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Socialists-Communists: Need for a Continuing Dialogue

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Surendra Mohan


The parliamentary General Election in 1967 was contested by the non-Congress parties with limited electoral adjustments. Dr Lohia’s strategy of non-Congressism was more or less accepted in practice, if not in theory. After the election, Samyukta Vidhayak Dals (SVDs) formed their coalition governments in UP, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. In Tamil Nadu, the DMK, having secured majority on its own, formed its single-party government, while in Kerala and West Bengal, the Left Democratic Front and the United Front respectively came to power. In the latter States, the Jana Sangh and Swatantra Party were not represented in the State Assemblies. While the CPI joined the SVD coalition governments wherever it had its MLAs, the CPI-M gave them outside support.

In West Bengal, the extreme Left appeared in Naxalbari and took to the ‘Left adventurist’ ways. It had broken with the CPI-M and disowned the parliamentary path. The CPI-M took its own time in analysing this new phenomenon. The result was the creation of the CPI-ML, which, however, got its own sweet time in making its response clear, and for almost the whole year of 1967, there was lot of confusion. Socialist leaders S.M. Joshi, the Chairman of the SSP, and S.N. Dwivedi, the Parliamentary Party leader of the PSP, jointly toured the troubled area to build public opinion against it, as also to pressurise the United Front to make its stand clear. Both these parties were partners in the UF coalition government.

The CPI-ML was in the meantime undergoing splits, with the concomitant logic of increased adventurist fury at every split. On the other hand, Dr Lohia had advocated that if the SVD governments do not implement some basic reforms within six months of their assuming power, they should be pulled down. He wanted to show the difference between a Congress Government and the governments of the SVDs in a short time. Since most of these governments had conservative elements as constituents like the Jana Sangh and Swatantra Party, the only consequence of his insistence could be instability. It then appeared to some people in the PSP that while the CPI-ML wanted to destabilise the whole system, Dr Lohia’s advice would create instability within parliamentary politics. It is a fact that all SVD governments were out by 1968, which led to the mid-term General Election held in 1969.

In the National Executive of the PSP, in its first meeting after the 1967 General Election, those of us who desired democratic stability with peaceful radical social transformation, suggested that there was need to discuss the emerging situation. In this context, we pleaded for a discussion with the CPI, but not with the Jana Sangh or the Swatantra Party. The Executive therefore asked Nath Pai and me to contact the leadership of the CPI. We met Krishnan and Mohit Sen in the central office of the CPI, and meetings between senior leaders followed.

This was the time in West Europe when Euro-Communism had started to show its head, though it took concrete shape only after the march of the troops of the Soviet Union into Csechoslovakia in 1968 ousted the new regime led by the Communist Party leader, Dubcek, who had proposed communism with a human face. That event created a lot of furore within the CPI, though the CPI-M supported the Soviet action fully. The Central Committee of the CPI also later supported the Soviet action by a majority. C. Rajeswara Rao, the party General Secretary, explained to me that several generations of its cadres had learnt Communist politics by studying the publications of the People’s Publishing House, Moscow, and did not relish any criticism of the Soviet Union.

Socialists in West Europe were also facing revolts from their youth and student sections. The SPD in the Federal Republic of Germany and the British Labour Party were compelled to reorganise their youth and student factions. The French youth had sought to stage a real revolution and some youth groups in West Germany were also active in the same direction.

The process of dialogue between the CPI and the PSP got disrupted when the CPI made a solid alliance with the Congress party in Kerala in 1969 against the CPI-M. In West Bengal, the two Communist Parties were in two rival alliances. Then, after the Central Government rigged the general election for the West Bengal State Assembly in 1972, the CPI-M, on the one hand, and the Congress party and the CPI, on the other, became bitter enemies. The PSP had by then, that is, 1971, united with the SSP, and the name of the new Party was the Socialist Party. The draft of the Policy Statement of the party, prepared by Madhu Limaye, was provisionally adopted by its Foundation Conference held in Bulandshahar in UP on the last three days of 1971. It characterised all the other Opposition parties critically and warned against alliances and power sharing with any one of them, while proposing only electoral adjustments and simultaneous agitations. However, in June 1973, Madhu Limaye, in the meeting of the National General Council held in Bangalore, moved an amendment proposing to delete the whole paragraphs pertaining to the above, and their replacement by paragraphs proposing the creation of a federal party together with the Congress-O, Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Swatantra Party and Bharatiya Kranti Dal, with a common election manifesto, common election symbol and common leadership.

