital, allowing Reliance an easier climb to the top while forcing Hutch to cash out and sell to Vodaphone. It is an irony which is lost on the Indian left that government restrictions and control on telecom companies is highest today, precisely when Indian telecom has the largest number of foreign players.

While in the larger scheme of things these really make little difference, the “defence of national interest / sovereignty” opposition to FDI now enables one group of monopoly capital or dominant socio-economic class to game the system.

The recent opposition to FDI in retail is playing out a scenario similar to FDI in telecom. The delay due to the left’s opposition is helping some domestic organised retail majors to consolidate their position, acquire the smaller players and fortify their positions before the entry of the foreign majors. The Tatas, the Birlas and Reliance, industrial houses with cash reserves and the size to raise capital from the markets, are the ones benefiting from the shrill opposition of the left against FDI in retail as they use this time to ramp up their operations. The other beneficiary of the left’s opposition to FDI in retail is the social class of shopkeepers, money-lenders and middlemen. It is quite an astounding sight as the left comes out in defence of the poor “Baniya” and “Mahajan” – the target of peasant rebellions for at least a few centuries past – who will apparently be reduced to penury with the entry of Walmart and Tesco!

While this is no defence of the Walmarts and Tescos of the world, what has never been explained is how the massive expansion of Reliance Retail or Spencers supermarket is any better or why should the poor peasant or dalit labourer rise up in defence of the “Baniya” and “Mahajan”? As is apparent, any left position on retail has to engage with high-energy consuming, consumerism driven organised retail; it has to engage with the issue of middlemen controlling the market against the interests of both the producers and the consumers. The foreign element in all this has to be, a relatively minor, issue. What we see, however, is that the entire politics of the left on retail trade is about FDI and the ways to stop it. In the process, the left has opened itself up to playing “useful idiots” to sections of India’s big bourgeoisie and middlemen. The classic question of the left, “Whose National Interest?” has been, slowly but totally, abandoned.

Globalisation of the Indian economy has been viewed, particularly among the Indian left, as entirely a matter of foreign capital entering India and acquiring assets which have hitherto been owned Indians, whether through their state as national property or by individuals. Rather than recognise that the implications of economic reforms, particularly globalisation, have not been as predicted, and address the complexities of actually existing conditions, it appears that the left has ossified its political position at the cost of even abandoning its basic classes.

The framing question of this article is located at this moment: why has there been no change in the manner in which the left has viewed globalisation in/of India despite this dramatic change? what explains this inability of the Indian radical to see this major new trend and engage with it, theorise it? Why has the Indian left refused to take note of the growing export of capital by India? Why is globalisation still viewed exclusively as an attack on India’s sovereignty and national interest? What is it in the worldview of the Indian radical that he is so alert to all the possible problems with the inflow of foreign capital into India, yet remains totally uninterested in what Indian capital would be doing in other countries? After all, one of the defining features of leftwing politics globally, of whatever persuasion, has been an instinctive internationalism. Why does it seem to be at a discount in India?

If we look at the sectors into which foreign direct investment (FDI) has come in, services account for 20% but other major sectors are telecom, roads and metro construction, real estate, pharmaceuticals, power, automobiles, metallurgical industries,  petroleum and natural gas, etc. If one looks at where much of India’s capital has been invested abroad, these are in metallurgical industries, telecom, automobiles, chemicals, power, petroleum and natural gas, among others. What however, has been a distinct aspect of India’s foreign investment has been the acquisition of mines, oil wells, coal blocks, and agricultural land.

