Can there be Left-wing populism in India?

To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing
Raymond Williams

The “unexpected” rise of Jeremy Corbyn, both within the leadership of the Labour Party and in the snap election to the British Parliament held recently has led to a “strange rebirth of radical politics”, to borrow Richard Seymour’s phrase, in Britain. At a time when there has been a widely held perception that there is a wave of right-wing populism sweeping across the world, the election of the right-wing populist Donald Trump as the President of the United States of America reinforcing it, the advances that Jeremy Corbyn has made in the election provides hope for those who are on the Left. The rise of Corbyn will have far reaching consequences beyond the borders of Britain, given the renewed interest in Marx after the 2008 financial crisis. Corbyn’s spectacular performance in the election comes after the hopes of the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen was derailed by the success of Emmanuel Macron in the French elections and the promising performance of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party presidential primaries. After the unexpected performance of Donald Trump in the US election many commentators pointed out that if Bernie Sanders had contested instead of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s candidate, he would have won. Hillary Clinton did not really have any alternatives to offer whereas Bernie Sanders’ left-wing populism could have countered Trump’s right-wing populism. Though neither Corbyn nor Sanders did eventually win the elections their impressive performance gives hope and a fresh way of looking at politics in this age of anger.

The most significant outcome of the rise of Corbyn is defying the common sense that there is no alternative to neo-liberal hegemony, which has characterised politics after the “collapse of communism” in the early 1990s and the “end of history”. Chantal Mouffe finds fault with the left-wing political parties for the great surrender to neoliberal hegemony. She argues that the left parties accepted the idea that “there was no alternative to neoliberal globalisation, that all they could do when they got to power was to manage ‘more humanely’ the order created by neoliberalism – with a bit more redistribution, for instance.”[1] She also points out that “the best example of the power of the neoliberal hegemony established by Thatcher in Great Britain is the evolution of the Labour Party under Tony Blair.”[2] And it is no surprise that Tony Blair refused to back Jeremy Corbyn. The significance of Corbyn and Sanders is that they offered an alternative; they offered the hope that another world is possible. It is in such a context that huge support that Corbyn’s manifesto, which talked about “a radical and responsible programme of hope that will create a country that delivers for the many, not the few” found huge resonance among the youth. In the context of Brexit and austerity moves, the precarious or would-be-precarious class that neoliberalism engendered found a hope in Corbyn.

At a time when the Latin American Left, which has often been talked of as a case of 21st century socialism and a model for rebuilding or reinventing the left is increasingly facing crisis, Corbyn and Sanders offer us a way to think about the prospect of constructing a left-wing populism to counter the right-wing populism. The Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe stresses the need to construct a left-wing populism to take on right-wing populism and to radicalise democracy which will be “for the many, not the few.” By left-wing populism Mouffe refers to “a form of politics conceived as war of position, and the construction of collective popular will through chains of equivalence and the mobilisation of passions.[3]” She says that coming years will witness an open struggle between the right-wing populism and left-wing populism. It is by now a common sense that right-wing populism draws its strength from the discontent of people with political establishments and the “elite”. Mouffe talks about the need to fill the void that is created with people’s disinterest in the political through a left-wing populism, in the absence of which a right-wing populism will succeed. Sometimes it also paves way for conservative forces as happened in the case of the Arab Spring. There is a need to construct a people differently from the way right-wing populism constructs its people. Pointing out the need to take into account the affective dimension of politics or the role of passion in politics, something that liberalism fails to take note., Mouffe observes that there are mainly two passions in politics—fear and hope. The right-wing populists use fear—fear of job loss, fear of stagnation of economic growth, etc—which leads people to racism and xenophobia as the migrants are presented as the reason for their deprivation. Mouffe argues that while the right-wing mobilizes passions that emerge out of fear, it’s important for left-wing populists to mobilize the passion of hope: to show that there is an alternative to the current situation which is characterised by growing gap between the rich and poor and the destruction of the welfare state. She says that “right-wing populist are very much aware of the importance of using this affective dimension. It is crucial for the Left to acknowledge it and to intervene, to mobilize and to foster affect in order to create collective forms of identification that could deepen democracy.”

Let us take the case of Bernie Sanders in the US to see how his populism was different from the right-wing populism of Trump. While Trump mobilized the passion of fear through presenting the migrants and Muslims as the threat to America and its people, Sanders pointed out that the enemy was not the migrants but the Wall Street. And that is also where Sanders succeeded in mobilizing the energy produced by the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Similarly, in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn talked about measures like taxing the rich more and making education free for all. At the same time, the right-wing talked about austerity and also generated anti-migrant sentiments. Again, it was a question of fear versus hope and Corbyn has succeeded in keeping the hope that another world is possible alive.

