The majority of French voters have rejected Marine Le Pen. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the elected president is a free-market fanatic whose programme inspired a record number of people to cast blank votes.
Had Le Pen won the presidency, another country would have succumbed to the revamped right-wing populism represented by Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban and Brexit – not fascism, in my view, but a new kind of majoritarian authoritarianism endorsed by popular mandate, fuelled by fear of the future and resentment of the establishment, finding its expression in xenophobia and prejudice.
Emmanuel Macron could hardly be styled a courageous defender of minorities but he did resist Le Pen’s racism in the campaign TV debates, which is more than can be said for the mainstream right candidate François Fillon and, for that matter, more than can be said for Socialist prime minister Manuel Valls while in office.
So we’ve escaped a national-level version of the discrimination, repression and racist rabble-rousing the far right has let loose on the towns it controls. And Le Pen’s National Front (FN) seems to have big problems ahead.
Crisis for National Front
The result, and Le Pen’s disastrous performance in the few days before the poll, appears to have plunged the FN into crisis.
In one sense, they don’t have so much to complain about. They achieved a record 10.6 million votes, nearly double their score when Marine’s dad, Jean-Marie, made it to the second round against Jacques Chirac 2002. That’s a lot of Islamophobes – or, at least, a lot of people prepared to go along with the FN’s hatred of Muslims, immigrants, Roma and other minorities to poke the “elite” in the eye, which should, but won’t, give the “elite” pause for thought.
But, and this is really worrying, they could have done even better.
Le Pen ran an effective campaign up until the last few days. Then she had the bright idea of picking a holocaust-doubter as her party’s interim president (he also thought that beating up commies was a good political education but that received less media attention) say that France was not responsible for the wartime rounding up of Jews, call Fillon and his party “shits” (the FN claims she just said they were in the shit) and, worst of all, behave just like her father’s daughter during the crucial final TV debate.
The debate performance – where she was caught out lying, blustered, bullied, slouched and grimaced like the chip off the old block she is – has probably destroyed the “dedemonisation” strategy that had been working pretty well for Marine and her pals.
The FN’s canal historique is already sharpening its knives. Its best-known representative, Marion Maréchal Le Pen, one of only two FN-affiliated MPs at the moment, said on Sunday evening that the party must consider its strategy in the election after the “disappointment”.
And, if reports are to be believed, the rank and file is in disarray. An anonymous FN official told the Mediapart website that a the party’s post-debate postbag contained a number of torn-up membership. And the “fachosphere” – the far-right social media network – is full of recriminations, mostly against Marine Le Pen and Florian Philippot, the FN vice-president who’s seen as the Svengali behind the dedemonisation strategy and the party’s “social” turn.
One is tempted to ask whether Le Pen threw the debate deliberately. As a Trump admirer, she must have read his comment that leading a country is harder than he’d thought. Being the party of mean-minded, resentful opposition has been a profitable business for her family, making them millionaires. Had the FN watered down its opposition to the EU, the real point of difference with the Fillons, Sarkozys and other tough guys of the mainstream right, it could have undergone the same transformation as Italy’s MSI and joined a coalition government some years ago.
But no, the FN leaders were riding a wave of anti-establishment resentment mixed with xenophobia and seemed genuinely to believe they were on the road to power on their own terms. Hence the disappointment today.
It remains to be seen if the backbiting will hamper their campaign in June’s parliamentary elections. A good result there could staunch the crisis.
Macron and extremes
Something else revealed in that TV debate is that Macron is not a very skilful politician.
He’s an intelligent man, a skilled technocrat who knows his facts.
But Le Pen destroyed herself, he didn’t destroy her.
When she posed as a defender of gay and women’s rights during an attack on a Muslim group that supported him, he failed to remind her of her own party’s record on those questions – the potential for mockery was great but Macron doesn’t do funny. When she justified her claim that the wartime deportation of Jews was not France’s responsibility but that of the Vichy government, he let it go without even a mention the former collaborators who helped found the party. Apparently, he also doesn’t do history.
This is not just a historical quibble. Obscuring the party’s Nazi origins and airbrushing out its anti-Semitism are a key part of the dedemonisation strategy and Macron passed on an opportunity to deal it a powerful blow.
In short, Macron has no political culture, which is also the problem of his newly founded En Marche ! movement. Apparently, the political experience that his presidential campaign lacked was made up for by Socialist Party traitors, working against their own candidate, Benoît Macron, in the first round and even more openly for a republican front – nominally anti-fascist but in reality more pro-Brussels – in the second round.
That was also apparent in his speech after the result was announced. In what he imagined was an olive branch to supporters of Le Pen and left-winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon, he told them they had voted for “extremists”.
Repeating the old canard of the “extremes” meeting up is hardly a way to win over the seven million who voted Mélenchon in the first round and Macron’s assurance that he understood voters’ “anger, anxiety and doubts” is undermined by his obvious lack of empathy with ordinary people on the campaign trail.
With 25 percent abstention, the highest since 1969 when France’s youth was radicalised by May ’68, and an absolute record of four million blank votes, Macron can expect trouble.
His programme, for the most part a collection of micro-measures and expressions of good intentions, is ardently pro-EU and pro-capitalist. Despite a promise to revive Europe’s connection with “the people”, Macron is determined to press on with reducing the debt through austerity, the very policy that has done so much to help demagogues like Le Pen. On the economy it’s more of the same – tax cuts and subsidies for employers, in the desperate and so far unrewarded hope that they will be bribed to invest, longer hours, later retirement and less social protection for employees.
He has promised to bring in more changes to labour law in the summer, his main proposal being to encourage company-level negotiations on working hours and other conditions, a further undermining of collective bargaining and trade union solidarity.
Mélenchon’s seven million votes mean that, for the first time for years, the left is not demoralised.
Rather it is in combative mood, witness all those blank votes. So strikes, demonstrations and social upheaval are guaranteed, indeed the first took place on the afternoon after the election.
Parliamentary elections – who know what will happen?
It’s all very well winning the presidency but afterwards you have to form a government.
For someone who doesn’t actually have a real party that’s a problem.
