Mainstream, VOL LIV No 43 New Delhi October 15, 2016
Singur Lesson for Marxist Ideologues and Indian Communists
Sunday 16 October 2016
by arun srivastava
Believing in Marxist ideology and imple-menting it are two different issues. An individual may be an ardent subscriber to the Marxist ideology but he would find it tough to practise the ideology. Marxists in India do not strictly adhere to the basic tenets of Marxism while imple-menting it in the Indian scenario. The failure of the Indian Communists and Marxists is generally viewed in the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet Union and it is said that with this Marxism lost its relevance and has become redundant.
Irrespective of whether this is a wrong perception and inference, the fact remains that the Indian Marxists are to be blamed for the creation of this situation. The fallacy is that the Indian Marxists, instead of owning up their mistakes or accepting their failures, shift the blame taking recourse to wrong interpretations and analyses of the existing conditions.
Except in Kerala, nowhere else in India was the Marxist ideology implemented in its true and correct perspective. It was their belief in the Marxist tenet that even in 1957 the people of the State elected the first Communist Government in India. The installation of the Marxist Govern-ment there was more relevant and important than a Marxist-Leninist Government taking control of China under Mao Zedong. Kerala’s Marxist Government came to power under a democratic structure without a protracted Marxist uprising as had happened in China.
It is the defeat of the Marxists in West Bengal that is being cited as the classical example of the waning of Marxism as an ideology in India. Some intellectuals and academics shed tears that the national footprint of the Left has shrunk. The Left parties, which had won sizeable number of seats in the Lok Sabha in 2004, failed to maintain their tally in the later elections. Today they are restricted to just three States: West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. The Commu-nist Parties have not been able to gain ground over the past few years.
A bourgeois tendency has developed to use the electoral gains or losses to judge the rise or decline of the Communists. True enough, the Marxists are to be blamed. They have popu-larised this concept. The CPI-M winning the Assembly elections in 1977 in West Bengal was portrayed as Bengal turning into a red citadel. People voting against the Congress were showcased as Bengalis becoming Marxists and the State turning into a liberated zone. This kind of interpretation undoubtedly lacked wisdom and vision. How could a person believing in Marxism and dedicated to the class struggle be swayed away by such frivolous gains?
Instead of consolidating the gain the Marxist leaders indulged in disfiguring and bending the Marxist doctrine and its principles. Nothing could illustrate it better than the recent develop-ments in the matter of land acquisition in Singur for the Tatas’ Nano project. The Supreme Court on August 30, in its scathing criticism of the way the CPI-M Government in West Bengal acquired land from farmers and leased it to the Tatas, described the acquisition process a “farce”. It went on record: “In Singur the CPI-M Govern-ment exercised its ‘eminent domain power without following the statutory provisions’ to acquire the land from farmers. In acquiring the vast extent of lands having immense agri-cultural potential, the government deprived the agricultural occupation of a large number of land owners/cultivators, thereby depriving them of their constitutional and fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India.”
What was most unfortunate was that the CPI-M leadership instead of accepting the failure graciously and promising to undertake a rectifi-cation drive, put the blame on the Land Acqui-sition Act 1894 for the recent upset where the Supreme Court struck down the acquisition of 997 acres at Singur. A statement issued by the CPI-M Polit-Bureau said: “The acquisition process had to be undertaken under the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, which was the only legal instrument available at that time. This was an Act, which did not protect the interests of farmers adequately.” The State Secretary, Surjya Kanta Mishra, ruled out a public apology for land acquisition.
The failure of the Singur project, which led to the downfall of the 34-year-old CPI-M-led Left Front rule in 2011, has been the classical happening in recent years. The CPI-M leadership projected it, at the time of its inception, as the symbol of the revival of industry in West Bengal. The State CPI-M leadership enjoyed the blessings of the then General Secretary, Prakash Karat. Endorsing the process of land acquisition in Singur, Karat had even given a clean chit to Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s industrial roadmap, saying that the compen-sation and rehabilitation package on offer in Bengal had no match in the country. Karat clarified: “We are working on a general guideline on how to accommodate industry and urbani-sation based on a scientific land use policy. This will apply to all the States including West Bengal.”
