A conversation with Aijaz Ahmad: ‘The state is taken over from within’


Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won a landslide victory in the 2019 general election, after the swearing-in ceremony on May 30. With him are President Ram Nath Kovind (centre), Home Minister Amit Shah (extreme right), Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Ram Vilas Paswan and Ravi Shankar Prasad and other members of his team. PHOTO/PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

Interview with Aijaz Ahmad.

Aijaz Ahmad is a Marxist thinker of Indian origin and an internationally renowned theorist of modern history, politics and culture. He has taught in various universities in India, Canada and the United States and currently serves as Distinguished Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Irvine, where he teaches critical theory.

A large part of this interview concerns questions of Hindutva communalism, fascism, secularism and possibilities for the Left in the Indian context. In other sections, he reflects on globalisation, global prospects for the Left, the uses and misuses of Antonio Gramsci’s thought, and the relevance of Karl Marx in our time. The interview was conducted before the recent general election in India and updated after the election results were out.

Narendra Modi again won the people’s mandate in May 2019. How do you look at his comeback? What are the main factors that contributed to the BJP’s return to power with a historical mandate? How do you foresee India’s future under the RSS-BJP’s second term in office?

Led by Narendra Modi, the BJP has certainly scored an electoral landslide. Whether this can be called a “people’s mandate” is very doubtful. In order to give their mandate, people have to have the benefit of a rational political debate based on strict respect for facts, not to speak of calm and clear enunciation of alternative policies by the contending political parties. Even if political parties are able to offer rational alternatives based on facts, the people today no longer have access to any of that because the corporate media in India are aligned almost exclusively with the Sangh machine and are no longer committed to public civility and unbiased reporting of facts and policies. A democratic exercise through which the people can give their mandate further requires strict observance of ethical, constitutional and legal norms by all the institutions involved, notably the Election Commission, the highest judiciary, law enforcement agencies—which is no longer the case. There once was a time when the Indian polity observed these democratic norms to a very remarkable degree. But a civil compact of that kind has been fraying in India for some decades now, getting increasingly more corrupted as years go by. By “corrupted”, I don’t mean just the massive use of money, which is itself a big factor in determining electoral outcome. I mean an all-encompassing erosion of what could reasonably be called a democratic process. 2019 seems to have been the point when any relation between the size of the electoral victory and the basics of the democratic norm has disappeared altogether.

Indian politics has been Americanised to an astonishing degree. The cult of the great leader—the messiah, the saviour—on the one hand, and the systematic production of fear and hysteria on the other, have become quite the norm. Politics are now driven by 24×7 TV channels, opinion polls, and immense campaign extravaganzas staged with billions of [rupees of] corporate financing, much of it secret and untraceable. The escalating hysteria about citizens and non-citizens, which is likely to reach hysterical proportions with Amit Shah as Home Minister, is itself a carbon copy of [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s racist, virtually genocidal policies toward the South American economic refugees crossing into the U.S. All of this the Sangh conglomerate has imbibed from the U.S., with three differences: outright hysteria is much more the norm in virtually all the TV channels in India; sources of the money that went into the oiling of the BJP machinery in 2019 were more opaque while the amounts were even greater than in the U.S.; and the low-intensity but unremitting violence that the Sangh deploys so routinely, without fear of judicial reprisal, is far ahead of Trump’s savageries.

Did the 2019 results surprise me? Yes, as did the 2014 results. I am not a student of day-to-day electoral politics. My personal expectations in any election are shaped very much by estimates that I receive from sources on the Left and the liberal Left. And you know what those estimates were: narrow margins on either side, possibly a hung Parliament. Once I recovered from those immediate expectations, I returned to the very premises of my structural analysis.

Secularism, a minority position always

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