After a complete botch-up of the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, the Narendra Modi-led government has been confronted by several disappointments. The crashing of the communal juggernaut in West Bengal, an “account closure” in Kerala despite rigorous attempts to spread communal venom via the Sabarimala temple entry issue, a loss of face in Tamil Nadu, and the victory of the Secular Progressive Alliance clearly suggest that the Modi-led BJP can well be defeated, nay trounced, on the electoral turf. In fact, now there are non-BJP governments in 14 of 31 states and Union Territories.
In the recently-concluded round of Assembly elections, the Assam results were an unfortunate departure from the trend, primarily because the Congress party failed to broaden its alliance by excluding peasant leader Akhil Gogoi and other progressive social forces under its banner. Instead, it went by the banal political arithmetic of aligning with Badruddin Ajmal’s, AIDUF. By doing this, the Congress party painted a bull’s eye on its back and allowed the BJP to split the electorate into communal lines and emerge victoriously.
Recently, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Sitaram Yechury rightly summed up the situation. He said, “The writing on the wall is—people want a secular government.” There is one more writing, and it could be in bold letters, and that is that the people of India want a socialist government.
The word “socialist” was added to the Constitution in 1976 as a clever manoeuvre by former prime minister late Indira Gandhi to pull the rug under the feet of the united Opposition which had banded together under the banner of some undefined version of socialism. Since then, it has become a constitutional platitude with no practical application and accrues no benefits to the poor of India. However, unlike secularism, socialism has not been subjected to ruthless mockery. The question is why? Because it has the potential to change the conditions of existence of the working masses as well as the middle-classes to a great extent.
Even the BJP, at its inception, adopted a form of paralysed Gandhian socialism. Its adoption of rabid Hindutva came only with the implementation of the Mandal Commission report when popular agitation unleashed social forces from below. The BJP’s worker and peasant unions still brag about a muted form of socialism under the rubric of “atma-nirbharta”. However, the biggest advantage that the BJP enjoys over other parties is still its social media (mis)management. A simple media forward via WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook that purports to show the killing of a cow, a spitting Muslim vegetable vendor or alleged “mob violence” in any part of the world has the potential to kill another important constitutional value, also reduced to a platitude—secularism—on the streets.
Yet killing socialism is an impossibility in India. What can the BJP troll army do to discredit socialism? Send mocking images of top-class public-funded hospitals with zero out-of-pocket expenditure? Mock free education for all? Laugh at the strengthening of the public sector, a lack of which in vaccine production has led to the current carnage? Criticise the ending of business monopolies? Oppose distribution of arable land to the landless Dalit agricultural workers? Or oppose the overall bettering of the condition of the workers and peasants of India? In all such attempts, the trollers are bound to bite the dust. Since many of them are unemployed youth, they might end up siding with these proposals rather than spread virtual venom for a pittance. Recall also that the BJP and Modi strongly dislike India’s right-to-work programme, the MG-NREGA, yet failed to kill it off. The scheme has helped people tide over some of the crisis of unemployment during the pandemic and as there is ever-increasing distress, there is also a concomitant growth in demand for work under the scheme.
Therein lies the secret to upstage the BJP government in even more provinces. The first step towards this would be to bring the people of India out of the enigma of capitalism and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rates and alert them to other solutions to their massive socio-economic ills. The Modi government has been rambling about a $5 trillion economy and ease of doing business. Under Modi, India’s position in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business has climbed up 79 rungs and is ranked 63rd out of 190 countries. Whereas other international agencies rank India 179 out of 180 countries in air quality, 120 out of 122 in water quality, and 94 out of 107 in the Global Hunger Index. The last statistic is most astonishing given the massive food reserves that India has but are subject to governmental hoarding to the point of spoilage.