Global Capital, Yet Indian

To take one example, Indian companies have “invested” in agricultural land in Ethiopia and other African countries. This means that agricultural land has been taken on lease of 40 to 99 years for growing a variety of cash crops from food-grain to floriculture. One of the biggest Indian investor in African agricultural land, Bangalore based Karuturi Global, is reported to have acquired an area larger than Luxembourg to grow roses for the Amsterdam market as well as corn for bio-fuels and sugarcane, maize and wheat for agricultural trade (EPW, 2009; Nelson 2009). The total investment in agricultural land in Ethiopia by Indian companies is now close to $5 billion. Reports show that local agriculturalists and pastoralists have been displaced and transformed into agricultural labour, local water bodies and even a river have been privatised and sold to these “investors”, and labour conditions and wages are extremely exploitative. Last year, based on four years of consecutive good performance of these assets, Karuturi announced that it will sub-lease 20,000 out of its 3,50,000 hectares of agricultural land in Ethiopia, to Indian farmers to grow crops on a share-cropping deal (Badrinath, 2011). Industry body ASSOCHAM has been lobbying with the Government of India to use the services of its foreign ministry and diplomats to facilitate Indian farmers buying and leasing agricultural land in different African countries (Economic Times, 2010).

When some Western journalists questioned Indian Agriculture Minister, Sharad Pawar, about the Indian “land-grab” in Africa, his response was “It is business, nothing more” (Nelson 2009), while it is also pitched as a “win-win” situation to help crisis ridden Indian farmers and “develop” African agriculture. Given that there has been a fair amount of reporting of this trend in the Indian press too, it is not as if this news is unknown to Indian newspaper readers. Till date, however, there has been not one protest against the large-scale appropriation of African agricultural land by Indian companies and individuals by any section of the Indian left. This is the same time period when the entire Indian left has been stridently opposed to land acquisitions within India and raised the issue of Indian farmers losing land, yet it has remained unconcerned about the plight of African farmers and their dispossession of land by Indian entities.

Even for a country about which India’s radicals are aware and speak highly of, Bolivia, there has been no engagement with the fact that Jindal Steel had entered into a memorandum of understanding with Evo Morales’ government to build a steel plant for $2.1 billion with a captive iron ore mine (Shubhashish 2012). Since 2007, when this investment was announced, till last month when it was abruptly ended, there has been no effort on the part of the Indian left to monitor and check what has been Jindal Steel’s relation with the government and people of Bolivia; whether this transnational capital is being exploitative? Even now, when the Bolivian government has scrapped the MoU levelling a series of allegations against Jindal Steel, there has been not one word out of the Indian left. The only reports available are those of the business press which speak in sympathetic terms about this investment.

These illustrations are not isolated examples but instances of a trend which has rare exceptions. There has been no solidarity yet between political parties, trade unions or social movements of the left with parties, unions and movements in other countries which are facing Indian capital.

It is important to stress here that I am not arguing that globalisation has been benign or positive for India’s people. That is another debate. What I want to highlight here is the blinkers with which globalisation as a process and globality as a condition of India today is viewed by the Indian left. It is not merely a question of weak, or inadequate, international solidarity on the part of the Indian left. I would argue that the inability to see India’s expansion in the world is more a symptom of the structuring of the left ideal in India which has been entirely hegemonised by nationalism. The defence of the nation, and by extension, defence of national self-interest, has come to be the only position from which the left is willing to view the world. This was most plainly visible during the left opposition to the nuclear deal between India and the United States where the defence of “national interest” pushed the left into some of its most reactionary politics as of date.

Misreading India’s International relations

The only objection that the left proffered to the Indo-US nuclear deal was that it would scuttle India’s indigenous nuclear programme and allow the United States (and other western powers) to interfere and control it. When it was first announced during George W Bush’s visit in 2005 it took most people, including those on the left, by surprise. The nuclear deal, by separating eight nuclear reactors and keeping them outside international safeguards (scrutiny) effectively allowed India to carry on a legal nuclear weaponisation programme.

The first reaction of the left was one of satisfaction that their “pressure” had resulted in India getting a good deal. To quote from the CPI(M)’s Politbureau statement, “In the run up to the Bush visit, the Party had demanded that the separation of civilian and military facilities be phased, voluntary and according to Indian wishes guided by its long-term national interests, that placement of future nuclear facilities under either category be determined by India alone and that Fast Breeder reactors be kept out of safeguards. The Party notes that, due to the strong campaign on these issues by the Left and sections of the scientific community resisting huge US pressure and attempts to shift the goalposts, the deal has conformed to these positions.”(CPI(M) 2006). The statement, after warning the Indian government not to give in to US pressures, not allow “shifting of goalposts”, ensure “adequate limitations on the inspection access of sites and data” and protect India’s “right” to reprocess nuclear fuel, goes on to conclude with a sentence about nuclear disarmament.

