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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 25 New Delhi June 11, 2016

Magisterial Study of Left Politics in Contemporary India

Saturday 11 June 2016, by Sobhanlal Datta Gupta



The Phoenix Moment: Challenges confronting the Indian Left by Praful Bidwai; Noida: Harper Collins Publishers India; 2015; 586 + xiii pages; Rs 599.00

The Left in India, admittedly, is passing through its worst crisis since independence. Praful Bidwai, the author of this book, who died at a rather premature age in 2015, was an engaged researcher as well as an activist, with vast experience of political journalism. He has written virtually a comprehensive history of the Indian Left from its origins which go back to the 1920s till the Lok Sabha polls of 2014. While acknowledging the positive contributions of the Left in providing alternative perspectives on larger issues of society, economy, politics and culture, the book takes a severely critical view of its failings, but it would be wrong to describe it as an obituary of the Indian Left. Rather Praful has identified certain key issues which the Left must address, if it has to survive and withstand the crisis it faces today.

Very candidly he has stated his Left credentials in the short yet very compact Preface. His objective is to study the parliamentary Communist Parties and exclude from his purview the Left-extremist, primarily Maoist, groups and parties which shun electoral democracy and believe in insurrectionary tactics. This is explained by three reasons advanced by him (pp. ix-x) : first, as Communist Parties they have had the longest experience of operating within the confines of a liberal democratic system; second, notwithstanding splits, dissent, etc. these parties have had the longest and continuous organised existence. Third, there is serious dearth of recent analytical literature on their performance. As regards his own ideological position, he describes himself as a staunch anti-Stalinist, although he had very good rapport with all varieties of the Indian Left. (p. xi) Finally, the author argues that the problems plaguing the Indian Left are four-fold and these have been his concerns while writing the book. These are: “its ideological deficiencies, theoretical rigidity, aridity in programme formulation, and undemocratic organisational practices”. (p. x)

There are actually two narratives, running in two opposite directions, throughout the book. The first narrative chronicles the glory, success, achievements of the Left in the pre- as well as post-independence era at different points of time, in no way belittling its historic role and accomplishments, which began with the call for complete independence given for the first time not by the nationalists but by the Communists in the 1920s and ended with the support extended by the Left to the first UPA in 2004-08. Theoretically speaking, the second narrative takes off at the point where the first narrative closes. This refers to the moment when the Left withdrew its support to the UPA in 2008 on the issue of the Indo-US nuclear deal, marking the decline of the Left’s secular slide leading to its virtual rout in the Lok Sabha polls of 2014. Driven by this worry and the urge to diagnose what has gone wrong with the Left, the second narrative emerges, almost as a critical response to the dark spots, the weaknesses, the blackholes that remained otherwise hidden in the first narrative’s apparently glorious and impressive success story of the Left. In the process the two narratives criss-cross one another, opening up a terrain where the author, while appreciating the historic role and importance of the Left, also reprimands it for its reluctance and inability to respond to these issues.

Praful has very rightly diagnosed the central problem underlying this inability/reluctance of the Indian Left to address these problems, when he at the very beginning of the book draws our attention to two major theoretical weaknesses of the Indian Communists. (p. 5) One: the complete lack of awareness of the tradition of Western Marxism, “its rich discourse on the nature of capitalism, the modern state, and the peculiarities of the exercise of power in bourgeois democracy”. Two: they took hardly any interest to explore the valuable non-Marxist analyses of Indian society, that is, caste, its relations with class and politics. This was strikingly evident in a number of episodes. First, let us consider some of the issues which exclusively belong to the ideological domain of Marxism. It all began with what Praful describes as Comintern’s “toxic influence”, the subservience of the CPI to the CPGB (Chapter 1) and its consequent inability to think independently and thereby take the right decision at the right moment. This disconnect with reality, because of a blinkered vision, has caused irreparable damage to the communist movement in the country, as sterile dogmatism and short-term tactical considerations have largely characterised the functioning mainstream communism throughout its life in India. This explains, for example, why the CPI refrained from engaging in any ideological struggle on the issue of Stalin and the 20th Congress or the Hungarian crisis in 1956 and the Czech crisis in 1968 and simply blamed Gorbachev and his reform programme for the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. (pp. 26-27, 62) The author attributes this “entropy” of the Communist Left to its failure to emerge as a movement rather than as a political organisation only (p. 29), this overemphasis on organisational prowess to the exclusion of many other larger issues being largely a replication the Soviet model. (p. 27) Understandably, this happened because, at the theoretical level, the Communist Left in India has always maintained a safe distance from the currents and crosscurrents within the Marxist tradition, while at the organisational level it has remained firmly rooted in the Stalinist principles of party organisation, making it impossible to foster any real inner-party democracy and look beyond.

