Deluded Democracy

A Year in Reverse, Part One.

Over the next week, I shall be putting up collections of things I wrote this year that haven’t made it to this blog yet. Pre-bogey readers, all ten of you, will remember I blogged for Himal SouthAsian earlier in 2010, and these were mostly written to that end. They are ‘political’ reportage, if you will be generous with your definition. Mostly, I talk about news I find interesting. This year that happened more often than is usual, as Chaosbogey’s Politics will tell you. Here is me covering other elections from the year.

The second part of the reversal was Playing Cassandra.

Antique Wine in an Antique Bottle.

June, 2010

The recent demolition of the West Bengal CPI (M) in Calcutta municipality elections brokered many fates. In a country where some form of election is a daily occurrence, municipal elections inevitably get the short shrift. Not so here.  Newspapers and pundits portend that it marks a turned tide, that 2011 assembly elections shall see the party in the bay rather than in Bengal. Writers’ Building (in Calcutta, even administration must have a booksy air) might finally see new occupation: Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress.

Writers Building

The party in present form is evidently just the Lady, a few trusted deputies, and her unwavering agenda of uprooting the CPI (M). One wonders how this party will cope with the delegation of government. To the facile observer, Banerjee’s Didi might echo that other formidable and self-reliant Lady CM: Mayawati’s Behenji (even their honorifics collide). An important difference remains. Mayawati has had spells of power to considerably enrich herself, while Mamata is that rare mystery: an impecunious politico. She is currently Union Railway Minister, an easy route to padded bank accounts. Perhaps her restraint was just prudence: what is a ministry compared to the treasury of an entire state? Will she stay uncorrupted by power once her crusade is accomplished? It is a wager Bengal appears willing to take.

Foreshadowing of the immanent change has been gathering for a while: the brutalities at Nandigram and Lalgarh; the clumsy break between the left alliance and the Congress in 2008 over the nuclear deal; the rebellion and public spat in the Kerala chapter last year; the death of the hypnotic Jyoti Basu earlier this year.  Both Kerala and West Bengal, India’s two communist bastions, elect new state assemblies next year, a year that looks poised to establish some very unpleasant realities for the new decade.

The official left in India has been hamstrung, time and again, by the tension involved in reconciling all-embracing revolution with too much revolution, and it has rarely emerged the stronger for it. In the ‘60s they squabbled about Maoism, in the ‘70s about Naxalism, in the ‘90s they conflated the two categories conveniently. The only coherent policy attributable to the current CPI(M) is a not-so-subtle game of playing both sides against the middle, and it has served them terribly this past five years. They are the socialist government that sold out farmers to Big Industry, paradoxically arguing against privatisation of public assets at the same time. “Confused” doesn’t begin to describe it.

I live with a Bengali forsworn to Mamata Banerjee, and arguably I am partisan. Yet, at this point, even the most dyed-in-the-wool red must recognise that the government in Calcutta does little to bolster either Marxist philosophy or praxis, let alone popularity. 35 years of denied democracy is a hard pill to swallow however ardently one desires social transformation. Coupled with the sceptres of murdered farmers, I find it impossible to resist the conviction that our socialist experiment, like so many globally, has failed. Marx has proven over the last century to be as fallible to twisted dogma as the next dead man. That said, Indian socialism has not failed the same way, or for the same reasons, that European communism did: our “communism” has forged independently tortured paths right from its official founding in Tashkent in 1933. No rhetoric can paint Mamata Banerjee into Lech Walesa.

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.

Anna Akhmatova.

Like all things that take root in India, communism has gone native. The way out of these woods is for us to discover as well, if we are not to go the way of rudderless Eastern Europe, and jeering at a flogged ideal rarely dispels it. The more marginalised and venal the parliamentary left gets, the stronger militant factions will grow. Hannah Arendt and her descendants might choose to interpret the tendency of socialist government to implode as proof of socialism’s natural totalitarianism. I believe that it is institutions that rightly bear the charge of tyranny, not ideas nor individuals. We stand agreed that bureaucracy and socialism are not well-mixed. The dispute lies in which part of the equation we would emphasise and which we would dismantle.

The Ballsified Clegg.

A White Man Who Ran

That before I snuff it, the whole
Boiling will be bricked in
Except for the tourist parts –
First slum of Europe: a role
It won’t be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.

And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.
— From: Going, Going by Philip Larkin.

Britain goes to polls on 6th May 2010. In a single day, the tiny island will elect more legislators than the masses of India do over the course of two months. Clearly, British elections are not the mela we are used to around election season, where skeletons are harried out of closets for months in order to provide the electorate with a good show. All the same, 13 years under the same government will make anyone twitchy, and the Britons are determined to make the best of a bad job. As Hugh Rifkind noted yesterday, this proved an excellent election for bullshitters, and the only thing that need constrain one’s observations is one’s imagination.

