Mainstream, VOL LII, No 46, November 8, 2014
As Things Stand
Sunday 9 November 2014, by
The first principle of dialectic: things never remain the same. Thus, contrary to what you may think, there are important stirrings within the Indian Left.
History knows no greater motivator than a recognition that a termination may be in the offing. It has taken a while but an Aristotelian anagnorisis seems now dawning that India’s new Rightwing Government may not after all be just Rightwing in a classical economic sense but rightwing plus in relation to theories of state as well. India seems already witness to a style of authority associated with good old Louis the xiv who honestly believed that the state was coterminous with his person. That was of course before France had a Republic or a Constitution, and therefore rather less alarming than the current Indian zeitgeist wherein more and more among those who ought to know and do better seem content to make a beeline for a de facto extra-constitutional overlord of the elected government, setting aside both personal pride and institutional propriety. An unfolding laced with the irony that many among them until recently never failed to deride authoritarianism and cronyism. A trend duly flagged by Romila Thapar in her serendipitous Nikhil Chakravartty Memorial Lecture the other day significantly titled ”To Question or not to Question: That is the Question”.
She made the astute observation that when political authority becomes vengefully overbearing, and when vigilante gangs loyal to such authority become ubiquitously ready to implement retribution for dissenting behaviour, indeed to shut off the out-of-place utterance, many intellectuals take the convenient recourse to their areas of expertise, refusing to speak to matters that fall “outside” their domain competence. A cringing fact that serves to highlight the worth and historical importance of “public intellectuals” such as the late Nikhil Chakravartty pre-eminently was. Bravehearts whose list of publications may not match that of institutional academics in refereed locations but whose quality of engagement with the living world is often less self-regarding and more crucial to the sustenance of desirable collective goals, frequently in the face of clear and present danger to their lives, not to speak of their careers.
As one such doyen of the organised Left, now ninety years of age, said to me the other day, “it is a daunting task.” Namely, the prospect of retrieving ground from under the mesmerism of the Duce. Such seems the power of his oratory that segment after segment of an otherwise diverse and plural polity seems to suspend both disbelief and better sense and go over to the harangue for the day, harangues that involve peddling myths as facts, illusions as realities, even on matters that require great educational expertise. For now, few such professionals who attend the Duce’s harangues seem to want to question the substance of his pronouncements. Absolute power ready and willing to exact a price for questioning then becomes a truth that transcends all other truths.
The politics of the Left is thus stymied not just by its failure boldly to remedy its mis-steps over the last decade, but by the emergence of a new aggressively aspirational class spawned by a market-fundamentalist economics subservient to globalised international finance capitalism. This new influential class unashamedly derides the hackneyed ideal of equality enshrined in the Constitution as both undesirable and unattainable. The personal and professional predilections of this new crop of Indians seems grounded in a puritan theory of the elect who alone are ordained to be the centre of concern for temporal authority as much as for the gods above, as the notions of salvation in the hereafter have come to gel intimately with god’s material benevolence in the here-and-now. Thus their embrace of cutting-edge technologies can go hand in hand with a religiosity which grounds itself uncomplicatedly in a propagation of unsubstantiated “ancient glories” to which they are the rightful heirs—glories which allegedly suffered under the depredations supposedly wrought subsequently by non-Hindu invaders—depredations which the new Hindutva-inspired government is set to undo.
Members of this new Indian vanguard, beloved of the corporate owners, will not be moved to examine whether the open-ended philosophical speculaltons of ancient Bharati or Sanaatan (since the word “Hindu” had no existence then) thought found any reflection at all in the operations of the Hindu social order. The capacity and willingness to refuse those contradictions remain dour and unabashed. Or indeed to accept even as an argument that the ancient thought spoken of indeed had within it at more points than may be counted the religious sanction for those nasty social practices. Furthermore, even as on the one hand this new class boasts that it is Hindu thought and tradition that makes the sustenance of democracy possible, in contrast, that is, to the totalitarian injunctions of semitic, especially, Islamic thought, it is everyday impatiently anxious to jettison the thwarting arrangements of democracy in favour of a Louis or a Duce or a Fuhrer or a Bonaparte whose word may be taken as a single-window commandment to action, never to be faulted or questioned.