And, with the mainstream parties rejected by voters in the presidential election, everything’s up for grabs in June’s parliamentary election.
Will Macron succeed in destroying the Socialist Party, as seems to be his intention, with his assurance that En Marche ! won’t endorse any candidate standing under another party’s colours?
Will the mainstream right Republicans lose their more liberal MPs, tempted by the prospect of ministerial positions?
Will voters be as ready to reject sitting MPs as they were to turn their backs on their parties’ candidates in the presidential first round?
Will the FN pick up MPs in some of the 95 constituencies where Le Pen won more than 30 percent in that round?
Can Mélenchon and his allies build on the presidential campaign success and win more seats?
I don’t know the answers to these questions and I don’t think anyone else does, either.
Which means that the parliamentary poll is going to be another cliffhanger and, whatever happens, French politics will never be the same again.
Read my analysis of the result for RFI English here
In the US, the Republican right have taken to sneering at the “white working class”. But they’re not alone. Middle-class liberals same and the media feel free to caricature “white trash” or “chavs”. Class hatred lives on … when it’s top-down.
It’s so difficult to hate in peace these days. Overt racism is generally frowned upon – even by racists (“I’m not racist but …”). Islamophobia is having a moment, it’s true. And then there’s class hatred, as long as it’s de haut en bas, especially if you target the “white working class”, the subject of sneers from the American right recently but also portrayed by media and liberals as the repository of all bigotry, backwardness and bad taste.
Having created a monster, the Republican establishment is desperately trying to shift the blame for flipping the switch that brought Donald Trump to political life. Two writers in the New Republic have found the perfect suspect – “the white working class”.
“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”, writes Kevin Williamson, going on to decry “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog”.
Cheering him on, David French claims Williamson has debunked “the idea that the white working-class (the heart of Trump’s support) is a victim class”. His church tried to help these people, he reports, but found its efforts wasted because they prefer welfare to work, drop out of education on a whim, shag the neighbour at the first sign of marital discord and neck prescription drugs with the same gusto that respectable people sip Chardonnay.
Reassuringly, French “hate[s] the mockery that poor and working-class people of all races endure” and doesn’t think that the drug-addicted fornicators are solely responsible for their fate. The government, the “cultural elite”, “progressive culture”, “progressive policies”, the “progressive welfare state” and the “elitist sexual revolutionaries” are not blameless, he adds … to no-one’s surprise.
For the New Republic, while both the causes and the guilt seem to be collective, the solutions must be individual – don’t claim disability, be faithful, stop snorting OxyContin move to get a job – and the way to achieve this is to give “white working class” – collectively – a good telling-off.
It isn’t just the right that lumps white working-class people into a homogeneous, contemptible mass.
“[S]ince Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash’,” writes US journalist Connie Schultz. “These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.”
Jack Metzgar in In These Times points out that the statistics don’t bear out the assertion that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college-educated whites, the definition of working-class adopted by a Brookings article that says it does, while Charles Davis of TeleSur claims that among white voters who make less than US$25,000 a year, it is Bernie Sanders who is in the lead by a margin of 15 per cent.
But Trump isn’t really the point.
“Every group has its ‘other’,” Schultz observes. “For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”
When Hillary Clinton was fighting Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination, she was accused of playing to racist sentiment to appeal to the white working class. In France the white working class is often blamed for the rise of the Front National’s support, as it is for Ukip’s successes in the UK, where “chav” is now a term of abuse and the poor are the given the reality-TV treatment. These are standard liberal media analyses, repeated again and again in various forms, but generally identifying a hazily defined racial-cum-socio-economic category with whatever prejudice is to be decried at any given moment.
My own experience is that there are selfish shits and bigots in all social classes, although upbringing and level of education may influence the degree of subtlety with which these characteristics are manifested. Generosity and open-mindedness can be found everywhere, too, although I’ve found solidarity, in the sense of standing together in the face of common oppression, is somewhat lacking in the middle and upper classes.
But, however you define it, the working class is not ethnically homogeneous.
So what is that adjective doing in front of that noun?
We don’t talk about the black female gender, so why would a socio-economic category have an additional racial characterisation?
I understand one can reasonably talk about a white bourgeoisie in some Latin American countries, we could certainly talk about a white slave-owning class in the southern United States and the Caribbean in the past but, despite racist employment practices, membership of the working class is not such a privilege that it is restricted to any one race.
When factories close workers of all ethnic groups are thrown out of work. When incomes are squeezed, the banks foreclose with a lack of discrimination that would be praiseworthy in another context.
Some working-class people may react to the loss of relative security with racism or other prejudices – as may middle-class business owners or professionals who feel the pinch – but, when they do so, they are identifying as white, not working-class. When you express contempt for someone who is less privileged than yourself, whether in education, income or status, you’re defining them by class. And that’s a form of bigotry, too.
Left-wing activists face state harassment and threats from Islamists. When I met two of them during the 2008 election that put an end to President Pervez Musharraf’s rule, they pointed to creeping Islamisation of both the military and civilian life and seemed isolated as previous anti-Musharraf allies dropped calls for a boycott.
The All Parties Democratic Movement, APDM, was never an entirely accurate name. The PML-N formed it along with the religious alliance, the MMA, and some secular parties when their previous alliance with the People’s Party broke down.
During the political turbulence that followed the firing of the Chief Justice and the declaration of the state of emergency, the APDM declared that the election couldn’t possibly be fair and launched the boycott call.
But PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif never seemed 100% committed to the idea, especially when the PPP refused to commit itself thus threatening to take most of the PML-N’s seats in a newly-elected parliament.
When the PML-N finally threw itself into the election campaign, its offspring turned Oedipal and expelled it, along with the Jamaat-Ulema-Islami, one of the two largest parties in the MMA, which also stood candidates. A revision of the group’s name seems in order, as the country’s three biggest parties devote all their energies to the election campaign. Among the relatively few parties left in the APDM, the best known are Qazi Hussein Ahmed’s Jamaat-e-Islami and former cricket star Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Still, an alliance of left-wing parties came to comfort them in their solitude and this shell of an alliance managed to muster a couple of thousand at the Pakistan monument in Lahore.