Buddha also said: ”We are trying to keep fertile lands out of the project sites, as far as possible. But it isn’t possible to set up industry on fallow lands only. For the percentage of fallow lands in Bengal is less than one per cent against a national average of 17 per cent.” Buddha further took moral responsibility for rehabili-tation and finding an alternative livelihood for the affected—the land-losers, bargadars, unre-corded bargadars and wage labourers.
Significantly in the wake of protest by the villagers of Singur, demanding that the West Bengal Government return 400 acres of land acquired from unwilling farmers, Karat had said: “The Tata project has to go on in the interest of West Bengal. The government will sort out the problem.” Later Karat said 70 per cent of the over 11,000 landowners, from whom 997 acres of land was acquired in Singur, had accepted the compensation offered by the West Bengal Government. “The compensation is fair under all standards,” he said. “The issue has now taken the form of a political struggle on whether the project should go on.” However, he said the struggle by those dispossessed of their land in most cases was for better compensation.
“Industrialisation in the long run is inevitable and in the interests of the peasantry. Industriali-sation provides for future needs in a labour-surplus country like ours,” Karat stated. But the conversion of agricultural land to non-agricul-tural purpose like infrastructure projects has to be balanced with the need for food security which is essential for national sovereignty, he added. The matter of the present rural crisis and rural distress is a direct outcome of liberalisation and neo-liberal policies. “We have to ensure that even within the capitalist frame-work poor peasants do not become victims of the brutal process of expropriation,” Karat said. However, Karat’s political edifice was demo-lished in one go by the Supreme Court on August 30.
True enough, his political analysis and evaluation of the BJP and Modi Government and refusing to accept them as fascist forces has been his clever strategy to divert the attention of the people from his failure and blunt the criticism against him. Karat, who played a crucial role at the Siliguri party meet in 1991 to distance the party from Gorbachev’s line, is not naïve to understand the implications of the Apex Court verdict.
Prakash Karat has come out with his theory that the Narendra Modi Government was “authoritarian” and not “fascist”. This is in sharp contradiction to the line held by the present party General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury, who untiringly connects the Modi Government with Adolf Hitler. Yechury has repeatedly alleged that the BJP-RSS want to convert our democratic republic and secular India into a “fascist HinduRashtra”. What is really surprising is that through his thesis Karat, who is supposed to be the hardline face in the party, seeks to enlighten the “ignorant” Left and liberals. According to Karat, fascism could not be established under the given conditions in the country. Unfortunately he did not elaborate the conditions conducive to establishing fascism.
Invoking the classic definition of fascism, Karat tries to identify the similarity between the Sanghi Modi and Islamist Recep Erdogan of Turkey and says both are authoritarian but not fascist. As if this was not enough, Karat said: “The political struggle against the BJP cannot be conducted in alliance with the other major party (the Congress) of the ruling classes.” Karat has been pleading this line from his days as the General Secretary. But he miserably failed to find a perfect ally. Moreover his stand has forced the party into a state of isolation. Both his theories are nothing but a well-planned attack on the line associated with those supporting the current CPI-M General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury. Karat is aware that once the party comrades are involved in polemics on these two issues, failure of his leadership in Singur would not get attention and be buried forever. Else, what was the need for this analysis at a time when the Marxist role in acquisition of land for industrialisation should have been debated? The Apex Court’s verdict should have become the base for a thorough and in-depth polemical debate on the role of the Marxists in land acquisition under a bourgeois and neoliberal economy.
The implications of the Singur judgement go far beyond West Bengal, for the argument made by Justices V. Gopala Gowda and Arun Mishra underlines one thing starkly: the “brunt of development” should not be borne by the “weakest sections of the society, more so, poor agricultural workers who have no means of raising a voice against the action of the mighty State Government”. The SC verdict recognises that ‘growth’ and industrialisation’ do not come without costs and who pays for those costs remains a key question at the end of the day. In any case, the judgement makes it clear that the Left Front had not even adhered to “the proper procedure as laid down in the Land Acquisition Act”; so it is nothing less than comic to suggest that the party’s and government’s hands were tied by an archaic law.
