Why did the BJP activists pull down a statue of the Russian revolutionary Lenin in a small town called Belonia in Tripura just days after their electoral victory? Most people in India wouldn’t even have heard of Lenin, forget recognising the statue as his. But for BJP, it was a symbolic act. The BJP and RSS workers are in a way obsessed with communists, which is evident in their consistent messaging on Kerala’s political killings. But framing the argument in a way that pitches the fascists against communists falls into a historical trap because both these 20th-century ideologies—fascism and communism—were put into practice in certain countries, in very specific contexts, with their own tales of violence and repression. Therefore, to avoid unnecessary historical referencing and whataboutery, we need to frame it as the opposition between two broad ideas on what constitutes a desirable society.
The first idea, let’s call it nationalistic for the sake of simplicity, gives prominence to the nation as one made up of a predominant culture/religion that goes back several thousand years. Those who adhere to this idea believe that their nation had a glorious past and that this glory had been corrupted by outsiders and outside influences. Their mission is to recover this ancient glory. Anyone who does not share the values of this culture within the nation will be considered as an “other” or as a second-class citizen. They believe that to ensure stability and order in a society, you need a strong, preferably authoritarian, leader. And to protect you from other cultural/religious enemies, be it within one’s own nation or from outside, you need a strong army. Within this nationalist framework itself, there are traditionalists and modernists. For example, in India, the traditionalists may want to ban the slaughter of cows while the modernist nationalists are more interested in the rising status of India in the eyes of the already risen states. Many ‘nationalist’ American citizens of Indian origin are modernist Indian nationalists. They want their country of origin to be valued by the peers in their country. They don’t want that image to be sullied by lynching back home in the name of the cow. But they are fine with the othering of Muslims in India because Muslims are othered in the US as well.
The second idea, let’s call it egalitarianism, considers a classless society as the ideal that one should strive for. This idea is internationalist in scope and considers nationalism as narrow and reactionary. It does not privilege any one nation, race, caste or ethnicity as inherently superior to the other. It wants to strive for the elimination of all social hierarchies (man-woman, upper class-lower class, upper caste-lower caste, superior race-inferior race, heterosexual-LGBT, etc.). But they do accept hierarchies within the practical areas of work as necessary. For example, within an office, one person could be a female CEO of Moroccan descent and another a male housekeeper with European roots. But in the evening, they both might go to the same pub (both can afford the same pub) and drink, sitting next to each other without any feeling of superiority or servility. However, some people who believe in egalitarianism considers certain thinkers from the 19th century Europe as infallible and elevate them to the position of prophets, while some others consider this an ever-evolving body of thought. Some believe violence and strong-arm nationalistic governments form the first step towards achieving this desirable society while others eschew violence and are sceptical of any fixed methods.
There is also a third idea generally referred to as liberalism today, and you find liberals on the left as well as on the economic right. Liberalism’s central idea is the autonomy of the individual, his or her freedom to choose the life he or she desires or the freedom to pursue happiness in the way one sees fit. But one thing many liberals fail to account for is that power is inextricably linked to liberty, especially material liberty (the freedom to choose a school, a hospital, a certain means of transport, etc.). In an unequal society, the rich have more power than the poor, economically and socially, while certain ethnicities/castes/races are privileged over others socially. Liberals, especially those who slant towards the right, tend to view social inequality as a given. Therefore, the fact that a rich parent can choose to send her child to an elite school just because she has more money doesn’t strike them as unjust. Or that if you have more money, you have access to better healthcare. Or that there’s more network support for those born to certain castes/races compared to some others.
Some egalitarians are anti-liberal, as they consider individual autonomy in opposition to a classless collective, while others believe that everyone needs liberty equally (both material freedom as well as freedom of speech and expression)—that it shouldn’t be based on one’s power and wealth.
Now, to get back to the traditional enmity between BJP and Communists, at the level of ideas, it’s an enmity between those who want to establish new hierarchies and those who want to eliminate all hierarchies, between ethnic politics and class politics, between ultra-nationalism and internationalism—practical politics notwithstanding. As for practical politics, both the BJP and CPI (M) are cadre-based parties. Both of their activists come with certain ideological convictions. And both are absolutists in a sense. But they are not two sides of the same coin, and we need that clarity. Because while for one “graded inequality” sits perfectly with their worldview, for the other, however, flawed their realpolitik, the idea of equality is still held sacred.
Razing a Lenin statue, while symbolic, will have no consequences in a country that doesn’t even know who he is. However, it was vital for the BJP activists to ‘perform’ this symbolism; they had to play football with his head. Simple pleasures of the karyakartas!
But beyond this political spectacle, the greatest thorn in the bush for the ultra-nationalists in India is the Constitution that was drafted under the supervision of Ambedkar. And this they will never admit in public. In fact, in the recent past, they have been all out to appropriate Ambedkar into the Hindutva fold.
Born as an untouchable in the Hindu caste order, Ambedkar renounced Hinduism and embraced Buddhism. He opposed both Hindutva and the Muslim League. He wrote: “If Hindu Raj does become a fact, it will, no doubt, be the greatest calamity for this country. No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity. On that account, it is incompatible with democracy. Hindu Raj must be prevented at any cost.”
But no karyakarta today will dare to bring down an Ambedkar statue in public unlike that of Lenin’s. That is because Dalit votes still matter, although not so much Dalit lives. So much for our glorious past.