Sparking a rethink in the Left and Congress  

Professor Zoya Hasan’s work should prompt political parties to reflect deeply on why they no longer function as the arteries through which the demands of the masses inform and guide State policy

G Mohan Gopal

Professor Zoya Hasan’s latest book focuses on the relatively “less-studied” but very crucial relationship between political parties and public mobilisation (defined as “collective action to effect institutional and policy change” through campaigns/agitations/mobilisations). The book analyses four public campaigns for legal and policy change — the campaigns for the Right to Information; the Right to Food; the establishment of the Lok Pal; and reservation of seats for women in Parliament and legislative assemblies.

The book highlights the space opened up for civil society by Sonia Gandhi through the NAC

At one end of the spectrum, the book describes how the India against Corruption (IAC) campaign ‘overpowers’ the political establishment and forces an unwilling State to enact a Lok Pal Act (although the empire has struck back by dragging its feet on operationalising it). At the other extreme, we see how the political class overpowers the women’s movement and subverts reservation of seats for women in Parliament and in state legislatures. Between these two extremes, we see the Right to Work and Right to Food campaigns working in tandem with progressive political leaders of the UPA government and the Left (rather than attacking the government) and succeeding in getting epoch making laws enacted (albeit considerably watered down; and considerably more slowly for the Right to Food than for the Right to Employment mainly because of lack of political consensus about the fiscal implications of creating a Right to Food in the shadow of the 2008 global financial crisis).

The book highlights the vital space opened up for civil society by Sonia Gandhi through the innovation of the National Advisory Council (NAC). “After all”, says Professor Hasan, “it was Sonia Gandhi who did the heavy lifting to take forward the social rights agenda.” She argues that “there can be little doubt that but for [Sonia Gandhi’s] intervention, these two legislations [MGNREGA and the National Food Security Act] would not have materialised at all, and in any case, certainly not in the form in which they were enacted.” Prof. Hasan argues, however, that NAC’s “initial and enthusiastic beginning [in UPA 1] petered out” in UPA-2. She says, “Although the NAC was a Congress creation, ironically it was a much weaker entity without the left parties’ support to the government 2008 onwards. This was evident in the composition of NAC-2, with the bureaucracy and neo-liberals being given a more active role and activists being given a reduced remit.”

Prof. Hasan also contends that “after the departure of the Left parties in 2008, Sonia Gandhi began to get marginalised within the [Congress] party, and it was precisely during the second term of the UPA that the rights agenda declined as did the salience of social policy.” This claim that she became marginalised inside her own party stands in sharp contrast to the standard right wing presentation of Sonia Gandhi as the controlling power of the party and of the UPA coalition.

Prof. Hasan sets the emergence of these public campaigns in the larger context of the 1991 economic reforms that put an “end to the wide-ranging consensus on the role of the state as a crucial player in the development process”. She says, “After all, in a way, all these campaigns are all responses to the consequences of neo-liberalism.” Prof. Hasan argues that the reforms resulted in the impoverishment of the masses and the increasing “deprivation of the basic needs of the masses such as food, employment, education and health.” Distrust of the state and of political parties increased. Public campaigns emerged with greater frequency, intensity and support to fill these gaps.  Prof. Hasan argues that the assertion of marginalised and middle classes beyond electoral politics” is in part a response to “elite capture of policy and law making”. Prof. Hasan says that these campaigns occupied “some of the space created by the decline of the Congress and the left’s grassroots strength and movements associated with it. The failure of the left, which lost its constituency and intellectual and political influence, was why neoliberalism gained currency and prevailed”.

Prof. Hasan concludes that while “political leadership and political parties are a critical variable in explaining the passage of both rights-based acts and the Lok Pal Act…there is no straightforward relationship between social and political mobilisation and state response” and that “political response to collective action varies under different political circumstances and dispensations”. She argues that “the translation of social movements into legislation [in these cases] was a complex process which involved a collective assertion of democratic politics alongside a critical engagement with the institutions of the State. The process was not simply one whose sustained pressure from below led to an eventual governmental response.

It is surprising that the book mentions IAC as an example of civil society political mobilisation

It is surprising that the book includes IAC as an example of civil society political mobilisation against political parties. IAC’s intimate linkages with the BJP/Sangh Parivar are by now well known, and openly admitted. That IAC harboured political ambitions from the outset is clear from the speed with which IAC transformed seamlessly into AAP and contested the 2014 election. Notwithstanding the strong popular support it mobilised, IAC was more a front created by political party strategists to gain electoral advantage than a genuine example of spontaneous political mobilisation.

The merit of the argument that women’s reservations should not become a ploy to replace Avarna legislators with Savarnas (and therefore the need for “quotas” within “quotas” for Avarna women) is dismissed quite mercilessly. This is not surprising. The book ignores a ‘caste justice’ perspective to the realisation of social and economic rights (for example, through reservations).

The book should prompt left and social democratic parties, including the Congress in particular, to reflect deeply on why they are no longer able to function as the arteries through which the demands of the masses inform and guide legislation and State policy; and why they have become, at best, “neutral arbiters” between the masses and their exploiters (and at worst,“progressive neo-liberals”, the “handmaidens of neo-liberalism”). By adopting the role of neutral arbiters  — rather than that of advocates of the masses — they have ceded the space for voicing the concerns of the people to unelected and unrepresentative “movements”, largely led and controlled by urbanised, largely upper caste, technocratic English speaking elites that are displacing grassroots movements led by the masses (such as trade unions; tribal movements; Dalit movements; backward classes movements) that, once upon a time, used to take up the causes of the people (such as hunger, jobs and reservations).

Dr Ambedkar famously called for adherence to “Constitutional methods of achieving.. social and economic objectives” and warned against the “bloody methods of revolution” that, in his evocative phrase, are “nothing but the grammar of anarchy” (Dr BR Ambedkar’s November 25, 1949 speech to the Constituent Assembly). Bloody revolutions are perhaps more easily identifiable. The more complex challenge is to identify and counter non-bloody - but equally subversive and anti-Constitutional — methods such as unelected, unrepresentative, unaccountable, non-transparent  “social” and “political” mobilisation that usurps the direct voice of  the masses in democratic processes of making law and policy (including “flash movements” like IAC that appear from and evaporate into thin air).

TITLE: Agitation To Legislation: Negotiating Equity And Justice In India

AUTHOR: Professor Zoya Hasan

PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press

PAGES: 178

PRICE: Rs 675

Professor G. Mohan Gopal is former Vice-Chancellor, National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Zoya Hasan is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Political Studies, JNU)

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