Why the time is again ripe for American socialism

Why the time is again ripe for American socialism
Photo Credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has handily beaten Hillary Clinton to win the New Hampshire primary – and after being dismissed as more or less an ideological sideshowwhen it first began, his campaign has become an unlikely but remarkable movement.

With the Republican Party in a seemingly unstoppable rightward spiral, as the likes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump dominate its race, the seemingly unexpected rise of as such a proud left-wing candidate as Sanders might seem inconsistent with every trend in recent American politics. At the beginning of the race, he was unknown to many voters outside his home state of Vermont. He is also the Senate’s only self-proclaimed socialist, a label that many once thought would make him utterly unelectable.

But Sanders’s support for “democratic socialism” hasn’t just been surprisingly popular: it’s rapidly changing the way America perceives socialism and all it stands for.

A major strength of Sanders’ campaign is an economic argument against income inequality. This message is at the heart of Sanders’s self-described democratic socialism, but the “revolution” he’s advocating isn’t a Marxist seizure of the means of production; it’s a democratic political uprising.

But this in itself is hardly anything new by the standards of American politics, even at the presidential level.

Right place, right time

Sanders has explicitly placed himself in the tradition of liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The comparison is apt indeed: FDR’s liberalism was not only “socialist” by the standards of realigned American politics, providing the foundation for modern liberalism and the foil for modern conservatism. His conservative opponents in the inter-war years labelled him a “socialist” for his bold initiatives to combat the Great Depression and revive the country from economic collapse.

The Sanders-FDR affinity even extends to specific policies. Sanders regularly cites theGlass-Stegall Act and social security, two of the 32nd president’s better-known initiatives, and Sanders frequently references both during debates, town halls, and stump speeches.

By linking himself to FDR, Sanders is betting that the American public will accept his proposals as anything but radical. In fact, the big government solutions he offers to voters are popular with the American public, as is his brand of socialism in general. And yet, this is largely overlooked by his opponents on both sides. Programmes such as social security and Medicare have been portrayed as “socialist” by some, yet are both “very important” to many Americans across the political spectrum.

This is all testament to the fact that socialism runs deep in America, and that broadly socialist ideals have proven their appeal many times.

Big dreams.  Source: Wikimedia Commons
Big dreams. Source: Wikimedia Commons

American socialists have been elected and become noted national figures before. Look back to early-20th century Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which elected the first “sewer socialist” mayor in America, Emil Seidel, in 1910. Seidel was also Eugene Debs’s running mate for the Socialist Party in the 1912 US presidential election.

But we need not look a century back to see American socialism in full flower, provided we look in the right place. We could point to the US military – a massive government-owned programme that provides its workers with social benefits for higher education, housing, and specialised, dedicated healthcare.

So various of socialism’s core ideas live on in America’s most visible institutions. And yet, the Democratic Party has backed mostly economically moderate candidates for the past four decades. All the while, Sanders has been articulating this worldview, first as mayor of Burlington, Vermont then from the US House of Representatives and now the US Senate.

So why are he and his brand of out-and-proud socialism suddenly looking so viable? His groundswell of support from younger voters perhaps reflects that more of them view socialism favourably than view it unfavourably. But his success reflects something deeper besides.

A substantial proportion of voters across the political spectrum, and not just younger ones, believe that the status quo is not working for them and that government needs to do moreto remedy this – including by redistributing wealth via taxes.

America is primed to find Sanders’s call for “political revolution” appealing. His economic argument offers a chance for actual change, not just hope. His call for bold action to make government work for the middle class, rather than against it, appeals to many struggling Americans, and while his brand of socialism truly marks him as an “FDR liberal”, that isn’t the warning label it might have been before the 2008 financial crisis.

It remains to be seen if he will garner enough support to overcome first Hillary Clinton, then the conservative GOP presidential candidate – but win or lose, it is clear that his campaign has captured the imagination of an American electorate that still dreams of a more equal society.


A query for Rahul Pandita: Why are you ignoring the existence of a Kashmiri brotherhood?

