Rudolf Heredia, a Jesuit sociologist and theologian, once asked me whether I could think of a way of escaping ideology and social science terms like poverty and exploitation — which have almost become predictable in their analytic power — while discussing suffering. I sense he was thinking of a different language to locate suffering at the centre and rethink politics or even activism. I remembered Heredia’s question when I was thinking of how to reinvent the Left.
The Marxist-Communist world seems empty today. The leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) look like creatures out of Madame Tussauds. Watching Prakash Karat one almost senses the emptiness of ideology articulated by a commissar. The party and its unions are at a standstill and the Left as an imagination survives more creatively in two remarkable journals — EPW and Frontline — that have provided some creative link between the Left and the diverse debates in literature, ecology, science and feminism. One is reminded of B.R. Ambedkar dismissing Marxists in India as a “bunch of old Brahmin boys”. Yet, there is a need to invent the Left today beyond the promissory notes of post-modernism.
The Left is necessary, provided it reinvents itself. Such an act of reinvention must go beyond the mere categories of political economy. In a deep and fundamental way, the Left confronts a new battle around culture. It has to deal with the whole question of culture, value and meaning, the politics of language. It has to go beyond its old Judeo-Christian clichés and think of nature as more than a resource. Its old class analyses of theatre, movies, law and literature is not enough.
The whole idea of culture as peripheral, an epiphenomena has to be reworked. The Left needs new categories, new data and a new way of constructing its discourse. Lastly, it has to do this quickly because what is emerging is a new battle over culture.
Let us list the signs of debate almost immediately after the election. The first buzz came over the majoritarian idea of politics and culture. Our majority felt like a minority, especially over cultural issues like religion and identity. The presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is obvious and open. It is not merely an electoral battle. It is a battle over the minds and hearts of a new generation. One of our responsibilities is to debate with the RSS in the open and challenge it to a debate.
One has to watch with envy the number of debates the new regime has unleashed. The debate on Hindi in UPSC, the battle over GM crops which has been put on hold by the RSS-backed agricultural unions, a national centre for Himalayan studies, the dismantling of the liberal arts courses at Delhi University. In a democratic sense, these are important issues, but a democratic process needs debate and dissent.
A culture without eccentricity is doomed to uniformity. One has to reinvent the Left and create an open debate about what culture means. But this new Left has to create a meaningful theory of culture. This includes new notions of language, nature, the body, new definitions of the nation and secularism. One needs the Left to enter this battle not in the old Stalinist sense, not with the arrogance of intellectualism, but with a new sense of diversity of culture.
The BJP strategy appears to be a mix of “hurt Hinduism” and a majoritarian claim to indigenisation of culture, history, language, economy. Part of it is a blend of technocratic-fundamentalism — one part reaching deep into culture and history and another digging deep into technocratic idea of management. One sees this with clarity in the Ganges project where one part recovers the sources of the sacred and the other talks of a technocratic relinking of rivers which could be an ecological disaster.
The results so far have been mixed. The balance between indigenous and global needs to be worked out, especially as one faces the irony that it was English that gave us a comparative advantage in Information Technology over the Chinese for a decade.
Culture includes agriculture as livelihood, as diversity, control of the seed, as a debate on intellectual property. The Budget shows that the BJP, for all its attention to the weavers of Varanasi, lacks a theory of craft as a way of life. Highlighting a few domains ignores the rest. The question is, how do we retain craft diversity. Over 13 million weavers work in India. As a culture we have to ask about the fate of weaving as a way of life.
The BJP talks of heritage, monuments, but it needs to look at culture and the political economy of livelihood. It has deep ambivalence to technology one needs to analyse.
I am not suggesting this as an RSS or BJP baiting exercise. I have seen the skill and dedication they have brought to disaster relief. What I am suggesting is the possibility of debate where the eccentric, the marginal, the minoritarian, the mainstream and the dissenting engage to rework an answer — an answer where the ethical and political combine in plural ways.
One of the dangers all democratic culture face is how to differentiate populism from democracy and how to ensure that the elite is responsible and responsive to the margins. Also, one senses that we are losing many of the myths of syncretism that sustained us. One senses it in the failure of Bollywood to capture current themes of how individualism and society can co-exist. One sees it poignantly in the recent Helpage India report on the abuse of old people.
How do we provide both cultural critique and effective policy to a society which is quietly abandoning its old people?
The Left in its compulsion to remain modern has often over-emphasised rationality, the formal economy, the role of reason and science over “lesser” forms of knowledge.
But a subaltern sense of survival has to reach into its epistemic roots and look at the culture of informal economics.
We need a theory of culture which includes a diversity of rationalities, including ethnographies of coping, muddling through, jugaad —not as that of a subsistence society, but as a new attempt to understand the logic of everyday life.
Over the last few years, thanks to the Congress, we have spent too much time reflecting on the culture of politics. It is time to look at the politics of culture, of knowledge, science and technology, of belief in a more plural ways. The Left with its traditions of scholarship can contribute to that enterprise. In doing so, it redeems itself and it adds in a deep way to the imagination of democracies.