To worsen matters, the NITI Aayog has recently recommended a revision in the National Food Security Act, 2013, to generate annual savings of Rs. 47,229 crores spent on food subsidies. And this would be accomplished by slashing the ration coverage from 75% to 60% in rural areas and 50% to 40% in urban areas. The proposed farm laws pose the highest risk to the hunger problem in India and if implemented in their current form, are bound to exacerbate the hunger crisis because the big capitalists would end up stocking food grains in private silos racking up the base prices of essential food grains.
Modi poses himself as the Hindu Hriday Samrat to his followers as well as to the Hindus in general. And he leaves no stone unturned to appear as one. Consider the fancy, flying, and long-tailed pagdis (turbans) that he sports during his Republic and Independence Day appearances. But this Samrat is beholden to other Badshahs—the big capitalists. And he made this crystal clear when the budget session was underway in February 2021.
He strongly supported the “wealth creators” by citing three major successes—mobile manufacturing, vaccine production, and pharmaceuticals. Ironically, the ten-fold increase in mobile manufacturing in India, from $2.9 billion in 2014-15 to $30 billion in 2019-20 is largely fuelled by imported Chinese mobile components. Over 85% of domestic production is accounted for by Chinese mobile companies such as Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, etc. Secondly, the much-touted private vaccine producers whose glories Modi was singing failed to save Indians from the carnage caused by the second wave. Cash starved, they ended up begging bowls for public money to ramp up production. It was not the market, but taxpayers money doled out through state intervention that might just save the day.
Modi’s fascination for the market has left India with a massive vaccine deficit. When all the African countries have banded together under the African Union Trust to procure 220 million doses from Johnson and Johnson and the European Union is negotiating collectively on behalf of 27 European nations, Modi is loath to take up the responsibility leaving the states to procure vaccines from the international market, a strategy that is bound to fail.
Thirdly, the success of Indian pharma is not founded upon the TRIPS-sanctioned product patents, the sweetheart of big pharma, but on process patents. The latter have disallowed Indian pharmaceutical giants to rack up prices by monopolising the production of both generic and life-saving drugs, as happens in other countries, primarily the United States. On the contrary, it forced Indian pharma to invent better processes for producing larger volumes of generic drugs whose prices were bound to below.
Modi’s romance with big capital and the free market has led him to give a green light to retail e-commerce giants such as Amazon in the Indian pharmaceutical sector. This directly endangers the 8,50,000 small and medium scale pharmaceutical outlets along with and their more than a million employees. To sum it up, Modi’s idea of a free market is freedom for the pikes and death for the minnows.
The clouds of an anti-Modi coalition are building up. A few days ago, #MamataforPM was seen trending on Twitter. And after a much possible setback to the BJP in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections, newer hashtags are bound to trend. But as the history of Indian politics stands, an issue-based coalition predicated upon pro-people and a socialist program would not be in the offing. This is where Modi might just capitalise on his unparalleled capacity for rhetoric, raking up the imaginary threat to Hinduism, and pose the contest in terms of “Modi versus Who?” The only way to stop this is to pose a program instead of a person. A program that has at its core a redistributive form of socialism. One such program that can be a game-changer is universal health coverage.
There are many successful examples of such a system. Born out of revolutionary socialism, healthcare in Cuba is free for all its citizens. The infant mortality rate (IMR) in Cuba is 4.2 per thousand births whereas in India it was 32 per thousand births in 2018. The United States of America, the biggest and wealthiest capitalist power on earth, trails behind Cuba with 6.5 deaths per thousand births. Cuba is trailed by the United Kingdom with an IMR of 3.5, not because of capitalism, but a robust public-funded National Health Care (NHS) scheme. The most interesting aspect of the Cuban health care system is that it spends $300-$400 per person on health care, pays the doctors a paltry sum of $64 per month as salary, and ends up gaining $8 billion annually as a result of overseas medical missions. And a huge part of these earnings is invested back into the national healthcare services for its enhancement.
Universal health care is just one of the many socialist policies that the opposition political parties could band around. The people of India are tired of Hindutva and its bearded mascot. They await their day of deliverance.
The writer is a research scholar with the Department of World History, University of Cambridge. The views are personal.