The Council, however, rejected this plea for the creation of a ‘viable’ alternative to the ruling Congress party, and adopted an amendment proposed by K. Chandra Shekharan for the creation of a radical alternative together with the Left parties. The adoption of this amendment resulted in a sustained dialogue with the Left parties, other than the CPI, and in June 1973, after a three-day joint meeting of the Socialist Party with the CPI-M, an agreement was signed in which the only disagreement was on the caste policy and the policy of political and administrative decentralisation. After JP launched the movement for Total Revolution in 1974, the party convened a joint meeting of all the Left parties, including the CPI, in order to mobilise support for it. Nevertheless, after the failure of that meeting, there was again a meeting between the Socialist Party and the CPI-M, to discuss the political situation. It was followed by a meeting in Patna in September of the same year in which Promode Dasgupta and M. Basavapunnaiah of the CPI-M and Madhu Dandavate of the Socialist Party were present along with JP. A joint statement was agreed upon, which called for strengthening the people’s opposition to the policies of the ruling Congress party. However, the leaders of the CPI-M refused to support the JP-led movement.

In September 1975, after the declaration of the National Emergency in June in the same year, I was deputed by the Jan Sangharsh Samiti, which was coordinating the resistance to it, to contact the Left parties. I went to Kolkata, incognito, and secretly met with the leaders of the CPI-M, the Forward Bloc, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Socialist Unity Centre, namely, Promode Dasgupta, Ashok Ghosh, Tridib Choudhuri and Shibdas Banerjee, respectively. Additionally, I met the leaders of the Congress-O and the Jana Sangh. In fairness, I must testify to the friendly warmth with which the Left parties received me. However, there was no agreement on their supporting the movement against the Emergency. Before the parliamentary General Election in 1977, and after the creation of the Janata Party, an agreement on electoral adjustment was arrived at with all the Left parties, barring the CPI.

Some party colleagues in Kerala were thinking of separating from the main party on the question of unification in the Janata Party, as they were apprehensive that the CPI-M might not include them in the Left and Democratic Front in that State. I met E.M.S. Namboodiripad and asked him whether his party would adopt a separate attitude in Kerala, while cooperating with the Janata Party everywhere else, and requested him to properly advise these colleagues. EMS was forthcoming on this and these comrades remained with us.

The Janata Party toughened its bargaining position after it had come to power at the Centre, in respect of the general elections to the State Assemblies in Jammu & Kashmir, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. We, in the erstwhile Socialist Party, and the then President of the Janata Party, Chandra Shekhar, favoured a continuation of the policy adopted in the parliamentary General Election. Yet, Morarji Desai, Choudhry Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram were adopting a rigid bargaining position. EMS invited me for a discussion of the situation in West Bengal, and suggested that the Janata Party could offer 125 seats to the entire Left Front. It was obvious that he did not want to be quoted. I tried hard, and Madhu Limaye, in particular, was quite insistent that an honourable settlement be made with the Left Front in that State. Some prominent Socialist colleagues like Prof Samar Guha and H.V. Kamath, however, did not like this position.

It is well-known that in all three States, the Janata Party contested on its own, and fared very badly. The loss which it inflicted on itself then was a permanent one. However, in the general elections for the Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh State Assemblies, Chandra Shekhar and General Secretaries Madhu Limaye, Rabi Ray and Ramakrishna Hegde (and I as coordinator of the party for these elections) prevailed upon the party to enter into electoral adjustment with the CPI-M, the CPI, the Congress-S and the Republican Party of India. The leaders of the erstwhile Jana Sangh supported our stand. On this occasion, I met P. Sundarayya and Basavapunnaiah to discuss electoral adjustment in Andhra Pradesh. Hegde took the same initiative in Karnataka, and we were successful. In Maharashtra, on the other hand, the People’s Democratic Front was formed at the initiative of S.M. Joshi.

