Can the Indian Left Reinvent Itself?

IndianLeft1.jpgOutside AKG Bhavan, the CPM’s headquarters in Delhi’s Gole Market area, barricades are in place with armed policemen on duty. India’s biggest Communist party in mainstream politics has been at the receiving end of violent protests in the past few years by rival political parties, especially Hindu nationalists, some of whom had barged in, fulminated at General Secretary Sitaram Yechury and reportedly even tried to assault him.

On the veranda, a bust of Lenin faces that of Marxist leader AK Gopalan, after whom the office is named. In a second-floor room, senior Politburo member S Ramachandran Pillai greets me warmly. The building’s elevator is currently under repair and although he suffered a serious knee injury from a fall, the 80-year-old Pillai is not deterred by the stairs.

Physically fit and relaxed, he has a spring in his step, thanks to the enthusiastic response to the recent 200-km protest march of farmers and tribals from Nashik in Maharashtra to its capital Mumbai, organised by the Kisan Sabha, a CPM feeder organisation of which Pillai is a veteran leader.

The dignity and empathy of the protestors, who undertook the last stretch to Azad Maidan at night so as not to inconvenience students taking board exams during the day, won the respect of Mumbaikars, notwithstanding nasty comments from a section of politicians.

But Pillai is in no mood to digress from the myriad challenges his party faces, especially after its resounding setback in Tripura, where the CPM’s 25-year-long rule was brought to an end by a BJP landslide in recent polls. His party lost due to a raft of reasons, he says frankly, including disenchantment among the once-poor, especially Tribals, who are now driven by ambition and aspire to lifestyles beyond what the state could offer. His party consistently focused on offering good education, healthcare and incentives to the poor, including farmers.

“But we didn’t address the concerns of those who have broken the ceiling of poverty, made the most of the education [we provided] and then wanted more,” he states, adding that state was too cash- strapped even to hike the salaries of government employees, who resented being underpaid; he had heard their tales of woe on an earlier visit to Agartala and had forewarned his comrades.

And then came the BJP, asking voters to give change a chance and promising to place the pay scales of state employees on par with the rest of the country if elected to power in Tripura. Even so, the extent of the defeat in terms of the seat count was unexpected. Local party leaders I had spoken to before the polls in that state had hoped to scrape through. But the Tripura that they knew had changed. From being a Marxist bastion, among the last left in India, it had become something they were unfamiliar with. And the citadel crumbled.

It was a humiliating loss, though the Marxists secured 42.7 per cent of the total votes polled, just slightly less than 43 per cent of the BJP, which saw its share rise by 41.5 points over the previous state polls five years earlier. The CPM had won 48.1 per cent of the votes last time. The Indigenous Peoples Front of Tripura, which fought in alliance with the BJP after the latter purportedly agreed to their demand for a separate tribal state, won 7.5 per cent of the votes.

As a result, the BJP won 35 of the 60 seats in an Assembly where it had none; the CPM got 16 seats, 33 fewer; and the Congress, once the main opposition party, drew a blank this time, down from 10 in 2013. The CPM’s general secretary had accused the BJP of buying out Congress leaders with money, a charge the ruling party at the Centre denies. Nonetheless, last year saw an exodus of Congress legislators and leaders to the BJP, apparently in search of political rewards.

For the CPM, the drubbing in Tripura was also a significant symbolic reversal, coming seven years after it lost its strongest fortress ever, West Bengal, where it was in power for an uninterrupted 34 years. With its control of governance now restricted to Kerala alone, a state where power typically rotates between the CPM-led coalition currently on top and a rival Congress-led alliance, Indian Marxists confront their biggest challenge yet. Never in its history has it seen its law-making strength shrink so drastically.

Compared with 43 Lok Sabha seats in 2004, the CPM now has only nine seats in the Lower House. In 2004, the Left bloc, comprising the CPM, CPI, Forward Bloc and RSP, had 59 seats, making it a formidable force in an era of coalition politics. The Left bloc now has just 10 seats in the Lok Sabha, its lowest tally ever. Even in the 1971 General Election held after India’s victory against Pakistan that gave Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi an unassailable aura, the CPM had won 25 seats.

In most elections held after the decline of the Congress since 1977, whenever no party had an absolute majority to form the Government at the Centre, the CPM and its allies played kingmaker. This was a role that, in the mid-1990s and later in the noughties, the late CPM chief Harkishan Singh Surjeet played with finesse. He was disappointed, though, when in 1996, after the fall of the 13-day AB Vajpayee Government, the CPM lost its only chance to have one of its leaders as Prime Minister.