While the deal was given the Orwellian tag “civil”, it was for all practical purposes a strategic move to bring India into the global technology, nuclear and military regimes. It provided the Indian state the space to develop its independent nuclear arsenal by opening up global fuel supplies for its civilian projects and allowing the Indian state to freeze its own uranium sources for military purposes. This deal also eliminated all the blocks to high end technology transfer which had been imposed as a result of India’s non-accession to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and which put obstacles into India’s fuller integration into the global systems of governance and market control (Alam 2008). Through the three years over which the nuclear deal was finalised and then the exemptions were secured from the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India was allowed an almost unprecedented level of exception, of rule-bending (if not breaking) by the so-called “international community”.

Outside India those who opposed this nuclear deal did so because it weakened an already imperfect Non-Proliferation Treaty and other treaties to stem militarisation and encouraged the nuclearisation and weaponisation of South Asia (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, 2007). And yet, the left in India – every single shade of it – continued to bark up the wrong tree, claiming that the deal was against “national interests”; without for once explaining whose nation, what interests? All that this intense opposition of the left achieved was that the United States (and the “international community”) was forced to give greater leeway to and reduce oversight over India’s nuclear programme, specially the military one! Whose interests were served by this?

The implications for left politics were devastating. It stood up in defence of the most reactionary aspect of the Indian state’s agenda and this showed in that its closest allies in this manner of opposition to the nuclear deal were the RSS and not the global anti-nuclear, pacifist or left movements and parties. The official newspapers of the CPI(M) and the RSS were publishing the exact same arguments against the nuclear deal, often by the same authors (Iyengar 2008a; Iyengar 2008b). The most appalling aspect of this entire episode of defending India’s civilian nuclear programme was that the left ended up defending India’s nuclear military programme; mostly by indirectly opposing any “foreign” restriction on it but also by providing space in its official organs to open defence of India’s nuclear “deterrence” (Iyengar 2008c).

Militarisation and the National Interest

The left has long defended India’s nuclear military programme. Initially it was couched in terms of a defence of the missile and space programmes of a Non-Aligned country. But even after the nuclear weapons tests of 1998, which the left officially opposed, it continued with its praise of India’s Agni missile programme (CPI(M) 1999). Eventually, this support for the growing militarisation of the Indian state is effected by ignoring it and not opposing it, just letting it happen.

The defence budget of India has quadrapuled from less than Rs. 50,000 crore (about $10.6 billion) at the turn of the century to close to Rs. 200,000 crore (about $40 billion) in this years budget (Behera, 2012; Behera 2008: 138). There are no clear figures available but estimates of the outlay to increase military hardware of the Indian armed forced ranges from $80 billion to $300 billion over the next decade. This includes massive increase in the number of aircraft and reach of the Air Force and of the Navy. India is in collaboration with Russia to build the 5th generation fighter aircraft and has a shopping list of over 1000 helicopters. The Navy is planning to be a three battle carrier group force, has increased its fleet by 15 warships in the past five years and was planning to add more than five ships each year for the next decade and more, including nuclear attack submarines (Gokhale 2012; Shukla 2012; The Hindu 2011). Indian naval ships are marking their presence from the shores of Somalia to the South China Sea while India for many years has run a military base in strategically important Farkhor / Ayni of Tajikistan, where it was reported to have stationed MiG-29s and Mi-17 helicopters (Kucera 2011). The missile programme, meanwhile, continues unhindered and unopposed with the recent successful test of the nuclear capable Agni V. Throughout this entire period there has only been a deafening silence from the Indian left, of whatever hue one looks at.

The sense one gets from the left’s inability to find a vocabulary to oppose India’s militarisation is that it has been unable to free itself from viewing India’s military strength as a defence of the newly independent state from the Western powers. The contradiction in claiming that the Indian state is becoming (or has become) subservient to the United States and Western powers and yet not opposing the militarisation of a US client state would be too apparent to ignore in normal circumstances. However, in India’s left circles the existence of this contradiction is not even acknowledged.

