Politically Left Handed: Subhashini Aliby Vinta Nanda May 29 2020, 4:35 pm Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins, 2 secs
Vinta Nanda chats with Subhashini Ali about why after a long time and now in the times of COVID-19, when all other politics seems unsure, Left ideology of serving the poor is gaining relevance.
Subhasini Ali is an Indian politician and a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). She is the President of the All India Democratic Women’s Association. As a trade Unionist and leader of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, she is influential in politics and even represented the city of Kanpur in the 1989 Lok Sabha. She is currently a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Subhashini Ali is also a creative mind. She designed period costumes for the 1981 classic, Umrao Jaan, directed by her former husband, Muzaffar Ali.
It was springtime around twenty years ago, when I was researching for a documentary film I was making for Television for the Environment (TVE) UK – as a part of BBC’s series called Life - on the role that religion plays in determining the status of women in India. Those were not the days of Google and extracting information from archives and from the Centre for Documentation and Research were not giving that spark required for me to start filming.
Then in conversation with friends I was told that if I really wanted to get to the heart of the matter, I should meet Subhashini Ali, who lives in Kanpur. Another person I requested to help me said the same thing to me the very next morning. A day later, my crew of four women and myself, left Mumbai by road for Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. We drove past Indore, Gwalior, Jhansi and Lucknow, capturing images that still speak, and reached Kanpur three days later. I interviewed Subhashini for the first time for my documentary and her inputs, insights as well as her deep knowledge about my search, gave form to the film I had then made, called Vaastav.
Ever since, when it comes to exploring ground truth, I call Subhashini and talk to her. Or else I send her mail and ask her questions. There is no other person I know who mirrors reality by her words like she does. So in these times of information overload, which only adds more haze to what we are experiencing socially and politically, I did it again. I sent her a list of questions by mail and she obliged me with her astute and straight answers without mincing any words.
Over to my conversation with her:
What according to you are the political aberrations of these times due to which there is so much dissonance, noise and disagreement?
Our economy has been in a crisis situation for some time now and everything that was done, especially in the last five to six years by the Central Government and many of the States have actually made the crisis much worse. I’m not even talking about the havoc wreaked by COVID-19. If we look back at where we were just before the virus entered India, there was a situation of rising unemployment and acute lack of demand.
The neo-liberal paradigm adopted in the last decade of the 1990s with the kind of wanton privatization that it resulted in and the regular reduction of taxes on the wealthy that it advocated along with stringent restrictions on public spending has resulted in the impoverishment of large masses of the people. Palliative measures like the MNREGA have also been implemented in an extremely half-hearted manner.
For the last three decades, public spending on health, education and welfare measures have been cut and, in the BJP regime, they have been slashed. The lending policy of banks that has starved the agricultural sector (banks will pursue customers and foist car loans on them and conversely make it nearly impossible for small and medium farmers to get loans), while Government purchase of crops at a fixed price was also reduced.
As a result the tremendous crisis in agriculture of which farmers’ suicides is the most dreadful illustration has been deepening in this period. The BJP Government has made the situation worse by policies that further curtail welfare schemes and funding and encourage the worst forms of crony capitalism.
It is this situation that makes mainstream parties that are committed, more or less, to neo-liberal policies, resort to caste and communal mobilization to retain power – of course, to varied extents. They also violate democratic norms and human rights in order to suppress dissent that is a natural corollary of the economic distress. Once again, the BJP has proved to be the most cynical and inhuman practitioner of these methods.
Why do you think that opposition parties, collectively and individually, were not able to provide an alternative in the General Elections 2019, despite the fact that the BJP had not lived up to the promises of development it had made before it came to power in 2014?
I am very sure that if the BJP had not had the Pulwama incident to exploit in the most cynical fashion, the election results would have been very different. The huge advantages it enjoyed as far as the use of money and media are concerned are also important reasons. It is a fact that there is no single party that can be a national alternative to the BJP. The Congress has not accepted this fact and so it continues to play electoral spoiler in major States like UP.
It was only strong regional parties that actually defeated the BJP in many States like Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Unfortunately, in the Hindi heartland, which has the overwhelming majority of seats, regional parties were outmaneuvered and the Congress played spoiler. The BJP was able to combine vicious communal polarization with very micro-level management of caste-contradictions to win.
But Pulwama was the main factor without which its electoral success would not have been possible.
You have been part of the CPI (M) since long, and now you're the second woman to have gained entry to the Politburo - what according to you can the Left offer to Indian people, which the Right Wing has failed to do?
The Left’s strength and mobilization – which do not get adequate weightage in electoral politics for various reasons – are absolutely essential to provide any kind of opposition to exploitative policies.
In fact the Left and its consistent opposition have kept many of the issues that have been so important in the last few years alive. The attacks on students, education, teachers, intellectuals, minorities and Dalit’s – all these are opposed by the Left and different sections of ‘civil society’ and different times. Today, the difference between the Kerala methods and success in combating COVID-19 and the rest of the country is illustrative of the necessity of all those ‘shibboleths’ that the Left has been accused of having hung on to – public health, public education, strong local self-govt., stress on community effort etc.