The unification of the Bharatiya Lok Dal in which the SSP had merged in 1974 and the Socialist Party in the Janata Party left no party with distinct socialist objectives. On the other hand, Socialists who had left the PSP in 1955, 1964 and 1970 and those colleagues who had left the Socialist Party led by Dr Lohia in 1960 and 1973 to join the Congress party, and a large number of followers of JP came together under one banner in the Janata Party. Madhu Limaye suggested to me that I should get together with Raj Narain and Chandra Shekhar so that an effort for their coming together could be initiated. Hence, a meeting was held in the end of April 1978, and another in the middle of May. A largely attended meeting of comrades in Madhya Pradesh was held in Pachmarhi towards the end of May. This process was put an end to when, on the bidding of Choudhry Charan Singh, Raj Narain started to challenge the leadership of the party. Nevertheless, the keen desire for socialist unity was clearly expressed.

When a vote of no-confidence was moved against the Janata Party’s government in 1979, Hegde, Krishan Kant, Ram Dhan and I called upon EMS to appeal to him that the CPI-M should support the government. While he promised that his party would not lend support to any breakaway group from the Janata Party, he could not make good that promise. It might be recalled that Jyoti Basu, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, had advised the party to support the government. After the fall of the government, I had occasion to confront EMS and the CPI’s Bhupesh Gupta on their strategy. I pointed out to them the assured return of Indira Gandhi in the forthcoming mid-term General Election, arguing that before the motion of no-confidence, she was terribly isolated, as the Karnataka Chief Minister Devraj Urs had also deserted her and had been left with only 146 members of the Lok Sabha, but, in the General Election, owing to the split between the Janata Party and Choudhry Charan Singh-led Janata Party (Secular) with which they had aligned, her return to power was definite.

When the general elections for the State Assemblies in Kerala and West Bengal were to be held, some elements in the Janata Party again revived the controversy about joining or opposing the Communists. By that time, the CPI had, in its National Congress at Bhatinda, revised its policy of aligning with the Congress party and had joined the LDF in Kerala and the Left Front in West Bengal. In both the States and the National Executive of the Janata Party, most of the former colleagues from the erstwhile Socialist Party, but not all, were for making common cause with the LDF and LF. A Congress leader from West Bengal wrote to Chandra Shekhar that the party should not obstruct the victory of the Congress party as A.K. Antony was leading it. He and Antony had been with Chandra Shekhar, during the time when as a ‘Young Turk’ in the Congress party, the latter was opposing the Kamaraj-led faction, and later had contested for the Central Election Committee against the wishes of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. While that letter did not have much effect, the party decided not to align with the Left parties. However, in 1984 Chandra Shekhar was keen that common understanding between the party and the Leftist parties should emerge. This happened in a large number of seats except that of Chandra Shekhar himself, owing to some leaders at the State level. However, when V.P. Singh, after his expulsion from the Congress party, formed the Janata Dal, and later the National Front with the regional parties in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Assam, both the Leftist parties and the BJP agreed to make electoral adjustments with them. The Leftists generally supported the policies of the National Front Government, including the reservation of jobs in the control of the Central Government which the BJP opposed. It had made significant gains in the General Election in 1989, because of its fundamentalist policies and was set to advance further as its anti-Babri Masjid agitation brought out the anti-Muslim sentiments among the Hindus in North and Western India.

As a reaction to these policies as also the ‘New Economic Reforms’ introduced by the Congress party’s government led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, the NF and the Leftist parties came together, and the result was their success in forming the United Front Government with outside support of the Congress party. But, this government had a short duration, and after that, the regional parties parted with the Janata Dal and the Left parties, and joined hands with the BJP.

