Review of 'Neoliberalism and Hindutva' by Shankar Gopalakrishnan
a political history of an alliance
I had written this review four years ago and the events of the subsequent years have further emphasised how important this book is. Today we are in the midst of a set of coordinates that are accurately placed forth in Shankar Gopalakrishnan’s Neoliberalism and Hindutva: Fascism, Free Markets and the Restructuring of Indian Capitalism (2009). The aftermath of the 2014 (and now 2019) general elections in India have been most ominous with a rise in hate crimes against communities and the entrenchment of moral police at multiple levels of our social reality, be it the media, in educational institutions and in the streets. I strongly feel these conditions have ossified after the mandate received by the BJP in the 2019 general elections.
The value of this work before us is in it’s diagnosis of the political strengths that have been drawn on by the Sangh (Hindu Right) in the germination of the mass base that it commands in the country today. Crucially, what sets apart Gopalakrishnan’s approach from the discourse encountered in left liberal circles, is an astute archeology of political formations preceding the emergence of the NDA government and how it has effectively superseded earlier styles of political action, most notably the New Farmers Movement and the rise of regional parties in the eighties.
Crucial to apprehending such a development is untangling the alliance between Hindutva and Neoliberalism as has emerged in the national constellation since trade liberalization in the early nineties. S. Gopalakrishnan’s account seems to suggest that this in itself is a recent development whose logic can be thought only within the historic transition of a semi-controlled economy that India was up until the opening up of it’s markets. While the strength of this book certainly rests on the unravelling of what the underpinnings of such an alliance may be, the arguments in themselves do warrant a closer inspection, particularly the charge leveled against Hindutva in its commodification of politics. We shall return to this later.
In beginning with a political question however, it is necessary to grasp how the effects of a certain politics; Hindutva, materializes in our society. According to S. Gopalakrishnan the entry of capital into petty commodity production in India has much to teach us about this. This term appears to be used to depict craftsman, weavers, tailors, cobblers, washermen, but also those employed in workshops making soaps or cheap cigarettes, etc. In the contemporary sense it may also include small shop owners.
As a form of economic exchange which bypasses both, state mediation, and the indentured nature of vestigial feudal agriculture, it is relatively autonomous from the mode of production which has achieved hegemony in India. To the historic bloc in power, it therefore represents it’s own exteriority, that which has not yet been subsumed into a channeling of labour power and supply chains which supports the reproduction of state and capital.
In this is the possibility of a contestation which S. Gopalakrishnan points to, drawing on the legacy of the anti-fascist resistance harbored by Marxism, notably the Greek-French sociologist, Nicos Poulantaz’s attempt at thinking how capitalist states construct the concept of an individual, identical to all other individuals, but disconnected from them with the only exception being their connection/unity as represented by the state. N. Poulantaz called this ‘individualization’, the means via which ‘the centralized, bureaucratic state installs this atomization and, a representative state laying claim to national sovereignty and popular will, represents the unity of a people as a nation, ‘that is split into formally equivalent monads’. It is to be stated that this may be a limitation immanent to the form of a constitution itself, which partly serves its purpose as the document bearing the guarantee of rights for citizens, of whose binding principle is equality before law.
Capitalist society however is foremost built on relations tied to the exchange of commodities. Hence, 'individualization’ in capitalist societies names the existing relations of production and the social division of labour in their mediation via state practices which construct the monadic concept of the individual as we know it. The individual here becomes the site where capitalist relations of production are constituted and reconstituted. In returning to the question which S. Gopalakrishnan raises; what happens when capitalist relations of production have not yet crystalized in their entirety in the mode of production in a society? (as is the case with petty commodity production). While it is apparent how such a form of exchange escapes capitalist relations of production (petty commodity producers de facto, posses ownership of the means of production) is it conceivable to dream of it emerging as a historic alternative at this stage of globalized industrialization which facilitates the forms of trade and manufacturing we depend on? I doubt it - or at least how this concept is conceived in terms of its designatable contents would have to be significantly reworked for such a possibility to appear conceivable.
That said, the most militant organizations resisting the dispossession of their livelihoods, land and resources are precisely from the ‘red corridor’ spanning through the south eastern states of India. Their spatial strategy has been one of taking control of villages, and forming semi-autonomous zones. This paper is not about the Maoist-Naxal insurgency, though it acknowledges the politics that informs it and why they fight.
Historically, the first traces of Hindutva garnering a mass base was witnessed in the aftermath of the J.P movement, though the groundwork which facilitated such a rise was done earlier. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) 1964, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) 1925 and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh have over the years, established themselves as committed social organization whose outreach extends into most of the cities and many villages at the ground level.