The disaffection towards neoliberalism is a widespread phenomenon which has led to several protests across the world. Popular protests like the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan or the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, we see that the anger of the youth was turned against the neoliberal regime also. If we look at the slogans of the movements “the future belongs to us” or “be realistic, demand the impossible”, we can see how the precariousness that the neoliberal economy has put the youth into prompts them to come to the street and protest. It is as a result of the disaffection with neoliberalism that the youth in the U.S. or the Britain fall for the old socialists like Sanders and Corbyn.

Apart from offering an alternative to neoliberalism, Corbyn’s rise will result in the Conservatives changing their political language, as many commentators have talked about. Stuart Hall has talked about the need to conduct politics through what he calls a discursive struggle. The discursive struggle involves breaking the elements that constitute the hegemonic formation and giving new meanings and political directions. Similarly Laclau has argued that if you discredit the slogans of the enemy, you make it difficult for the opposition to use their own slogans. In an article published a few days ago Pankaj Mishra talks about how the Conservatives in Britain will now be forced to talk the language of the Left.

However, one has perhaps to be also aware that the struggle over meaning is a tricky business as the right-wing populism can appropriate the language of left wing. The success of BJP in Indian can be attributed to its appropriation of meanings. In this struggle over meanings, BJP has projected Modi as an OBC and a chaiwallah, somebody who belongs to the underclass. Similarly, by nominating a Dalit to the post of Indian president, the BJP is trying to appropriate the language of identity politics.

Can there be Left-wing populism in India?

Let us now come to the crucial question for the Indian left: Is there anything in the rise of Corbyn and Sanders, along with the rise of left-wing populist movements like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, for the Indian left to learn from? In other words, can there be a left-wing populism in India? Given the current shape of Indian left one may say there cannot be a left-wing populism in India. But if we ask the question in a different way, are there conditions for a “populist situation” in India currently, we may get the answer yes. In order to build a left-wing populism, the first step is to free populism from the pejorative connotations of the term in the popular discourse. In the context of Europe, Mouffe argues:

It is very convenient for the parties of the centrist consensus to use the term populist to disqualify their opponents. The ‘populism’ accusation is particularly useful for the so-called ‘left-wing’ parties, as it allows them to avoid self-criticism, and any recognition that, having abandoned the defence of the popular classes, they are to a large extent responsible for the crisis of representation that is the underlying cause of the emergence of a wide range of ‘anti establishment’ parties. They thus limit themselves to a moralising critique instead of undertaking a political analysis.[4]

A resignification of populism and taking cognizance of the populist situations is essential. Central to Mouffe (and Laclau’s, from whom Mouffe draws heavily) positive conception of populism is the idea of the construction of a people for the left through a chain of equivalence which articulates multiple heterogeneous demands. The construction of the people for the left-wing populism requires bringing together various social and political movements such as feminist movements, environmental struggles, anti-caste struggle, LGBT movements, etc.

Let us come back to the question of whether there are conditions for a populist situation in India. At a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, under the neoliberal hegemony, the left in India should have only emerged stronger as the poor and the landless constitute the social base of the left. In other words, the Proletarianization of people would have only helped the left in its political mobilization. However, it is doubtful whether the Indian left has been able to channelize the opportunities that the populist moment offers. Let us take the recent case of demonetisation for instance. Though the demonetisation affected majority of Indians, with the poor and the people in rural areas being the most hit, there was no major nation-wide protest (one may point out that there were protests in some places). The left could not even form a public opinion against it. The reason for which could be the left’s failure to assess the mood of the people. Many poor people genuinely believed that demonetisation was for the benefit of the poor as the drive would help the government to seize black money. If the poor saw it as anti-elite move, they cannot be blamed. The distrust towards the political establishments and the anger against the “elite” were cleverly used by the BJP. The left was unable to politically channelize people’s distrust of the establishment and the political energy that was generated towards a left-wing hegemonic project. The demonetization drive was presented as a continuation of the anti-corruption moves that the BJP professed. In that sense, it was the energy created by the populist moment of the India Against Corruption movement that paved the way for demonetisation. In retrospect one may say that the populism of the India Against Corruption movement helped the BJP to come to power. It might be true as well. But what is important is to take note of the fact that it was a contingent moment and offered many possibilities. The point is to take cognizance and make use of the populist moment. In order to explain this better, a digression is in order. Writing in the mid-1990s, when communalism was on the rise in India, Javeed Alam talks about the Left’s “forced retreat from class politics” and how the communist project in India was non-hegemonic. He argued how the class question as the focal point of politics was pushed into the background as a result of its increasing concern over fighting communalism and protecting the integrity of the nation. He pointed out, how unlike in the 1960s which represented a period of hope, “a sense of being besieged, together with rearguard actions, predominates the politics of the left today; this in spite of considerable growth, even if halting, registered by the communist parties”[5]. What Alam was trying to argue in the article was that the communists followed a non-hegemonic conquest model in India, which he sees as the reason behind the “failure” of communism. What is of more interest to us here is a passing reference by Alam to which Aditya Nigam responds. Alam pointed out that “the JP movement in its long-term impact restricted the terrain of the politics of the left and created the political space that allowed for greater manoeuvre by rightwing politics…… During this period, parties representing the preference of the ruling classes took to extra-parliamentary politics for the first time; such modes of agitation were the preserve of left and radical opposition till then.” Aditya Nigam[6] pointed out that Alam has looked at only the consequences of the JP movement, and in his observation Alam might be correct. Nigam points out the need to look at the potentialities that the moment offered. Because of the left’s inability to rightly assess the potential of the JP movement, they could not utilize the political space which could have led to a hegemonic conquest. This is very much true of the India Against Corruption moment as well. While the AAP must have made some gains for the short term, the real beneficiaries of it were the BJP. Thus, the India Against Corruption moment presented a lost opportunity. Aditya Nigam’s assertion that “social and political spaces do not lie vacant, ever” is very crucial for our understanding of politics. For any progressive politics that seeks to establish hegemony, it is important to adopt what Gramsci would call a war of position.

