The Bengal Story: Fascism, Neo-populism and the Left

Satyaki Roy

The decline of the left vote share in the past one and half decades in Bengal, appreciated in the context of the steep fall in seats in successive elections for parties who contested with the red flag raises more questions than answers. Appreciating those questions should begin acknowledging the substantive loss that the left suffered monotonically in the past decades. The efforts to resist the bleeding however remained confined to reviewing varied attempts of electoral alliances and the purport of repeated failures hovered around contesting views limited to realpolitik and electoral tactics. The prognosis of the failure invokes a range of contesting views related to praxis: to some it is because of the potential of left expansion and reach being aborted in 1996 by way of denying responsibility once offered to a communist leader at the highest office of the central government, enfeebling of the ‘third front’ as a consequence followed by stifling of the breathing space for left-led state governments in a milieu of neoliberal onslaught. The counter narrative is the misconceiving of the industrialization project, articulation of developmental agenda dissociating from class perspective, trying out unprincipled electoral alliances every now and then driven by visible desperation to capture power. Counterfactuals are hardly available in historical processes, neither is it possible rewinding the sequence of events, instead path dependence cumulatively creates its own rationale and solidifies fallibilism. Despite the fact that import of these issues may be immense, but reducing individual voting decisions as distinct response to electoral tactics of political parties is too far-fetched. In fact invoking ideological perspectives in electoral battle has not been the order of the day, structural conflicts hardly surface in electoral discourse and the metrics of immediate gains and losses matter more in the lives of median voters. Meta narratives are important to the extent of translating lived experiences into projections for a better future but only relevant when it is actually tried out.

Appreciating the mandate of 2021 Bengal polls simply as a bipolar divide dilutes its  multidimensional purport: it is anti BJP vote consolidating Bengali response against aggressive Hindi-Hindutva intruders; it is a mandate of the poor to retain their welfare endowments howsoever meagre it may appear to urban middle class standards; the huge increase in BJP vote share is largely because of a consolidation of anti-TMC vote who were politically expunged by TMC goons from their entitlements and livelihood or tormented by political victimization and lawlessness. Class configurations also influence the nature of shifting sides of voters who were associated with the left in the past. Middle class educated voters who could sense the incipient danger of BJP coming to power voted for the TMC, there had been an unprecedented minority consolidation against BJP simply out of fear of the emerging Hindutva fascism and mostly lower middle class less educated poor people in the rural and semi-urban fringes who were perpetually denied of their rights and entitlements by corrupt TMC local henchmen, became desperate for a change. The left voters who didn’t shift in favour of the party in power were targeted both physically and socially through violence and exclusion and some might have shifted to BJP as a survival strategy howsoever short-sighted the stance may be. Voters are not stocks propertied by political parties. Large chunk of left voters changed sides in favour of TMC in successive elections even during the fag end of the left front rule, which was however celebrated in the mainstream media as brewing of a silent revolution for restoration of democracy against the left regime of nearly three and half decades. Now there has been a visible shift towards BJP with a promise for change. This was fueled by toxic communal dozes and orchestrated perception on the invincibility of BJP, a party powered by money, administration, government agencies, central ministers and well-oiled propaganda machinery. The left seems decimated with the shocking outcome of no representation in Bengal assembly for the first time since 1946 and further slipping of vote share. Some former left supporters did vote for BJP to get rid of the demon at the door, some other left supporters deserted the left embracing TMC to prevent BJP coming to power.

Finally, who is to blame for the decline of the left in Bengal? Of course the left parties themselves who could not put up a formidable challenge to both the incumbent party TMC and the emergent challenger BJP. But how to explain the ‘stupidity’ of roughly twenty eight lakh voters who voted for the left, who upheld the red flag in the fight against fascism and authoritarianism not with a hope that the left-congress-ISF alliance will come to power, who didn’t dissolve themselves into the bandwagon of envisioning TMC as the democratic, secular subaltern face to be hailed as a progressive alternative. Instead the rise of the right in Bengal, its class base, its articulation in critical moments and the symbiotic relationship between different shades of rightwing forces towards the common agenda of cornering the organized left should not be undermined. Mind that binaries are always easy to understand but implicitly impose a conduct of choice that eventually becomes dangerously suffocating.

