Hammered & Sick: Left in India

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Waiting in the wings CPM leader Sitaram Yechury is tipped to be elected as the next general secretary
Waiting in the wings CPM leader Sitaram Yechury is tipped to be elected as the next general secretary. Photo: Tehelka Archives

The setting was perfect. Two decades of liberalisation changed the Indian polity and the society like never before. The liberal imagination invariably made some of India’s major political parties to shed their social democratic rhetoric, leaving the country’s political system in a huge vacuum. When the Left was supposed to gain from the conditions made perfect by pursuing the liberalisation policy and its accompanying vices, the worst crisis hit them.

The crisis began with the local body polls in West Bengal in 2008 and it is pulling the party down ever since then. With the Left’s tally plummeting from 61 seats in 2004 to 24 in 2009 to a mere 12 seats in 2014 general elections and national vote-share having shrunk to 5 percent, it requires enormous political ideological creativity on the part of CPM’s new leadership to make the party a relevant political force in the country. The new general secretary will be elected in the party congress being held in Visakhapatnam.

The predicament of the Left is best expressed by the CPM in its draft political resolution for the 21st party congress, which confesses of not gauging the impact of the globalisation and liberalisation in the society after two decades, and the collective leadership failing to devise innovative methods to attract youth to the party. The CPM after intensive deliberation came out with documents detailing how and where the party went wrong. But self-evaluation is not new to the party. The point is how much of it can shed the party’s redundant policies and practices, which had made it a marginal force in the Indian political system.

Sitaram Yechury, tipped by many as the next general secretary, was candid enough when he said, “Conditions are changing and if your analysis does not keep pace, then you are not a Marxist.” Whether Yechuri’s yardstick is applied to his own party many would wonder CPM is a party wedded to
Marxism, since it has been its practice to stick to obsolete slogans.

But the fact, however, remains that Left, which has contributed to the society and politics in a significant way, often more than its electoral strength and overall presence, the crisis of the Left will have an impact on Indian democracy as well. Having ‘diagnosed’ the causes for the crisis in its own way, the significant question is whether the Visakhapatnam party congress can come up with concrete and innovative ideas to break the deadlock.

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Even when Left parties had 62 seats in Parliament in 2004, majority of them from West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, how to spread the area of influence had been a vexed issue for CPM ever since its formation in 1964. The party has been following various political lines ever since its formation to spread its influence. It tried to from Left Front at the national level and then at times worked for third alternative against the Congress and BJP depending upon the tactical line necessitated by changing political atmosphere. But barring few occasions, its striking power had been little as far as national politics is concerned. The fact that its strength was depleting fast had forced the CPM to review the electoral approaches it pursued from 1980s to correct the trajectory. The confusions of a party that takes diametrically opposite challenges of overthrowing a parliamentary system, and at the same time, trying to strengthen its position in Parliament and state legislature is reflected in the review of political and tactical line as well.

“Parliamentarism,” says CPM political tactical line draft report, “is a reformist outlook that confines the party’s activities to electoral work and the illusion that the party’s advance can be ensured through fighting polls. This leads to the neglect of the work of organising mass movements, party building and conducting the ideological struggle.” But having said this, the mainstream Left continues to concentrate on electoral politics.

Speaking to Tehelka, Anand Teltumde, social scientist says the Left movement continues to be ideologically orthodox and, at the same time, electorally pragmatic. Laying emphasis on electoral politics had almost cost them the credibility as a Left party. According to him, the Left would have been in a vanguard position to lead all movements that have come up against the globalisation had they concentrated more on mobilising people against neoliberal policies. The Left’s problem, according to him, is not that they are opposing neoliberal policies, but that they are struggling against symptoms and not against the disease.

In 2004, it was the CPM-led Left, which played a vital role in the policy decisions of the UPA-1 government. Without the Left’s influence one can’t imagine the triumvirate of former PM Manmohan Singh, then FM P Chidambaram, and Planning Commission’s last vice chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia implement social security programmes such as Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The scheme, which started 10 years ago, continues to be one of the most comprehensive social security measure that even the present NDA government is forced to continue, albeit with less enthusiasm.

The Left pulled the break whenever the UPA government went out gear to open up the economy. For leaders from Manmohan Singh to Montek Ahluwalia and all those believing in the virtues of finance capital, the Left’s presence in the ruling front was a game spoiler. After the former PM managed to go ahead with the India-United States Civil Nuclear Agreement without the Left’s support, electoral reverses started haunting the CPM and other left parties. This coupled with the Budhadeb Bhattacharya government’s dalliance with neoliberal policies hit the Left with a loss of credibility. The CPM’s draft
political resolution states, “The policies the Left Front government adopted in the last decade of its tenure, when the neoliberal policies were in place needs to be critically examined.”

It might have been incidental that the CPM’s downfall happened in the last 10 years, especially after Harkishan Singh Surjeet, former general secretary, who played the role of installing many coalition governments at the Centre in the late 80s and 90s, retired. He was hailed as an organic leader by the liberals in the party. But those with strict ideological positions considered him as showing bourgeois pragmatism, which they thought would compromise CPM’s position as a communist party. Prominent among those who differed with him was Prakash Karat who became general secretary in the Delhi Party Congress in 2005. The ideological flux in the CPM has been manifest in the manner in which its outgoing general secretary fumbled in handling his job.

Though many considered him as a die-hard Marxist, it was during his period that the party suffered the most. CPM was seen as groping in the dark when it came to address the issue of liberalisation. No clear cut decisions on how to run a state government in an era of liberalisation led to Nandigram and Singur, which put CPM in an indefensible position in West Bengal, from which the party could not recover. In Kerala, when the factional feud between state secretary Pinaryi Vijayan and popular leader VS Achuthanadan, masquerading as ideological struggle ripped the party, the central leadership under Karat turned out to be mute spectator. This was the weakest central leadership the CPM had in its 50 years. All these points hastened the downfall of CPM from a position of kingmakers in 2004, to a marginal force within a decade.

The CPM leadership is well aware of the precarious position the party is now in. The party’s central committee seems to think it is by reasserting its position as Left, if not as a Marxist party, that it can turn the tide in its favour in the coming days. The party, often criticised for adopting what some liberals say dogmatic approaches vis-à-vis economic liberalisation, will oppose what the party leaders say the onslaught of finance capital in the coming days. In fact, the party draft documents, which are being discussed in the Congress, suggest the party to have political alignments only with those who adhere to alternative policies. During the late 90s, the CPM and the Left managed to have alliances with various regional parties. Now after two-and-a-half decades of liberalisation, CPM finds that the character of the regional parties has changed as they started embracing the liberalisation policies.

The practical problems that may emanate owing to this diehard position of not having any understandings with those parties who subscribe to the neoliberal policies apart, the Left sympathisers are enthused by this decision. “The position that the party is now contemplating will give more clarity for
political and tactical line to face the twin challenges of communalism and neoliberalism,” R Ramakumar, an economist told Tehelka. “The position that the party took in its Draft Political Report to preclude the Congress from future poll tie-ups and the stand on regional parties. It is an important positive change in the political line that the CPM will pursue in the future,” Ramakumar opines.

According to him, the fight against globalisation has to be undertaken with a clear understanding of the changes it has made in the class relations in the rural and urban areas. But many are skeptical whether this policy is practical in electoral politics. The document, which says that the CPM would not ally with those regional parties who support neoliberal policies, goes on to say that if it is in the party’s interest then the party is free to tie-up with regional parties as well. This, according to critics, reflects the ambivalent approach the party is pursuing vis-à-vis issue-based electoral alliances.

Having said this, the Left parties with little or scant presence in majority of the states, it is easier said than done to become a dominant political force without having any electoral alliances. The CPM hopes to overcome this impediment by strengthening itself. In the previous party Congress too, the CPM decided to expand its independent strength and to have an alliance based on programmes. But despite going rhetorical about its wishes, the CPM has met with little success on this front. This, critics say, is because when it comes to practical politics, CPM gives the decision it takes in the once a three-year party congress a go by.

Prasenjeet Bose, a Left intellectual who left the party in protest against the CPM’s decision to support Pranab Mukherjee in the Presidential election, said, “CPM leadership has forgotten how to link with the masses and wage struggle. That is the main reason for their marginalisation in Indian politics.” Bose told Tehelka that “the review report which the party congress now discusses is a reflection of the lack of unity and political clarity in the leadership. He says, “The party’s decision to excavate decisions taken in 80’s and 90’s rather than on the recent setbacks are meant to deflect attention from serious errors of the past decade.”

The party leadership’s decision to go for evaluation of tactical approaches it took from 1980s have created a furore within the party, with a section in the leadership seeing this as an effort by the outgoing general secretary and his supporters to pass the buck to the policies responsible for the recent setback to the party followed even before he took charge as general secretary in 2005. But his adversaries in the
politburo managed to include lapses in implementing the tactical line as leading to the setback in the
recent election.

The criticism that the communists in India, with their social and political analysis based on class, are impervious to issues that emanate from a casteist society in the country. The CPM has, of late, started various frontal organisations to address issues based on caste discrimination. But this, according to Teltumde, is too late an exercise. He says this as a half-hearted approach and since the party failed to theoretically situate caste, its efforts to placate Dalits may not yield rich dividends. He goes on to add that the CPM is now doing good things in this area. But if the Left has to break the deadlock and expand areas of influence beyond its traditional areas, the question of caste has to be addressed in a comprehensive way, which the communists had hitherto failed to do so.

Going by the draft reports that the on-going party congress are debating, CPM leadership has addressed many issues that the communist parties in general face in India. Now the question is how far the party will debate the issue in a transparent manner and take decisions and chart out plans accordingly.

With democratic centralism as the guiding principle of the organisation — many a time this top-down organisational structure has been used by the leadership as a euphemism to impose its ideas over the whole party. Communists parties across the world are not known for debating issues in a transparent and democratic manner, especially in times of crisis. Some critics say that decisions taken in the party congress are not implemented in true spirit, citing many pragmatic reasons. Bose cites the example of the CPM’s decision to support Pranab Mukherjee in the Presidential election to drive home this point. He says this came after the last party congress decided not have any alliances with the Congress, shows how much the party leadership is keen to implement decision taken by the CPM’s highest body.

Now with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in power, the Central government is hell bent to implement policies that favour the inflow of finance capital. This going by the experience the world over is bound to accentuate inequal distribution of income in the society. The neoliberal onslaught unleashed by the state coupled with the majoritarianism of the Modi government, according to some observers, will exacerbate brewing disenchantment of the common people with the present system. They cite the example of the growing opposition against land acquisition bill to substantiate this argument. Internal bickering in Aam Aadmi Party has laid bare how a party with ideological ambiguities on many issues can become. All these together make a good case for the Left politics to thrive. But as sceptics say, these circumstances existed ever since the Independence to a great extent. If they could not do it then, how can one exude confidence in this crisis time. Even an ardent leftist for sure will stumble upon this logic.

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