While Karat argues that there has to be clarity in defining the character of the BJP, he writes that it has organic links to the RSSwhich has a semi-fascist ideology
Obviously the question arises: how could a party having organic links to a fascist organisation be only authori-tarian? This is absolutely misleading.
Yet another reason for not accepting the BJP as a fascist party is that in that case Karat has to do away with his earlier stand that the CPI-M should maintain distance from the Congress. Accepting the BJP as a fascist party would imply that the move to have alliance with the Congress to save democracy is justified.
Indians have always been attracted towards communist ideas. The primary reason for this has been the schism between the rich and poor, which has created hatred towards capitalism. No doubt during the freedom struggle the Congress leadership tried to get the support of the extremely poor and Scheduled Caste population, some leaders at the personal level succeeded in this too, but the Congress at the organisational level as such could not take a big stride in this direction. Besides other factors, such as Ambedkar’s political strand, had a major impact.
A closer look at the rise of the Left in Bengal makes it explicit that this was primarily due to the leaders who were associated with the peasant movement at the grassroots. The CPI-M emerging as the dominant Communist Party after the 1964 split was also due to this factor. However, in independent India these leaders could not give shape to their movement. Yet another reason for the CPI-M’s inability to consolidate its peasant base was projection of Jyoti Basu as the ultimate leader. He was projected as a Communist from a rich family committed to the poor people’s cause. This was a manifestation of middle class Leftist romanticism.
Basu changed the class character of the Marxists. This was clearly visible in the matter of land acquisition for industrialisation in Singur and Nandigram. It is a historical fact that Basu had ordered to shoot innocent peasants in Naxalbari in 1967. Had he been committed to the proletarian cause, he would certainly not have given that order.
The Left’s decline in West Bengal must be seen in the backdrop of the political flare-up over land acquisition for industrialisation in Singur and Nandigram. It was after these protests and the death of more than two dozen farmers in police firing in March 2008, that the Left Front suffered a major setback in the panchayat elections of 2008. Since then it has become an unstoppable slide.
While the CPI-M, especially the West Bengal leadership, came under severe criticism for its land acquisition policy within Left circles, the State unit of the party has maintained that the top leadership was not responsible for the turn of events. A document, titled “The Left Front Government in West Bengal: Evolution of an Experience”, adopted by the CPM’s West Bengal State Conference held in February 2015, had put the blame on the local leaders. It described the Nandigram events as a result of “unnecessary initiatives of a section of the local leadership”.
The political and ideological struggles of the Left parties have hit a blind alley as correctly emphasised by the political resolutions of the 17th Party Congress of the CPI-M. The leadership miserably failed to identify the main enemy: whether it was the bourgeois forces represented by the Congress or the communal forces led by the BJP. It is an open secret that communal fascism of the Sangh Parivar, with its ideology of the Hindu Rashtra, now poses a grave and unprecedented threat to the secular fabric of Indian democracy.
While the Centrist political parties have no ideology and owe their political survival and existence to caste factors, the Left forces are grossly confused over the strategy to fight fascism. Karat’s thesis is a manifestation of this confusion. At the political level this is manifest in their approach to club the Congress and BJP together.
Karl Marx was the first thinker to draw attention to the highly venomous impact of caste on Indian society and its link with the relations of production. In his famous essay on The Future Results of British Rule in India, Karl Marx characterised the Indian castes as “the most decisive impediment to India’s progress and power”. Marx correctly argued that the caste system of India was based on the hereditary division of labour, which was inseparably linked to the unchanging technological base and subsistence economy of the Indian village community.
In recent years the younger people across the country tend to keep away from the left political parties and political spectrum. This is in sharp contrast to what was seen in the seventies and even in the early nineties. The youth of today are more socially progressive and are looking for an activist government. Unlike the youth of yester years, today’s youth support social spending and are in favour of higher taxes if it means better public services. They desire to have active participation in the power mecha-nism and dynamics.
In 1991 when Laloo Yadav took to fighting against the hegemony of the feudal and upper- caste people, the youth of the backward castes rallied behind him. They responded to Laloo’s call on the lines of caste affinity and identifi-cation. Even during those years the Left parties utterly failed to entice and enroll this huge population of youth. It is worth recalling that the hard-core Naxalites belonging to the Yadav caste elected to the State Assembly on the ticket of the IPF, a frontal organisation of the CPI-ML, switched their political allegiance and loyalty to Laloo and joined his RJD since it represented the power dynamics of the Yadav caste.