As we have seen, India is also going through an age of anger. While there is anger that comes from economic stagnation, poverty, unemployment, etc. the right-wing has managed to channelize the anger against religious minorities, Dalits, Tribals, women, etc. and spaces that are critical of the ruling regime, the alternative is, however utopian it sounds, to offer an alternative that talks about hope, a hope of a better future for all .

As we have hinted at before, nobody would think that the Indian left is capable of doing something similar to what Corbyn did. First and foremost, it does not have a charismatic leader like Corbyn. Whether we like it or not, populism requires a certain kind of charismatic leader and for the construction of a left-wing populism it is essential that there is a charismatic leader who can infuse people with hope. The other shortcomings of the parliamentary Left in India have often been well-documented, most recently in the book The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left by Praful Bidwai. He has talked about how the left has increasingly detached itself from people’s issues. Javeed Alam has also pointed out that the failure of the communist movement in becoming hegemonic in India can be attributed to the fact that “the Indian communist movement looked at the build up of the revolutionary potential in Indian society only by, or at least primarily through, working on the state, its institutions, processes and dynamics. Such an orientation to politics in turn led to a withdrawal of attention from society as such—its institutions, values and particular modes of articulation—as direct targets of revolutionary focus.”[7]

Praful Bidwai ends his assessment of the Left movement in India by talking about the need to build a social or cultural left if the political left is not able to recover from its decline. He proposes a new left that constitutes of various social movements. Bidwai writes:

The currents that must carry the mantle of the old Left include, besides the Left parties themselves, independent Marxist and Left-socialist groups, radical non-party political formations, trade unionists, organizers of agricultural workers and marginal farmers, Dalit networks, feminist groups, anti-communal campaigners and environmental activists. They also include health and education rights campaigners, civil society groups devoted to defending people’s livelihoods, movements that seek to deepen and enrich democracy, the radical intelligentsia and all those non-affiliated groups and individuals who believe in a post-capitalist future. A component of the last is what might be called the ‘social’ or ‘cultural’ Left, including writers, artists and cultural activists.[8]

What Bidwai proposes is also a model of radical and plural democracy. It attains significance in the context that the Left has often been accused of ignoring the radicalisation of democracy even in states it ruled for many years which has led to a disaffection among the marginalized towards the Left. Similarly, taking note of the importance of civil society movement is important for the parliamentary left. There is hope in Sitaram Yechury’s recent remark that the opposition parties to “join hands with peoples’ movements and civil society organisations to counter the onslaught of communalism and the politics of hate being spread by the current government and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).” The Indian parliamentary left would do well to bring it into practice. Apart from joining hands with civil society movements, the parliamentary left has reshape itself as what Mouffe calls a “‘movement party’ with a critical electoral dimension that is linked with the movements but also distinct and independent.”



[1] Chantal Mouffe and Inigo Errejon. 2016. Podemos: In the Name of the People. London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 23.

[2] Chantal Mouffe and Inigo Errejon. 2016. Podemos: In the Name of the People. London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 44.

[3] Chantal Mouffe and Inigo Errejon. 2016. Podemos: In the Name of the People. London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 126.

[4] Chantal Mouffe and Inigo Errejon. 2016. Podemos: In the Name of the People. London: Lawrence & Wishart, pp. 126.

[5] Alam, Javeed. 1998. “Communist Politics in Search of Hegemony”. In Partha Chatterjee, ed, Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 179-206.

[6]Nigam, Aditya. 1998. “Communist politics Hegemonized”. In Partha Chatterjee, ed, Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation State. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 207-37.

[7]  Alam, Javeed. 1998. “Communist Politics in Search of Hegemony”. In Partha Chatterjee, ed, Wages of Freedom: Fifty Years of the Indian Nation-State. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 179-206.

[8] Bidwai, Praful. 2015. The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left. New Delhi: Harper Collins.


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Muhammed Afzal P Written by:

Ph D Scholar, Department of Cultural Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad

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