The India that is not and never was

These attacks were on a different scale - more open, more organised, more direct. But there are many

The atrocities in Mumbai have concentrated attention on the threat of jihadi terrorism, whether home-grown or inspired or supported by Pakistan.

The weekend before the attacks, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, gave a speech at a conference of directors and inspectors general of police in which he warned against the threat of left-wing extremism in India. It was, he said, "perhaps the most serious internal security threat we face". This was a reference to the Naxalite Maoist rebel movement active in more than half the country's states, with forces of roughly 15,000-20,000 permanently armed cadres.

Named after Naxalbari, a village in West Bengal where a violent uprising took place in 1967, the various groups in the movement carry out bombings and hijackings, causing hundreds of deaths each year, and control a fifth of India's forests.

Days earlier, shock had greeted official confirmation of the discovery of the country's first Hindu terror cell, thought to be responsible for a series of bombings previously blamed on militant Muslim groups. There were links to a former student leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalists who form the country's main opposition, and to an army colonel. This last aspect was particularly worrying, given the welcome tradition of apoliticism in the armed forces.

The month before that, Hindu right-wingers, dubbed "Saffro-Nazis", killed more than 500 Christians in Orissa, forced many others to convert and displaced tens of thousands, all supposedly in retribution for the murder of a local leader for which Maoists claimed responsibility.

India was always an unlikely nation. The British claimed only empire could keep it together; the high-ranking Raj official Sir John Strachey declared that "there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing any sort of unity - physical, political, social or religious". For decades after independence its break-up was predicted. Factors such as the diversity of languages spoken (22 are officially recognised by the constitution), however, have not led to the territorial divisions some anticipated. Progress has been made in overcoming other deep clefts, as shown by the fact that a Dalit (untouchable) woman, Mayawati Kumari, is in her fourth period in office as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in the country.

The real threat is not, perhaps, to the territorial integrity of India (although it is just possible that there may at some point be movement on Kashmir), but to the idea of India - that secularist, pluralist dream of Nehru and other early Congress leaders.

For since independence, as the historian Ramachandra Guha puts it, India has not become a "melting pot" but remained a "salad bowl" culture. While there has always been friction between the different constituents of that culture, the rise of the BJP, which first came to power nationally in 1996, marked a hardening of sectarianism.

"There has been an erosion of the liberal ethos in the Indian elite," says Sunil Khilnani, director of the South Asia Studies Programme at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. "Twenty to 25 years ago secularism was healthier in some ways."

In spite of the recent terror attacks he, at least, remains an optimist. "I don't give up hope in moments like this. There is no alternative to the [secular, pluralist] aim that India at its best has set itself - unless the country is really going to descend into regular violence."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times