Foreign Aid

Before I move to conclude my argument, let me discuss briefly the issue of foreign aid. While India has always had a small, but quite effective, at least politically, programme to provide aid to other countries, it has grown significantly in the past decade and more. There is as yet no clear totalling of the assistance India gives to other countries but even by March 2008 it was crossing $3 billion a year (Chanana 2009). This lack of clarity in India’s external assistance is because some of it is given through the Ministry of External Affairs, while some parts are given through other ministries and departments of the government, including through some public sector enterprises and banks. Today India’s official bilateral aid reaches 61 countries and has now reached a level where the Government of India has formed a separate aid agency – the Development Partnership Administration – headed by a senior bureaucrat and with a starting-off budget of $15 billion (reputedly for five years but there is no clarity on that) (Taneja 2012; Roche 2012). Given the manner in which India’s aid footprint has kept pace with its global search for natural resources and markets, it is clear that this is part of the Indian state’s strategic move to shore up its influence and power.

But rare is the political activist of the left in India who bothers with this. All they have shown is concern for foreign aid which comes into India, whether to work out ways to receive it or to condemn it. The communist left has almost entirely been against foreign aid. They have argued that it is a part of the larger imperialist agenda. Prakash Karat’s article (1984) set the position relating to foreign funding which is shared by almost all those parties which call themselves communist in India, even if many of the social movements and non-governmental organisations, including those started by former left activists, accepted aid from organisations and governments in the West.

There has been an intense debate within the larger left over the role of foreign funding and what it means. Much of the communist left has held that foreign funding of non-governmental organisations and social sector work is a “key source of imperialist penetration” (Karat: 42), while non-governmental organisations have had a more varied position with many (most?) of them willing to accept foreign aid as that was the only source of funding which would allow them to sustain and grow. As an interesting aside, it was under Prakash Karat’s leadership of the CPI(M) that the Left Front ruled West Bengal entered into an agreement with Britain’s Department of International Development for programmes on public health,  urban services, public enterprises and rural decentralisation (!!) under which the state government received at least £300 million over seven years leading up to 2009 (DfID website; Datta 2010).

What is noteworthy for our discussion here is that the focus of the left, despite clear and sharp differences, has only been focussed on the money India receives from outside. Despite nearly a decade of a growing Indian aid programme there has been no interest shown by the political formations of the left in understanding it or taking a position on it. If the position with regard to foreign aid which came to India was that it was an insidious method by the Western states to impose their hegemony over India, what implications should one draw when the Indian state, variously described as a representative of India’s ruling class(es), gives aid to other countries?

Whose Internationalism?

Why does the Indian state exhibit greater internationalism than the Indian left? The Indian state has energetically taken to globalisation and its new, fast changing, position in the world. It is making new alliances, whether though groups like BASIC, IBSA, BRIC or the G-20, or through new initiatives like its “Look East Policy” and its “Africa outreach” while keeping older ones, like its role in the Non-Aligned Movement, intact. It is using its military, aid and trade policies to make new friends and expand its influence. Some of it is surely hype, however it would be only an Indian leftist who would dismiss it as entirely fake and unworthy of attention and scrutiny.

On the other hand, the Indian left remains spectacularly isolated and cut off from global left currents. Not only is there no effort to reach out to other left movements organisationally, there is little to show in political  or ideological collaboration. Even left movements in neighbouring countries of South Asia find it impossible to fraternalise with the Indian left. Aasim Sajjad Akhtar (2005) tells the story of the visit to Pakistan by the general secretaries of the CPI and the CPI(M) in 2005 where they behaved more as representatives of the Indian state than of the Indian working class, critiquing US imperialism but being courteous towards the military dictator Musharraf!

The only exception in the past two decades has been the World Social Forum but it does not seem to have led to any worthwhile internationalism in the Indian left. Apart from the problems of sectarianism and the self-righteous ownership of the truth, which is a global affliction of the left, the boundaries of the nation seem also to be insurmountable for the Indian radical. The only international partnerships and solidarities are by some of the social movements and NGOs but these are almost entirely mediated through the international state system and its multilateral organisations – the internationalism of the Indian state!

