The Indian Left may have shrunk politically, but it is still an intellectual force to reckon with

(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)

WHEN INDIA WON freedom in 1947, communists were already in power across large swathes of Europe thanks to Joseph Stalin’s puritanical worldview and expansionist politics. Having steered World War II to a triumphant win at a huge cost along with the Allied Powers, the Soviet Union under his watch had the bandwidth to insist that to the victor go the spoils. Winston Churchill, with whom Stalin had had a love-hate relationship, surmised as a vast communist bloc formed in Eurasia, “An iron curtain has descended across Europe.” The Red Army’s military prowess was still the toast of the day when Nehru made his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech. Communism seemed invincible as Mao came to power in China two years later as India stood scarred by a Partition and mindless violence in the preceding two years, including the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Hindutva fanatic. It was indeed a phase of history when the Marxian ideology appeared irresistible.

Although communists in India did not make gains comparable with the Bolsheviks and the Chinese, the philosophy had a tremendous sway in various pockets of the country notwithstanding the overarching spell of Gandhi. Despite witch-hunts by the British government in the last lap of its rule against peasant agitations spearheaded by the communists, especially in Andhra and Kerala, and then by the ruling Congress in the early years of independence, the leftists did make history and appeared to have the potential to grow big even a decade later. EMS Namboodiripad stunned the world by becoming the first elected head of a communist government in Asia and third in the world, following San Marino and British Guiana.

Now, 75 years later, the Soviet dream is dead following the dismemberment of the communist bloc and the concomitant Balkanisation of the late 1980s and the early 1990s. Elsewhere in the world, although Cuba manages to stay afloat even after the demise of Fidel Castro, American sanctions and the recent Covid outbreak have made the people frustrated and disenchanted with the Cuban revolution. China is perhaps the only major country where the communist party is in power, experimenting with its version of capitalism, inspired by Deng Xiaoping who, they say, placed pragmatism over dogmatism. Under him, China embraced the market economy, with the belief that “the colour of the cat doesn’t matter as long as it catches the mice”, referring to the effort of lifting millions out of poverty. But the country’s economic growth in recent decades isn’t symbolic of the victory of communist ideas and ideals.

Communism in India—where the mainstream Left parties, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), have ruled three states until a decade earlier—is now confined to what is often called the last outpost of Marxism in India: Kerala. There, interestingly, the CPM-led coalition bucked the trend of coming to power on rotation and for the first time since the formation of the state in 1956, returned to power in a second consecutive win. Yet, of the dream that was communism 75 years ago, the electoral plight of the Left is nightmarish, to say the least. With the resounding setback it received in 2011 in West Bengal where it was trounced after being in power for straight 34 years and later in Tripura, the Left as an electoral entity has lost the momentum and is a shadow of its past. In 2004, the Left bloc, comprising CPM, CPI, Forward Bloc and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), had 59 seats (excluding independents who had won with its support), making it a formidable force in an era of coalition politics. The Left bloc, comprising CPI and CPM, now has just five seats in Lok Sabha, its lowest tally ever as Indian communists hurtle from crisis to crisis.

Compared with 43 Lok Sabha seats in 2004, CPM now has only three in the Lower House. Even in the 1971 General Election, held after India’s victory against Pakistan that gave Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi an unassailable aura, CPM had won 25 seats.

In sharp contrast to their poll fortunes, however, leftists are still active as public intellectuals and the communist parties continue to drive the most manifest intellectual dissent in India. Although the likes of scholar Prabhat Patnaik talked about ‘empiricisation’, or the Left abandoning its the communist aim of decimating capitalism, with Narendra Modi at the helm since 2014, the Left has emerged as a strong voice against the reported majoritarian tendencies of the ruling dispensation. The Left is often the first to raise a hue and cry over the marginalisation of minorities, crony capitalism, new foreign policy priorities, changes in academic curriculum and efforts at the myth-making exercises of pro-Hindu nationalist figures, including VD Savarkar. The communists were at the forefront while taking on the Government in Parliament on myriad issues. This includes tweaking of certain provisions of Article 370 that gave Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir a special status; three new controversial farm laws that the communists allege are favourable to corporations and harmful to farmers; the recent Pegasus spyware incident and various other moves by the Government that, communist leaders say, were passed in Parliament in an undemocratic manner.

With the main opposition Congress shying away from attacking the Government on economic issues as its own policies are not at variance with that of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Left is in a pole position intellectually to attack the Government thanks to its support in universities, certain institutions and the academia. Most vocal opposition to the Modi Government in recent years has come from leftist historians, cultural icons and intellectuals who may not be necessarily aligned with the mainstream Left. Liberal and Left scholars and leading lights had very early on launched an award-wapsi (return) campaign protesting against the lynching of Muslims by gau rakshaks or self-styled vigilantes owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar. Farmer agitations led by Left peasant organisations have become vigorous over time with the Left trying to get back to its mass-mobilisation ways.

Farmers protest on the Delhi-Haryana border at Singhu, December 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

The CPM-led All India Kisan Sabha was at the centrestage of the agitation against the farm bills which were passed in a jiffy on September 27th last year. Previously, it had led various marches that had captured the public imagination, the most iconic being the Nasik to Mumbai ‘long march’ of more than 50,000 farmers in Maharashtra in March 2018. The Maharashtra government had to agree to fulfil the demands of the farmers. As was obvious, the entry of farmers to India’s commercial city attracted global attention.