A query for Rahul Pandita: Why are you ignoring the existence of a Kashmiri brotherhood?
Photo Credit: Rahul Pandita
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Missing the point

Why are you turning a blind eye to the presence of Kashmiri Muslims at the funeral and the fact that they were in the majority (“The ugly truth behind a ‘heartwarming’ story of Muslims performing a Kashmiri Pandit’s last rites”)? They may not have performed the last rites, but what matters is that they were standing by the side of the family.

Why are you ignoring the existence of a Kashmiri brotherhood, instead of Pandits and Muslims being divided? The reality is that you have ignored Kashmir and Kashmiriyat long ago and are ignoring any good thing happening around the corner in Kulgam or elsewhere.

I hope you have watched Janki Nath’s wife on television and how she is grateful to the community around. What she said and felt cannot be brushed aside by your comments made from afar. Stop playing a spoilsport by trying to act like a messiah. Learn to encourage certain good things that are happening. Jahangir Khan


Before making any comment on Rahul Pandita’s post-mortem of a story about communal harmony, I would like to seek some more details from his “sources” who fed him the details about the last rites of the deceased.

I strongly believe that his “sources” were also based outside Kashmir like him, and of the same ilk which is driven by “politics of hatred” with self-centered goals, rather than having any concern for the community.

What was the total strength of mourners who participated in the funeral of the deceased Janki Nath? I believe that Pandita will accept that Muslim neighbours outnumbered the Pandits manifold since they were the ones who took care of the elderly couple living among them, even after the mass migration of the minority community. None of you can understand this bond.

Can Pandita please confirm who carried the body to the crematorium, who arranged the firewood and who remained with the widow of the deceased during the mourning period, consoling and sharing her grief and assuring her of their help when needed? Look beyond the technicalities and open your eyes.

Your rebuttal is self-contradictory at times since you are playing to the gallery. Do you know why you get perturbed by the stories of communal harmony emanating from the valley? Because it pricks your balloon containing a distorted message. How many times you have visited the valley after your migration? Much water has passed down the river Jhelum since 1990 and you need to keep pace with the changing times.

It is ironic that you are only picking up things which suit you and your audience. Look beyond yourself to know the real meaning of living. Tariq Sofi


Muslims might not have performed the last rites because they are obviously unaware of the rituals and sermons, but how can the author deny that Muslims accompanied the funeral procession and stayed on till the last rites were performed? Khurshid


Rahul Pandita’s depiction of events is revealing. It exposes the ground reality and the attempts by some to misinform people. Kudos to him. Ashok Handoo


Thank you for telling us the ugly truth and also for the way you told it. CM Naim


I completely agree with Rahul Pandita. Kashmiriyat is a political expression which taunts both Muslims and Hindus of Kashmir. We were never secular because we could not be.

We are two nations, the pomp of media notwithstanding. Both crescent and the swastika are drenched in blood. Farooq Peer


A bitter response that is as bad as the crocodile tears of the PTI stringer. This is the tragedy of Kashmir. Jai Oberoi


I am very saddened after reading the truth as you claim it to be. Whom should I trust? If it was the case of some local/infamous publishing newsbody, then we might have ignored the original story. But an acclaimed paper like The Indian Express carried such a story and patted the shoulders of the so-called Kashmiriyat. Isn’t it shameful? Apart from eroding the trust of a reader, isn’t it a crime in the name of naked journalism and what not?

Many of my friends swooped on this story and they discussed the change and goodwill of the people there. They made made statements such as “See, things are so beautiful now”.

This matter should be taken up in the public domain more fiercely. Adarsh Agarwal


After decades spent vilifying Ambedkar, why are the BJP and Congress so keen to claim his legacy?

After decades spent vilifying Ambedkar, why are the BJP and Congress so keen to claim his legacy?
Photo Credit: IANS
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The popularity of Bhimrao Ambedkar in 2016 is remarkable.

