Vijay Prashad: “If you believe that guaranteeing 3 full meals a day is anti-national, then we are anti-national!”

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Image Credit: The Center for Place, Culture and Politics

In December, The Dawn News spoke to renowned writer and intellectual Vijay Prashad about the current political situation in India, primary challenges for the Indian left and hope for the future.

-What is your name and your organization?

My name is Vijay Prashad, I am the executive director of TriContinental, Institute for Social Research and the Chief-Editor of Leftword Books, I am also a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

-Tell us a little bit about the current political situation in India…

Well, in the general elections in 2014, the right-wing forces won the majority in the parliament. The Indian Right is interesting because it is a family of organizations, at the core of it is a fascist group called the RSS which has a very strong position of what they call “hindu-ness.” They take a position against Indian minorities, a vicious position which replicates the Nazi view of Germany. For example, the Nazis had the view that so-called non-Germans should not be in Germany: Jews, Romans, communists, homosexuals etc. The RSS has taken a view that Muslims, communists, and other should not be in India, they are foreigners. This amounts to hundreds of millions of people, so it’s not a trivial majoritarian fascist politics.

The political party the BJP -Bharatiya Janata Party- which won the elections, as I said it’s a family, is slightly broader than the RSS. It’s an authoritarian party led by Narendra Modi who has a history of authoritarian rule, like when he governed the state of Gujarat, and he is a member of the RSS.

So India took a hard right turn in 2014 when these people won the election. It’s important to say they won a majority in parliament but they only won 30% of the vote, so in a sense they are the minority in terms of votes but have majority of seats in parliament. This is the first part of the problem.

The opposition to the BJP used to largely be the Congress Party, which was a popular movement in the independence struggle in the ’20s,’30s, and ’40s, but two and a half decades ago in the 1990s it converted fully into a proponent of market economics, you know neoliberal policies and other things. So its ability to be an opposition to the BJP was compromised. In India the opposition to the BJP used to come from the Congress, from regional political parties and from the Left. Regional political parties have also either compromised with the BJP or they are themselves part of the problem because they have also adopted neoliberal policies. So the left and various social movements are alone as the main critics of the BJP, including of course some Muslim political parties, because of the anti-Muslim tone of the BJP. This is a very small political opposition. The BJP has been doing about two or three things that I think people need to think about, globally, because this is part of the character of the contemporary right-wing governments in the global south.

The first thing they have been doing is that they let their dogs loose on the streets, so fascist bands have been out there killing people, beating people up, mostly Muslims, oppressed casts and so on, and making videos of it putting the videos online, intimidating society. Turning what was generally a relatively tolerant society into an intolerant society, that is one thing they have been doing and I think this we see in the Philippines, in Turkey, and in other places.

Second thing the BJP government has been doing is that they have been going after critics. Whether its press, social movement leaders or actually anybody including other political people even liberal people who have quite passive critiques. They want to shut down criticism so they use the law, they use intimidation, there have been assassinations of people.

So the first thing is they want to create an intolerant society, second they want to end dissent. Thirdly, this is the long-term agenda, they are pushing a full fledged corporate agenda: anti-labor laws, cutting back on social welfare policies, pushing for more tax breaks for the rich, much more corruption of big corporations getting sweeter deals, entry of foreign capital. So these are the three elements of the Indian contemporary right which as a kind of political grammar can be seen across the global south.

-How do you see the relationships between the Modi government and other far right governments in the global south (Latin America, Southeast Asia, imperialist countries)?

The Modi government, the BJP, and the Indian hard-right have for very many years wanted a close relationship with the United States government. They believe the best way to move India into a purely capitalist world is by having a very close association with the United States, and that will enable India to get some trade advantages against other countries.

Secondly, this hard-right party believes that the principal military threat to themselves, or as they see it, to India is from China, so anybody that helps them against China is important. Keeping in mind that China has a close relationship with Pakistan. In this way the relationship with the United States is seen as an immunity against China.