Much more notice has to be paid to policies that are real alternatives to the neo-liberal paradigm that has failed in India and all over the world and is being replaced by protectionism, wage gouging and even more exploitative methods. Alternative policies must be seriously discussed and debated and not shrugged off as ‘left lunacy’ as was done recently by The Print article written by Shekhar Gupta. The correctness of neo-liberal reforms cannot be the given in every debate on economic issues. De-regularization, a key component of these reforms, has played havoc in banking, media and private sector and education to mention just a few areas.
Unfortunately, any such argument is met with – we can’t go back to license raj, or the bad old days. License raj was actually a protection given to Indian industry, which the big business houses relished. Regulation is something quite different and, of course, it is anathema to vested interests. Look at the recent chorus of welcome to the most atrocious attack on labor laws by some State Governments who are actually advocating for a form of bonded labor.
Why is it that there is so much angst against Left Politics?
One can cite many reasons but basically I believe it is due to class prejudice and ignorance. It is more and more difficult to find space for a Left perspective and the ideological attack on the Left is vicious and pervades much of public space. Even so-called liberals indulge in this ad-nauseam.
It is interesting that attacks on the Left are made for all manner of imagined and exaggerated ‘sins’ by both the fanatic Right Wing and liberals – distortion of history when, in fact, the most significant contribution to Indian historiography has been made by scholars on the Left; consistent opposition to sale of public assets; defense of public education and public health – and this opposition has often been voiced by those who have been major beneficiaries of both - protection of the rights of forest dwellers and tribal; unstinted support to the policies of reservation. Liberals go to the extent of blaming the organized left for the crisis in the Congress saying that this is because of withdrawal of support to the UPA Government.
Where did this irreverence towards intellectualism according to you begin and why?
Well, large sections of the Right Wing and bigots have always been anti-intellectual. They are basically enemies of scientific thought, logic, critical appreciation and questioning. This is an age-old battle in our civilization.
Basically acceptance of the caste system is completely illogical and unscientific and inhuman and is responsible for many roadblocks to our intellectual, scientific, industrial, political and social progress (I’m not even talking about unspeakable brutality, exploitation and atrocities, which are occurring every moment of every day). This acceptance creates an in-built intolerance and insensitivity in most of us. There is a constant justifying of the unjustifiable.
What are your thoughts about the way that the Government of India has handled COVID-19?
The way the Government has handled COVID-19 is nothing short of criminal. They completely ignored the entry of the virus into the country (Kerala) at the end of January. Their priorities were the Delhi elections, the Trump visit, the bloody revenge taken against the minorities in Delhi and the skullduggery involved in replacing the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh with a BJP government.
Airports should have been closed by end Feb-beginning March but had to be kept open to fly defectors out and then back into Bhopal. The new Government in Madhya Pradesh was installed on March 20.
There was no planning, no consultation and the lockdown was imposed giving only 4 hours time after it was announced. From the beginning till today the Government has been responsible for disaster after disaster and brutal attacks on the poor who have lost their jobs, their savings and often, their lives. The lockdown has not been used for strengthening health infrastructure and for flattening the disease curve.
The Prime Minister seems to have concentrated most on collecting funds for the ‘PM Cares Trust’ that is completely opaque. He has not ensured wage payments or free rations to millions who have had to face inhuman conditions, often far from home. When one looks at what the Kerala Government has achieved, the comparison is very stark.
The Kerala Government began preparing for the entry of the virus in the beginning of January. Along with strengthening medical infrastructure in every way it also implemented a series of welfare measures that have kept the poorest in the State hunger-free, confident and healthy. Its approach towards guest workers from other States has been exemplary.
What would you have done for migrant populations if you were in a position to guide decision-making? The migrant workers situation is probably the biggest humanitarian crisis we have seen in our lifetimes - what do you think is going to happen hereafter?
Before the lockdown was imposed, the Center should have helped as many migrants as wanted to go home and to do so by running very large numbers of buses and trains in coordination with the States, a co-ordination that it completely ignored. Had this been done not only would the migrants have been spared terrible privations but the States would also have been able to concentrate more on dealing with the virus.
The Center should also have done everything possible to ensure wages to all workers and free rations to everyone without any insistence on ration cards, which millions have been denied access to. Had these things been done we would probably be seeing a situation in which the epidemic was not spiking in the way that it now is and many workers would be returning to less affected areas where different kinds of production were being re-started.
As it is, however, the tragedy of the migrants and their families are going to increase. Their health is going to be severely affected. Their arrival in their home states is going to escalate the number of cases there and already rickety health systems will be in danger of collapse.
The Center is not only abrogating more and more power, making the States weaker, but it is also denying them its dues (unpaid Goods and Services Tax – GST - for example) and various kinds of financial assistance that it is actually bound to provide. This is happening in a situation where it is simultaneously shifting the entire burden of tackling the epidemic onto the States.
The big question that both these questions raise is – why were people allowed to be hungry and even to starve when the warehouses at the disposal of the Central Government are overflowing with food grains?
The attitude of this Government was perfectly articulated by its decision to use the rice at its disposal for the production of sanitizer. Denial of food grains is a very basic act of violence against poor people including millions who have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic, an act for which the Central Government is responsible.
A second attack has been to deny them money needed for their survival and for any kind of economic revival to start.