The Coup D’ Etat Prabhat Patnaik

The Indian State that came into being after independence bore the stamp of the anti-colonial struggle. It aimed to promote egalitarian development, later re-christened as the building of a “socialistic pattern of society”, and negate the hegemony of imperialism, old and new. The development of the public sector as a bulwark against metropolitan capital, and for promoting self-reliance which was considered essential for this purpose, the pursuit of a policy of non-alignment, and the implementation of land reforms were the specific avowed policies of the State. Whatever one may think of the actual achievements of this dirigiste State, this perspective which it had, which was a legacy of the freedom struggle, and so different from the perspective of the conventional metropolitan bourgeois State, must not be lost sight of.

Michael Kalecki, the renowned economist, noted this difference but explained it inadequately. He called the post-colonial State in India and several other third world countries an “intermediate regime” which derived its specific character from the fact that it was led not by the bourgeoisie but by the petty-bourgeoisie. Implicit in his perception was the belief that the bourgeoisie would always prefer integration with imperialism and a rolling back of the public sector. What he missed was that the bourgeoisie itself, having been hemmed in by the colonial regime, wanted, upon decolonization, to pursue a trajectory of development that was relatively autonomous of metropolitan capital and to use the State for that purpose. The State’s having the perspective noted above, though not in every aspect to the bourgeoisie’s liking, was therefore perfectly compatible with its being a bourgeois State. In short, the post-colonial State, despite being a bourgeois State and promoting capitalist development, nonetheless had a specificity bequeathed to it by the anti-colonial struggle whose product it was.

With the bourgeoisie abandoning its relatively autonomous trajectory of development in favour of neo-liberalism, it has become essential for it to alter the nature of the Indian State. To an extent of course the same State can be made to pursue a different policy, but the full unleashing of the policy requires a change in the perspective and orientation of the bourgeois State, from being a dirigiste one, informed by egalitarian objectives (no matter how elusive) and marked by a distance from imperialism, to being one committed to the interests of international finance capital with which the Indian high bourgeoisie is enmeshed, and integrated with imperialism. In short the switch to neo-liberalism calls, from the bourgeoisie’s point of view, for a change in the character of the Indian bourgeois State.

This has actually been happening gradually, but within the integument of the old State. Almost everything the government has been doing, not just with regard to the major issues of economic policy, but even such apparently innocuous proposals like having Indian bureaucrats trained in metropolitan universities, or setting up “world class” universities with the help of metropolitan institutions like Harvard and Oxford, amounts to essaying such a change in the nature of the Indian State. Nonetheless the integument of the old State, the perspective which still remains the “official” perspective of the State, acts as a fetter. The Indian high bourgeoisie would like to break out of that integument, or as journalese would have it, “complete the reform process”.

But this is far from easy, since apart from the high bourgeoisie, its foreign backers, its captive media, and a segment of the urban upper middle class that for the time being has done well out of the “reforms”, there are not too many takers for “neo-liberalism”. The agrarian crisis, the acute unemployment, the attack on the conditions and rights of the workers, and all of it capped now by a raging inflation that squeezes the real incomes of the vast majority of the people, implies that the political constituency for “reforms”, always narrow, has shrunk to a minuscule size, and is unlikely to increase in the foreseeable future (especially in view also of the looming world capitalist crisis). The transformation of the Indian State so that it can be captured by this minority which can then press on to “complete the reform process” to further its own interests, appears a remote possibility in the normal course of democratic politics. The only way it can be done is through a coup d’ etat, that brings about a certain change which for all future governments becomes a fait accompli that they can overturn only at extraordinary cost.

The Indo-US deal is a part of that change; and what happened on July 22 was such a coup d’etat. The fact that the parliament was subdued not with tanks but with cash-for-votes does not make it any less a coup d’etat; nor does the fact that it was carried out not by a bunch of generals but by a bunch of bureaucrats or ex-buraeucrats (which includes the Prime Minister), and by persons whose life in politics, such as it is, has never included any contact with ordinary people. A small coterie of persons seized power that day through dubious and illegitimate means, in order to bring about a transformation in the nature of the State. This is the definition of a coup d’etat and this is precisely what happened. The transformation being attempted, to recapitulate, is from a Nehruvian State (if one can use that short-hand expression) to a neo-liberal State integrated with imperialism.

True, the fact that the coup was effected though the parliament itself has given it an apparent legitimacy, so much so that the phenomenon itself has been missed by many. And it has been submerged in a debate over India’s energy needs, and the supposedly urgent requirement for nuclear energy, which has been a red herring. No cost-benefit analysis has ever been made to justify reliance upon nuclear energy. There has been no official document outlining the future energy scenario of the country and making out a case for nuclear energy. Nuclear energy gets no more than only passing mention in the Approach Paper to the Eleventh Five Year Plan prepared by the government’s highest planning body. And in any case, even the official defence of the Indo-US nuclear deal admits that no more than 8 percent of our total energy requirements in twenty years’ time will be met from nuclear energy. So, the “milk-and-honey-and-energy-in every home” scenario conjured up by the government is just a red herring to deflect attention for the coup d’ etat.