In the narrative of the left in India, the Indian state embodied some of the ideals of third world internationalism which was expressed in its role in the Non-Aligned Movement and its opposition to imperialism in the pre-market reforms era. The coming of the economic reforms are the fall of this state as it abandoned the ideals on which it had built itself post-independence and is thus a fall. An overview of the left’s politics over the past two decades seems to suggest that it has been primarily focussed on restoring the Indian state’s ideological and political position from the pre-reforms era; or even better, of reclaiming a radical nationalism which was, if ever, only a possibility of India’s anti-colonial struggle. In other words, the pre-market reforms period has been converted into a foil on which the present the critique of market reforms and globalisation. This has meant that the critique of the Indian state and society, trenchant to say the least, which the left had mounted since independence (and even the critique of the dominant streams of Indian nationalism prior to that) has had to be jettisoned and forgotten.

Economic developments or social tendencies which show some negative trend in comparison to the pre-1991 period are highlighted, but others which show a positive trend are discounted. The illustrations are many. Relevant to our discussion, India’s vote against Iran is held up as an example of the Indian state’s subservience to the US, but India’s moves to develop Iran’s Chah Bahar port as a sea route to Afghanistan is ignored. India’s “capitulation” on the nuclear deal is condemned for aligning with the United States but there is no accounting for the fact that US fighter planes were rejected in favour of the French Rafale in a $10 billion deal or that the US was again rejected in favour of the Russians to develop India’s 5th generation fighter in a deal worth $35 billion. Similarly the rise in literacy or the reduction in maternal/child mortality is never credited to market reforms like farmers’ suicides are.

None of this is to argue in support of globalisation per se, or any of the other policies of liberalisation and privatisation. This article is an attempt to trace the left critique of globalisation over the past two decades to demonstrate that this critique is both erroneous and contradictory, leading the left into positions which align it with reaction and alienate it from its own core constituency and politics. I would extend this point to suggest that the left in India today, particularly its Marxian wing, represents what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels termed “Reactionary Socialism” (1986: 59) in the Communist Manifesto “… both reactionary and Utopian”[4]. It often seems to me that they are referring to the 21st century Indian left when they wrote, “Ultimately, when stubborn historical facts had dispersed all intoxicating effects of self-deception, this form of Socialism ended in a miserable fit of the blues”.

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Akhtar, Aasim Sajjad (2005), “Workers of the World Unite?”, Economic and Political Weekly, 9 April. Pp 1498-1499.

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[1] In the category of the left I include the political parties which formed the Left Front (the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], the Communist Party of India [CPI], the Revolutionary Socialist Party [RSP], the Forward Bloc [FB]),  other communist parties like the CPI(ML) Liberation or the CPI(Maoist) and others which belong to the Naxalite tradition, social movements which are openly leftwing in their political and ideological positions (like those in the National Alliance of People’s Movements), and other groups which claim affiliation to various non-communist socialist trends. Defined thus in non-sectarian terms, the left in India is also well represented within social science and humanities academia, many of whom have live links with activists and organisations. Unless specified, the use of the term left in this article refers to this wide, yet clearly identifiable, set.

[2] The 1931 session of the Congress, held in Karachi, adopted socialism as the model for development in independent India. The 1955 session of the Congress, held at Avadi, passed a resolution calling for a socialistic pattern of development, a term which was soon adopted as official policy by the Indian Parliament.

[3] It should be kept in mind that another $122 billion has come into Indian stock markets as Foreign Institutional Investment (FII) during 2000 to 2011. However, even in this two points need to be kept in mind. One, there has also now been a growing investment of Indian capital in foreign stock markets and two, FIIs have not been volatile “hot money” but fairly stable, often a way for foreign investors to control Indian companies. See Misra (2012).

[4] “This school of Socialism dissected with great acuteness the contradictions in the conditions of modern production. It laid bare the hypocritical apologies of the economists. It proved, incontrovertibly, the disastrous effects of machinery and division of labour; the concentration of capital and land in a few hands; over-production and crises; it pointed out the inevitable ruin of the petty bourgeois and peasant, the misery of the proletariat, the anarchy in production, the crying inequalities in the distribution of wealth, the industrial war of extermination between nations, the dissolution of old moral bonds, of the old family relations, of the old nationalities”.

