The non-party left’s looming ‘war of position’
NON-PARTY people’s movements in India face an unprecedented challenging political environment. Hard-won social rights face dilution and non-implementation even as fresh assaults on democracy, secularism and social justice mount by the day. What lessons, if any, can we draw from the history of successful rights based struggles for current social movement strategies? In what follows, I retrace the trajectory of two major rights based legislations in India (information and work) to distil some possible lessons for ongoing struggles under the current dispensation.
When we look at the trajectory of the interlinked struggles for the rights to information and work, we find that the struggle evolved through iterative attempts to engage with and resist different levels of the state, strategically shifting levels at crucial moments to overcome blockages at one level or take advantage of openings at others.1 The campaign for the Right to Information (RTI) began in the early 1990s, when workers and peasants of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in rural Rajasthan linked their struggle over minimum wages in public works to the demand to access government documents. From the beginning, the demand for RTI was inextricably linked to material demands and social justice. The subsequent trajectory of these interlinked campaigns helps to illustrate both the possibilities and challenges facing grassroots people’s movements as they try to democratize the India state and expand social rights.
Faced with a hostile local and state government, the first stage of the campaign took the form of organizing an alternative platform: the jan sunwai (public hearing). While allowing villagers to hold the local state accountable for its actions, jan sunwais became an ‘alternative public sphere’, a contentious site where a connection between denial of minimum wages and information was made through deliberations between villagers, government officials and activists. While not free from the power relations of those taking part, it did create a space where those power relations – between members of a village, and members of village and state authority – could be challenged through public dialogue. Second, the jan sunwai was the result of a search for a tangible alternative to the hunger strike and dharna for pressurizing state officials.2 The momentum generated by the jan sunwais forced the state government to concede to activists’ demands for right to information at the panchayat level, and allowed MKSS to escalate its demand to the state level.
From organizing subaltern public spheres, the local campaign for a right to access government documents turned to building a national network for a national legislation. It was the difficulties encountered with local level activism that compelled activists to embark on a legislative strategy. The urban middle class supporters of RTI helped to turn a localized grassroots demand into a national law: by persuading government officials, writing about it in newspapers, building linkages with other people’s movements, and by carefully distancing themselves from the neo-liberal demand for transparency.3 The ability of NCPRI (National Campaign for People’s Right to Information) activists to distinguish between sympathetic and recalcitrant individuals and sections within different levels of the state, and infiltrate these levels to significantly advance the demand for a national law, was instrumental to the passage of the RTI law.
Under changed circumstances – namely, the enactment of the right to information law and institutionalization of the jan sunwai reconceived as social audits under the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) – the most recent and less talked about phase has been the struggle to embed these new legislative gains into the actual practices of state agencies. As we know, NREGA has since its passage, not only faced cutbacks in central funding, delay in wage payments, and denial of work but also intense pressure from gram sevaks and sarpanches against implementation of its accountability provisions: social audits. The efforts of MKSS to combat this retrenchment by local elites in Rajasthan illustrates the challenges that movements face in implementing hard won legislative gains.
After fifteen years of organizing jan sunwais, the MKSS along with allies in the Suchna evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan (SR Abhiyan) in 2009 embarked on their first state supported social audit in Bhilwara district. Under the Ashok Gehlot administration, the Congress government intended to become the second state after Andhra Pradesh to organize regular social audits. However, despite the intentions of the political leadership, and the presence of strong civil society actors pushing for social audits, the backlash to the Bhilwara social audit by panchayat functionaries prevented government efforts at institutionalization.
Alittle over a month after the Bhilwara social audit, where MKSS and SR Abhiyan activists trained government officials and civil society actors as resource persons for conducting future audits across the state, the gram sevaks’ association was able to secure a stay order from the Rajasthan High Court, preventing all ‘outsiders’ from participating, facilitating and assisting in the social audit process. Next, they compelled the state government to retract on the decision about who would procure materials. The Bhilwara social audit had revealed gross irregularities in purchase of materials. The state government issued a government order that shifted the responsibility for material procurement to block level officials rather than sarpanches. Pressure from sarpanches and an upcoming panchayat election compelled the state government to retract this order. However, once the Rajasthan High Court decided to vacate the stay order, the state government announced a new round of social audits. In response, the panchayat functionaries escalated their protest by boycotting the new audits, organizing a statewide strike, culminating in gram sevaks and sarpanches attempting to forcibly enter the state assembly and agitating in the state capital. Despite political commitment and social audit champions inside the state government, the protesting panchayat functionaries succeeded in indefinitely stalling the process.
Civil society efforts to implement social audits in Rajasthan elicited an intense counter-mobilization by the local state, and intensified struggles between different levels of the state charged with implementing NREGA in Rajasthan. Local level officials such as gram sevaks and sarpanches interpreted legally mandated social audits as loss of social and political power, and articulated it as a ‘loss of sovereignty of panchayats’. The Congress chief minister, lacking in political capital and constrained by infighting within the party as well as compulsions of electoral politics, was unable to contain the opposition by panchayat functionaries. The legislative opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was also unable to appropriate the protest by the local level panchayat officials. In fact, the opposition to NREGA social audits in Rajasthan saw the coalescing of what we might call a sarpanch class identity, expressed in the term ‘sarpanch jati’.