Coming to the Indian dimension, Praful so very rightly draws our attention to at least four issues which the Communist Left failed to negotiate, resulting in the shrinkage of its social base and political space. First, the contributions of the Socialists, notably the formation of the Rashtra Seva Dal, set up in Maharashtra in 1941 to counter the RSS menace, were never seriously considered. (p. 6) This, in fact, raises a bigger question: despite the rather abortive break-up of the CPI-CSP alliance in 1934-38, was it not imperative on the part of the Left to revive this strategy in post-independence India, since the Socialists constituted the only other Left current, apart from the Communists? Second, a somewhat lukewarm, if not passive, attitude of the mainstream Comm-unists towards smaller yet very important local movements initiated by A.K. Roy, Sankar Guha Neogi, the Lal Nishan Party, which actually accelerated class struggle in the pockets in which they were waged, has largely contributed to the isolation of the mainstream Communists. (pp. 92-94) Third, the Left’s rather sceptical, at times hostile, attitude towards movements that involved workers’ takeover, that is, Sonali Tea Gareden in Jalpaiguri (1974-78), Kanoria Jute Mill in Calcutta (1993-94), Kamani Tubes Ltd in Bombay in 1988, was another big mistake which cost the Left dearly. (pp. 68-72) This simply reminds one of Gramsci’s classic study and endorsement of the Turin Factory Council movement, as the First World War was coming to a close and Italy was getting ready for her encounter with fascism. Fourth, the decision of the CPI-M leadership not to allow Jyoti Basu to become the Prime Minister of India in a moment of power vacuum in 1996, a decision that Basu described as a “historic blunder”. Praful describes 1996 as an “inflexion point”, “where the people’s aspirations for social change, frustrated by successive regimes, were still not defeated and were amenable to incorporation in imaginative Left-of-Centre programmes and policies — especially if they were coupled with mass mobilisation strategies, and backed by the Left’s announcement of its intent to run specific mass campaigns on issues with progressive content and popular appeal”. (p. 115)

It is against this background that the author then goes into a detailed examination of the coming to power of the Left in West Bengal and Kerala and their performances. Compared to West Bengal, the performance of the Left has been much better in Kerala, despite its declining image, its emergent pro-business, corporatist profile. (p. 261) In comparison, West Bengal’s performance has been far worse, considering the fact that, since 1977, the Left was in power in Bengal till its fall in 2011 for more than three decades without break, while in Kerala power has changed hands between the UDF and LDF at regular intervals. In West Bengal the downhill slide began when, initially after the success of “Operation Barga” and the energisation of the panchayat system, “politics of middleness” (paiye debar rajniti) gripped the power-brokers of the Left, giving rise to corruption, inefficiency, arrogance and insensitivity. All these went into the unseating of the Left in Bengal in 2011, unfolding a painful process that eroded its base further in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

At the end of the book Praful addresses two key issues which really deserve attention today, when the Left is in deep crisis. In the first place, despite the progressive thrusts of the Left on many fronts, national as well as international, he reminds us of three caveats. One: the Left succeeded best when it joined initiatives launched by civil society movements and progressive sections of the intelligentsia. This happened, for instance, in the case of MGNREGA, Food Security Act, Right to Information Act etc. Two: problems arose when sections of the Left went ahead with policies which were a deviation from the cause that the Left stands for. This was most starkly evident when the West Bengal Chief Minister invited Walmart into retail trade, zealously campaigned for SEZ and made deals with international seeds and food companies like Cargill. Three: the Left failed to put pressure on the UPA through mass mobilisation, confining itself largely to media statements. (p. 303)

Second, the author draws the attention of the reader to an alternative four-fold future agenda of the Left, which one can seriously consider. First : “building a counter-hegemonic alternative to the bourgeois democratic system through anti-capitalist popular mobilisation even while exploiting all possibilities available within the system”. (p. 335) Second: incorporation of the following demands into a radical movement, namely, agrarian reform, right to work, right to education, old-age pension, minimal food security, forest rights etc. (p. 338) Three: micro-level planning involving issues generated at local level. These may range from municipal governance to such burning issues of everyday life as supply of clean drinking water, accessible and affordable health care, an efficient public transport. (p. 344) Four: a non-vanguardist relationship must prevail between the party and the masses and between and within parties so that party bureaucracy can be checked and controlled (p. 346), reminding one of the Gramscian distinction between power and domination.

Based on party documents, interviews, field work, this is a magisterial study of Left politics in India. Written with thoroughness and precision, this is a work of great political wisdom. The book needs to be read by all those who still care for the Left and have not yet lost faith in the future of the Left in India.

Dr Sobhanlal Datta Gupta is a former S.N. Banerjee Professor of Political Science, University of Calcutta.

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