a bimonthly publication of
the forum of indian leftists

Volume 1: Number 1                    May 1, 1997

In this Issue...
Disciplining the Mother Jude Fernando
Facilitating Genocide Niraj Pant
Gendered Boundaries Richa Nagar
Intervening Carefully Ashwini Tambe
Beauty Contest Debate K.Philip and P.Gopal
Foil Briefs

The Beauty Contest and the Politics of Resistance Against Liberalization

Shishir Jha

How do we even begin to "frame" the politics of resistance to India's new phase of liberalization? The various responses to the recently held beauty contest in Bangalore, India, may give us some clue about the complexity of the situation. The most significant challenge emerging against progressive forces in India is from the interests of the Sangh Parivar. These Hindutva forces are doggedly trying to realize the twin aims of: (a) a Hindu nationalist cultural dominance and (b) an economic consensus largely in support of liberalization.

The second consensus does not require much serious effort on the part of the Hindutva forces as significant other political interests have by and large agreed to abide by the dictates of international capital. Such interests include segments of the communist left offering critical support to the present Janata Dal stepping up the "reform" process and not to say the least, the original protagonists of the liberalization humdrum, i.e., the Congress. So on the economic issue the Hindu right wing will have to differentiate itself based largely on the support of the urban petty bourgeois with strong doses of financial support from some Indian and non-resident Indians.

From the Hindutva perspective, the real contest however is on the cultural-ideological terrain. Here, mostly through fascist acts of violence but also through skillful mobilization and propaganda on cultural issues regarding the role of women and the place of the lower castes, the Sangh Parivar wants to force its solution on India. Right wing cultural fronts are creative ways to articulate the need for the protection of Indian women's "modesty", a backhanded support to Indian patriarchy. Such appropriations of cultural symbols are imaginative and the left would have to dig deeper in its reply to such tactics. On the whole the many failures and the lack of coherence of the Hindutva strategy suggests there is much confusion in their ranks. Yet, compared to the rest of the political interests, the Sangh Parivar is quite ahead in the "game".

The relative success of the Hindutva forces on the cultural-ideological terrain has much to do with the relative failure of the organized left on this same terrain. The left, despite some spectacular examples to the contrary, has not been able to sustain a mode of national cultural resistance against our colonized, semi-feudalized, upper-caste dominated structure. Its efforts at cultural resistance seem isolated, fragmented and more specifically, untheorized. With a history of a seventy year existence in India, we on the left have still not been able to forge together a creative cultural synthesis against the status-quo.

This serious "lack" on the part of the left, for both its organized and un-organized variants, is actually a symptom of a much deeper problem. My brief point is that the left is theoretically unclear, even confused about its resistance to domestic/international capital. Why am I making such a heretical claim? Reading the manifestoes of communist organizations, one cannot but come away with a view that these organizations subscribe to a rather strict view of the stage-theory-of-growth. This implies an adherence to the claim that India still needs "progressive" capital to prepare it for a transition to socialism. This is the crux of the problem. While I am no doubt simplifying a large theoretical issue, the consequences of subscribing to the stage-theory-of-growth creates serious hurdles in organizing and mobilizing the working masses. Unfortunately, comprehending India's cultural depth with its great reserve of resistance ethos, and formulating and sustaining a thoroughgoing critique of its dominant culture, is not at all a "systematic" concern for us on the left. We are more concerned with theorizing the possibilities of creating the "productive" base that will help to inaugurate the socialist society and hence we lend "critical" support for India's liberalization. With this cultural lacuna on the progressive side, it is not altogether difficult for the Hindutva right to appropriate its terms of debate. We already know for instance that the right has established thousands of primary schools all across the country and is getting aggressive in its message of what Indian culture ought to signify. Witness for instance, the recent attack on M. F. Hussain by the right extremists, the Shiv Sainiks.

What the right has also going for it, problematically of course, is its epistemic proximity to the categories of Hinduism. The left has virtually abandoned a serious enquiry on the role of religion specially from the vantage point of its mobilizational potential or some of its "tolerant" features. The organized left must seriously rethink its theoretical and mobilizational concerns. Its categorical wedding to a certain "developmental" ideology is doing serious damage to its political prospects. Building a broad based coalition of working classes-castes, working women and other sympathetic forces, is very possible but it requires the renouncing of 19th century development goals.

[Shishir Kumar Jha is a graduate student in political science at Syracuse University]

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