It’s a curious politics, also because of this close relationship with the United States in 1991 India made a complete diplomatic peace with Israel as kind of a calling card to ease up tensions with the United States. The Modi government has gotten very close to the Netanyahu government in Israel, of course they share two elements: one is this hatred of Muslims, shared by Netanyahu, Mr. Modi’s party and of course now Donald Trump. And more importantly, India imports half of Israel’s arms that they produce for export. So this military strategy of becoming the subordinate ally of the United States, linked to the view that they will get trade advantages from the USA has brought them into the equation with the United States and Israel, not so much with the Philippines, or Turkey or other countries, they don’t see any real advantage to having relationships with them but that does not mean that there are not similarities between these countries, its just that there is no alliance as it were.

-What is the hope for the resistance in India?  What is the working class doing in India right now?

I think it’s important to look at several time sequences for resistance. There is of course the immediate struggles that need to be there to prevent Indian society from becoming intolerant. There is a constant fight against the fascist elements who are out there lynching people, and those issues are raised almost weekly. For example today (December 7), there was a brutal videotaped killing, a brutal killing of a person in Rajasthan, and of course there will be demonstrations, they have probably already begun. So in the short term immediate timescale there is the struggle to prevent the intimidation of society, to prevent it from becoming intolerant.

On the second timescale, the struggle is to prevent them from eroding social welfare programs, labor laws, minimum wage, which are things that had been won through hard fought battles by the workers over the course of the last fifty years. That is a slightly longer timescale than the one to prevent society from becoming intolerant. In this set of struggles there are great challenges and opportunities at the same time.

90% of Indian workers are in the informal sector, so what this has meant is that the formal sector unions along with mass organizations, have had to come on the streets together to take up the issues of informal workers. In September 2016 there was the largest strike in recent history with 180 million people. All of the formal sector unions were on the street but so were informal sector workers, so they took up the issues of the informal sector. Our trade unions have actually been very innovative in not becoming the union that fights for only the issues of the union members, it fights for issues of the working class.

Initially, a lot of these battles are defensive battles, to win the protection of important policies that were already there: pension policies, minimum wage for child-care workers, minimum wage for health-care workers, these are largely women. Its very interesting that at these rallies, there is an enormous number of women on the streets because they are also there, their conditions are eroding daily. So that is the second timescale.

The third timescale is elections. Elections for the left are always complicated, we are in power in Kerala, we are in power in Tripura, and we have pockets of influence in other states. You know in many cases, the workers, peasantry and all would say we come with the red flag at all major rallies and demonstrations, we come with the red flag to defend pensions, and at the time of elections we go somewhere else.

Elections are a complex and special sort of politics and to navigate elections has been very much a challenge for the left: who to make alliances with, whether you need to make alliances, whether you should go on your own, whether all left parties should go together, these are the constant battles inside the left, how to negotiate the very special kind of politics around elections.

In elections, the right and the center-right have an advantage, elections require an enormous amount of money and our parties are neither the parties of the rich nor the corrupt, so we don’t have the ability to collect hundreds of millions of dollars. Indian parliament is full of millionaires, and we don’t have that ability to collect hundreds of millions of dollars to do election campaigns.

Everybody knows what has happened to democracy globally, democracy globally has been corrupted by money, and that therefore means that elections results are not actually the best way to understand your political strength, although we have to engage the question of the erosion of democracy, corruption of democracy. How to negotiate electoral politics, it’s only one sphere of politics.

Finally the general organizational strength of the left is weak and has to grow. For instance 90% of indian workers are in the informal sector, we can’t organize workers easily in the workplace- they are dispersed. So we have been thinking and contemplating about how to organize people where they live. How to organize people in other kinds of struggles, how to organize creatively, the point for us is to build working class strength, peasant strength, the point is not to build a trade union. We know and recognize that, but now there are practical questions: How do you build working class strength outside of the factory? These are not easily answered, this is a dilemma, you cannot build a formidable opposition to capitalism and think of transformation of a society into a socialist future or whatever until we have organized a very large sector of the workers, peasants, unemployed, oppressed castes, women into various mass organizations.

The fourth element of building a kind of resistance, has a much longer, much more protracted deliberate, specific kind of set of experiences that you know we need to have, learn from and build. That is why there are four different ways to understand the resistance and all four have to happen simultaneously, you can’t prioritize one over the other.

-What has the repression against the left looked like on a paramilitary level and on the state level?