During this period between the fall of the NF Government and the installation into power of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance Government, efforts to start a dialogue with the Communists continued, as also those which could unify the Socialists. After the developments in Eastern Europe in 1989-91, Madhu Dandavate and I felt that the time had come to resume a dialogue with the CPI, in particular, and also with the CPI-M. On the one hand, we encouraged the leaders of the Hind Masdoor Sabha to achieve unification with the AITUC, a proposition heartily welcomed by the then General Secretary of the AITUC, Indrajit Gupta. On the other hand, three outfits, each belonging to the Socialists, the CPI and the CPI-M: the S.M. Joshi Socialist Foundation, the Joshi-Adhikari Foundation and the Social Scientist held a three-day seminar in Pune (Maharashtra) on the Economic Policies, that is, mainly, the Structural Adjustment Programmes. Indrajit Gupta and Madhu Dandavate were thinking together of creating the base for a broad Democratic Left party. The elder Socialist leaders, S.M. Joshi, N.G. Goray and Prem Bhasin, agreed with this proposition. Goray had, in fact, circulated a paper on the need for such coming together on the occasion of the National General Council meeting of the Janata Party, held in Bangalore in 1987.

The next meeting of the three outfits was held in New Delhi in 1993. While the agreement was that the political situation would be discussed, Sitaram Yechury of the CPI-M met me to suggest that we again discuss the economic issues, as his party was not in a position to join in a discussion of the political-ideological policies. Since I was interested to continue with the process, I agreed and urged others also to agree. Nevertheless, the CPI-M comrades did not join the seminar. Thereafter, during the last ten years or more, I repeatedly reminded leaders of the two Communist Parties to continue the process. The response was lukewarm. However, after we launched the Socialist Front in June 2002, Prakash Karat and A.B. Bardhan showed interest in it. Colleagues in general were, keen on it. But, Shishir Dhar in Kolkata and some other valued colleagues were greatly put off by this prospect. The Socialist Front has now active units in about thirty districts, and some State units are quite active. Much more requires to be done in this behalf, though.

The need for a broad-based democratic-Leftist platform, if not a united party, has been expressed by several friends who find the economic policies of the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party congruous with each other. Without doubt, some of our colleagues are wary of the United Front tactics of the Communists, though they represent a minority. The Communist Parties, on the other hand, are still suspicious of our links with the Socialist International, something which influenced even Indrajit Gupta, in later years. That was mainly because of the role played by the SPD Government in Germany, in particular, as, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, it quickly recognised Croatia as a separate state. These suspicions were unfounded because the Socialist International does not function as the Comintern or its successor, the Cominform, did. It never lays down particular policy lines for its member parties and forces them down the throats of all its affiliates. Moreover, the Indian Socialists had helped to found, as early as in 1953 in Yangon, the Asian Socialist Conference which had its second conference in Mumbai in 1956. However, it failed to function after the suppression of democracy first in Indonesia, then Nepal and finally, Myanmar in 1962. Moreover, as recently as in January 2004, the Socialist Front and the Socialist International held a joint seminar at the World Social Forum in Mumbai and there our differences on globalisation came out sharply. The Indians were surprised that, apart from a delegate from Tansania, another developing country, no one else from the SI was critical of the ruination of the economies of the developing countries, including India, by the WTO. Unfortunately, the former Prime Minister of Spain, Philip Gonsales, referred to internationalism of the socialist tradition. I had to regretfully request him not to reduce this noble sentiment to a joke.

The prospect of the unification of the two Communist Parties is dim, indeed, as the CPI-M is not at all interested in it. The CPI has been proposing it for almost two decades. The ML groups are no less disparate, even though some of them claim to have come together. On the occasion of the Asian Social Forum in January 2003, my colleague Vijay Pratap of the Socialist Front helped the Front in convening a seminar of certain Leftist groups, with Kanu Sanyal of the CPI-ML and me in the chair. Among the participants were Prof Vinod Prasad Singh of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad (and the Socialist Front), A.K. Roy of the Marxist Communist Party, Dr Vinayan of the Maoist Coordination Committee and Sudhakar Reddy, State Secretary of the CPI in Andhra Pradesh. There has been no progress in this dialogue, however. As the National Convener of the Front, it was obviously my responsibility which I failed to discharge.