Farooq Tariq is the leader of the Labour Party Pakistan, a small group which is part of the People’s Democratic Movement, the AJT, a newly-founded coalition of former (?) Stalinists and Trotskyists who seem to be happily coexisting, for the moment at least.
Sitting in his garden in a quiet suburb of Lahore, he seems to be having second thoughts about participation in the APDM. Yesterday’s rally was smaller than expected, he says, and most of the movement’s activities have been dominated by the Jamaat-e-Islami activists. But he claims that there have been successful meetings in Baloochistan, where’s there’s a powerful, armed independence movement, and the APDM has been the only organiSation that has managed to hold meetings in all areas of the country.
There will be a successful boycott in Baloochistan, he thinks, and a low turnout elsewhere, except, perhaps, in Punjab.
“There is no enthusiasm in the election. It’s the most colourless election in my political life of 30 years. No mass meetings; no street meetings; only the media campaign, most like in the developed countries where the media is the main part and that has come to Pakistan in this election.”
There was no choice but to boycott, says Tariq, because the election was intended “to legitimiSe President Musharraf’s rule” and without an independent judiciary or election commission there will be no check on fraud and manipulation.
The left is already thinking of quitting the APDM, although he describes its platform as liberal and progressive and claims that the alliance is dominated by progressive nationalists.
“We can’t work with the fundamentalists, that’s very clear.”
His party has clashed with the Islamists on many occasions and he has received death-threats by SMS. One claimed to be from Osama ben Laden’s son, Hamza, and told him that “If Benazir Bhutto can be killed, the leftists must pay attention;” Musharraf’s régime hasn’t been too kind to him, either, arresting him 12 times and obliging to go into hiding for 18 days during the state of emergency.
Tariq expects the PPP to form the next government and PML-N to do well in Punjab. But “it doesn’t make much difference, only really the faces change.”
He says that representative of the three major parties all attended a seminar in Washington before the election, he says, and assured the US government and the International Monetary Fund that there would be no change in economic policy.
The PPP will be sharing power with Musharraf, “which is contrary to the consciousness of the voters who will go to the polls tomorrow” but was “Plan A of the Americans”, bringing Benazir Bhutto’s party together with the president to fight the fundamentalists.
Tariq and other left-wingers were invited to visit Bhutto shortly before her assassination. She asked for their advice but doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to it. Tariq notes that Benazir opposed the restoration of the judiciary.
Also on the secular left is Pervez Hoodboy, whom I met in his office at the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad a week ago.
Hoodboy is a nuclear physicist who has opposed Pakistan’s nuclear arms programme, worked for normalisation of relations with India and taken up causes such as the campaign for the reinstatement of the sacked judges.
He believes that the election leaves Pakistanis with few choices and that it is unlikely to be free and fair.
“There’s a very strong opinion that these elections should not be held at all. On the other hand, there’s a very strong opinion that, unless these are held, the country will simply break apart and all hell will let loose.”
Hoodboy believes that the opportunities for rigging are limited because Musharraf and his allies are “deeply unpopular” but also that a coalition government would be divided, thus leaving great power in the president’s hands.
But it’s in his own field of expertise that Hoodboy is at his most gloomy. He doesn’t believe government assurances that the military’s professionalism and security safeguards keep the country’s nuclear weapons in safe hands.
“My concern is that technology ultimately is operated by human beings and soldiers over here in particular and the fact is that within the army there are a growing number of people who disagree seriously, severely, with the position the government has taken in fighting the Islamic militants.”
He believes that many soldiers are more sympathetic to the Islamic militants than to the people fighting them, so the “insider threat” is growing.
“Look at the fact that we’ve had numerous suicide-bombings done by insiders, guided by other insiders, and one cannot really be confident that these nuclear weapons can be kept out of the hands of the extremists.”
Earlier this month, he says, a convoy of ammunition and equipment were hijacked, just two days after the president claimed that it was impossible to steal even one rifle from the armed forces.
To the argument that Islamism has spread among lower ranks but not among higher offices, Hoodboy replies: “The lower matters more than the top because it’s the lower ones who have to do the fighting. We’ve seen hundreds of soldiers surrender without firing a shot in Waziristan, in the tribal areas.”
According to Hoodboy, the jihadists, who have been used as an instrument of foreign policy for a quarter century, have now infected the whole of the country’s culture.
Most female students at his university now feel obliged to cover their hair, he says, while photos on his computer show that this was not the case 20 years. About a million students now attend the country’s madrassas and even state education has been Islamised. As an example he produces pictures used to teach the Urdu alphabet. Knives and guns illustrate one letter, while kites and musical instruments are part of the image chosen for “an obscure Urdu word which not even I knew” – the plural form of the word “sin”.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory has annoyed all the right people (pun intended). It’s back to the 1980s so far as abuse and distortion are concerned. So, how loony is the left? And can Corbyn’s supporters defend him against dirty tricks and hate campaigns?
Better the 1980s than the 1890s: George Osborne – and the Little-Sir-Echos in the media and the Labour Party – are worried – or happy, the Tories can’t decide on the line on this one – that Jeremy Corbyn will drag Labour back to the 1980s. This is a bit rich, coming from someone who is dragging Britain back to the levels of inequality of the 19th century, George. And, as I remember it, the worst thing about the 1980s was that your lot were in charge.
Corbyn’s candidature dragged the media back to the 1980s. The people who don’t want Labour to go back to the 1980s are busy dusting off the terms of abuse that graced the headlines of that very decade, “loony left” for example. But what was so loony about the left? As I remember it, the tabloids’ main targets were feminism, gay rights, anti-racism and talking to Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, most of which look pretty mainstream now. Another fine journalistic practise that is getting a lot of mileage at the moment – although, to be fair, it never exactly went out of fashion – is distorting what your subject says and stands for.
The people who said Corbyn could not be elected Labour leader now say he can’t win a general election. Have you no shame? You got it wrong. Time for a rethink, not another piece of pro-big business propaganda disguised as analysis. Hey, look! A Sky (!) poll shows he was the most popular of the candidates among the general public and “his left wing policies are also not necessarily as unpopular as many might believe” (they left out the “want to” there, for some reason).