Having derided Caesarisms in the past, they might now be saying “let him be Caesar” as the mob said of Brutus who had brought down Caesar in the first pkace. Interestingly, only Stalin remains an exception to this preference: you see he was after all a communist inimical to the privatization of national wealth. Only when political authority sets itself the goal to enhance the accumilation of private wealth (“growth”) may dictatorships be excused, indeed encouraged. Then democracy is not violated and human rights of the deserving are duly protected. But if political authority takes it into its head to effect equitable distribution of wealth, and becomes dictatorial in the process, both democracy and human rights come to suffer grievously, warranting the execution of the just war. Thus what wonder that in modern western history, corporates have remained intimate with dictators. Our own position is a simple one: a pox on dictators we say, be they of the Right or of the Left. Nothing valuable accrues to history if great feats are achieved at the cost of the dignity of the most vulnerable citizen.
To return to our new vanguards: the overall contempt of this new class for politics as an archive is to be seen and heard to be believed. If India had neither a parliament nor elections to it, all that would not make a jot of difference to India’s gen next elite. What matters is efficiency, and efficiency has but one reference—the maximization of profits and the accumilation of private wealth to the accompaniment of the withering of public scrutiny. A proper democracy thus must mean one where an endowed minority rules over a “deservedly” disenfranchised majority—an endowed minority that is preferably uppercaste Hindu.
So, it is indeed a “daunting task” that the Indian Left faces. And as has happened so often in history, when the need for new beginnings is seen, old controversies are raked up. Was the schism and split of the organised Indian Left in 1964 necessary or desirable? Did it yield positive or negative consequence for the politics of the Left overall? Could it have been averted? And so forth. All that of course must remind us of what E.H. Carr taught once: the historian must not speculate about what did not happen or could have happened, but analyse that which did happen. Unfortunately, in seeking once again to join ranks, the primary segments of the Indian Left seem tempted to engage in a war of justifications in order perhaps to secure vantage in any renewed togetherness. Not that other voices are not wisely cautioning that such wranglings must not be entertained, given the nature and enormity of the political challenge that now confronts both the Left and the democratic and constitutional political order.
In the meanwhile, also, such has been and continues to be the hubris of those among the media channels and Rightwing opinion-makers who have tom tommed the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (obtained at a measly 31 per cent of the popular vote, thanks to a splintered Opposition and the logic of India’s first-past-the-post electoral system; no govern-ment previously in Independent India has achieved a majority in parliament at so low a percentage of popular vote before now) that they do not tire every day of every week in declaring with a mock the final redundance of the Left in India, with neither, in their view, the possibility nor need of any revival. Forget about the “redundant” Left, our new rulers have announced the final extinction even of the Congress party that is some 128 years of age and one that has ruled India for some six decades after Independence. The Modi doctrine is one of get-riddism, if you like; get rid of all parties, persons, opinions which are not at one with the vision of the Duce—a democracy sought to be reformulated not to include opposition and dissent but to exclude all that irks the Gargantuan Self.
But as the shenanigans of the forces that dictate the cultural and economic agenda of the one-man regime now in the saddle unfold, the need for a vibrant politics of the Left becomes all too obvious. Clearly, however the victory of the Rightwing may be hyped, it is not conceivable that a dominant minority can either be allowed to or can indeed sustain a cultural and economic agenda that seeks to marginalize and regiment the vast pluralist majority of a country of 1.25 billion people.
That raises of course the question as to why the Left should in the first place have suffered such ravages over the last few years, especially in its legendary strongholds such as West Bengal. The matter has been gone into by political analysts, including very many sympathetic to the Left, and one may flag just three perceptions here that seem to hold instructive substance as admissible critique: one, its decline organisationally into an undemocratic and insensitive party-cadre-dominant political culture, causing smouldering resentment among the hoi polloi who in India look to open and non-sectarian governance, and, sadly, appropriating the Panchayati Raj Institutions which at one time were among the Left’s path-breaking contributions to Indian democracy; two, its failure to live upto the achievements of its people-friendly, indeed revolutionary, work among peasant proprietors and share croppers as it sought to “advance” its economic thinking to embrace the more rapacious needs of private industrial capital, entailing damage to the interests of precisely those sections of the masses who had remained the backbone of Left credibility; and, three, its astonishing neglect of public educational institutions and of public health services in West Bengal.
And yet, not so paradoxically, these follies if anything point to the fact that it is still a democratic, mass-based, Left politics again that alone is equipped to address the issues which during its record reign in West Bengal became the unwitting casualties to complacence and neglect. This for the simple reason that the issues whether of equitable land ownership, or of general public services, or of employment and the overall well-being of working masses, or of the dominance of a secular culture among Indian citizens, or of the state ownership of national assets and their just distribution among those that produce those assets can stand a chance of fruition only under a Left-of-Centre politics. Or, indeed, electoral reforms of a kind that may yield truly representative democratic institutions and make the use of unaccounted moneys both unprofitable and culpable.