Thomas Piketty’s recent study shows a marked shift of voting pattern in 21 western countries during the period 1948 to 2020. In the 50s and 60s the low-income and lower educated voters used to vote for social democratic/labour/green/ left parties while high income and higher educated elite did vote for the conservatives. The recent change shows that low educated lower income voters are less likely to take sides for democratic or socialist parties and the left votes are concentrated to higher educated voters while high-income elites continue to be right-wing. This perhaps explains the rise of the rightwing neo-populism as an anti-communist mobilization in the post fascist world. And some signs of such trends are also visible in the Global South.

Neo-populism and Fascism

Fascism can assume state power only when the most reactionary faction of the ruling class of monopoly capital fails to exercise their hegemony through existing institutions of power and at the same time the working class parties are incapable in articulating socialist politics within various layers of the exploited and oppressed. Fascism evolves as a movement, as a rear guard mobilization of the petty-bourgeoisie and the unorganized poor transforming the discourse of class politics into a conflict between ‘people’ and the ‘elite’. Its intoxicating flavor of anti-establishment, divine commitment to anti-theory and open ended ‘concretism’, arguing that theories are only relevant to serve political purposes defines the seductive fascist stance against liberal elitism. It posits violence at the center stage of political mobilization creating a notion of ‘people’ and its existential enemy. The notion of ‘people’ defined by race, religion and masculinity is created through a process of exclusion and extermination of a defined enemy. The radical stance of the ‘people’ against liberal elitism is managed and controlled by the silencing of the same people once fascist parties assume power. But the cardinal principle of mobilization through violence and the visible assault against democratic institutions particularly parliamentary democracy could not gain currency in the post-war phase of right-wing politics.

Anti-communism and illiberalism took a different turn with its first successful experiment of the new phase of populism in Latin America particularly in Argentina, Peru and Colombia. We see different incarnations of right-wing politics in the form of ‘authoritarian plebiscitary’ which redefined the conflict between the ‘people’ and the ‘power bloc’. It is not fascism, as it openly rejects violence as an instrument of mobilization and extends faith to democratic institutions. However it stands for anti-liberal democracy and authoritarianism, where people is represented by a messianic and charismatic leader and emphasizes the legitimacy of the leader beyond the legality of democratic practices. The leader effectively replaces elected representatives, communicates with the people directly and assumes popular support through recurrent anti-elitist rhetoric and symbols. Populism often invokes mixed narratives retaining extreme fluidity of transition from left to right rhetoric, relies on anti-intellectual mobilization in the name of ‘people’ who were not adequately represented in preceding dispensations. What is common to both fascism and right-wing populism is their pathological hatred against the communists and the left. And this is articulated by the construction of the notion of ‘people’. The newly created subject ‘people’ against the ‘power bloc’ shall consist of members of underclass but any attempt of these people to represent themselves as autonomous class entities has to be ruthlessly destroyed. This is precisely to ensure that anti-elitist radicalism should remain dissociated from terrains of class struggle. The rise of populism undoubtedly rests upon the frustration against elite capture of democratic representation and an availability of amorphous mass of working people who are atomized and dispersed from their class positions ready to be homogenized as class-less multitude.

