Ever since the Indian Left faced a historical drubbing at the polling booths earlier this year, commentators have made their mark with obituaries or suggestions for improvement. The former are largely off base, given that the Left – with several million members in its parties – will not dissolve into the cracks of Indian capitalism as long as the contradictions remains. The latter are welcome, and some have provided useful direction for a movement that needs intellectual comradeship and critique. Most recently, the historian and novelist Mukul Kesavan provided one such essay (“Left Behind: Where Are the Comrades When One Needs Them?” The Telegraph, September 8). Kesavan’s main target is India’s largest Left party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPI-M. The others, including the Maoists, remain outside his purview.
Like Mukul Kesavan, when I think of the CPI-M, I think directly of the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi. I remember that while others went into partisan bickering or cowered in fear, the CPI-M cadre helped set up the rehabilitation camps and worked to salve a great hurt that overtook the entire landscape of the nation’s capital. That Kesavan starts his largely clichéd assault on the Communists from Delhi is important to me. It means that he, as I, recognizes that the CPI-M is not solely to be found in West Bengal. It was in West Bengal, a state with a population of near one hundred million, that the Left Front (with the CPI-M as its main party) had been in power for thirty-four years. The Left Front won seven consecutive state assembly elections, from 1977 to 2011. The defeat in 2011 did not come as a shock, as I will suggest below, but it was certainly a landmark. That defeat has meant that most commentary on the Indian Left begins and ends in West Bengal. Kesavan’s opening in Delhi is refreshing break, but he cannot contain himself. He is sucked into West Bengal once he begins his actual discussion of Indian Communism. This is a pity.
For the past ten years, I have been around India, from Tamil Nadu to Haryana, studying the work of Communists. I found that it was the CPI-M and All-India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) that raised national attention to the khap panchayats (socially suffocating local “courts”), at great risk to their cadre. AIDWA members oscillate between fighting to reveal a particular atrocity and taking to the streets against a state administration that tolerates medieval forms of justice (for more on this I recommend Elisabeth Armstrong’s Gender & Globalisation, Tulika, 2013). I found that it was the CPI-M and its Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front that joined with Dalit (untouchable) organizations to fight against the spate of anti-dalit atrocities since the 1990s. Ending the two-cup system and breaking the “untouchability walls” have been as important to the Communist struggle as that of increasing daily wages. In Andhra Pradesh, I found that the CPI-M cadre have walked thousands of kilometers in their relentless padyatras (long marches) to defend the livelihood of the people, and to fight for an alternative to private sector control of the energy industry. These communists remind me of those who helped set up the rehabilitation camps in 1984. That spirit is alive and well.
If this spirit is alive and well in other parts of the country, why has it been seen to diminish in West Bengal – the main target of Kesavan’s essay? After thirty-four years, the Left Front was voted out of office. It is remarkable that any one formation could have been re-elected for such a long period. The pressures of incumbency are not easy to dismiss. From conversations with members of the Left Front at different levels I learned that after three decades it takes a great deal of time to pivot into oppositional politics. I also learned how they understand their defeat – more complex than Kesavan allows. Kesavan remains at the level of the leadership, making snide remarks about their caste background. The Left has to certainly do a much better job of diversifying its leadership in terms of caste and gender. But this is not the proximate reason for the defeat in West Bengal. Other reasons bear consideration:
(1) The very rural achievement of the Left Front – radical land reforms – produced new rural propertied classes whose own instincts have over time moved away from the Left. In 1995, I interviewed CPI-M leader Anil Biswas, who told me that the Left had to be cautious about the emergence of these new class realities in the countryside. It was hoped that the panchayat (local self-government) devolution would help maintain the politics of the rural areas, but the result here have been mixed.
(2) Kesavan says that the “temptation to say ‘Nandigram’ or ‘Singur’ is understandable, but it ought to be resisted.” Singur is the name of the town where the Left Front government tried to set up an automobile factory, but faced protest against land acquisition. Much the same in Nandigram, where there was a dispute once more on land. But then Kesavan cannot contain himself. These issues have to be raised, as they must be raised. Few in the Communist Left have failed to recognize the perils of the industrialization policy – some will argue that the policy itself is bad, since it charts a path toward inequality, while others will argue that the implementation of the policy was undemocratic. Either way, the implications of Nandigram have been digested. It is a penalty that the Left shall have to pay for some time to come yet.
(3) It is quite correct to say that the Left failed to chart a new, dramatic agenda for education and health – a major political process that would deliver social goods with the same kind of panache as the Left Front conducted its land reforms. The government had modest reforms for health and education, but these polices had not become part of a major campaign as the Left Democratic Front government had conducted in Kerala with the people’s planning exercise of 1996.
These three are important lessons. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Left’s diminution, which Keshavan to his discredit does not mention at all, is the violent attacks on the Left cadre that began a decade ago and continue now with ferocity. Hundreds of cadres of the Left parties have been butchered in the byways of rural West Bengal and thousands of supporters of the Left have been ejected from their homes and livelihood. Take the case of Santana Mondal of Naskarpur (Arambagh), whose body was slashed with a dagger by the ruling semi-fascist Trinamul Congress (TMC) Party members on May 7, 2014. Mondal is brave supporter of the CPI-M, a dalit agricultural worker. Her reaction to the terror faced by people of her class is memorable, “Don’t worry. The days are coming when this TMC goonda raj [gangster rule] will end.”
Sadly for Mukul Kesavan, there is no party of social democracy that appeals to his taste. The rise of the right-wing BJP is alarming. The Congress has slipped far from the moorings of Fabianism set by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Kesavan hopes that the Left, which he continues to admire, would get rid of its attachment to Karl Marx. He hopes that “reality-based explanations” would allow the communists to become what Kesavan believes every parliamentary system should have: “a redistributionist, social democratic party, committed to secularism.” The Left is committed to secularism and social democracy, but it is also alive to the view that solutions to today’s calamities cannot come from within today’s structures. A system that produces diabolical levels of poverty is not capable of making poverty history. For that the structures have to be transformed, the final aim of a communist movement. To abandon that final aim is to leave society with the illusion in small reforms. Seven hundred million Indians living in destitution cannot afford those illusions. Nor can the rest.
Vijay Prashad is the author of No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (forthcoming from LeftWord Books, New Delhi). He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.