Its late stalwart Jyoti Basu was offered the post on a platter by the United Front, but a brute majority in the CPM’s Central Committee rejected the proposal (a ‘historical blunder’ as Basu later termed it). The argument of the old guard, which included the CPM patriarch EMS Namboodiripad, was that Basu becoming Prime Minister would give the party national exposure and let it extend its influence to the ‘cow belt’.

However, the younger lot were not convinced about the merits of joining a government that the CPM could not dominate strongly enough to implement its pro-worker, pro-peasant policies, and voted against the idea. The Party Congress, the CPM’s typically triennial gathering of leaders, held in the late 1990s overwhelmingly endorsed the decision not to join the UF Government (and to offer external support instead).

The party has had slow growth beyond West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, though the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) had units across the country and was influential in most industrial towns and in such states as Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Maharashtra, among others. The CPM had begun worrying about its dwindling electoral appeal as early as the 1970s, when it began to lose its grip even in states it was once a power to reckon with.

In Andhra, for example, the party once held sway before it lost out to regional parties in pursuit of what experts call ‘pure politics’, as exercised by founder-general secretary P Sundarayya who hailed from the state. He abhorred the idea of aligning with secular national parties and stepped down in the mid-70s after his proposal of a sort of ‘Left alone’ front was rejected by the party majority.

It was the Jalandhar Party Congress of 1978 that put forth the concept of a national alliance with secular parties, a proposal first floated among communists globally in the 1930s by Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov in the form of a ‘popular front’, an anti-fascist coalition that he envisaged would go beyond working-class groups and draw centrists and social democrats into its fold.

In late 1978, the CPM convened a meet in Salkia, West Bengal, to discuss ways to spread out to more states. The political-tactical line adopted there came to be known as the ‘Salkia Plenum Report’. The political-tactical line adopted in 2015 at the party’s Visakhapatnam conclave marked a departure from that stance. The party decided it would not work towards forming a ‘third front’, a grouping of non-Congress and non-BJP parties with which it had associated for long.

The thrust of the argument was that the Left Front, the biggest constituent being the CPM, has lost its ‘credibility’ by associating with parties that have embraced liberalisation and earned a bad name for corruption. This included most regional parties, such as the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. The idea put forth was to engage India’s most distressed groups (which form a majority) and mobilise them in support of a communist agenda across the country while retaining its electoral strongholds.

The ongoing war of words between Yechury and a few of his loyalists on one side and Prakash Karat, Pillai and others on the other is over the implementation of the 2015 plan. Yechury has evidently strayed far from that political resolution, though as party chief he was to implement the party line. He has famously mooted the idea of a larger understanding with the Congress to keep at bay what he calls the ‘greater danger’, the BJP.

However, the rival camp insists on falling back on mass mobilisation at the grassroots to attract people swayed by the Hindu nationalist party and other regional parties. “Going back to the roots of the Communist party to champion the cause of the poorest of the poor who have fallen into the fold of corrupt and bigoted forces is our top priority, as envisaged by the political line,” notes Pillai.

This internal friction is expected to heighten as the CPM heads for its next Party Congress in Hyderabad this April. On current indications, the anti-Yechury faction has an upper hand in the party’s Central Committee and he would have to step down if his pro-Congress slant gets rejected. A CPM leader from Kolkata, however, says Yechury could continue as party chief even if his approach loses the vote. “After all, Yechury can continue to go by the larger interests of the party,” he says.

The broad complaint against Yechury is that since he is not convinced of the efficacy of the party’s new political line on creating an ‘unblemished’ image for the CPM by staying away from the corrupt and the incompatible, he wouldn’t be able to dedicate himself to his mandate as party chief. “In that case, he had better relinquish his position,” says a party leader from Tamil Nadu.

In the past, various leaders— including Sundarayya himself—had quit the top post because they were not in complete agreement with a collective decision of the party. On Jaunary 21st, the CPM Central Committee had voted against Yechury’s draft political resolution proposing an alliance with the Congress. Instead, it adopted a draft ruling out any form of electoral alliance or adjustment with the Congress. This will be put to vote in April.

Vijay Prashad, formerly George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of International Studies at Trinity College, and the author of No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism, says he sees nothing wrong with the CPM’s decision to distance itself from any so-called third front.

“Really, this is a matter less of the Left or the CPM and more of the Third Front. The character of the Third Front has changed dramatically since the 1990s, with its constituents making their peace with liberalisation. Only if the Third Front takes on a more social democratic character could it be an ally for the Left,” in his words.