For years, one would be laughed out of any British pub (or Indian clubs frequented by posh folk that ‘follow’ politics in the mother country) at the very mention of the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dems). One such Scotch uncle suggested my breath and ‘youthful exuberance’ were better wasted upon the Greens. Astonishingly, in just under a month, the British media resurrected the party and concocted a passable (and regrettably pale) shadow of Obama. We are all (those of us who inhabit countries where elections remain a thankfully periodic affair) a few elections into the naughts now, and we demand our jollies. It is a decade in which the liberal-left has felt singularly defeated; we now demand politicians come with a firm fix of messiah.

The omnipresence of information in our decade sometimes blinds us to how easily manipulated it remains, especially in the era of publicity politics – and one is easily seduced into buying into left-liberal pinups Obama-style. The usually clamourous Brit papers seem fully committed to Cleggmania; as with Obama, one must head to Chomskyland to find anything resembling a critical appraisal of the man and his politics slanted from the left. The Guardian granted him a fanboy-editorial; the Independent, a paper one can usually count on for nastiness, is being remarkably effusive. It is all eerily similar to Obama-mania and the attendant conversion of a complex political dilemma into a simplified personal faith.

The chief difference is the length of the campaigns – Obama’s mojo took years in the making and penetrated every level of popular culture (I was initially introduced to Obama as Rory Gilmore’s post-college job back in 2007). British productions are more subdued. Besides, the goal of the Obama-campaign was infinitely more ambitious: it convinced citizens that a system as politically infantile as rigidly bipartisan democracy is sustainable and innovative. Cleggmania is merely intended to buffer the bumpy road to coalition politics; a cross any mature democracy in the postmodern world has to learn to bear.

Nonetheless, if this media gush-fest should succeed, it will only strengthen the narrative and ensure sequels, as each new faux-Obama slowly chips away at the real one’s achievements. Rahul Gandhi looks set up to be 2014’s Obama, with a complimentary campaign of Change!  Irony is so last century.  Maybe they’ll launch the Kaun Banega Obama? show, where politicians from across the globe compete to receive six months of great press and the Nobel Peace Prize.

All too soon, the historic Black Man Who Could could only be remembered as the first in a dynasty of media-fashioned political leaders, propelled along by the power of the headline. It took Obama less than a year to bring everyone thudding back to earth – it will likely take Clegg, should he slip into power, correspondingly less. That said, I can’t deny I would rather see Clegg flamenco into Downing Street than watch Britain go wholly Tory in denial. Hilarity, if nothing else, is guaranteed.

I say this as a college-age Indian not particularly invested in the next British PM. I like the sound of accessible visas and university funding, and I am told the Lib-Dems have the best policy on both (of course, given my taste in media, it is unlikely that I would be told otherwise). If I were British-Asian, I suspect my calculations would be more agonised. It would then be a choice between representation and ideology. I would be intensely suspicious of the Lib-Dem’s miserable record when it comes to representing women and people of colour: it has the lowest number of MPs from both groups.

Of the 15 ethnic minority MPs in the last Parliament, 13 were Labour and 2 Tory; there were no African or Asian MPs in the 63-strong Lib-Dem contingent. The party is fielding only four this time with a shot at winning. In contrast, the Tories have opened up their party under David Cameron (though not without a fight). The Tories are fielding as many minority candidates as Labour (44), ten of whom are standing from reasonably safe seats. In an election where even the Tories are making a point about diversity and encouraging ethnic-minority candidates for the first time (albeit dubious ones, like the ultra-right PR goddess Priti Patel) Lib-Dem apathy must be looking especially dismal. In other constituencies and on the other extreme, political parties founded on the sole plank of identity politics threaten Labour even in London’s solidly red East End. (Respect, one such, is a Bangladeshi-focused party founded, weirdly, by a Scot).

Even worse, the party that does best with catapulting my community and gender to elected office- Labour – would be the worst hit by a Lib-Dem victory. In some areas the clash is especially poignant: Diane Abbott, the first black woman in British Parliament, is defending her seat against a 20-something white man standing on the Lib-Dem ticket. To quote the local newspaper:

Meanwhile the Lib Dem challenger Keith Angus reckons, in this campaign video posted on YouTube, that it’s a two-horse race between him and Abbott. Well, yes, but only in the sense that one horse is a Grand National winner and the other is a Blackpool beach donkey.

I am glad I am not this hypothetical British voter, bewildered amidst political psychosis, as surely as she is glad not to be me. ‘Tis true we have embellished versions of each other’s lives. That is as much part of the diaspora as a consequence of it, and it is unlikely that I will ever stop checking in with the Scotch Uncles to try get a better glimpse into her world.

The fact is we both make the same series of non-choices in our political lives: between converging forces more apart in rhetoric than in reality; but that is not something we enjoy being reminded about. Rather, we engage in the metaphysics of coalitions; the subtle skill of calculating when and whether undercutting can lead to undermining. This is expertise better sought from the study of third world democracy, where the coalition was mastered, than from first world variants hostile to the form. To that limited extent, I’m the luckier of the pair of us.


I owe the title of this post to a senior who will (hopefully) write a book with similar title one day. He also had, from a distance, the prettiest eyes in college; and legions of fangirls as a consequence (yes, women, I think he noticed). So you will agree there is much to thank him for.

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