THE LEFT HAD in another time been in the spotlight, but that was either in the Soviet Union’s heyday or when the Cold War had forced diverse geopolitical camps to stand by their allies. In Maharashtra in those days, a young communist Godavari Parulekar had waged a heroic struggle against the colonial powers to protect the indigenous people called Warlis who were bamboozled by the rich of their land in Thana district and driven to dire straits. In the Telangana region, P Sundarayya and others had launched an agitation after World War II against feudal lords and later the Nizam of Hyderabad, laying the groundwork for various land reform acts. Communists take pride in breaking the back of old-world landlordism although their battle was crushed by the Indian Army. Similar upheavals had taken place in other states, too, led by the communists, especially in Kerala with great success as well as other parts of the country.

The CPM-led All India Kisan Sabha was at the centrestage of the agitation against the farm bills which were passed in September last year. Previously, it had led various marches that had captured the public imagination, like the Nasik to Mumbai ‘long march’ of more than 50,000 farmers in Maharashtra in March 2018

Although communists are blamed for their extraterritorial allegiance that forced them to withdraw their support to the Quit India movement shortly after Operation Barbarossa on June 21st, 1941, when the Germans attacked Soviet Russia, with the call to fight for the defeat of fascist forces, it is not to be forgotten that communists had played a great role in the Indian freedom struggle. The slogan “Poorna Swaraj” was coined in 1921 by Hasrat Mohani, who would later become one of the founders of the communist party. He was backed to the hilt at the Ahmedabad AICC session by another communist there, Swami Kumaranand. Both together are said to have coined the expression “Inquilab Zindabad”.

Besides being part of several movements led by Gandhi, the leftists within Congress were later part of the Chittagong armoury rebellion of 1930. One of the agitators, Ganesh Ghosh, who spent 14 years in the Andamans from 1932 to 1946 without tendering any apology, was a Member of Parliament representing CPM in the fourth Lok Sabha. Even during the Royal Naval Uprising of 1946 in Mumbai that made the British deeply insecure of continuing to rule India with disloyal armed forces, the undivided communist party of India was the sole political entity to have officially backed the leaders of the rebellion. A communist named Kamal Donde of Parel Mahila Sangh was killed for arranging food for the agitators.

Now, as a combination, the intellectual Left, which comprises even those who do not share the views of the mainstream leftists, and CPM and CPI have proved to be far more formidable in raising inconvenient questions to the Government in power, which is aggressively pursuing its policy goals. With the rest of the opposition vacating its role as a meaningful rival to the Government, the Left parties have risen to fill the vacuum. The leftists are the ones who have raised tough questions in the House as well as in courts about the Pegasus spyware incident. The Government, for its part, has chosen not to admit queries on whether it had through its agencies procured the Pegasus software from the Israel-based NSO Group. It however answered a question on whether the ministry of defence was involved in the purchase, stating that the ministry had nothing to do with it. Over time, Left scholars in academia and students in universities known to be liberal turfs have resisted numerous attempts by the Government to interfere in their affairs. In the past few years, many educational and research institutions have had arbitrary changes in top leadership with candidates known to be close to the BJP Government occupying key decision-making positions. Critics say that this is one of the strategies of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP to control education and research, and to promote their own agenda of cultural nationalism. Institutions such as the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), besides various others, have seen new appointments. The Government is also criticised for vitiating the atmosphere on campuses dominated by Left and liberal students’ and teachers’ unions such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University and others. BJP and RSS, for their part, claim that they want to question the existing version of history taught in India and revamp Westernised models of education and research that undermine the country’s traditional knowledge.

While BJP and its allies dominate social media and messaging apps thanks to an army of volunteers, serious debates are still the preserve of leftist and liberal intellectuals

Despite its feeble presence as an electoral force, the Left has a disproportionately high influence as dissenters and rebels with a cause. Although pundits often talk about the Left’s alienation from the masses and even allege that CPM is a “stooge of the bourgeoisie” for being friendly to corporates where they are or were in power, the Left as a whole doesn’t seem to have given up its role as non-conformists when it comes to launching sharp attacks on the Modi Government, be it from India-based intellectuals or those based elsewhere.

While BJP and its allies dominate social media and messaging apps thanks to an army of volunteers, serious debates are still the preserve of leftist and liberal intellectuals. Mainstream parties tend to lap up discussions that often appear frustrating to the ruling dispensation which has shown an inclination to forge ahead with its policies even at the cost of straying from parliamentary procedure or agreeing to a vote.

Sure, politically, the mainstream Left has contenders: such as Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). But when it comes to consistently taking on the Union Government on issues ranging from politics to economics to foreign policy, the Left, which in India now has to be seen as a constellation of academics, students and politicians, remains unsurpassed. Which perhaps explains why even those who are close enough to the ruling dispensation to seek plum post-retirement positions often end up blaming the Left for everything wrong with this country, Left leaders aver.

Whatever that is, the leftist intellectual tradition is active—and its proponents are showing no signs of giving up without a tough fight.

First published in Open

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