Nagbhushan Patnaik of the CPI-ML (Liberation) attended the National Congresses of the CPI and the CPI-M in 2002, and suggested the creation of a Left Coordination Committee. His passing away and that of Vinod Mishra, General Secretary of that party, in quick succession, brought that initiative to an end. Vijay Pratap, Dr Yogendra Yadav of the Samajwadi Jan Parished and I had interacted with Vinod Mishra. Later, I discussed the matter with A.B. Bardhan, General Secretary of the CPI, to suggest that some discussion should be held on the proposal. After talking over with the CPI-M, he said that if this process was to go forward, then the CPI-ML (Liberation) must not organise agitations against the Left Front Government in West Bengal. On Vinod Mishra’s insistence that, in that case, his party should be free to criticise the anti-people policies and actions of the government, which I conveyed to Bardhan, it appeared that common ground could be developed on these points and the idea mooted by Nagbhushan Patnaik could be fructified. But since the new leadership of the CPI-ML (Liberation) showed no interest, there was no point in pursuing the matter.

A small incident brought home to me the differences of approach between the CPI-M and CPI-ML. In March 2001, efforts were made to organise a strong resistance against the WTO. Dipankar Bhattacharya, the new General Secretary of the CPI-ML, and S.P. Shukla, a respected ex-bureaucrat who was India’s ambassador to the GATT, asked me to join in a consultation for it. I enquired whether the CPI-M and the CPI were not to be involved. On their willingness to do so, I, along with Vijay Pratap, approached Prakash Karat of the CPI-M. He pointed out that recently, two workers of his party from Punjab, one of them an activist of the CITU, who had been expelled from the party and the CITU, had been eagerly invited to join the CPI-ML. In fact, I had met one of them in the meeting I have referred to. Karat said that if such practices of poaching among the Left parties were to start, then mutual cooperation in joint activities was impossible. He was perfectly right, and I therefore conveyed his sentiment to Bhattacharya. He agreed that these two comrades would not attend the anti-WTO conference that was being planned. The conference drew a large number of intellectuals and social activists from among the Left parties, the Gandhians and Socialists and set up a coordination committee with Shukla as its convener. This effort culminated in a big rally in November on the eve of the Doha Conference of the WTO, and another, much smaller, rally in August 2003 on the eve of its Cancun Conference.

The reader might wonder that when I personally do not accept the Communists’ beliefs or their policy prescriptions, why I persisted in this effort. Moreover, when I had discovered that the Communists were not keen on a dialogue between them and the Socialists, there was hardly any meaning in my efforts. I would like to refer to the hope expressed by the late Acharya Narendra Dev, the doyen of Indian socialism, in the end of 1955, that with sufficient technological progress, the Soviet Union would adapt Democratic Socialism, for human beings’ love of freedom must ultimately assert itself. At that time, the international communist movement held the Soviet Union as its model. Gorbachov, after coming to power in 1985, wanted the Soviet Union to pursue the direction that Acharyaji had predicted. He failed. Unfortunately, Yeltsin followed the capitalist model, and the main reason was self-aggrandisement. However, some of the other East European countries have lurched towards the Democratic Socialist model as available in West Europe.

Secondly, in Indian conditions, the Communists have had to adopt parliamentary democratic means, whatever the rhetoric that they indulge in. This is true of the CPI-M and the CPI. The CPI-ML (Liberation) also contests elections, and could gradually inch towards the acceptance of parliamentary means. The various Maoist groups are showing lot of resilience these days, but they are so disunited and faction-ridden that they cannot pose much challenge, particularly at the ideological level, and in a country of India’s size. At present, the repression of the state strengthens them and reinforces their appeal. Under the combined pressures of the civil society and progressive political groups, they, too, could undergo change. If the Socialist movement gets together and projects a healthy choice, or a broad democratic Left platform comes about, that too will have its own effect.

