Here is the latest on the politics of statues in India. This time, it’s the turn of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. The man — leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, founder of Russia’s Communist Party, and an icon of the Soviet Union — died in 1924.
This week, he’s among the hottest items in India’s increasingly vitriolic political discourse. The reason — the BJP’s stunning victory in Tripura in the recent Assembly elections, trouncing the Left. Perhaps the first bit of news out of Tripura in the wake of the Left’s collapse was the razing of a statue of the Communist ideologue with a JCB earth mover in the town of Belonia and reported attacks on CPI(M) activists. At the time of writing, a second statue of Lenin has also been reportedly pulled down, and a hashtag #LeninMustFall is doing the rounds on Twitter.
Now, you don’t have to be a Leftist to see the problem here. Though the Central government has belatedly condemned the incident and asked the police to act, saffron sympathisers argue that Lenin was a mass murderer and an angry public has the right to vent its anger, even if it means vandalism. Some have also said Lenin was a “foreigner” and therefore not deserving of a statue in this country. And so on.
Even as the argument was raging, thousands of miles away in Tirupattur, a statue of E.V.R. Ramasamy — better known as Periyar — was damaged after a Facebook post by BJP’s Tamil Nadu leader V. Raja called the Dravidian movement icon a “caste fanatic”.
But the larger question is should we endorse “public sentiment” even if it takes a violent turn, cocking a snook at the rule of law? Where does the politics of statues — whether building new ones, or demolishing them — figure in a country with a predominantly young population where jobs and development are the two key issues?
That the Left had lost connect with a huge section of the public despite having won successive elections earlier in Tripura is evident from the results. That Communism has lost its appeal worldwide is also equally obvious.
But after all the smashing of statues, you are left with the central question: what about jobs?
That was the central question even in Eastern Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a student, I travelled through the region at the time, talking to scores of ordinary people, listening to their tales and tirades about life under Communism. The symbols of Communism and the erstwhile Soviet Union were rapidly junked.
But though the battle over Lenin ended, fresh challenges emerged. Except for East Germany, which got huge dollops of money since reunification with West Germany in 1990, the prosperous West offered nothing like the Marshall Plan to help the formerly Communist countries to get back on their feet and move toward a market economy. There was frustration and disappointment over the pace of change and the key issue before people was how to deal with their new freedom alongside economic uncertainty. In short, jobs.
In Tripura, the CPI(M) that ruled the state for 25 years has claimed that demolition of Lenin’s statues is symptomatic of “Communism Phobia”. The BJP, the winner in the just-concluded Assembly elections, which campaigned on the slogan of “Chalo Paltai” (Let’s change), claims it’s the “oppressed victims of the Left” who were behind the demolition.
But now that the electoral battle is over, the focus in Tripura must be on jobs. The state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. The victor will have to face the same challenge that confronted the loser — how to generate employment for the young people who are entering the job market every year.
Young people in Tripura and elsewhere who voted for the BJP are seeking jobs, and development that ensures the basic amenities which equip one for a productive role in the job market. In Tripura, located in a part of the country which has been neglected for long, and which suffers poor connectivity, inadequate educational infrastructure, not much of modern industry, generating jobs will be the key test for the new government.
It’s not just Tripura. Everywhere in the Northeast, where the BJP has won recent elections, jobs are the key issue. The subject resonates across the country. On that score, the latest data is not encouraging. According to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), which tracks business and economic data in the country, there are currently nearly 31 million unemployed Indians seeking jobs. In the week ending February 25, the unemployment rate had shot up to 6.1 per cent as compared to five per cent in January. This is the highest monthly rate in the past 15 months. After falling to a low of 3.4 per cent in July 2017, unemployment rates are shooting up once again.
It’s against this backdrop that we must gauge the discourse about statues in the country. Statues are symbols, but smashing symbols doesn’t fill bellies. Neither will erection of giant statues address the issue of job-creation. In the Northeast, in the immediate future, Central largesse can and will act as a palliative.
The BJP has shown it can be totally pragmatic, and when it comes to elections, that victory trumps all other issues, including core beliefs. So, BJP leaders have made it clear it won’t make beef an incendiary issue in the Northeast as it does elsewhere in the country. It has also proved that when it comes to selling hope and promises of a new and better tomorrow, it’s leagues ahead of its political rivals.
Now begins the real challenge. How will the BJP deliver on its promise of jobs in Tripura, and everywhere else where it now controls the reins of the administrative machinery?
Lenin is dead. His legacy is disappearing. But the answer to the jobs question will continue to be pivotal in the lives of India’s teeming youthful populace.