The results are in, after weeks of voting and days of anticipation. The Communists have triumphed in the two main left-wing boroughs. In West Bengal (population 80 million), which the Left Front has governed since 1977, the coalition secured its seventh straight win. This time the tally was spectacular. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPM], the main force in the alliance, won 176 seats of the 294 total (the Left Front won 235 all together). In Kerala (population 31 million), the Left Democratic Front won two thirds of the seats (the CPM prevailed in 61 of the 98 seats secured by the alliance). The ruling United Democratic Front had to be content with 42 seats. In Tamil Nadu, the Left backed Democratic Progressive Alliance came back into power, and for the first time, the Communists won seats in the north-eastern state of Assam.
The CPM has come a long way. The Indian communist movement emerged in the 1920s as one flank in the Indian freedom struggle against British rule and in the international struggle to create a proletarian revolution against capitalism. Brave men and women threw themselves into the construction of an organization that worked alongside and inside the trade unions, the mass struggles and the various social reform efforts. Their small numbers did not dissuade them, because they came equipped with the belief that their ideology had grasped the dynamic of history, and that therefore their victory was inevitable. For us, in the age of reaction, it is easy to mount a theoretical critique of their faith in teleology (the march of history toward a known end), but what we don’t really appreciate is how this idea (that the Revolution had to triumph) gave them the necessary energy to go on with what was an arduous and dangerous task.
In 1929, the British Raj arrested thirty-one of the main communist and labor leaders, and tried them in the north Indian town of Meerut. These prisoners, the hub of the Communist Party, remained in jail till 1933. Isolated and threatened with life imprisonment, these prisoners nevertheless kept their hopes intact. Knowing full well that hope is not a strategy in itself, they wrote a general statement on the status of Indian politics. “The revolution,” they wrote from their jail cells, “must be a popular one.” It would not be worthwhile to replace “one exploiting class by another.” Compared to the imperial bourgeoisie, the Indian industrialists were weak, so they allied with the Indian freedom movement. As the mass forces would threaten them, the Meerut prisoners argued, they would go into the arms of counter-revolution. Instead of simply putting the working-class shoulder to the wheel of the bourgeois revolution, the internees argued for a mass movement toward a popular revolution. In the interim, the communists “must achieve some form of popular democratic rule and the opening up for the people of immediate possibilities of advance in the matters which touch them, in sanitation, health, housing, education, and social and cultural advance generally.”
Since the 1920s, the Indian communist movement grew, withered, grew again, sloughed off the directions from Moscow, and incubated a fiercely independent Marxist cadre and leadership. In 1957, the Communist Party under the leadership of the incomparable EMS Namboodripad won the state elections in Kerala; two years later Nehru’s Congress used every means necessary to eject them from their offices. In 1967, the Communists returned to the state house.
A line struggle within the communist movement from the 1940s onward divided those who believed that the Congress could be an ally in the Indian revolution (the Moscow line) and those who believed that the Congress, being close to the Indian bourgeoisie, could not be trusted. The latter became the CPM in a major split in 1964 (the two parties now work closely together, with the CPM as the larger party). Between 1918 and 1922, the world communist movement had articulated the three main roads toward revolution: (1) Edward Bernstein advocated the gradual transfer of power over the executive of the state, while retaining the main institutions of parliamentary democracy; (2) Karl Kautsky called for the maintenance of bourgeois parliamentary institutions, alongside the creation of more popular forums for mass participation; (3) Lenin called for the destruction of the parliamentary form, and the creation of a Soviet-type structure of proletarian democracy. The Soviets only had a brief innings in Russian history. They emerged in the melee of the 1905 Revolution, in much the same way as the Commune came from the virtuoso energy of the working class struggle of 1871 in France. The Leninist Party had to prepare the ground, waiting for the moment of uprising; then, Lenin wrote in 1917, the Party must treat insurrection as art. The spontaneous push from below with a prepared Party alongside it, Lenin argued, would fashion the organizational form of proletarian democracy. In a debate over Eurocommunism in 1978, Perry Anderson noted that whereas the far Left had a very strong critique of the first two roads, it had “done relatively little work on developing and providing any contemporary form for the third optionThe result is that a large question mark remains suspended over the third alternative, which is that of the classical tradition of revolutionary socialism.”
In at its first Congress in 1964, the CPM pointed out that the Congress regime would never allow the Left to hold power by “parliamentary methods alone. Hence, the road that will lead us to freedom and peace, land and bread, has to be found elsewhere.” Some CPM activists went onto the armed path in 1967, and became Maoists (called Naxalites; many of them have returned to the bright light of legality over the past two decades). The bulk, however, worked for electoral victories and builds other non-electoral political institutions. The electoral fray could not be avoided for a number of reasons, the CPM argued: “Apart from enabling the solution of a limited number of local problems, its existence and functioning will bring greater morale to the democratic masses everywhere and thus strengthen the democratic movement. It can become a weapon in the hands of the masses in the struggle against the anti-people policies of the central government. It will at the same time further intensify the struggle between the forces of progress and reaction inside the ruling party itself.”