Mamata Banerjee, the didi of Bengal, durga of RSS and the tigress of mainstream media, the charismatic leader who could claim to be actual candidates in the two hundred and ninety four constituencies of Bengal assembly was instrumental in dislodging the left front government. Social processes cannot be reduced to conspiracies rather it has its own dialectics of internal forces at work. It gives rise to defining moments of condensation of various forces contingent upon the concrete and some individuals emerge as embodiment of such a condensation. Having said one need not lose sight of the agencies that were active in the agenda of a right-wing takeover. The making of the Didi, a down to earth female leader, an ardent street fighter, anti-elite who is ready to challenge the composed bhadrolok sophistication of educated left, mobilize the poor and marginalized on the basis of clientele politics, courageous to take on Modi and Shah forthright is the most convincing candidate of rightwing populism. Demobilizing the existing institutions, dismantling of the local governments and trade unions, blatant denial of consultative process, extortion and politicizing of delivery mechanism, fomenting caste, religion and regional identities as a tool of mobilizing electoral support, all these effectively contributed to the annihilation of any sort of left wing political project. Her declared apathy towards working class movements and strike actions after coming to power received expected sympathy from all anti-left quarters.

This model of neo-populism also suits well with neoliberal policies. The Cold War version of populism in Latin America, namely Peronism in Argentina, Varguism in Brazil, Aprismo in Peru or Gaitanismo in Colombia was a mix of anti-communism, a critique of liberal democracy with a strong stance of egalitarianism at the same time. This was a statist version of populism built on import substitution policies against the foreign oligarchy. It relied on redistribution and could increase the living standards of the working poor. This classical populism drew power from mass mobilization by mass organizations linked to the ruling party. We see some versions of new classical left wing populism in Venezuela later on. But neo-populism of the nineties particularly Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Carlos Menem in Argentina represents the populism of the neoliberal era that relies on market logic and individualized representation. Firstly in the current framework of neo-populism, unmediated interaction between the mass and the leader largely depends on televised interactions or by other means of direct communication. A strong party system actually creates hindrances to such direct messaging and therefore image building of the leader and communication tend to bypass conventional party channels. Secondly, in the course of neoliberal austerity micro welfare schemes increasingly replace public provisioning and universal measures and targeted welfare delivery is attached to privatization of risks. These schemes are targeted to particular segments of the population defined by age group, gender, caste, religion, occupation and so on that are proven to be much more effective in building clienteles garnering reciprocal political pay offs in elections.

This of course require improved techniques of power that uses insidious means of generating huge data sets used for continuously scanning ,classifying, marking, examining the population for social control. Mamata Banerjee adheres all such means of neo-popular techniques of control and articulation of power, micro management of welfare schemes that definitely make some segments of the people better off at the margin but such processes of individualization of benefits dampens any social mobilization based on shared identity of equal right and dignity. She uses professional consultants, gradually replacing the party mechanism to clinically intervene in order to manipulate and govern the masses. There is no iota of doubt that TMC has been effective enough in displacing the left which all the neo- populist regimes in the world are aimed at. The articulation of politics had been effective to the extent that it could transform an electoral test of the incumbent party into anti-incumbency against the BJP which could emerge only as a challenger. The left could not make its space in a bipolar election, but it didn’t capitulate to neo-populism in the name of fighting a fascist party for the simple reason that both these forces are equally inimical to any socialist agenda.

Challenges before the left

The notion of ‘people’ is a political construct. For the Hindutva fascists the construct of people is defined by majoritarianism and hence communal polarization with adequate doses of violence is the mode of creating people-enemy divide. Right-wing neo-populism facilitates a process of transition towards separation of political system from the society, an apparent anti-elite battle against bureaucratic state assumes a course of informalizing political representation and accountability. It thrives on clientelist reciprocation and individualizes state-people interaction. The functioning of the economy relies more on experts expunging all sorts of public debate and emphasizes democracy as a celebration of liberty and difference rather than a political process of generating collective will. It creates ‘people’ where social classes exist in the form of amorphous mass which is easily susceptible to regressive formations that create divisions within the working people. This essentially explains the enormous expansion of BJP votes within the working people of Bengal in the past ten years of the TMC rule. A large section of the poor, underprivileged, working class men and women, Muslims either voted for BJP or TMC and not in favor of the left for the past ten years, which is possibly the main concern for any left leaning political combination. This was superficially but consciously misrepresented by mainstream media going by electoral arithmetic as a vote transfer done by the left parties to the BJP. This is primarily meant to hold the left responsible for the expansion of BJP in the state based on a ridiculous argument that the alienated left who grossly lost its support base among the poor in the past twelve years is hegemonic enough not to gather votes for themselves but being capable of transferring huge number of ‘former left voters’ sometimes to BJP and in some cases to the TMC as and when they wish!