The anti-Yechury camp has done its homework well. In Kerala, especially, any understanding with the Congress would amount to giving the BJP a blank cheque, say analysts, given how keen the latter is to make inroads here. Though the undivided party and the RSS had begun working in the state that is now Kerala as early as the 1940s—the CPI in 1939 and RSS in 1942—the latter has not been able to become an electoral force through its political arms, while the communists are a potent organisational and electoral entity.

Yet, there are causes for worry. With the BJP on a winning spree across India—despite the odd setback such as the Gorakhpur and Phulpur bypolls—its ability to displace rivals from their traditional turf shows little sign of flagging. In Kerala, though the CPM-led Left Democratic Front cruised to a near two-thirds majority in the 2016 polls, the BJP saw its vote share rise sharply to over 15 per cent from 6 per cent five years earlier.

The party, which had aligned with the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena led by Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham General Secretary Vellappalli Natesan to pull in the numerically preponderant Ezhava votes, came second in seven Assembly constituencies, much to the anguish of the Left and Congress-led United Democratic Front. The RSS and BJP have claimed that neither the Left nor the Congress, which have shared power since the formation of the state in 1956, have protected the interests of Kerala’s Hindus, who account for 54 per cent of its population. Muslims and Christians make up 45 per cent of the state and have considerable political influence. The prosperity of minorities in the state, many of whom have gained from the Gulf boom, also tends to invite envy.

The Indian Left has faced numerous odds since independence, despite the early hype: EMS Namboodiripad made history by becoming the first elected Marxist head of a government in Asia, the third such triumph after comunists won power through the ballot in San Marino and British Guyana. India’s Communist party split in 1964 after years of being overshadowed by Jawaharlal Nehru and his socialist image that gave the Congress an advantage; later, the Congress affinity for the Soviet Union kept the actual Left on the periphery.

At the extreme end, the Naxal movement did not get far—with the probable exception of Maoists still waging an armed struggle in the so-called Red Corridor that runs from eastern through central to western India. In all, Marxists fail to strike a chord with large enough numbers.

PIllai says that the Kisan Sabha is busy mobilising forces across India. In Rajasthan, he says, it has led even larger rallies in the Sikar and Ganganagar regions over the past few years. These are the ground movements envisaged by the line adopted in 2015. Highlighting issues such as water scarcity and electricity shortage, the Sabha has forged alliances with multiple groups to expand its activities in Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha, besides Maharashtra and Karnataka, states where the CPM is weak.

In Rajasthan, CPM state secretary Amra Ram has done a commendable job, Pillai says. Vijoo Krishan, the Sabha’s joint secretary, tells me that in Odisha it has worked with like-minded bodies to seize more than 5,000 acres of Maoist-held territory and hand this land over to tribal folk for cultivation.

While all this is indicative of the Left reinventing itself in consonance with its core ideology, the party ought to take a superior strategy to reach out to those who have emerged from poverty and want to make the most of new opportunities. This is easier said than done, especially because of the stunted growth over the past few decades of the CPM and other parties of the mainstream Left. But, as is evident, the party is caught in a morass of conflicting views, one of which is to dilute its position as a cadre party.

India has a unique composition when it comes to religion, politics and caste. On one hand, communism worldwide has been a pro-worker, anti-religion movement. But given India’s diversity of faiths and socio-economic circumstances, no political force can afford to be seen as anti-religion and oblivious to caste intricacies.

Using class as the lone yardstick to determine political priorities will not click in an economy where, even as a large portion of the population is upwardly mobile, feudal bonds of religion and caste endure and often triumph. Since the Left has been slow in adapting to such social dynamics, it has been at a disadvantage, especially in north India.

The Marxist scholar Perry Anderson has stated in the ‘Enlarged Edition’ of his work, The Indian Ideology, that though he hasn’t been able to tackle in depth the marginalisation of the Left in India, ‘where religion fuses with the nation in any independence struggle and ensuing construction of a post-colonial state, the Left confronts a far more difficult terrain’.

As for Kerala, he notes that ‘one might speculate that cultural determinants have been at work in Kerala, Christianity and Islam weakening the grip of Hinduism in a society marked both by relatively high levels of literacy and particularly vicious forms of caste discrimination…’

The RSS-BJP has set its sights on the state, vowing to decimate the communists by wooing Hindus who have traditionally voted for the Left. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has a laconic response to the Right’s assertion that it will turf out communism from the state: “We will see.”

First published in Open magazine

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