The further question then is, how is the Left to revive itself? No dearth of suggestive analyses and offerings here, all well-meaning and germane in their own place and way. These may for now be classified under four sorts of heads: those that recommend that the Left Front in West Bengal be the first object of revival through recourse to mass mobilizations and upfront rejection of old habits, and, crucially, by “steering clear of the Congress” (Prasenjit Bose in The Indian Express,October 29, 2014); two, by working towards Left programmatic unity involving, ideally, all Left groups who declare allegiance to the Constitution of India—something that has already been in evidence, for example, recently in Bihar; three, by revisiting the causes of earlier splits, recognizing that those causes no longer hold validity, and reuniting not just programmatically as separate parties but coming together in a bold move as a United Communist Party of India (instead of the some twenty eight as at present) with one party-political vision and programme; and, four, to do all these and also seek broad collaboratons with secular-democratic forces with whom there may well be ideological differences on economic policy but who may help defeat the challenge of the fascicisation of the state and of India’s fascinatingly diverse yet pluralist cultural life.
Here is what I think: to borrow from Eloisa Doolittle, wouldn’t it be lovely if the Left were win election after election with clear majorities, and form governments in state after state and with aplomb at the centre as well, like the Bhartiya Janata Party! But, alas, it isn’t about to happen. As we think of reviving the Left in the good old bastion of West Bengal, we must admit that the objective situation in that bastion today is vastly different from when the Left was still in power. Consequent upon the mass disaffection with the Left, especially among the Muslim minority, very many of its cadres did the unthinkable to go over to the “enemy”, and, in recent days, even to the, perish the thought, Bhartiya Janata Party. Clearly, any project of revival must go beyond merely organizational matters, taking in the altered balance of forces. And no revival may be of consequence unless it also translates into electoral successes. Furthermore, given the zeitgeist outlined in earlier parts of this piece, the revival of the Left must become coterminous with the defeat of very powerful communal/fascistic forces that now control the state and its institutions, seeping relentlessly also into sections of the popular imagination owing to relentless Goebblesian propagation of roseate claims. If that is accepted, then it follows that the Left, be it in West Bengal or anywhere else, far from “steering clear of the Congress” must for now seek to take on board all such Centre-Left political entities that remain clearly opposed to the politics of communal fascism and a berserk Capitalism gone viral.
But, simultaneously, the various sections of the Constitutionalist Left ought indeed to dare to go beyond mere programmatic coordinations. Is there today a good reason why the Indian masses should be offered a choice of some twentyeight Communist Parties instead of a single united one? I can’t think of any. If we in the scattered Left are truly thinking of the state of the nation rather than more narrowly only of our several party organizations, the answer to the question suggests itself. Then, however daunting the undertaking of dissolving old habits, old locations, old vested positions and infrastructures, the revolutionary thing to do would indeed be to come together as one party.
It is especially incumbent on those commentators and ideologues to recommend this course who wish the Left not to be dependent on or in collaboration with political forces outside the Left. Pending such an eventuality, however, the fragmented Left must do better than exaggerate the scope of its exclusive and autonomous exertions at turning the national tide. The likely prognosis for the next five years does not offer the Left in India the luxury of dreaming dreams of exclusivity and purity. What is open to it to do is to take the lead in forging a broad Left-of-Centre coalition along a minimum programme that must first stipulate a no-holds-barred battle against communal/cultural totalitarianism, hand-in-hand with struggles on behalf of economic equity.
Indeed, to say the unspeakable, the Left must take the initiative to get the Congress to rethink its own follies of falling between two stools both in the matter of the political economy and with regard to its pusillanimity, beginning with Gujarat, in refusisng to take on trends and tendencies anathema to its own proclaimed values and history.
There needs to be the recognition that the healthful equilibrium and the plausible centre of gravity of this nation-state continues to reside, whatever the current effervescence, in a Centre-Left politics, call it by any name you like. Remembering simultaneously the lesson of dialectic we spoke of at the outset: nothing ever remains the same. Ergo, if Congress and the Left continue to tarry and remain slow on the pick-up, there is no guarantee that they will not have missed the bus for a good long time to come, yielding a dire prospect for the dispossessed citizen and the secular and pluralist idea of India.
The author, who taught English literature at the University of Delhi for over four decades and is now retired, is a prominent writer and poet. A well-known commentator on politics, culture and society, he wrote the much acclaimed Dickens and the Dialectic of Growth. His latest book, The Underside of Things—India and the World: A Citizen’s Miscellany, 2006-2011, came out in August 2012.