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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 16

Left Unity : Long Haul

Monday 7 April 2008, by Nikhil Chakravartty


Can the Left really unite? In the three decades since Independence, the unity of the Left has virtually been a will-o’-the wisp of Indian politics.

In the crucial years immediately following Independence the Left chose to go into disarray. The Socialists, overwhelmed by the emerging power-structure of the Congress, decided to leave it, while the Communists in a fit of unwisdom went for a sectarian course preferring frontal collision with the newly installed Government. In three years, both suffered heavily—one in wilderness and the other in confrontation.

By the time the first General Election with adult franchise came in 1952, there was a more realistic approach on the part of the Communists chastened by the futility of the adventurist course. It was now the turn of the Socialists to go sectarian with disastrous results as they rejected all overtures for understanding not only with the Communists but with the disillusioned Congressmen who, coming out of the parent body, formed a heterogenous party, the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party (KMPP). The election results showed that the Congress had ceased to command overall majority in votes though it retained power throughout the country. A coalition attempt of the Left along with the Centrist elements in the then Madras State was foiled by the Congress manoeuvrings.

The fifties saw the Left dissipating its energy and influence without any determined attempt to build a powerful movement on its own steam. Permutations and combinations took place—the KMPP merging with the Socialists to form the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) and then the PSP getting split while, later on, the Socialists in their turn were further fragmented. Rumblings could be heard in the Communist ranks in the late fifties, accentuated further in the sixties with the Chinese confrontation with India and the larger Sino-Soviet rift. By mid-sixties, the Communists had split into two—the CPI and CPI-M. The Socialists were equally divided, some joining the Congress, others drifting into local combines, while the parent party, though active, became largely ineffective. Towards the end of the sixties could be seen a further division among the Communists, with those who were earnestly attracted towards the new orthodoxy of Peking breaking away from the CPI-M.

Behind it all one could discern a sense of all-pervading complacency with Communists basking, by and large, in the comparative shelter of parliamentary politics, whose corrosive influence was hardly guarded against. This tendency prevailed despite the warning administered by the Presidential takeover of Kerala where the Communists maintained majority in the Assembly in the face of the blatant Congress bid under its then President, Indira Gandhi, to topple it. The urgent objective of building powerful movements of the working class, different sections of the peasantry and the middle-classes was largely ignored, thereby denying the Left of the opportunity to build a nationwide independent force of its own apart from the Congress. Despite occasional exercises at coalition politics at the State level, particularly after the 1967 General Election when the Congress lost majority in as many as nine State Assemblies, there could be seen no resolute move on the part of the Left to unite and assert.

The Congress split in 1969 had its inevitable repercussions on the Left. The Socialists were scattered further, though the Socialist Party maintaining its core joined the Grand Alliance of the Right in the 1971-72 elections. Later on, a section of them joined the newly formed conglomerate under Charan Singh, called the BLD.

The gap between the two Communist Parties widened—while the CPI saw in the Congress split the signs of division in the national bourgeoisie as a class, the CPI-M took it as nothing more than a crisis in the ruling party. The CPI joined hands with Indira Congress, while the CPI-M chose the path of opposition to the Congress Raj with all its hazardous consequences. Inevitably, the relations between the two Communist Parties deteriorated to the point of bitter acrimony, if not hostility. There was proximity between the Congress and CPI in the 1971-72 elections, at some places even forming electoral alliances. The CPI-M on its part preferred to stay in the cold, thereby facing heavy electoral reverses.

This continued up to the watershed of the Emergency. The logic of the Socialists’ politics drove them into action under JP’s leadership. The CPI-M on its part, while siding with the mounting anti-Government campaign, did not organisationally join it. The result was that during the Emergency, the CPI-M was in a state of frozen inaction, with the primary concern of maintaining its organisation and not to risk it in any mass action against the Emergency Raj. The logic of the CPI’s pro-Indira politics drove it almost blindly to the support of the Emergency, a strategy which brought disastrous consequences upon it.

The post-Emergency phase shows a mosaic of political fragmentation. Inside the newly formed Janata Party, the Socialists and their allies are at loggerheads with the Jana Sangh and RSS. Outside, the Communist division has continued: it has taken one full year of Emergency for the CPI to realise the folly of having supported it. The CPI-M on its part, scoring significant electoral victories in West Bengal and Tripura and now in Assam, regards tactical support to the Janata as a necessary counter-weight against any danger of return of Indira authoritarianism. The CPI, on the other hand, while recognising the grievous mistake of supporting the Emergency, has now taken to the path of outright opposition to the Janata Party for, in its view, authoritarianism is latent in the Janata as well.

It is in this background that the sessions of the respective Congress of the two Communist Parties have generated unusually widespread interest in the prospect of Left unity. There is no doubt that after many years, the chances have improved of the two Communist Parties coming nearer to each other. Acrimony may give place to understanding. In the CPI-M’s list of allies for a Left and Democratic front, the CPI comes second, only after the Left allies of the CPI-M which are already in government with it in West Bengal. The CPI has also in its Congress recognised “the supreme importance” of seeking unity in action with the CPI-M.

However, this is only the first step towards mutual understanding, not to speak of unification, between the two Communist Parties. Differences between them are sharp, even with respect to the assessment of the present Indian situation. The CPI Congress at Bhatinda and the CPI-M Congress at Jullundur have helped to clear some grounds towards reconciliation, but it will be unrealistic to expect that placed as they are, the leaders of the two parties, with all the constraints in their outlook as well as composition, can on their own forge a united communist movement today.

At the same time, the spate of spontaneous mass actions by the working class, the poor peasantry and other sections of the people—combined with the crumbling mass confidence in the Janata Raj to solve any of the essential problems, and the desperate drive of Indira Gandhi for staging a comeback with her coterie—imposes upon the Communists at least a modicum of responsibility, to cease squabbling among themselves to the delectation of their adversaries. The unstable situation in the country demands, on the one hand, the defence of the interests of the toiling, underprivileged sections of the community and, on the other, the instilling into the consciousness of the entire nation what the Left stands for in terms of bringing about social transformation. It is time the Communists thought of extending their mass base, so that in no distant future, they can wield the real lever of power in terms of organised strength of the working class, the peasantry and the revolutionary intelligentsia.

But the question of Communist unity—in its primary stage, the unity of mass movements led by them—cannot be confined today to united action on the part of the two Communist establishments, the CPI and CPI-M. It has to embrace in some form or other the very large number of dedicated revolutionaries, pushed conveniently into the category of extremists. Whatever the differences with them, the wall of separation keeping them away from the two CPs has to be pulled down. It is only then that the communist movement will be able to become the core of Left unity. The Socialists inside the Janata or the near Socialists inside the Congress can be attracted only when the Communists themselves put their own house in order. That house is now in a dilapidated state: it has to be rebuilt, brick by brick. And only such an edifice raised with the assimilation of many and varied experiences in this country among different segments of our people, can ensure the durability of Communist unity. It is a long haul, there is no short cut.

In numerical strength, the scattered and disoriented Left of today might look like a small force. But in terms of its impact on the Indian scene—in the sphere of politics, economics, culture, values and ideology—the Left can play a decisive role if and when it can forge a degree of cohesion among its different and at present warring contingents. There has to be new thinking, hard and clear, on the part of all the Left groups, and out of the prevailing welter, there must emerge a common appraisal of the Indian reality with all its complexities, and its seemingly baffling variables.

If the Left does not strive to unite, it will be further decimated, if not turning totally irrelevant. It is no longer the question: can the Left unite? The question of the day is: can the Left afford not to unite?

(Mainstream April 15, 1978)

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