It is hard not to admire the intent and commitment taken to establish this and any critique which apprehends their rise in simply ‘cultural’ terms fails to account for the drive to political action that the organizations have garnered. At the level of Shakhas (daily meetings), to the multiple organizations and in Parliament, the vision of a Hindu Rashtra is strived towards as we harbor in these borders what resembles the unmistakable totalitarian party. What is meant by this is that the only division that such a party harbors is that between society, in it’s mind a Hindu society, and it’s other - the foreigner. It’s goal effectively is the subsumption of every other social organization into the values and metric of the Sangh, consolidating a Hindu nation.
To understand how the Sangh finds itself in this position however, it is necessary to know the political vacuum that they abrogated for themselves.
An essential socio-economic consequence of the Green Revolution in India, particularly in the nineteen eighties was the rise of a rich peasant class who led the New Farmers Movement. These years also saw the rise of the Mandal Commission, yet this is not adequately explored in S. Gopalakrishnan’s account. The New Farmer’s Movement however formed the bedrock of the regional parties that we see today, parties such as the Telugu Dessam Party, the Shiromani Akali Dal and the Indian National Lok Dal, among others. At it’s genesis, their campaign was built almost entirely on seeking minimum agricultural prices via state regulations. The reactionary nature of peasant movements is difficult to overlook, for while being led by almost entirely capitalized farmers who sought the state’s withdrawal from agriculture, it would continue to assume that the state ought to regulate the prices of agricultural products. This narrow mindedness ensured that the movement collapsed as soon as the market was deregulated in ninety one.
The consequences of the New Farmer’s Movement were not however limited merely to the agricultural sector, as Dalit and Tribal movements took on the vocabulary of the above mentioned ‘larger organization’ as this came to be the ‘common sense’ of Indian politics. Even big businesses who had founded large monopolistic corporations since the seventies largely reliant on state regulations to provide them with captive markets found that they needed new directions of expansion. These pressures led the government to draft the New Economic Policy in 1985 which increased support to petty commodity producers and decreased the restraints on capital as it opened up India’s economy. The paradox of this historic moment was that while there was an increased demand on the state to provide support for petty commodity production, there was a decreased regulation of capital. This initially led to a rapid rise in rural investment, where employment grew, real wages rose and poverty decreased. The ‘boom’ however was built on immense borrowings from NRI and local money lenders. This dependence on external financial capital was fragile and its withdrawal in ninety one led to the crisis. Capital’s flight opened the door for the entry of neoliberalism.
Within these coordinates, the relation of the worker to the means of production and the state, is what is inscribed in Poulantzas’ concept of individualization which emerges as the attritional site which is gravely contested between the repressive arm of the state industrial complex - the police, which seeks to apprehend threats that delegitimize its own moral position within the theater of society, and the informalised associations which harbors the potential for resistance but which have unfortunately, in the recent past turned lumpen and criminal in the absence of an organized party. These circumstances have proved ripe for the embedding of the politics of Hindutva. Crucially, almost all political parties endorsed neoliberalism yet it was never a mass political project. Until perhaps the 2014 national election and Gujarat before it, no elections had been won in India with neoliberalism as it’s modus operandi. And apart from consumption fueled aspirations, no vernacular media ever endorses its principles.
At this point however, neoliberalism yet lacked a totalitarian party, and S. Gopalakrishnan captures the moment where it was yet merely an ideology without an organization, apart from elements of the state machinery itself. The discourse from the eighties, driven by regional parties and the vestigial NFM was yet strong enough to block the subjugation of petty commodity production to capital, as neoliberalism’s ideologues bemoaned ‘vote bank’ politics and the blindness of the Indian masses to the miracles of the market. Neoliberalism required a stronger foundation, and it was for this fateful step that the cunning of history had prepared Hindutva, which provided the vehicle needed for the establishment of neoliberalism per se.
A strategic alliance between Neoliberalism and Hindutva required a common agenda, the growth of which was first observable in the English media, a fertile site for the bourgeois organic intellectual. The symptoms started to emerge in the discourse which reduced social processes to questions of individual choice. In it’s early stages, this was strongly reinforced by the collation of the good Hindu with the utility maximizing citizen. Eventually however what began to emerge was the marginalization of state social regulations to the relegation of its role as a night watchman; the market itself was to be the embodiment of the Hindu rashta, a view championed by Dattopant Thengadi, a Hindu ideologue and union leader.
Consequently, almost without it realizing so - the state itself facilitated the transformation of it’s own othering as welfare, bureaucracy, legislation and political parties found that they were surplus to and often in the way of the functioning of the ascendent Hindu rashtra market which could now effectively hegemonize the public sphere. A common place ‘complaint’ of bourgeois ideology today, especially in conservative Indian media is that there is no worse crime than to politicize.
Crucial to note is the concept of hegemony as understood here is the subjection of labour power via force, intellectual and morale leadership ‘that builds the sense of a historical bloc’ that represents the ‘general interest’. The Sangh described the Ayodhaya movement (the construction of a Ram Temple on the site or the Babri Mazjid which was destroyed) as an ‘awakening of national self confidence’, this discourse has now been adopted by neoliberals to describe India post ninety one. The eulogization of NRI’s for example is strongly linked to the abundant foreign investment that funds Hindutva organisations, as professional institutions are recalibrated to dissolve any commitments to social justice with perhaps the only unifying goal being a vague opposition to terrorism, endemically regurgitating justificatory ideologies mimicked from the west.