Indeed the herring is even redder than this. The issues at the centre of the debate have concerned not just energy requirements of the country but the specific provisions of the Indo-US nuclear deal. The esotericism of this debate has made people so obsessed with minutiae, with identifying as it were the individual trees, that they have missed the wood for the trees. The point at issue is not the terms of a particular agreement but the emerging closeness of the relationship with imperialism. If the country signs thirty-five agreements with the US, even if each taken by itself  is unexceptionable, what still remains of significance is the signing of thirty-five agreements, which taken together constitute a new relationship. The Indo-US nuclear deal therefore has to be seen not in isolation but together with the Hyde Act, the defence agreement signed earlier, the joint military exercises with the US, the vote on Iran referring its case to the Security Council, the foot-dragging over the Indo-Iran gas pipeline, the new-found closeness with Israel and such other developments. Discussions on the specific terms of the deal, though important in themselves, deflect attention, if carried beyond a point, from this context, and hence constitute an even redder herring. The deal in short is the denouement of a process, and not a lone issue to be looked at in isolation. By focusing on the lone issue, the coup d’ etat could be carried out silently and effectively.

It is significant that the US administration played a major role in pushing the deal and hence effecting this denouement which constitutes an attempt at a decisive transformation of the Indian State. Numerous official spokesmen from the US administration, and “academics”, not to mention hoary old Henry Kissinger, came to tell us how good the Indo-US nuclear deal was. They were not doing it as a diverting pastime; they were sent directly or indirectly by the US administration, which in turn was doing so not out of altruism or a sudden overriding concern over India’s energy needs, but to facilitate a “strategic relationship”, which is nothing else but a closer integration of the Indian State with US imperialism through a transformation in its nature.

But all these imperialist pressures would not have worked without a prior process of destruction of politics which neo-liberalism has unleashed. The fact that so many members of parliament could succumb to such sordid blandishments is symptomatic of the fact that politics is no longer about issues, that political differences over issues have receded to the background. This has been deliberately inculcated; appeals have been made to sink political differences for the sake of “development”. In a curious dialectic, appeals to “rise above politics” for the sake of “development”, only end up making the political class “sink below politics”. For if both A and B have so “risen above politics” that differences between them have disappeared, that ideology for them has become a dirty word, that they can be substituted for one another without any noticeable effect, and that, for this very reason, they will be substituted, come the next election, by a suffering electorate, then the temptation for them to amass a fortune and then “cut and run” is powerful. Such a process of destruction of politics, of the banishment of ideology from the political arena as being “anti-development”, has been going on for some time in India, as an inevitable accompaniment of neo-liberalism (for then the neo-liberal agenda, pushed by a coterie of bureaucrats and ex-bureaucrats, can survive changes in government). The ground for the coup d’ etat has been prepared by this process of “destruction of politics”.

But even the process of destruction of politics is not enough. To take advantage of it, the coterie pushing for the “completion of the reform process” must use the instrument of a political party. In the present instance that political party was the Congress Party. How India’s largest and oldest political party could allow itself to be used by a coterie that at best only nominally belongs to it, to push through an agenda of transforming the Indian State into one that is integrated with U.S. imperialism, when both Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were famously chary of its machinations, is a matter for future research. But the change in the attitude of the Congress has been of decisive importance.

The coterie of bureaucrats and ex-bureaucrats behind the coup, while owing the seats of power it occupies to the support of the Left, has been hostile to the Left from the very beginning of the UPA-Left arrangement. In fact it might have attempted its coup d’ etat much earlier, using pretty much the same methods as it has done now to “complete the reform agenda”. But it was deterred by the fact that the Congress Party was not with it. The change in the stance of the Congress is what has ultimately tilted the scale.

For this very reason, however, friends and well-wishers of the Left who are critical of the Left’s withdrawal of support from the UPA government on the grounds that by doing so it has left the field open for the neo-liberals, are way off the mark. The clear shift in the stance of the Congress, ostensibly on the nuclear deal but in fact over the issue of strategic relationship with US imperialism (since one cannot accuse the Congress leadership of missing the wood for the trees) left the Left with little choice. Any continuation of support by it to the UPA after this change of stance would have amounted to capitulation. The Left would then have lost the capacity to fight “the completion of reforms” both inside the governing arrangement as well as outside on the streets.

Now it not only retains the latter weapon but can use it all the more effectively because its credibility stands enhanced owing to its lack of ideological compromise. Many, including the perpetrators of the coup d’ etat, fondly believe that henceforth, with the Left out of the way, they can push through the “reform” agenda with ease. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gone are the days when hegemony could be acquired through a coup d’ etat. To believe that the Indian State can be integrated with imperialism against the wishes of the people, to serve the interests of  classes which, no matter how powerful, constitute a tiny minority of the population, and that this arrangement can be sustained (as it has to be) through a suitable abrogation of democracy, is the typical illusion of the putschists.