Moreover, the social questions related to the caste system and gender discrimination have to be sorted out and one cannot say that the class struggle and the victory of the proletariat in it will resolve these social contradictions. The CPI showed some recognition of it when Indrajit Gupta, its then party General Secretary, said in 1992 that a conscious effort was necessary to promote the Dalits, the Adivasis and the OBCs in leadership positions within the party. When the CPI-M said in a resolution in its last conference that party cadres would take up constructive work, then I had suggested to its General Secretary, H.S. Surjeet, that the ten-point programme of Gandhiji, modified to suit the present conditions, could help. That programme asked for working to remove the practice of untouchability, promote Hindu-Muslim unity and engage in rural reconstruction. I am not aware of the views of other Communist Parties or groups, or whether the CPI-M itself has moved in that direction, seriously.

Another issue relates to religion. In 1990 C. Rajeswara Rao, the eminent leader of the CPI, addressed a conference on communal unity and expressed disagreement with V.M. Tarkunde, the eminent Radical Humanist thinker and activist, on the issue that one must give up one’s faith in religion or any kind of supernatural power totally if one had to embrace secularism. Rao said that faith in religion was a personal matter and that secularism required that it does not interfere in public life nor define civic morality. I found, however, that the party did not agree with this view. Nevertheless, the steep rise of communalism in 1991-92, and the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in UP made most Leftists aware of the challenges of the distortion of religion and culture and of the need to appreciate that they could not be left uncared for their exploitation. When the RSS could misuse the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, an exponent of the unity of all religious faiths and a staunch campaigner against the caste system, because the Swami found no place in the secular pantheon, then it was a very abnormal situation. Yet, barring the Sahmat and later the Anhad, which organise cultural activities, nothing concrete had been done to remedy the situation. But, while the Sahmat’s attempt to liberate Rama from the utter commercialisation by the RSS was laudable, it created a strong negative reaction by showing a historical parallel which depicted him and his wife Seeta as brother and sister.

The CPI-ML (Liberation) has been able to attract the rural poor and the educated youth and students in cities on account of its comparatively open politics among the ML parties and groups. It is a model, on the one hand, for these groups, and can radicalise Left politics. However, it follows the orthodox communist philosophy, and has no answers to the issue of unemployment in the present industrial society. This is a paradox of all the parties which desire to pursue the technology of modern industrialisation, and concern themselves only with the transformation of its ownership and control of the means of production. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, brought out this contradiction recently by making a statement that the economic policy which he was pursuing was not socialism but capitalism. Capitalism, he said, produces wealth which socialism cannot. He forgot, however, that capitalism also produces unemployment and economic disparities. In the developing countries, which are obliged to produce wealth as well as distribute it, this problem has become a serious one. Those countries which own a particular commodity like oil as Venezuela does may not be faced with this problem, but others are facing it. For, their basic raw materials like chromium or bauxite are under the control of the MNCs, and unless this imperialist scheme of the international economic order is snapped for good, they cannot build self-sufficient and independent economies, though even then the issue of employment generation would not go away.

Production of goods of mass consumption by the masses themselves by harnessing local resources over which the local communities should have ownership and control, with the use of small unit technology, improved and modernised to suit the essential requirements of the people, is a strategy that prevents centralisation of ownership and control of the productive processes, reduces the possibility of economic disparities and requires no bureaucrats or managers. The degradation of the physical environment is also prevented. Decentralised technologies have been and are being perfected in various regions and sectors and can be exchanged mutually. Massive tree plantation, mini-watershed development and electricity generation by the use of non-conventional methods and at local levels, the adoption of organic agriculture and the construction of the physical infrastructure by the local communities are to be joined with them. Wherever extremely necessary, large-scale technology can be introduced, and workers’ or cooperative ownership and control may be employed to remove the growth of inequality. Local communities can easily plan to remove poverty and unemployment as also other problems of industrial societies. By creating community chests they can look after the security and welfare of the mentally and physically challenged.

These issues have been discussed for years within the local people’s action groups like the National Alliance of People’s Movements. Issues of water scarcity, environmental degradation and production of energy are easy to resolve by the use of these technologies. Marxist scholars like Parameswaran and several unorthodox Gandhian scholars have advocated this line of thought. The pattern of ownership of land must change at the earliest and the actual tillers must become the owners of the lands they cultivate, along with service and credit cooperatives to help them.

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