Outside the electoral arena, the CPM built its allied organizations (trade unions, student organizations, women’s organizations, literacy organizations, and on), and it worked to intensify parallel institutions to socialize democracy: the panchayat (local self-government). The Indian constitution provided for direct democracy through the panchayats as a sop to the Gandhian heritage of the freedom movement. No other party took the panchayat system seriously. For the Left, in Bengal and Kerala, the panchayat system has been its instrument for the creation of dual power. In 1978, newly in power in Bengal, the CPM released a pamphlet on panchayats that offered its logic, “Only when the village people have become politically aware will they be able to discharge the important functions to be transferred to the panchayats. In bourgeois parliamentary democracy, the common man has no political role once he has cast his vote in the elections. We are determined to give him a continuing role in rural development. When the common villager has realized this role, he will be able to acquire self-confidence, and take collective initiative to change the life of the rural poor and middle class. If even with the limited power at our disposal, we can accomplish certain things in the villages, we should be able to bring about a mass awakening among the rural people. Collective consciousness and thinking will rekindle the life flame of the village poor.” The CPM’s rural strategy included a massive land reform and tenant rights scheme. This is often discussed, but what is not given adequate attention is the role of the “red panchayats” in the development of new alternatives for the rural proletariat as well as the middle peasants.
From 1977 to last month, the CPM has won rural Bengal with landslide electoral victories. One reporter who traveled to rural Bengal last month found that even as the small farmers and landless tenants had much to complain about (bad roads, poor electrification, mediocre health care), they would vote for the Left. Hidai Sheikh, a fifty-year-old farmer said, “the CPM is the only viable alternative we have. After all, in times of need, they are always there beside us.” In Murshidabad’s Fakirpara village, Gulehara Begum and her daughter-in-law Ainur said, “The CPM is like our relative.” The reporter, Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, writing for Chennai’s Frontline, concluded that the CPM “has managed to integrate itself completely into the lives of the rural people.”
Each time the Left has won in Bengal, the bourgeoisie has complained about electoral corruption. This time the Election Commission conducted a draconian campaign at the polls. It sent in paramilitary personnel from outside the state, and mobilized observers into each voting booth. Despite these measures, the Left won handily. Even the vociferously anti-Left newspaper, Calcutta’s Telegraph, had to admit on May 12, “the Left Front, a combination of a number of parties, has stayed together for nearly thirty years, and has carried out a remarkable transformation of the agrarian scene through land reforms and activization of the three-tier panchayat system.” Although the paramilitary presence was not conducive to voting, the electorate came out in force (81.6% this time as opposed to 75% in 2001). And they voted red. As the Telegraph admitted, the people “voted with their feet against the innuendoes [of voter fraud] dropped by the [election] commission.”
Results from Kerala show that the CPM’s principled position against the US war on terror and its attempts to isolate Iran as well as the battle against Hindu fundamentalism has paid off. The Malappuram district was once the unshakeable home of the Muslim League (a coalition partner of the Congress). The League’s P. K. Kunhalikkutty tried to rally the Muslim vote under the green flag, arguing that the Marxists now think “that they can borrow people from amongst us and destroy our unity.” The Left won five of the twelve seats in the League stronghold, a sure sign that it is now seen as a consistent defender of secular and anti-imperialist values.
The Communists offer parliamentary support to the Congress Party, who led the current government in India. But the Left refused to join the government in the treasury benches, because this would mean that it would tether itself to the pro-neoliberal policies of the contemporary Congress Party. If it did not support the government based on a Common Minimum Program, the Congress Party would fall, and the intransigent right, the fundamentalists, might come to power. The Communists, therefore, play a central role in giving the Congress Party the numbers to rule, and being its main opposition inside and outside the parliamentary chamber. This strategy has thrown the right-wing into disarray, as its inability to craft an adversarial stance has led to chronic in-fighting. The victories in Bengal and Kerala have strengthened the hand of the Communists in New Delhi. That is a major gain from this election.
The CPM’s own statement after the election was responsible: The new state governments “have the major responsibility to translate their manifestos and commitments into practice.” There are social reforms to be delivered, and there are some cautious attempts to attract investment into Bengal and Kerala (this latter is a particularly tricky business, but, as Michel Kalecki wrote some years ago, “The tragedy of investments is that they are necessary.” It will require more space, and another column, to explain the industrial strategy of the Indian Left).
The Indian road to the revolution is arduous. It requires, in the short term, the bolstering of the organizations of dual power, the panchayats, and the translation of the major mass movements across the country into effective political power. The Left has to break out of its areas of strength into the rest of India. In the midst of the recent victory, these are its major challenges.
VIJAY PRASHAD teaches at Trinity College, Hartford, CT. His latest book is Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Debt, Prison, Workfare (Boston: South End Press). His essay, “Capitalism’s Warehouses”, appears in CounterPunch’s new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference. His most recent article is a review of Kathy Kelly’s book in the December issue of Monthly Review. He can be reached at: email@example.com