Corbyn’s programme is not all that radical. Corbyn may be the most left-wing Labour leader ever, as Tariq Ali argues, but that’s mainly because of his foreign policy. On domestic policy it’s not exactly storming heaven. I was distracted from my work the other day by a lady from the Bloombergs agency explaining on one of those irritating BBC panel shows that advocating renationalisation of the railways would consign Labour to some circle or other of economists’ hell. But we did it before, Madam, and it wasn’t accompanied by red terror nor did it lead to economic collapse. How will it be paid for, she asked. Well, perhaps by savings on scrapping Trident – Oh sorry, it’s unrealistic not to spend billions on that – or by making Bloomberg subscribers and other top earners pay their fair whack in tax. People’s quantitative easing seems consistent with what Thomas Piketty argues and everyone thinks he’s wonderful, except for the Financial Times on alternate days. Raising the minimum wage? The president of the United States wants that to happen in his country – but then he’s a Muslim socialist born in Kenya, so what does he know?
Corbyn owes much of his victory to social media but can social media defend him? Hoist by their own primaries petard, Labour’s right wing are already plotting to reverse the party’s left turn by any means necessary. A key factor in mobilising for Corbyn was social media, whose echo-chamber effect allows us to consort with the like-minded, reinforcing our views/prejudices and giving us a feeling of power in the numbers, one of the functions of the revolutionary party, if I recall my Lenin. But the social media is also physically isolated, indulging his or her pleasure from home, the workplace or on public transport with headphones clamped to ears. Will the three-pounders or even many of the new party members be prepared to trudge along to monthly party branch meetings, be delegates to constituency parties, conferences etc so as to stop right-wing dirty tricks and ensure that the party’s policies align with those of its leader? Of course, I’m biased. I was expelled from Labour in the 80s. It was quite a relief, to be honest.
Corbynmania was in part a revolt against how democracy works but is there a viable alternative? Some 251,000 people, many of them never involved in politics before, rejected their betters’ advice and voted for Corbyn. Why? Many were young people feeling the effects of austerity and disillusioned with post-2008 capitalism. Many responded to a glimmer of integrity in the sewer of modern politics. And many were reacting against the cynical consumerist strategies that were the Blairites’ only principles but are to some extent inherent to parliamentary democracy, which is not government by the people, for the people but the people choosing who will govern them as a globalised capitalism decides the most important aspects of their lives. Syriza had a mandate to change this but failed. Admittedly, there are only 11 million Greeks but do 64 million Brits – or that proportion who want a change – have the power or the structures to impose it?
Everyone’s surprised by the support garnered by Jeremy Corbin and Bernie Sanders, not least their most ardent supporters. The British Labour Party may soon have a leader who can be described as left-wing without inverted commas. Americans may be invited to vote for someone who says he’s a socialist and could even win. Can this possible be true? And, as importantly, what does it mean?
The unpredictable is the only safe prediction in today’s political world, as parties that were solid melt into air and others that scarcely registered on the pollsters’ radar no so long ago win control of towns, cities, a country even.
Clearly, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and the mainstream parties’ responses – generosity to the banks and billionaires, austerity for those without their clout – have discredited capitalism, or at least its most brutal manifestations, in the eyes of many.
As Bernard Porter points out, to the generation that has grown up since the Cold War and is experiencing the Thatcher/Reagan legacy, Corbyn is not a dinosaur but a revelation.
Austerity has discredited its enforcers, including the careerist leaders of Europe’s formerly social-democratic parties, leading to an unexpected revival of the left in Greece, Scotland and Spain.
Of course, it’s also given a boost to the Trumps, Le Pens and Farages but that, too, is a symptom of the collapse in the authority of established parties and ideologies.
But I think there is another, connected reason for the explosion of support for these two men and other political outsiders.
Isn’t it also a symptom of the rejection of the market approach to politics? Of spin doctors telling parties not to present policies they believe in to voters but pitch offers to that part of the electorate that is not inclined to vote for them – the “Them’s me principles but, if you don’t like ‘em, I’ll change ‘em” approach to democracy.
The efforts of Corbyn’s opponents to explain how unelectable he is, as he packs in huge crowds, races ahead of them in the leadership election stakes and then proves to be the most popular candidate among many non-Labour voters, have been an invaluable contribution to the great British comic tradition, as have their efforts to get rid of thousands of the wrong kind of voter. If we don’t like the voters, we can change them, as well.
Corbyn’s and Sanders’s support is evidence of a widespread desire for personal integrity in politics, a quality that is notable by its absence in most parliaments these days.
But, judging by reports of party meetings and public rallies, there’s also a demand for political honesty.
The strategic masterminds told party activists and bedrock supporters that they must keep their political libidos under control for fear of frightening the floating voter. In Britain that got them the Iraq War, economic crisis and two electoral defeats, not to mention the personal enrichment of prime ministers and their Svengalis.
So, many people want to vote for what they’d really like to see happen this time round. And it looks as if that could be a more realistic strategy in attracting many voters – including some of those tempted by Ukip or even Trump – than trying to sell a party as if it were something that gets rid of unpleasant stains.
Hannah Arendt apparently argued that electoral politics transforms the political relationship into that of seller to buyer, a point taken up by the PKK and the PYD in their turn to alternative forms of participation and organisation. Voters become consumers, passive individuals in an increasingly atomised society, delegating decision-making to a political caste that can claim their consent because they have participated in the electoral process.
We are thus coopted into our own political and economic exploitation, all the more so today when the politicians then declare themselves powerless in the face of the market on the most important questions that affect our lives. Russell Brand may not be as superficial as Jeremy Paxman would have us believe.
This goes some way to explain the enthusiasm for direct election of presidents, mayors etc that has spread outwards from the US, the Afghans having it imposed on them as an indispensable element of democracy by a coalition of countries many of whom didn’t practise it themselves (the UK’s Jack Straw congratulated them on at last electing their head of state – was he being subtly subversive or just not thinking what he was saying?).
The more representatives are elected, and the more personalised those elections are, the more consumer choice has been exercised and the more passive the electors should be once their ballots have been cast.