Apparently this was indicative of the end of the Indian youth’s romance with communism. The youth have come to nurse the opinion that communism has lost relevance in the post-liberalisation era. Maoists at their recent Congress emphasised to reach out to the youth. The party lacks new blood and young faces. Maoists ought to do serious introspection as to why the youth were not willing to join them. It is historically correct that the youth were the main force for the Left in India. The roots of the communist movement in India go back to the 1920s when the Communist Party of India was founded as an alternative to the existing Congress-led anti-imperialist movement. The movement was driven by angst against the economic injustice of the rich and wealthy class.
The youth lapped up the new idea of change and power dynamics. What is the reason that the Maoists fail to attract them? The disillusion-ment of the youth also owes to failure of the Communists to bring about revolution. Thousands of youth sacrificed their lives, they were either killed by the police or by the private goons. The Left leaders in fact betrayed these youth by not spearheading the movement on the correct political line.
Communist roots only persisted in Kerala and Bengal, where the aspirations of the youth matched with the ideologies of the Left. Ironically even in these States the Left parties have lost the support of the youth. In Bengal the youth have preferred to rally behind Mamata Banerjee. The primary reason is again the same: the young person perceive these organisations as the symbols of power dynamics. In a neo-liberal economy the young person has become too much conscious of his future and economic viability. He wants to live a good and prosperous life. The recent developments and moreover the once Leftist youth, turning into big corporate honchos, have made them nurse the futility of Left politics and ideology. The Left leaders have not succeeded in making them realise the importance of the Marxist ideology and philosophy.
Yet another factor that ought to be mentioned is that the youth of the bourgeoning middle class are not inclined to lose their economic gains and comfortable life by embracing the ultra-Left. They have learnt the futility of aligning with them. Eminent Left intellectual Prabhat Patnaik felt that the appeal of the communist movement among the youth and society at large had waned, and identified three factors that contributed to it; “One is the ploy of neo-liberalism supporters to direct the failings of the system towards a person or a political party instead of the basic idea itself. For instance, the huge corruption and misgovernance by the UPA is projected as the incompetence of either Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or that of the dynasty of the Congress.” Second, unlike in the past, today’s agitated youth have to face many issues. This is a major factor that contributed to the lack of interest among the youth in the communist movement in the country. Finally the Communists should understand that they could still build a social revolution in a country that had long been mired in social evils like the caste system. No doubt some parties are emerging from social movements but it is only the Left parties which can convince the people that they alone can provide space for both social movement and power dynamics, and be a governing option.
The elections in India have been a sort of manifestation of the social protest against the failure of the party in power. The Left parties unfortunately could not accomplish the task of channelising this mood of the people. The reason is that the Left, particularly the Maoist and Naxalite leaders, failed to connect with the common people. After Charu Majumdar, it was Vinod Mishra, the General Secretary of the CPI-ML, who could articulate the feelings of the people and connect with them. The IPF could win a number of seats in the State Assemblies or even Parliament due to this factor. Why did the Left parties, particularly the Naxalites, fail to get those votes? It is a mistake to narrow the answer down to just one reason. But it must be remembered that the Left’s messages are not especially popular today.
The Left has also failed to provide a platform to those actively looking for a party, who want parties relevant to their lives and to the power dynamics. Little doubt that India’s Communists are losing their touch with the people and fast- changing world around them.
After the first wave of farm reform exhausted its potential, they needed fresh ideas. Land reform had run short of fresh ideas; it has remained a mere rhetoric and farm produce prices were falling. Like the urban middle class, the peasants now also aspired for better lives. With the growing influence of the market forces in the national economy and increasing competition between States to attract private capital, the Communists are in a state of confusion to match their anti-corporate, anti-globalisation rhetoric with the practice of competitive federalism. People prefer to repose their trust in the regional parties. The decline of the Communists possibly means that the “party-society” is now unravelling. Nevertheless functioning in a democracy, the Communist Parties are resumbling social democrats with Stalinist tendencies.
The author is a senior journalist and can be contacted at sriv52[at]gmail.com