You’re right to separate them because these are quite different issues. The project of making Indian society intolerant is also not necessarily all that organized, because after all when a political power and orientation comes to power, it emboldens people, and various local thuggish actors who have longed to be intolerant and produce an intolerant society will act. One sees a great deal of this kind of behavior, thuggish behavior that has been empowered, it’s a behavior issue that has political effects, it makes society intolerant, that is going to make it hard to create a socialist world.

Then the RSS, and its various groups some legal, some illegal have certainly been targeting people. Now we know almost certainly that there were RSS and its broader set of groups have been blowing up trains, there is one incident of that. We also know that most likely comrade Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, Gauri Lankesh, these people were assassinated, most likely by some RSS front group, some group within the family of the RSS. It’s amazing that they haven’t caught the people yet, it’s probably the same group, they have a signature. In Kerala, the RSS has been at war against us, against the left for a very long time, and there have been brutal attacks against our comrades, including very recently a hacking with hatchets and so on.

So that is the intolerance side of it, and then this directed attack of the RSS against what its sees as the enemies of India, that is serious. Linked to this are communal riots, or riots of religious hatred. I mean here we have very specific incidents just before elections, it is a stunning thing, in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, just before elections there was an incident and there was a provocation and politicians made a big deal of it and then many people were slaughtered and that creates intimidation, fear, the minority populations, Muslims, oppressed castes etc. start to feel scared. This comes just before elections, it’s like a part of their trade craft, you create violence, you intimidate people and then you say oh let’s go to the election, you win and say well it wasn’t us because why would people vote for us. It’s a clever move but very cruel, that is one side of things it’s not exactly state repression. That is the repression of fascist kind of social and political organizations.

State repression is of course there, it’s not new in India. India inherited a British iron cage of bureaucracy and we never really decolonized our state, to quote Lenin “we never smashed the state” we never recreated a national liberation state, we inherited way too much, we inherited the penal court, which is very much a colonial, legal document. When the Maoist political parties united into the Communist Party Maoist that had split into many factions, when they reunited in 2000s and started to make gains in Central India, the government went after them, there was an operation called Operation Green Hunt, now the Maoists are largely disoriented in the rural areas, their strength is much depleted, they haven’t been able to hold a political meeting, a congress or any kind, many of their leaders are dead or in jail, so there is disorientation. I think the government is exaggerating the position of the Maoists to go after dissidents of different kinds. So Professor Saibaba was arrested and he may or may not be a sympathizer, it is not a relevant question, the question is they are using the boogey of Maoists to go after sympathizers in certain states, in Chhattisgarh, they went after Dr. Binayak sen. I think this is now a weapon, it is not clear that the Maoists are actually that much of a threat to the state. So I think the government is using these terms Maoism, terrorism etc. as a political cover to go after dissidents using state repression. That is separate from the forces that are making society intolerant.

-What is gives you hope right now?

It’s a good question, obviously we are human beings and human beings are not made to lose hope. Human beings have this incredible capacity to retain hope, it may be partly because we don’t get extinct after one generation, many of us create children and you want the world somehow to be better for your children, so there is a kind of natural desire for hope that humans have. Even when the right rises, there is hope, but that is too abstract.

Much more concretely, there are contradictions in the project of the right, there are deep contradictions. They have been trying to distract deep social distress into a kind of intolerant politics. Rather than tackle the fact that one in two Indians can’t really find a meal or doesn’t know where the evening meal is coming from, which means 700 million people do not have food security. So I say to them, Why not tackle that issue? Why are you going after vulnerable religious minorities and saying you don’t belong in the country? Why are you so upset with the left? The left is raising important issues of livelihood, important issues of survival, dignity, you are saying that these issues that we are raising are anti-national, what kind of nationalism do you have then?

So their positions are incoherent, we are going to the people and saying “look they can call us anti-national all they want, if you believe that guaranteeing 3 full meals a day is anti-national, then we are anti-national! If you believe that the idea that women and all people should be treated with dignity is anti-national, then we are anti-national! So their ideology is incoherent, and we are fighting them on that. The big issue is violence, the violence is a serious problem, we are prepared to engage them politically but they have taken to violence, and that is an issue that the Indian people need to resolve, whether our political demands, should have a space in Indian politics or whether their violence should become normal.

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