Hence the primaries – invented in the US, of course, and now exported to Europe (the mainstream French parties now have primaries, too, but, so far, they’ve delivered the required results, so no hooha about who’s voted in them).
Hilariously, in Britain a procedure that was designed to dilute the power of party activists in a mass of passive voters has become mobilised thousands to express disgust with austerity, careerism and top-down politics.
With added irony, the rise of social media, which in a sense add to the atomisation of society – the individual sits isolated in front of the screen and is bombarded with what algorithms decide is good for him or her – have fuelled the process, creating networks that establish a new form of the collective.
If Corbyn or Sanders wins, what happens next?
In Britain the establishment in its various manifestations has already shown its intention to override the democratic process by any means necessary.
I suspect that is when the weakness of social media-driven enthusiasm will become apparent. Will the thousands who have voted have the stamina or power to resist a long-term campaign of sabotage and vilification by professionals whose careers are intimately linked to the status quo?
There was a surprise result in the 2004 Indian general election, which I covered for RFI. Congress won despite the BJP’s boasts of “India shining” thanks to its economic management. Much of the middle class liked the BJP4S success in reconciling Hindu nationalism with mall-building multinationals but the poor, especially the rural poor, were less impressed. I visited Bombay and Gujarat. The latter turns out to have been a good choice, Gujarat being the home base of Narendra Modi, who has taken advantage of Congress squandering the good will of its voters and led the BJP to power. See the second half of this post for a visit to the scene of communal riots that are still a controversial part of the PM’s past. Here’s what I wrote on my return to France in 2004.
Mumbai, 18-21 April 2004
The behl puri sellers by the Gateway to India are going to vote Congress. Behl puhri, a sort of spicy dry rice crispies with vermicelli, is, I’m assured, the essential Bombay snack. Actually, I’d already tasted it in London but I’m now told that can’t have been the real thing. It doesn’t taste very different to me, agreeable but not irresistible.
The promenade in front of the luxury Taj hotel, which has attracted a swarm of cheaper hotels including my own along the seafront, is popular for the locals’ evening stroll and for tourists any time of the day, so it’s a good beat for hawkers.
As the behl puri seller assembles my snack, he and his friends explain that they will back Congress when it comes to their turn to vote in the general election which is going on at the moment … in a complicated system of stages, designed to deal with the world‘s biggest electorate. The behl puri sellers are Hindus but don’t sympathise with the Hindu-nationalist agenda of the Bharatya Janata Party, the BJP, which led the outgoing government.
What do they think of Moslems?
‘‘They are our brothers.’’
What about the Hindu-chauvinist project of building a temple on the ruins of the mosque at Ayodhya, which was destroyed by a mob in 1992 with several BJP leaders looking on approvingly?
‘‘They keep talking about it but they don’t do anything.’’
It’s not entirely clear what they should do.
India has a name for the casual labour, with no rights and no security, which provides a living for these street sellers. It’s called the “unorganized” sector and it accounts for 92% of the country’s employment. There are many such neologisms here and it is difficult to know whether they’ve been invented to give nominal dignity to the oppressed or to disguise the nature of their situation.
I thought I’d seen poverty in the eight Asian countries and three Middle Eastern ones that I’d visited before coming to India but, even in war zones, I’ve never seen the widespread, everyday degradation that I’ve encountered in Bombay.
One of the city’s main thoroughfares, Mohamed Ali Road, is being widened or reconstructed. Half the road is torn up leaving a lower layer open. Families have taken up residence on this mixture of tarmac, metal and rubble. As I drive by in a taxi, a mother does her domestic chores in the open air and her baby crawls naked in the roadworks, with cars, auto-rickshaws and motor-bikes driving past, belching filth into the atmosphere.
On another route into the city, shacks made out of cardboard, wood or corrugated iron have taken over half the pavement for miles and miles and miles. Many have two storeys, although the ground floor would oblige most European to stoop and the top floor is just tall enough to crawl into and sleep. Some of the slum-dwellers have decorated their frontages. Sometimes the dwellings give way to workshops, with racks of steel bars or wood offcuts. You come to a corner and the pavement city stretches off down another long road to the left.
As in all poor countries, street-hawkers and casual labourers pushing barrows stacked with sacks or raw materials are often to be seen.
Beggars are everywhere, including mothers with babies. At traffic lights, the occupants of cars are likely to be accosted by eunuchs wearing kohl and dressed as women. Apparently, many are former street-children who were castrated when young. I’m told that this brutal arrangement at least provides them with a community which affords some solidarity among the indifferent concrete and dirt.
When the heat of the afternoon becomes overpowering, labourers sleep on the street in the baskets they use to carry building materials. At night taxi-drivers sleep on their bonnets. Under the flyover which overshadows Mohamed Ali Road, I see three men taking a siesta. The man nearest to me has a stump cut off at the knee lifted above his body, the stump patched with rags.
A causeway leads to the tomb of Haji Ali Bukhari, which sits on an island in the bay. When the tide comes in, the tomb is cut off by the sea. That hasn’t stopped the construction of dozens of improvised stalls selling flowers and sweets for Muslims and Hindus to present to the Haji, many of them perched on wooden stilts half-submerged in water. Beggars line the other side of the path. A toddler stands unattended, about a yard from the water. A group of four lie, nearly naked, chanting in the midday sun, banging their truncated limbs on the ground in time. Near the entrance to the shrine men and women sit on the ground with piles of change in front of them. It’s considered propitious to give alms after a visit and they change notes for coins for a small commission, so that the faithful can gain maximum credit by giving to as many supplicants as possible. One of the money-changers, a raggedly-dressed woman, is talking into a mobile phone.
On the way back, the handicapped men have stopped chanting and are sitting up having a fag.
Near the hotels, street-children beg off the tourists. One of them, a girl called Pinkie, tells me she comes from Pune and left because her parents kicked her out. She doesn’t know why. She walked to Bombay because she had a relation here already living on the street. She speaks quite good English and can also throw in a few words of French or Italian that she’s picked up from tourists.