The Sangh was able to cash in on the economic expansion, during the NDA period it set up the largest private school network in India, Vidya Bharati, the largest ‘NGO’s’ working in tribal areas Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, and recruitments swelled in Gujarat and Orrisa through the ‘relief’ operations in the 2001 earthquake and the 1999 cyclone respectively. The model of recruitment is exemplified by the ‘ekal vidyalayas’ (schools in tribal areas) which lead the present recruitment drive. ‘Acharyas’ (teachers) are briefly trained, provided a curriculum and asked to teach out to school students. In practice, there is no clarity in either the curriculum, training or student population and the only infrastructure are irregular textbooks (often promoting profoundly un-scientific notions) and even when ‘education’ is not underway, the acharyas often continue drawing salaries. These lead one to strongly suspect that rather than school children, it is the acharyas themselves who are the target of such a scheme.
The stable salary in often backward regions keeps them at it, with the ideological training consisting primarily of apolitical social service which in our society, is a ‘high status’ occupation. Complementing the drive to village development is the forbidding of the youth from joining any political party, as politics is said to introduce ‘division’ in society. The choice is clear, de-politicize to draw a salary, with the only commitment endorsed is to the Sangh. Methodologically, this is how the Sangh has built a committed grassroots cadre who benefits capitalism in general and neoliberalism in particular, for whom funds are made available and media access provided. This entrenchment has been the answer to the nineteen eighties style of politics as it greatly weakens the capacity of petty commodity producers to resist the assault on their livelihoods.
Gujarat, 2007 is where we first witnessed the Sangh-Neoliberal alliance gain electoral ground, leveraged by big capital and proclaiming itself to be the savior of both businesses and the nation, the Sangh rode to power over an opposition stuck in the eighties discourse of caste divisions, farmers suicides, tribal distress and tokenistic secularism. It was a crucial lesson which went unheeded, even on the national front that the time for such sweeping critiques proving to be effective election programs had ended. What emerged was the the full dominance of capital with state support. The resulting political insecurity among the opposition was fed off by the Sangh as their organizations either poached or co-opted carders from all other political formations into itself. The totalitarian party had reached it’s fruition.
What followed, is what happens in the wake of the emergence of a true totalitarian party, the formation of a military alliance between the Sangh and neoliberal capital. Salwa Judum (meaning either ‘peace march’ or ‘purification hunt’) was launched in Chhattisgarh in 2005, an operation representing the interest of security forces, the Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram and driven by the immense corporate pressure for mineral extraction, they killed hundreds and drove away hundreds of thousands in the name of fighting Maoism. Over six hundred villages were emptied, largely reliant on petty commodity production and subsistence agriculture. S. Gopalakrishnan acutely notes that while neoliberalism’s genesis parliamentary was in Gujarat, which was and is perhaps the most capitalized state in India, it sought expansion into Chhattisgarh, being perhaps the least capitalized state. Fueled by the need to access ever greater mineral resources, this stage of expansion marked the shift from hegemony to violence. David Harvey has accurately framed this as symptomatic of a global phenomena that he calls accumulation via dispossession.
The encounter with this political alliance on the ground is often in the form of it’s own commodification. It’s most visible spectacles have been the Yatras, which have been utilized as a mass marketing platform, selling stickers, tridents, clothes and pictures and what has been encouraged as a form of political participation itself is their sales. It was the Ayodhaya movement however that converted the relationship of an individual and a physical object into the essence of their relationship with the movement itself. Accompanied by the fetishization of pujas such a platform synched with the increase of advertisement in rural India, establishing the importance of brand as a basis for action.
Hindutva’s drive was to convert politics into a ‘brand’ itself, endorsed via the purchase of merchandise, exhibitions and/or worship. The essential relation to uncover here is to comprehend how a brand is nothing other than the reification of the commodity concept.
The Hindutva mobilization hence cannot be analytically exhausted via the categories of hate politics and Hindu chauvinism alone. The drive of it’s recruitment has been led by, at least the partial satisfaction of the material and ideological needs of it’s cadre, ‘while converting those needs into the driving force of individualization and the restructuring of social relations in favor of capital. S. Gopalakrishnan’s thesis is that the ‘partial coordination of interests between capital and large sections of petty commodity producers’ constitutes the sense of ‘identity’ that binds the movement. This is how Hindutva has fundamentally re-constructed ‘Hindu’ identity to mean 1. individualized support for its movement, 2. membership in it’s organizations and 3. participation in it’s violence. This indicates how it has been as much about the reconstruction of Hindu society as it was about targeting minorities.