India’s Communists

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) is holding its 23rd Conference in the district of Kannur in the southern state of Kerala later this year. Despite the travails of the Indian Left and the continual setbacks it has faced, the CPI(M) remains, by a significant margin, the largest left-wing organization in the country. It has more than a million members, and counts many more millions amongst the membership of its mass organizations in the peasant, student, trade union, women’s, and other movements.[1]

Although party membership is an incomplete measure (due to both the size of the mass movements, as well as the fact that most non-communist parties require only the payment of dues as criterion for membership), it can lay some claim to being the third largest party in India, as well as the largest non-ruling communist party in the world.

The CPIM is in government in Kerala leading a coalition administration, having experienced recent success in being the first government in the state to win re-election for more than 30 years. The Communist government in Kerala can also claim to be the first communist government in the world to be elected in a bourgeois democracy when they first won in 1957. The CPIM also dominated politics in the large eastern state West Bengal, winning continuous re-election for 34 years from 1977 to 2011,[2] but has seen a precipitous decline in recent years, being unable to hold on to a single legislative seat in the latest Bengal elections. The party was also in power in the north-eastern state of Tripura for more than twenty years, although there too they have seen a recent reversal of fortunes. The CPIM has pockets of electoral support in other parts of the country – including in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and even Kashmir. However, their overall electoral decline has been stark – falling from 43 seats in parliament in 2004 to 3 in 2019, experiencing a halving of its absolute number of votes.

Although the flagging of the Communists’ fortunes predates the current Modi regime, they have sunk further during the present dispensation’s rule. The party has been unable to resist the mass privatizations, the eroding of democratic institutions, the attack on religious minorities, the repression in universities, and the indiscriminate cruelty towards dissenting voices that the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has engendered. Although each of these alone would be a blow to democracy and the possibility of socialism — combined with the inability of the opposition to provide an alternative, these have almost decimated the Left movement in India. Electorally too, the party has slipped from its historic low of 11 MPs in 2014 to a further nadir of 3 in the 2019 elections, as well as slipping further in various regional elections.

However, the party played a leading role in the major progressive success of the last year, namely, the victory of the farmers’ protests against the Modi government. Although the farmers’ protest consisted of numerous organizations and disparate political groupings, the CPIM’s peasant wing – the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), played a vital role in coordinating and supporting the long, arduous, but eventually successful agitation. The AIKS has been able to launch demonstrations over this period, and has tried and been increasingly successful in bridging long-standing divides within the peasantry on the lines of caste, class, and gender.

The Party Congress, as those who study politics know, is the highest decision-making body of a Communist party. The Draft Political Resolution for the 23rd Congress published in February this year addresses an important question for the Left, that of the question of the class character of the Indian state and its ruling political party, the BJP.

The current draft Resolution characterises the BJP and its parent organisation the right-wing Hindu outfit the RSS as ‘fascistic’, but does not characterise the Indian state itself as a fascist one. This is not merely an academic distinction, but a political one of some import, and its intricacies go well beyond the scope of this article. The characterisation of the class character of the state is crucial for the Left not only in its importance for understanding India, but in is its implications for political action. Had the state itself been considered a fascist one, the Left movement would have then been obliged to follow Popular Front tactics, and therefore ally itself with all the non-and anti-fascist forces.

At the last Congress, held in Hyderabad in 2018, the party decided to reject the possibility of any alliance with the Indian National Congress (INC),[3] recognizing it as a pro-imperialist organization that “represents the interests of the big bourgeoisie and landlords”. The conference resolution went on to recognise that the threat posed by the INC and the BJP is not equal, with the latter being far the more dangerous given their “hatred against other religions, intolerance and ultra-nationalist chauvinism.” This resolution precluded any alliance with the INC against the BJP, even given the greater threat of the ruling party. This particular line, however, was contravened by the Bengal wing of the CPIM, which had an electoral alliance with the INC against the BJP as well as against the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the ruling populist-regional party in the state. The result, however, was disastrous, the Left’s worst-ever showing in the state election, winning zero seats. The Hyderabad resolution excluded the possibility of any alliance with the INC but left open the possibility of an electoral understanding like seat-sharing (the term alliance here is taken to imply a deeper political commitment like a common program). In the case of West Bengal, the transgression of the party line was by agreeing to a common alliance and front with the INC, and not simply an electoral understanding. This move’s immediate failure immediately and starkly demonstrated the problems of this particular strategy, albeit remaining popular amongst various sections of the progressive intelligentsia.

The Party’s Programme characterises the Indian state as “the organ of the class rule of the bourgeoisie and landlords led by the big bourgeoisie, who are increasingly collaborating with foreign finance capital in pursuit of the capitalist path of development.” What differentiates the BJP, the CPIM argues, is that apart from the intensification of neoliberalism and increasing closeness to American imperialism, is their pursuit of the Hindutva agenda. Hindutva refers to an ideology of right-wing authoritarian political Hinduism that sees and aims to realise the religious-nationalist goals of a unitary Hindu state in the Indian subcontinent. Although the differentia specifica of the BJP is clear, the draft political resolution aims to clarify two key points.

The first is that the BJP’s avowedly authoritarian, communal, revanchist, and neoliberal state policy are insufficient to characterise the entirety of the Indian polity as fascist. The clarification proffered here is that the BJP’s attempts to undermine democratic opportunities and impose a Hindu-authoritarian regime have not been successful enough to change the overall nature of the Indian state. The draft resolution therefore does not consider the State to be fascist nor the government, but it does recognise there are growing fascist trends in society. The second point is about the class character of the Indian National Congress. The Draft Resolution sees the class character and economic policy of the INC as being irredeemably committed to neoliberal economic policies and the interests of the landlords and big bourgeoisie.

The Party’s Draft Resolution, therefore, is unambiguous in stating that although there can be no mistaking that the BJP is the greater danger, there can be no political alliance with the INC. However, it is important to note that although the question of greater alliances is resolved, the Party’s resolution goes on to argue that it is still vitally important to support joint platforms against the BJP. These include the rallying of social movements, as done in the farmers protests, but also in cooperating with opposition parties in Parliament to block the BJP’s legislative agenda as far as possible.

Critics of the Modi government both in India and abroad often use the term fascist to describe the nature of the new Indian state. However, antipathy is also usually expressed towards the INC as well, for in its role in preparing the polity for the rise of the BJP. The CPIM itself split from the Communist Party of India (CPI) on the question of collaboration with the INC in 1964,[4] so this question is not a new one even for Indian communists. The answer provided by the CPIM in this year’s Party Conference is vitally important for the wider Left in India, as well as for many around the world challenging right-wing authoritarian governments.

1. The party’s peasant wing – the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), has more than 11 million members alone. The party’s trade union – the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has around 6 million members. The women’s wing – the All India Democratic Women’s Association consists of 9 million members, and the student’s wing – the Student’s Federation of India (SFI) approximately 4.5 million. Although there certainly are overlaps between the members of the various mass movements, the overall size of the movement is definitely in the tens of millions.

2. In case you’re not sick of superlatives, this government also has the distinction of being the longest-running elected communist government in the world.

3. For those unaware, the Indian National Congress is the major mass political organisation of the Indian independence movement, and enjoyed many years of being the de facto ruling party. Like many other post-colonial ruling parties, they undertook a sharp turn to the right in the 80s and 90s, and have shed off most of their progressive commitments save a veneer of respect for democratic institutions and religious secularism.

4. The split was not, as many surmise, due to the Indo-Sino war, or the Sino-Soviet split.

Madhav TR is a PhD student at the Department of Economics at The New School for Social Research, New York.