Ambedkar was always a Dalit icon. On his birth and death anniversaries, his memorial in Mumbai draws huge crowds that are much larger than those at memorials of any other Raj-era political leader, including Mahatma Gandhi. But what is remarkable is how mainstream political parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have scrambled to honour the architect of the Indian Constitution ahead of his 125th birth anniversary on April 14. Both parties had, last year, announced year-long celebrations in the run up to this day in an apparent bid to claim his legacy. And as the anniversary draws closer, the government is firming up plans for a nationwide commemoration.

These bids to claim the legacy of the Dalit icon continue even as reports of Dalit oppression emerge from across the country with disturbing regularity.

Political icon

Ambedkar’s installation as a mainstream political icon is quite recent. Kancha Illaiah, academic and thinker on Dalit issues, says:

“Until 1990, Ambedkar was untouchable to all mainstream political parties. The question of the BJP looking at him did not arise at that time. The implementation of the Mandal Commission report, the VP Singh government honouring Ambedkar with the Bharat Ratna and the massive Dalit civil societal celebration of his role across the country triggered a new debate. From 1991 to 2015, emerging civil societal forces acquired definite intellectual status in universities and colleges and became a force to reckon with.”

Ambedkar is today a national icon. However, during his lifetime, he actually had very little to do either with the Congress or the Hindu right wing that later coalesced into the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mutual antipathy

As is well known, Ambedkar blamed Gandhi for suppressing the Dalit political voice. In 1955, Ambedkar angrily told the British Broadcasting Corporation that Gandhi did not deserve the title of Mahatma, “not even from the point of view of his morality”.

Ambedkar signed the 1932 Poona pact – as per which Dalit representatives would not be elected by a separate Dalit electorate but by all castes – after Gandhi went on a hunger fast. The pact is so seminal in the Dalit movement that the late Kanshi Ram, the founder of the Bahujan Samaj Party, called his book on the Congress party’s Dalit politics post that pactThe Chamcha Age.

Gandhi was wary of Ambedkar too. He wrote to Vallabhbhai Patel a year before Independence:

“The main problem is about Ambedkar. I see a risk in coming to any sort of understanding with him, for he has told me in so many words that for him there is no distinction between truth or untruth or between violence and non-violence. He follows one single principle, viz. to adopt any means which will serve his purpose. One has to be very careful indeed when dealing with a man who would become a Christian, a Muslim or Sikh and then be reconverted according to his convenience. There is much more I could write in the same strain”

Proud identity

Given his politics that revolved around a proud Dalit identity, Ambedkar naturally came into conflict with the Hindu right. In the run up to the Poona Pact, Ambedkar favoured separate electorates for Dalits to exclusively vote for Dalit representatives. But the Hindu Mahasabha signed a deal with a prominent Dalit leader of the time, MC Rajah, to accept joint electorates where caste Hindus and Dalits would vote together (i.e. the current system). Rajah, who compromised with the right wing, is now a forgotten figure.

Vallabhbhai Patel too disliked Ambedkar’s politics, accusing him in 1948 of wanting to divide the country. In the Constituent Assembly, as Ambedkar tried to move an amendment to grant Dalits greater electoral rights, Patel opposed it, and attacked him:

“Let us forget what Dr Ambedkar has done. Let us forget what you [Nagappa, another Dalit Assembly member and an Ambedkarite] did. You have very nearly escaped partition of the country again on your lines. You have seen the result of separate electorates in Bombay, that when the greatest benefactor of your community [referring to Gandhi] came to Bombay to stay in bhangi quarters it was your people who tried to stone his quarters. What was it? It was again the result of this poison, and therefore I resist this only because I feel that the vast majority of the Hindu population wish you well. Without them where will you be? Therefore, secure their confidence and forget that you are a Scheduled Caste.”

The most hated man in India

Patel wasn’t alone in his dislike of Ambedkar’s politics. Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar biographer, wrote that after opposing Gandhi on the Poona Pact, Ambedkar became widely unpopular across India:

“Ambedkar now became the most hated man in India. He was stigmatised as an uncivil, insolent, inordinately rude man, devoid of human consideration. He was represented as a devil, was cursed as a public nuisance number one and was dammed as a reactionary, a stooge of the British government, a traitor to the country and a destroyer of Hinduism.”

