India’s two hegemonies


(left) Members of the ruling BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) and Congress Party (right) PHOTO/Daily Mail/Duck Duck Go

Among the right-wing strongmen enjoying broad electoral support today, Narendra Modi commands a position in India at least as sweeping as that of Erdo?an in Turkey, or Duterte in the Philippines. Like them, he glories in being a plebeian upstart with a thuggish base, though he rules a country of nearly 1.3 billion people, a sixth of the world’s population. Since his victory in 2014, Modi’s bjp has enjoyed unchallenged dominance of the national-political scene: an overall majority in both Houses of Parliament, buttressed by control of the largest provincial state legislatures. The latest polls tip him for another five years as prime minister in elections due to be held by Spring 2019. [1] The bjp’s nearest rival, the once all-powerful Congress Party, has been reduced to less than a tenth of Lok Sabha seats and governs only a handful of states. Indeed the scale of bjp hegemony today can bear comparison to that of the Indian National Congress party in the first decades after Independence, under Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi. Then, too, a single party with a charismatic figurehead commanded the national scene and predominated at state-provincial level.

What sort of rupture do these new hegemons represent with the more reverential forms of bourgeois rule that went before? The best way to grasp the novelty of India’s new regime may be to compare its mode of operation to that of Congress. Electorally, the pattern is clear: an era of single-party Congress rule from Independence in 1947 to the late 1960s, followed by its steady decline and increasing resort to coalition governments; a long interregnum, with the upward trajectory of the bjp and its allies beginning in the late 1980s, after the brief fillip for Congress in 1984, following Indira’s assassination; and the restoration of a single-party majority by the bjp under Modi in 2014, thirty years later. Between the two eras lies a major shift in the political-economic epoch, from the statist developmentalism of the post-war decades to a globalized neoliberalism since the 1990s, reflected in the programmes of both parties; and with it, a dramatic though uneven advance of different caste and class fractions. Here as elsewhere the main political trend, to borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall, has been ‘the great moving right show’. The bjp is no ordinary party: its nervous system is supplied by a 1930s-style, uniformed, hard-line Hindu-nationalist cadre force, the rss, which also controls a wide array of civil-society organizations, known collectively as the Sangh. [2] Yet this makes its rise as a second all-India hegemon all the more striking. How do the dynamics of the two compare, in terms of national ideologies, party forms, leading figures, class alliances, patterns of rule? This essay will look at the similarities and contrasts between them, and at the passage from the first to the second. For if, in a negative sense, the decline of Congress created the space for the rise of Hindutva forces, in key respects it also paved their way.

1. Hegemony of Congress

To secure a hegemonic bourgeois bloc requires stability at three levels: control over those below, through whatever shifting mix of sticks and carrots; successful arbitration between ruling-class fractions—which in India, still 70 per cent rural, also means effective handling of tensions created by the agrarian bourgeoisie; and a sufficient degree of support from the professional and petty-bourgeois middle classes. As Gramsci pointed out, there is no hegemony without the effort to forge a national-popular will. A successful hegemonic ideology will mask contradictory interests while offering some ‘unified’ sense of belonging to the majority. This is where nationalism comes in, calling for subordination to a ‘higher’ cause or promising benefits to ‘true nationals’, and thereby reconciling otherwise clashing interests. In the Indian context, fighting on the terrain of nationalism has involved securing mass support for one’s particular vision of ‘India’s’ cultural and political content. Both the rss and the Congress emerged as mass-political projects in the inter-war period, and confronted the problem of forging a national-popular will for self-determination against British colonial rule. [3] Though their constructions of what Indian nationalism was supposed to mean had differing inflections, they came from a shared starting point.

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