“In its positive aims, however, this form of Socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange, within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.”



4 responses

4 09 2012
Saibal Bishnu (@saibalbishnu)

Thanks so much Aniket for sharing this extremely thought provoking, intensely analytical, and a highly readable piece on the increasingly untenable position we the Indian left have to grapple with

5 09 2012
Ilrich Hibernation

A quite interesting analysis of the orientation of the left especially that of the communist in respect of their analysis of the Indian economic and the social foundation has been elaborated in this discourse. However my point of contention lies in that fact that in the wake of the structural adjustments of the early 1990’s surely there did exist a contradiction between the national big bourgeois and that of the Foreign Capital and that is too usual. This contradiction did existed in the colonial period but was bound to fade away on account of Colonial State compulsory discounts to the Indian Capital after the first world war, after the hegemony of the pound came to be questioned and the problem of reparation leading to inflation was abysmally bleak. In the early 90’s, it is again true that the Indian big capital had taken the advantage of this contradiction whatsoever through the propaganda of the communist. But this contradiction is sure to wither away in transition as the case rises when the national boundaries are overlooked again in the wake of the financial crises gripping three quarter of this globe. On this discourse nowhere the term “International Finance Capital” has been mentioned or captioned. The Finance (Dollar-Industrial forged with the bank and business finance) has assumed an International character from the Bretton Woods Treaty and the debacle of the Keynesian model of the welfare state, wherein finance has been started to gain its fluidity by transcending all national boundaries, sentiments and cultures. After the monopolization of the OPAQ and the shift of the oil based Geo-politics, IFC has become extremely aggressive whatsoever. Presently and almost for a couple of years, the contradiction is fading away, as envisaged through the merging of the Foreign Capital with that of the national big bourgeois through loopholes of the liberalized state policies and again due to the dictates of the International Finance Capital, the IMF , European Union and the coterie of the same ilk, the state policies pursued abroad are kowtowing to the said dictates through merging /taking over of their national resources by the Indian big capital (termed as foreign by them) and or through merger with their national big capital. It would be a big mistake to classify capital on nationalistic basis. The caprices of this IFC also guides even the policies of CPC in China, wherein the social disparity, economic, rural-urban, corruption (symptoms of crony capitalism) have surfaced up. They are also pursuing a similar form of policies in favor of the Chinese big capital in home and abroad with a shade of Han Nationalism within a garb of a peculiar terminology of Socialist “Market” Economy. The solidarity of the Communist International have been shattered long before from the period of Nikita Kruschev from a sheer aberration of foreign policies deemed to be taken up by the socialist blocs for world peace, socialist solidarity and peaceful co-existence with the capitalist states. This led way to China aligning themselves with Pakistan and even attacking Vietnam and Soviet with that of India. But presently the fading away of the national contradiction of the Global Finance itself will deliberately, by dint of the economic cause-effect and the infirmity of the speculative nature of the bubble, lead to intermittent cyclical crises that would surface up various contradiction evolving again as nationalities, local economic and diplomatic communities (ALBA, CELAC, BRICS etc) and obviously intensifying class struggle within the various nations.

6 09 2012
Saibal Bishnu (@saibalbishnu)

a couple of more things. The policies of the communist parties need to take into account more of the classes agricultural labor, migratory and un-unionized labor, and this piece doesn’t dwell on this two areas, probably they are out of scope, but vitally important to arrive at the correct praxis.

Also, with this analytical piece it might be important to dwell on the differing versions of class analysis of the Indian state by the different communist parties, and as a result their programmatic differences, though most probably neither of them can correctly capture the current changed scenario.

19 02 2014

Hello the blog is really impressive!!

Arun Kumar Sahoo working for equal rights of all people in our society and Being influenced by Biju Pattnaik he joined as an Odisha BJD leader and work into the main stream of politics.

Odisha BJD leader

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