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Mainstream, VOL LII No 30, July 19, 2014

Left Parties: Pragmatic or Dogmatic?

Sunday 20 July 2014

This article was written before the final outcome of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

by Ajay Gudavarthy

In 2004 when UPA-I came into existence, the Left parties played a pivotal role in deciding the content of the Common Minimum Programme and pushing social welfare policies at the height of economic reforms. In fact, it was because of this continuous check of the Left Front with their outside support to the government that the Congress promulgated the much acclaimed MGNREGA that literally catapulted it back into power in 2009. However, with UPA-II the Left did not do so well electorally compared to its previous tally of 60 MPs in 2004, while the Congress on its own managed to get 206 MPs. The Left parties did not support UPA-II (after they withdrew outside support to UPA-I in 2008 once the PM went ahead to implement the Indo-US nuclear deal), and the story now seems to be very different as we are in the midst of the General Elections, 2014, with neither the Left nor the Congress keeping good health. While the electoral prospects of the Congress look rather bleak, the Left parties have hardly made their presence felt. Is the Indian Left headed towards a terminal decline?

The declining electoral presence and pros-pects of the Left parties is representative of the deeper economic and political changes that have come about in the last couple of decades. These changes have multiplied the complexity of the challenge that the Left always faced on the social and electoral fronts, but this time around the Left looks ill-prepared in reinventing itself. India is one of the few countries of this size in the world that has a massive informal sector, accounting for 84.7 per cent of the jobs in the economy. The increasing informalisation of the economy has posed a grave challenge to the conventional trade union modes of mobilising and organising the work force that formed the traditional base of the Left parties. The new kind of ‘footloose labour‘ has no permanent firm or is not a regular employee. They are mostly self-employed and continue to migrate in search of work, making it difficult to mobilise them on any sustainable basis.

Similarly, on the rural front the traditional farmers’ movement has rearticulated itself along the lines of caste politics that is reflected in the rise of the politics of the OBCs that aspire not for better returns in agriculture but what they perceive to be upward mobility with an oppor-tunity to shift to the urban centres with secure employment. This phenomenon of being mobilised along caste lines is occurring alongside de-mobilisation along the traditional class-lines in spite of the growing agrarian crisis in many States, resulting in a spate of farmers’ suicides. It is clear that beyond a level of distress the subaltern cannot be mobilised into traditional protest forms. Neo-liberal economic reforms have not only dispossessed the rural poor but also disarmed them into submission. While the CPI has played an active role in waging various struggles, including those against the POSCO in Odisha, they have remained utterly localised and the Left parties themselves have failed in linking them to other struggles at the national level.

The debate in India has shifted from land reforms, a traditional slogan of the Left parties, to land acquisition. Today it is about protecting the land that the subaltern possesses, and not about ‘land to the tiller‘. The debate has moved from redistribution to maximisation of wealth, as a purported viable strategy to even benefit the poor. Who has then occupied the streets that have been vacated by the subaltern? The streets have been taken over by an unlikely social class—the urban middle classes. It is today the middle classes that have taken to street protest politics—conjuring, what Saskia Sassan refers to as the ‘global street‘ all across the world from the Occupy Movement in New York to the Arab Spring in Egypt—around the issues of corruption, violence against women and crime. It is the young among the middle classes that have become the new symbol of protest with their indomitable candle-light marches. Street protests, which have remained for long an inspiring transformative spectacle of Left politics, are today the weapon of the privileged middle classes that have never constituted the social base of the Left parties. As middle classes have occupied the imagination of a resurgent nation, they have also eclipsed the presence of the Left parties.

On the electoral front too the Left parties have been caught unaware of the fast-paced changes that have engulfed it with the increasing ‘mediatisation of politics‘. The Left continues to operate along with its old methods based on party programme and policy that are not easily amenable to the demands of mediatisation. In a recent interview Prakash Karat, referring to the difference with the AAP‘s strategy of fighting corruption, suggested that ‘it’s not just a question of targeting some individuals; it’s a question of policy‘. While symbolism can be without substance, substance without symbols can be synthetic. In representative democracies, especially of the size and diversity of India, symbols and popular perception are of immense significance. This also adds a further complexity where issues that are pertinent in terms of economy and sovereignty of the nation, need not necessarily be electorally viable. This was precisely the point that it is perhaps the Left parties alone that could have withdrawn their support on an issue such as the Indo-nuclear deal in 2008 that meant little in much of the rural hinterland and in gaining electoral returns. But if such issues are considered important, it is pertinent to ask: how does one then convert them into an electorally viable strategy? Ideologically-oriented parties will always face the dilemma of how much to change and compromise in terms of the vagaries of popular democracy, unlike parties such as the AAP which can one day fight the Ambanis and on another day declare at the CII meet, as Arvind Kejriwal did, that the ‘government has no business of being in business‘. He in fact declared that the AAP has nothing against capitalism. It could protest against violence against women by doing a sit-in one day and declare Khap Panchayats as cultural organisations on another sunny day. This pragmatism, in the AAP‘s own self-understanding, is representative of its open-minded, unscripted and creative political pote-ntial. In opposition to the AAP‘s pragmatism is the thin line between ideological commitment and rugged dogmatism of the Left parties. The choice between pragmatism and dogmatism is one that has consistently bogged down the Left parties.

Finally, in the run-up to the 2014 General Elections, the Left has desperately yet again attempted its old fashioned method of cobbling up a Third Front as an alternative to both the Congress and BJP. Mostly, the Third Fronts were forged either against the corruption of the Congress or the communal politics of the BJP. These were Fronts forged by exclusion; in other words, it was more important who was being excluded rather than what is being included.

In today’s so-called post-ideological scenario where personalities—from Ram Vilas Paswan to M.J. Akbar—have all found their own reasons to join the Modi bandwagon, the Left parties really have no clue how to constitute an alternative Front. Ideally they should have attempted to project an alternative social democratic and pro-welfare agenda as the basis for bringing various regional parties together. By abdicating the common and alternative agenda as the viable basis for the Third Front, the Left parties too have followed suit the number game. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, the Left parties led the farmers’ agitation against the Telugu Desam Party for increasing the electricity tariff as part of the World Bank-initiated changes but decided to enter into an alliance with the same party in the 2009 Assembly elections.

The wedge between the Left parties‘ political vision and electoral calculations has also pushed them into what looks like a serious crisis in the clarity of their thought and the choices they are making. Similarly, the Left parties, that rejected the offer of making Jyoti Basu the Prime Minister in 1996, are today being turned away from the doorstep of the AIADMK; this indeed makes for a rather traumatised picture of what is left of the Left. Whether the current brand of octogenarians and septuagenarians can find one last opportunity to seriously introspect the orientation and direction that the Left parties need to take in times to come, is indeed a ‘million dollar‘ question.

The author belongs to the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi