If you are still looking for optimism and self-belief in the ranks of the Left in what are distressing times for the movement as such, go to Ajoy Bhavan, the Communist Party of India’s historic headquarters in New Delhi, where on a typical week day you will find the unflappable D Raja busy poring over a party document or giving his own touches to one. He is by now a representative of a rare, nearly-extinct breed: a self respecting, humble and upright communist leader whose humility is as transparent as it is something deeply ingrained.
In times when the Parliamentary Left has been considerably diminished in size and influence, Raja’s insistence on hope seems somewhat incongruous. But the self-effacing 65 year old Rajya Sabha member is convinced that the Left can spring back to life even from here: Provided a sense of realism takes precedence in the movement.
It is not an easy time for the Left. The Left parties, collectively, have been reduced to 11 seats in the 544 strong Lok Sabha. These testing times, have forced the Communist parties grappling with that fundamental question again; ‘what is to be done?’ Despite the knowledge that answers are more difficult to find than ever, their optimism, however, remains unshakable; at least on the surface.
Ajoy Bhavan, the headquarters of CPI, the oldest Communist party in India wears sober and sombre look, familiar to Communist party offices. The CPI, which had 10 LS seats in 2004, four seats in 2009, has been reduced to a single seat this time. On a hot summer afternoon, with frequent power-cuts and no air-conditioning, the few party members present in the reception area are discussing the policies of the BJP as well as the possibility of CPI having to let go of the Ajoy Bhavan owing to the rising costs. The lift has been rendered ‘out of service’ as part of austerity measures to cut costs.
On the second floor, in a room with eight chairs and a giant table, is usually where Raja sits, meticulously proof-reading an official party communiqué. With the kind of rustic humility that is transparent, Raja exhibits that strange optimism again. “It’s not a difficult time for the Left. It is not the end at all. In fact, I think the Left’s time has arrived,” he says. “A unified Left action is already there. The question you should be asking is: is that enough? The answer is no. We will have to get back to agitation, struggle, mobilising the masses and ensure unity in the Left is not broken,” he adds. Raja lists the obvious challenges: a hostile corporate sector, a hostile and indifferent media, exorbitant spending by the Congress and the BJP, which the Left can never match. He doesn’t shy away from accepting, “our failure in presenting to the people a third coalition without the BJP and the Congress”.
The CPI, in day to day politics has undoubtedly been more radical than CPM.
As Javed Iqbal, a freelance journalist has documented, CPI cadres like Lala Kunjam, Sukul Prasad Nag, Sudru Ram Kunjam, Bhima Kunjam and Kartam Joga have spent time in jail in Chhattisgarh for having protested against Salwa Judum as well as anti-tribal government policies. The radicalism however has not translated in electoral dividend as the CPI currently finds itself with little power.
In the CPM camp, the members are yet to recover from the aftershocks the poll results delivered. In West Bengal, where the CPM had ruled unchallenged for 34 years — having brought land reforms and radically strengthened Gram Panchayats — the party finds itself with just two seats. The key sections of the population — farm labourers, mill workers — who were the support base of CPM have switched camps. The fact that even the BJP has scored a seat in Bengal, where Mamata’s TMC swept the state with 34 seats, gives a sense of magnitude of Left’s loss. With a mere five seats in Kerala, despite Bengal papers relentlessly reporting a massive infighting in the CPM politburo, the leaders put up a brave front. As the newspapers suggest, there’s much clamour in the Bengal camp for resignations of Prakash Karat and other senior leaders on account of the poll drubbing. The CPI and CPM insiders however maintain that democratic centralism still persists and demanding new face is the culture of advertising and not of Communist parties. However, on ground, the supporters, most of whom have stuck to the party for all their lifetime find themselves in a sort of ‘end of history’ recall.
Trinity college professor Vijay Prashad, whose book on the challenges of the Indian left is due in August, indicts the Left, as well as cautions those who want to see the end of the Left. “If the Left had been voted out of office in the late 1980s, and if it then inaugurated a new series of struggles, it would have returned to power with a new agenda and a new social basis to back it. There is a downside in being in unbroken power for 34 years. It did not help that the industrialisation policy was rushed through without proper consultation with the people. It stained the reputation of the Left in West Bengal, and elsewhere. No amount of explanation or CID exculpation for Nandigram will remove that stain,” he says.
“There is glee among sections of the liberals and independent left for the weakness of the CPI-M. They would like a Left, but not the CPI-M. As of now, the only way to build a Left in India, it seems to me, is through left unity with the CPM — still the largest formation — and not to wish for its demise. History shows us where the Communist Parties disappear (Italy, the UK), the Left is not able to break through with another formation. It is the populist Right that has its way on the landscape of atomized workers. Not a good scenario,” Prashad warns.
Karat, in an earlier interview to TEHELKA, had expressed disappointment over the inability of the Left in the past three decades to grow beyond West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. He had also underlined, reluctantly, the need for the Left to change. However, at no point, was he willing to accept that the party would be facing it’s biggest crisis in terms of seats.
It is such denial or perhaps excess of optimism that makes it tempting to write an obituary of the Left. However, it is important to note that the CPM has managed to thrive in the Northeastern state of Tripura, retaining the two seats there, under the remarkable leadership of Manik Sarkar, the poorest CM in the country. Sarkar says, “People in Tripura vote for us for our honesty and pro-people governance.” His governance, as the numbers show, is the kind that’s capable of reinvigorating the down and out.
However, in the current scenario it seems, the Left would do well to remember that old Gramscian principle; ‘optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect’. See a bright future by all means, but let’s not deny how grey today is.