Arun Shourie, prominent right-wing intellectual and minister in the Vajpayee government, repeated the “Ambedkar is a traitor” trope in his book, Worshipping False Gods. In the book, Shourie states:

“There is not one instance, not one single, solitary instance in which Ambedkar participated in any activity connected with the struggle to free the country”.

Ambedkar was hated because he took bold positions and did not care for the upper-caste dominated mainstream of Indian politics. He often cooperated with the establishment – with the British during the Raj, and with the Congress after Independence. Political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot points out that Ambedkar was supremely practical and did whatever it took to help his community. Thus, in 1939, he tied-up with the Muslim League and Jinnah to mark a “Day of Deliverance” in order to celebrate the mass resignation of all Congress ministries to protest India’s entry into World War II.

Ambedkar meets Jinnah and Periyar in 1940.
Ambedkar meets Jinnah and Periyar in 1940.

Allying with the Socialists

In 1951, Ambedkar’s attempts to modernise Hindu personal law met with strong opposition from the Hindu right. One of them was SP Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor to the Bharatiya Janata Party, who felt these new laws, which promised gender equality, were instruments that would “shatter the magnificent structure of Hindu culture”.

Frustrated with this Opposition, Ambedkar resigned as law minister from Nehru’s cabinet and allied with the Socialist Party to fight the 1951 general elections. Even during this campaign, Ambedkar went against the mainstream, promising his Muslim constituents that he would fight for separate electorates for them, just as he had for Dalits.

As a further measure of his protest, he converted to Buddhism in 1956, an event that the Bharatiya Janata Party glosses over given its strong opposition to conversion.

Bahujan politics and Ambedkar

Thus, Ambedkar is lionised today, but not for any of the principles he stood for during his lifetime.

His new-found popularity among mainstream political parties can be attributed to the rise of Ambedkarite politics, which uses the Dalit identity to vie for political, economic and social power.

It started with the formation, in 1978, of the All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, known as BAMCEF, an organisation of mainly Dalit public sector employees. This later led to the establishment of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which changed Indian politics forever by creating an independent Dalit leadership.

Mainstream political parties now have to woo Dalits, a constituency they have always taken for granted.

For this, Ambedkar is a handy icon. Never mind that it is rare to find a Dalit holding a senior leadership position in these parties, and that ground conditions for this oppressed group remain mostly unchanged. Remember Rohith Vemula?


This hilarious illustration is the Ravi Shastri of journalism cliches

This hilarious illustration is the Ravi Shastri of journalism cliches
Photo Credit: Karl Sharro
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The stage is set. There’s a keen contest on the cards. At first glance, this might serve as a cautionary tale forcing us to think outside the box. But if you probe the matter and upon deeper reflection, you might conclude that this is just what the doctor ordered.

Confused? Most print journalists would find the lack of any semblance of meaning in the previous paragraph oddly comforting (or infuriating), because its made up of some of the most common cliches of newspaper copy.

A couple of years ago, the Washington Post‘s Sunday Outlook attempted to collect all the far-too-familiar phrases and idioms that journalists keep falling back on. That list, from “at a crossroads” to “only time will tell,” is now at 200 cliches and counting.

India has its own overused phrases, the most famous of which (at least for those of us on Twitter) is keen contest on the cards, a headline used so commonly by the Hindu that a Google search turns up more than 2,000 pages with that title.

India also has its own Ravi Shastri, a cricketer-turned-commentator who turns the form into an exercise in mouthing as many cliches as possible in the shortest period of time. Googling Ravi Shastri cliches, from electryfing atmospheres to a cracker of a game, will give you many more results than the keen contest.

Now Karl Sharro, an architect, satirist and blogger, has designed a house that brings together some of the most common elements of journalism and political punditry.

Some of the are a little more foreign – smoke-filled rooms and blue-sky thinking would be rather exotic references in Indian news copy – but the writing on the wall and the moral high ground are far too familiar. And don’t even ask about the elephant, um, in the room.