But the more important question is why did the left fail to emerge as the biggest opposition force to rely upon in a fight against a decade of TMC misrule? Why did the poor people of the state, the workers, peasants, minorities and other oppressed sections of the people choose BJP to voice their anger and oppression and why did the TMC succeed in constructing ‘people’ annihilating ‘class’. The conflict between ‘people’ and ‘power bloc’ has been hijacked by the right wing forces who could dissociate this battle from class conflict. The series of class struggles organized by the left of the workers and peasants during the fifties and sixties, extending it to popular democratic struggles of teachers, students, refugees and most importantly against the emergency made the left a popular force of the poor and the oppressed and finally the Left Front government came to power. The people/power bloc contradiction assumes a radical socialist force when it is associated with class struggle articulated through mass mobilization in regular conflicts emerging in the realm of the ‘economic’ and the ‘political’. The link between the two weakened over time. The articulation of the cause of the ‘people’ and visions of development lost its subtext of class. Movements on core class issues and democratic rights sometimes seemed to be conditioned by middle class conservative status-quoist perceptions. A socialist force attains a hegemonic position within all sections of the oppressed only when it could articulate the politics of class as the most democratic popular choice of the people, and  it is the right wing forces on the contrary tend to construct ‘people’ and the ‘popular’ devoid of class.

Hence bridging the gap demands a re-making of the class in the first place. Class struggle is not a metaphysical narrative or an ideological position, thought exercise or ethical propaganda, it has to be fought in the site of production and appropriation of surplus value in factories, farming, mines, services where the exploited mass identifies their permanent enemy and build their class identity. This battle is reified as political competition between parties in parliamentary democracy giving rise to various alliances depending on the contestations at the immediate context. Bridging the gap can’t be done by mending at the top through ephemeral electoral alliances relying just on building perceptions of winning elections. Rather the battle in the realm of the ‘political’ and the battle of class should mutually constitute each other. Otherwise it is a void where friends and foes frequently change as a game of political probability, harping on the ‘popular’ without invoking the substance of class.

It is also important to note that the configuration of the poor in terms of production as well as vis-a vis the state has undergone a massive change in a neoliberal regime. In the world of sub-contracting and outsourcing and fragmentation of the work force, the traditional support base of the left namely large factory workers, jute mill workers, mine workers, public sector employees, poor peasantry do not constitute the majority of the working people in the state. There is a sea of unorganized workers working in small factories, retail shops, construction sites, motorized and non-motorized transport workers, urban hawkers, domestic help, security guard, contract workers and so on, the most vulnerable and fragile segment of the urban poor, the impoverished petty producers and small peasants who get easily attracted by the anti-elite stance of right wing populism and even misconstrue the organized workers as part of the elite. The organized workers are empowered with certain rights and entitlements which were achieved through struggles but now these rights are seen as privileged islands in the sea of unprotected workers. The left who historically associate with such segments of organized workers are seen to be representing the relatively privileged. The majority of the poor has to wedge a new battle, they are the working class in the making, the largest constituency of popular vote and it is in their lived experiences and struggles the red flag should breathe its future and find answer to the questions that history has thrown upon them. It is only then the anti-elite populism can release its radical potential, find its soul in the anti-feudal-capitalist struggles and on the other hand class struggle will see its most popular democratic rendition.

The author is Associate Professor at ISID, New Delhi