In the face of fierce resistance by the local and middle bureaucracy, activists switched scale and strategies, trying to gain support from state and then the central government. Activists went back to the national level and used government committees to overcome the legal blockage to the organization of participatory social audits. They worked with allies in the state government to circumvent the ban on social audits by convincing them to organize ‘special audits’ in highest spending panchayats in each of the 31 state districts (except Bhilwara). At the local level, they moved forcefully into resistance mode and began organizing NREGA workers’ unions and securing a government order for pro-active disclosure of NREGA expenditure through wall paintings: the JIS or Janata Information System. During this phase, a fragmented Indian state forced activists to constantly shift scale and alternate between strategies of engagement and resistance in the face of an effectively mobilized opposition. This oscillation continues to date, albeit with a broader focus on resistance, and the outcome is yet to be determined.4
We have briefly traced the trajectory of the interlinked struggles for rights to information and work, and the ongoing multi-scaled activism to instantiate both. The two lessons we might draw from this history are: (i) movements to expand social rights move through different strategic phases that are defined by relatively more state engagement or state resistance depending on political openings, and (ii) they are never really over, as retrenchment and dilution remains a possibility. All of this raises the obvious question: what kind of stage are we in now?
The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci proposed that revolutionary strategy must be multi-pronged, consisting of what he called ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of position’.5 He recognized that left forces under capitalist democracies cannot simply capture state power, but would have to wage a long and hard battle to win supporters and build alternative institutions in civil society. Gramsci’s own party was crushed by the right, and he died in a fascist prison. The most successful practitioner of Gramsci’s war of position in India has, alas, been the Hindu right rather than the socialist left. From their marginal beginnings, the Hindu right embarked on a ‘long march through the institutions’, culminating in the ‘Modi Raj’ we now live under. With a tighter grip on power, forces of the right are using their control over the state to further entrench their power in civil society.
The non-party left increasingly faces the challenge of coping with these threats while reinvigorating its efforts to mobilize support and build alternatives in civil society. As ever, the question looms about what relations, if any, they should have to political parties. With the left parties in shambles and the Aam Aadmi Party uncommitted to the principles espoused by people’s movements, leave aside its own organizational difficulties, the Indian left lacks cohesive leadership and organization to develop a political agenda that would confront issues of economic disparity and oppression under capitalism, and religious jingoism.
The problem with the Aam Aadmi Party is not that it transitioned into a political party and co-opted some movement activists in the process. The problem is deeper – opportunism, lack of coherent vision, and an absence of follow through. Not only did AAP’s erstwhile Lokpal ‘movement’ peter out, it created a ‘costly illusion’ that something was being done to change a corrupt system. Once in power, instead of using the powerful injection of political capital generated, it has managed to squander it by sidelining prominent movement leaders, curbing all criticism about party activities or internal functioning, and expelling dissident members.
While a cohesive leadership is unlikely to come from extant political parties, the onus falls on the ensemble of rights-based struggles whose creative experiments have over the last few decades given us alternative platforms for direct democracy. However imperfect, these decentralized democratic platforms not only opened up political space in favour of a politics of everyday life, but have sought to democratize the state in the service of distributional justice. The new government both seeks to silence the existing spaces and seems eager to surrender its welfare functions. Already, in response to criticism on social services and welfare programmes, rights-based movements are on the defensive as they unite under the banner of ‘movement convergence’ to fight the withdrawal of the state from social welfare activities. This effort needs to grow, and channelled into a political project that breaks the mantra of ‘Modinomics’ and counters the all-pervasive dogmatic economic growth model of development being propagated globally.
Rights-based people’s movements must then fight to protect strategic victories such as the right to information, food, work, forest, land and education among others, and ensure their survival as tools for future battles. The defensive posturing in the current life cycle of different movements will require that they contemplate strategies and adapt tactics to the circumstances in which they now operate. Where spaces exist they will have to continuously look for and pry them open; where they are blocked, they must gauge the limits of the possible and create alternatives. While envisioning a way forward, the vibrant and diverse past of non-party political activism in India offers lessons to develop new strategies and tactics as well as to improve existing ones. Today, faced with the twin challenges of protecting our strategic gains while fighting new threats, individual campaigns and movements will continue to focus on particular issues. However, we must return to the ‘local’ with the dual objectives of movement building and organizing cadres on the ground.
While investing our energies in local struggles, we must address the meta-challenge of preventing civil society space from shrinking. Grassroots movements must contemplate the arduous task of building a multi-issue non-party political platform. Such a platform would require serious reasoning to formulate a sensible critique of claims to defend Hindu values and sentiments at the cost of other religions and castes for political gains. It might also mean expanding the fight beyond protecting social rights and uniting across issues that belong to the women’s movement, the dalit movement, the emerging protests against curbing the intellectual autonomy of higher education institutions, and fighting the corporate takeover of the internet. Given the differences in social bases of various movements and disparate elements of ideology, can such a platform allow us to define alternatives that call for radical economic change and put forward a collective critique of the majoritarian worldview of Hindu supremacy that is hollowing out democracy, to shape a new politics of the future?
In addition to drawing lessons from our own home-grown experiments, rights-based struggles could also take organizational lessons from global civil society counterparts such as diversity movements for environmental justice,6 anti-establishment political formations like Podemos in Spain or the ongoing struggles of the Kurdish people that have created autonomous alternatives to capitalism in Kobane. And perhaps even – in limited respects – to the Hindu right which, after a long war of position, now controls state power.
1. For more see, Suchi Pande, The Right to Know, The Right to Live: Grassroots Struggle for Information and Work in India. PhD dissertation, University of Sussex, February 2014. http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/47622/
2. See S. Pande. (2014) for a detailed discussion of the jan sunwai as an ‘alternative public sphere’. Ibid.
3. Amita Baviskar, ‘Winning the Right to Information in India: Is Knowledge Power?’ in John Gaventa and Rosemary McGee (eds.), Citizen Action and National Policy Reform. Zed Books, London, 2010.
4. See S. Pande, 2014, op. cit.
5. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Reprint Edition. International Publishers Co., 1971.
6. Ashish Kothari, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta, ‘Sustainable Development is Failing. But There are Alternatives to Capitalism’, The Guardian, 21 July2015.