The street-children tend to ask you to buy them a tin of powdered milk ‘‘for my baby sister’’. I was impressed by the altruism of the request the first time. By the third, it occurred to me that reselling the tin would bring in a lot more than the couple of rupees a tourist is likely to give if left to his or her own initiative.
The visitor from a rich country becomes prone to that sort of calculation here. We feel persecuted by persistent beggars and snarl at them, become terrified of being charged more than the locals and haggle over a few rupees. Later we realise that we’ve saved the value of a coin which we wouldn’t bother to pick up in the street back home.
One could say that we’re used to delegating our social responsibilities to the state and aren’t used to coming face to face with the inequalities that are part of the equation that creates our privileges. We see that we can’t resolve it all and have no system, like zakat, tribe or caste, which will decide our priorities for us.
Arun Gawli used to work in the organised sector. He was employed in Bombay’s textile mills, along with tens of thousands of others. A vast area of the city depended on the mills for work and, often, for homes which were made available to mill workers’ families.
But, as workers will, they organised trade unions, went on strike, improved their wages and conditions. The employers closed the mills and moved the work out of Bombay to smaller workplaces and even to homeworkers, who were likely to be more compliant.
The way to get rich now in Bombay is through real estate. So the land on which those mill workers’ tenements stand can be valuable, if the homes are replaced by cinemas, car parks and shopping malls for Bombay’s developing middle class. So evictions are widespread – malls eat men.
The strikes were long and sometimes violent. Workers found themselves locked out for years. Employers would subsidise scab unions which sometimes took on a certain independence and imposed conditions on the bosses, the promotion of the union leader to senior management, for example. Some of the young unemployed joined gangs and the gangsters became embroiled in the industrial disputes.
As the organised sector declined, organised crime grew.
Hundreds of people are gathered in the fortified compound outside Arun Gawli’s home. Apparently it’s the same every day. They want help, maybe in fighting an eviction, maybe to get a job, maybe for some other problem. Perhaps some want to help Gawli’s campaign to be elected for Mumbai South Central constituency.
For the record, Gawli denies having committed the crimes which landed him in jail a while back but he doesn’t bother to sue the news-media which describe him as a “don”, a criminal godfather Bombay-style.
To interview Daddy, as the don likes to be called, local journalist Dnyanesh Jathar and I are ushered into his multi-story home, told to remove our shoes and put in a lift, which takes us to the roof. We wait in a roof-garden, with a small temple for the household’s use, a painted cement elephant and a garishly coloured relief of the monkey-god Hanuman on the wall. As we wait, a man places his hands on Hanuman’s bright pink legs and appears to say a silent prayer.
Gawli appears in kurta-pyjama and Nehru-cap, whose brilliant white contrasts with his dark skin and black moustache, and signs namaste with his hands, smiling charmingly.
He says that he’s helped slum-dwellers improve their living conditions, cleaned up stinking toilets, some of which leaked so badly that tenants had to take umbrellas in with them, and provided water and drainage.
He says that he entered politics to work in an unspecified capacity for the Shiv Sena, the far-right Hindu-chauvinists who helped break the millworkers’ strikes and now control the city council. At one time, they reportedly backed Gawli against Muslim gangster Daoud Ibrahim on the grounds of his religious and communal affiliation. Daoud is now in hiding, allegedly in Pakistan whose secret services are supposed to have worked with him, and wanted for his alleged part in the 1993 bombings which killed 317 people, in reprisal for the massacre of thousands of Muslims in the previous months.
But Shiv Sena ditched Gawli while he was in jail, detained under the National Security Act. He claims that they joined in a chorus of wrongful accusations of crimes of violence committed by some of his associates.
‘‘How could I have done them while I was in jail?’’ he asks, with a logic that seems faultless but for the fact that his prison-guards are accused of allowing him to hold a durbar, or court, while under their supervision.
Anyway, an offended Gawli set up his own party, Akhil Bharatiya Sena, eight years ago and is now fighting Mumbai south-central against Shiv Sena incumbent Mohan Rawale. Another candidate is Sachin Ahir, for the Nationalist Congress Party, a Maharashtra-based split-off from Congress. He’s Gawli’s nephew.
I point out that Gawli seems pretty wealthy for a redundant millworker, which is what he claims to be. He says that his family had a number of cows (the Gawlis are apparently a caste of cowherds) and sold milk before the government took over milk distribution, when they invested their earnings in property.
The real estate boom is believed to have made many dubious characters wealthy but the dons apparently also protected some of the poor against other landsharks. Some people see them as Robin Hoods, although their criminal repertoire seems more extensive, and perhaps more ruthless, than that of the hero of Sherwood Forest.
They entered politics when election candidates decided to add muscle to more traditional means of campaigning and seem to have felt at home in the political milieu.
India’s Election Commission declares that 700 members of the upper or lower houses of parliament have criminal records and this election looks set to add to their ranks. The front page of the Asian Age features mugshots of 24 candidates ‘accused of serious offences’ – extortion, rape, dacoity (banditry) and communal violence, for example. Arun Gawli is among them, accused of murder, abetting murder and rioting with a deadly weapon.
Other interesting candidates include two eunuchs, Sonia Ajmeri, standing against deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani, and Sanjude Nayak, fighting Defence Minister Harin Pathak, and a record number of film stars, including Govinda, the star of 125 Bollywood greats, who’s standing for Congress in Mumbai North-west. The Economic Times tells us he has forsaken his trademark white shoes and purple shirts for the garb of white shirt and white trousers, which is apparently the uniform of the political caste.
‘‘My dancing has been compared with John Travolta and Elvis Presley and my films have offered entertainment to the lower middle classes.’’ Govinda tells the paper. ‘‘I am a common man, and in my new avtar, people can identify with me.’’
The substrata of the class system are even more conscientiously defined than in Britain.
Gujarat 21-22 April
Binu Alex is Kerala Christian, which I suppose allows him a certain distance when reporting on events in Gujarat, a long way from his birthplace and a very Hindu state.
Cows seem to be everywhere in the streets of Ahmedabad, the state’s biggest city, while other beasts, camels or human beings for example, carry the burdens and pull the carts.
