The Taming of the Shrew: India’s Left in the 2019 Elections


“…the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”

– Bertolt Brecht

“Procrustes, or the Stretcher …had an iron bedstead, on which he used to tie all travellers who fell into his hands. If they were shorter than the bed, he stretched their limbs to make them fit it; if they were longer than the bed, he lopped off a portion. Theseus served him as he had served others.”
– Bulfinch’s Mythology

1. Elections are procrustean rituals in an institutionalised democracy to contain and channel the social (over)flow and productivise it to manufacture a government and its legitimacy. By recursive re-discretisation of the social flow into manageable units, the citizenry is recomposed. In these elections, it is not the public that elects the government but the state that reassembles the public to produce the government. This reconstituted public gets the government that it deserves.

2. In the elections of 2019, against the right wing politics of communal polarisation, the left liberals in India have been seeking to pose a different sort of polarisation. Either you are on this side or that side. It doesn’t matter even if some who are on this side, earlier they were on the other and next time again they may fall there, whenever the juggling of elections happens and post-electoral alliances are made. For them, the poles are poles, stuck to the ground.

3. Hence, there is more to the 2019 elections for our nationalist left liberals. As they themselves say, it is a historic moment. And it is indeed something historic that liberal manichaeism seeks to achieve. If BJP is, what they say, a fascist party, then the liberals are imagining something unique in these elections – of defeating fascists in the elections. The fascist regimes, classically, might have come through elections, but have never been eliminated in them.

4. Now, the only strategy that seems to achieve this is by ensuring that votes are not divided (for which a Manichean binary is necessary). Marx’s dictum that all such phrases of not splitting votes and that the reactionaries might win because of the split are meant to dupe the proletariat seems outdated for the doomsday New Left. They want to defeat neoliberal authoritarianism through the procrusteanism of liberal democracy, while the right seeks to synchronise them.

5. However, by posing and making these elections as a two party contest, our marginalised left liberals are binding themselves to the dangerous game of attracting the median voter. In a bipolar contest the result is a more and more identity of opposites. And when much of the opposition is already centred on non-oppositional disagreements rather than based on any principled opposition, the difference is internal. You are but an image of your opponent.

6. They identify the hindutva brigade as a fascist pole, against which they want to see everyone else together. However, this ideal has never been realised, perhaps fortunately for the benefit of the left liberals themselves. The divided regional forces whether in NDA or outside are the only respite against homogenised authoritarianism in the country. From within liberal democracy, the intensification of regionalist localism, along with institutionalised parliamentarianism are the only safeguards left against the hindutva brigade. This is what left liberals don’t realise when they indulge in their anti-fascist rhetoric. Anyway, with this rhetoric they don’t impress anyone but themselves. The major regional forces whenever they take up this rhetoric seriously, they use it merely as a bargaining chip against centrism.

7. The right wing forces have been the main agencies to recompose the relationship between state and civil society across the globe – of combining authoritarianism with liberal democracy. Only by a complete profanation of institutions that emerged in earlier regimes of accumulation that capital can reproduce the state in the neoliberal conjuncture. The barriers must be broken time and again to refinancialise the social factory – the neat divisions between different socio-economic spheres, between productive and reproductive regimes are obsolete and costly. These barriers that managed the surplus/ superfluous population through much-acclaimed welfarism are not required now – they must integrate to form a continuous reserve army. The desacralisation of liberal social-administrative spheres is part of this process. In recent years the right wing attack that directly concerned the left liberals has been in academia. The academia is increasingly made market friendly, not allowing any section of population to take perpetual “study leave”. It is not the quality that matters but quantity – production for production’s sake. Ultimately all of us produce data, and are data ourselves.

8. The left in the name of defending the “gains” is caught up in a contradictory position of defending the status quo. The right-wing forces, on the other, by attacking those gains show far more clear understanding of the contradictions that they expose. They defend the status quo by eliminating those contradictions and expose the brutal structure in its naked form. But this naked coercion would need a new regime of legitimation, because a long-term overexposure of its coercive apparatus can be a doom for the whole system. One of the gains of the right wing onslaught is to regiment the progressive forces and make them complicit in preserving the status quo, by bringing legitimation back to the structure. The cover-up of gains and incremental progress provides the structure a long life. ‘Defending the gains’ doesn’t always need to be a defence of the socio-administrative structure that provisioned those gains. They can be a ground to recognise, expand and generate more cracks in the structure, and create more crises for its reproduction. And in this negation develops a new grammar of social relations. But for left liberals there is no alternative (TINA) – Liberal democracy or Fascism!

9. In an interview to New Left Review in 1975, Communist thinker and leader K Damodaran lamented the failure of Indian left to differentiate between state and government, and hence, their inability to understand their relationship too. There are some who confuse between state and government to pose the impossibility of immediate political actions and there are others who find this confusion very productive, when haloed as the relative autonomy of the state and the political, to justify indulgence in bourgeois polity.

10. In fact, this confusion is one of the means through which the state avoids an overexposure. It is how it camouflages itself in the everydayness of governmentality. The state’s mood fluctuations, given a constant reshuffling in the relationship between the political and the economic, emerge as multiple political fetish-forms, as political forces, and even regimes. You can worship the state in whichever form you like – if nothing suits you, you pronounce it, you will get what you need – a new form! The spirit of state is fathomless and boundless – all political forms, their enthronement, dethronement or re-enthronement combine to constitute “the rhythm of the spirit”. The magic of capitalist state works on only one principle, which Prince Tancredi Falconeri pronounced –

“Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi” (“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”) – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard (Il Gattopardo)

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