‘‘The cows are better looked after than the people,’’ says Binu. The state has a Cow Services Commission, with a department for protection of cows, a department to encourage breeding and a department for making medicine from their urine and their excrement. The state is also the site of India’s space programme.
As we drive around Ahmedabad, Binu points out the invisible dividing lines between Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods. At a crossroads, he points to one corner and says: ‘‘That’s a police post.’’
The he points at a large modern building on the opposite corner and says: ‘‘That was a mall owned by a Muslim. During the riots a mob attacked that mall and burned it. The police just sat in their post and watched.’’
The riots took place in 2002 and Ahmedabad still bears the scars.
They started after Muslims in a town far away from Ahmedabad stoned a train carrying Hindu activists, who had been to Ayodhya, the city where a mosque was destroyed 10 years previously. The “pilgrims” apparently chanted slogans in favour of their claim for a temple to be built on the site of the mosque, leading the Muslims to attack the train, killing 59 Hindus.
A wave of violent reprisal swept the state, from the main cities to the villages on the edge of the forests where adivasi tribal people live. Officially 1,000 Muslims were killed, although most estimates put the figure at 2,000, their homes and businesses were attacked and often burnt to the ground. Thousands were forced to live in refugee camps for months afterwards.
As we pass a group of middle-class homes, Binu points to one and says that it was the home of a Muslim former judge.
‘‘The crowd attacked that one and not the others. They knew where to come.’’
Another well-known Muslim tried desperately to phone his contacts in Delhi, appealing to them to intervene to stop the bloodshed. When that didn’t work, he went out into the street and said to the murderers: ‘‘Spare these people – take my life instead.’’
They took his life; but as well, not instead.
Usually, it was easy to find where the Muslims lived. For example, everyone knows who lives in Narodia Patia, a poor area of dusty alleys running between two-room concrete houses. When the mob arrived, the women of the area got together and discussed what to do.
‘‘We had decided to stay,’’ says vegetable-seller Zuleika Manu Chowdry, whose bare, untidy house is on the street where the attack began. ‘‘Then we saw Kausarbano run past with her belly slit open and we thought we’d better leave.’’
Kausarbano Shaikh was pregnant. The mob cut open her womb and paraded the foetus through the narrow lanes, impaled on a sword.
The police had already told the women that they were on their own. They fled the area and spent months in a refugee camp. Over 120 people were killed in this one area. One young man we meet fled the massacre with his father. But his brother was handicapped and unable to walk, let alone run. The rioters pulled him out of his wheelchair and slaughtered him on the spot.
Gujarat voted the day before my arrival.
Before the election, 20 of its 26 seats were held by the BJP. Binu and other journalists believe that party has done well, if not better, this time round. The state minister is local BJP leader Narendra Modi, who’s now well-known throughout India because so many people have accused him of complicity in the communal violence. A success in this election could put him on track for a brilliant career at federal level.
Yamal A Vyas is a cheerful man who lives and works in a modest house in a middle-class area. He’s the convenor of the committee which draws up the BJP’s economic policy in the state.
He believes that the party has run the state well, attracting investment which ‘‘according to my understanding of economics’’ will trickle down and enrich the whole population, although he doesn‘t specify exactly when. Vyas claims that Muslim voters are deserting Congress, which they traditionally saw as their secular defender, because they’ve lost faith in it and see the good work that the BJP has done for development;
He says that he regrets the violence of 2002 and denies that the BJP colluded in it or that the police were lax in defending the victims. Hindu-Muslim relations have improved since then, he believes, but adds that sometimes Muslims behave provocatively. For example, ‘‘in cricket, when Pakistan won against India, they let off fireworks and celebrated.”
I remark that perhaps this shouldn’t be a capital offence. Vyas agrees.
Dr Hanif Lakdawala is less enamoured of the chief minister. He claims that the day before the riots Modi held a meeting with top police officers and other officials and told them: ‘‘Tomorrow whatever my boys are doing you’re not going to interfere.’’
Lakdawala is a qualified medical doctor and the director of Sanchetawa, an NGO which works with the poor of both communities. It’s well-furnished office, decorated with posters against domestic violence and for literacy, is in the improbably-named New York Trade Centre, a low-rise concrete building with a sign depicting the Statue of Liberty outside.
The doctor has become a high-profile opponent of sectarian violence, since he accused Modi of complicity with it in 2002.
He says that poverty crosses the communal barrier and reaches extremes on both sides but that he sees no sign of that bringing Hindu and Muslim together. He believes that, with the encouragement of Modi and the state government, the communal division in Gujarat is the deepest in India.
Indeed, the 2002 bloodletting was not the first such pogrom here. Lakdawala believes that it won’t be repeated on the same scale because of the national and international attention that it attracted but that further clashes will take place.
Shortly before our arrival at the headquarters of Prashant, a Jesuit human-rights and social-development centre, two other visitors had barged into the ground-floor reception area. They had threatened Father Cedric Prakash and his co-workers with violence if they didn’t stop their agitation against communal hatred and violence. They finally left when Prakash phoned the police.
It’s not the first time the Jesuit priest has been threatened, or even attacked. As long ago as 1992, he was badly beaten for speaking out against the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Since then he’s had death threats, hate-calls and (unsuccessful) pressure from politicians on the religious hierarchy to shut him up.
To stand up to all that, you need a strong personality and Prakash, who was born in Bombay 53 years ago, joined the Jesuit order in 1974 and has been in Ahmedabad for 17 years, clearly has charm and a forceful will in about equal measure.
He characterises the 2002 violence as ‘‘state-sponsored’’ and is one of a number of activists who have campaigned for retrial of cases arising from it on the grounds that they were conducted within the state and were thus subject to political and communal pressure.
During the election campaign, they won a victory when India’s Supreme Court ordered a retrial, outside Gujarat, of 21 Hindus accused of killing 15 Muslims in an arson attack on a shop known as the Best Bakery. Yesterday the state government announced that it would appeal against the decision. Prakash and his colleagues hope to get 12 other similar cases judged outside the state.
Prakash points out that Moslems are not the only victims of dirty politics in Gujarat. Christians are such an infinitely small proportion of the state’s population – 0.5% – that one would think it hardly worth a Hindu chauvinist’s time attacking them. But they do – 84 times in 1988, when the Hindu right launched a sort of turf war over the right to recruit members of tribal groups.
The local BJP’s Freedom of Religion law, named with fine bureaucratic irony, is a product of hard-line Hindu hostility to conversions to Christianity and could be a model for national legislation if some BJP and Hindu activists get their way.
The act enrols the judicial authorities into the policing of religion. A conversion cannot take place without the permission of a District Magistrate, who must also be informed of the fact afterwards. Anyone carrying out an illegal conversion may be punished by three years in prison and a fine. But the law is particularly concerned to protect minors, women and members of scheduled castes or tribes from being led astray. It raises the possible prison term to four years and doubles the fine if they are the subject of the conversion.
Throughout India’s history dalits and adivasis have not unnaturally been attracted by religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Christianity which don’t stigmatise them on the basis of caste.
Prakash and other Christian social activists are particularly worried by a ban on ‘‘allurement’’, defined as ‘‘any gift or gratification, either in cash or in kind’’ or a ‘‘grant of any material benefit, either monetary or otherwise’’.
In many poor areas they provide educational and medical facilities. The hard-liners have insinuated that these are bribes to convert and the activists fear that this could be the pretext for prosecutions or attempts to close the programmes.
Prakash is one of the few people I meet who believes that the BJP are losing ground locally.
‘‘We went to the south of the state yesterday to watch the voting,’’ he says. ‘‘I think they’ll lose seats. People are seeing through them.’’
My journalist companions look sceptical.
Two kilometres outside the village of Amirapur, just after passing a pastel-coloured temple, you come across two streets, looking a bit lost in the middle of the fields. In one a camel stands tied to a tree and broken stones create a road-surface of sorts. This is where rawals, a so-called “intermediate caste”, live.
A little further down the road on the opposite side, live the dalits, Gandhi’s “children of heaven”, sometimes called backward castes or untouchables.
Not just untouchables but unsmellables: “It has something to do even with wind direction,” says Anosh Malekar a local reporter who has joined us for this visit to rural Gujarat. “The lower castes always stay so that they don’t pollute the winds also of the upper castes. Suppose that we are on the west and we have westerly winds, an OBC house will be at the far end of the village and no upper caste will stay beyond them.”
But for the tinny echo of a radio and a couple of dogs, there’s no sign of life around the dozen or so one-storey concrete houses laid out in two rows and shaded by trees. Suddenly the radio is switched off and we can only hear birds singing. Then a few people venture out into the intense midday heat.
One of them is Ramesh Bhai Karsan Bhai, a short plump, dark-skinned man, dressed in a white tee-shirt and kind of sarong, a string of beads hanging round his neck.
He tells us that 20 years ago their homes were closer to the village, but even less sophisticated. Indira Gandhi’s government built them new homes and they moved here.
The people here belong to a sub-caste, the chamars, who make leather.
“Whenever an animal dies in the village,” says Ramesh, “we go there, we bring the carcass here, we remove the skin and make leather to use for various purposes. All kinds of animals – cow, buffalo, goats, ox … even camels.”
They sell the product to traders from the towns.
When no animals have had the good grace to die, they work the fields of upper-caste peasants or run errands for them, earning a pittance for about 12 hours’ work per day.
Feisty 57-year-old Isaben says that two years of drought have meant not enough work, meaning not enough to eat. And that’s meant debt, as the dalits have borrowed from money-lenders who settle interest rates as they see fit.
Isaben only borrows from the man for whom she usually works and refuses to pay interest. “Even today I owe him 5,000 rupees, but I told him flat on his face that if I get no work, I won’t be paying.”
She draws an “Oh, my God!” and a shocked, but impressed, laugh from Anosh, who’s interpreting, when she explains that if any of the money-lenders give them trouble, she herself will go and beat them up.
Prakash, an unemployed 22-year-old who gets occasional work on other people’s land, lives with his extended family of seven people, of whom only his married brother has regular work.
In the best of all possible worlds, if he could change his life, what would he want?
“His dream is of a better life,” translates Anosh. “He is ready to start a small business, preferably something to do with leather, because that’s his expertise. Or of a small job which would pay him something like 100 euros a month in Indian rupees, where he could work something like eight hours and come back … it’s important that he could get an income that could see survival of his large family, as well as ensure education for his next generation – because he thinks education is important.”
In the village itself, the local schoolteacher, Hasherben Patel,her husband, Prakesh, and her assistant are standing outside the school.
Patel says that 80 per cent of the children that she teaches come from poor families – “if they work today, they eat; otherwise they don’t eat.” The droughts have hit them badly and they haven’t received much help from the government.
The other 20 per cent are upper caste. “They own all the livestock around here” and, although she doesn’t know exactly how much, “have fat bank balances”.
There are two schools serving the village, one for the centre and one for its outskirts, meaning that the dalits whom we met all go to a separate school from those who live in the area that we’re now in. But the teacher insists that there is a caste mix in both schools and that they were built to conform to government regulations that mean to stop children walking too far in the hot sun.
This is a Congress-run village; the dalits had already told us that. Although they are Hindus, they don’t vote along religious lines for the BJP but for the country’s best-known secular party.
The teachers are full of praise for the small group who run things here. They seem to have a tight grip on parochial power but our informants credit them with using it to obtain good roads, water and 24-hour power-supply, which is rare in rural India.
Out of deference to central government efforts at a form of positive discrimination, the village head is a woman. But, not unusually, according to Anosh, “the village is de-facto run by her father-in-law”.
Driving out of the village, we come across a crowd following a sound-system blaring out frantic and distorted music. Two men in brightly-coloured clothes, their face painted and turbans knotted on their heads, are perched on top of horses.
They’re bridegrooms from another village who are both marrying local girls and are being paraded around the area so that the community can judge the quality of the catch.
Young men from the other village say that they think their comrades have done well marrying here. They start to praise the facilities here and then stop, local patriotism demanding that they claim their own territory is just as good.
In a new blast of pipes and percussion they set off through the greenery. I don’t see any of the dalits in the crowd.