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The State of the Left


Consternation

After some thirty four years of undefeated rule in the Indian state of West Bengal—often called the “red bastion” by political pundits of other shades—the Left Front has been voted out of power.

Although the shout has gone up how the Left has been “routed,” the fact is that there is greater disbelief among Left-detractors at the circumstance than among the Left itself, stridently politic pre-result noises notwithstanding. Those that gloat and experience glee barely believe that the beast has been quelled.

And for good reason. However the “rout” may be trumpeted, imagine that even in defeat, the Left Front has polled 41% of the popular vote, a million or so votes more than it polled in the parliamentary elections of 2009! And after more than three decades of continuous rule. The question may be asked: when was the last time that either of India’s major centrist parties obtained a 40% verdict in a regional or parliamentary election? The answer to that might take us all the way back to the first decade after Independence. Indeed, most parties set to form new governments in the five states that went to the hustings in the current round will do so on an electoral base far smaller than the vote the Left still commands in West Bengal. Such are the maverick vagaries of the first-past-the-post system. And yet the Left has lost, due mainly to forms of high-handedness which the Trinamool Congress and Congress combined were able to exploit fully among sections of Bengalis, including erstwhile Left supporters.

Why Has the Left Front Lost?

Having noted the fact that the Left was up against a unified opposition, the question must still be answered: why did such consolidation take place? And, why did a majority 49% vote for the winning combine?

As the Left parties mull these questions, they might find that the answers range from the fairly obvious to the more troublesome and far-reaching, all of which the Left must address without succumbing to self-delusion, or, contrarily, without sinking into any apocalyptic political/intellectual depression. Here are a few thoughts that come to mind:

–thirty four years, a record unparalleled in any democracy, come to think of it, is far too long even for the best of marriages, not to speak of a marriage between governments and people; since, unlike China, the Indian political system makes alternate political choices available, it is hardly any surprise that the people of West Bengal opted for a change of guard; if anything, they are to be thanked for having rewarded the excellent work done by the Left in the matter of land redistribution, grass roots democracy, and social harmony over three decades or more. Yet, although in other states of India governments routinely change complexion after five year terms, the defeat of the Left after thirty four years of rule is sought to be made out to be a catastrophe equivalent to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The underlying supposition being that the Left will never return to power, since its governmental defeat is sought to be propagated as the defeat coterminously as the defeat of Leftist ideology per se. This must be seen for what it is: wishful thinking on behalf of India’s newly spawned propertied classes who imagine that history has come to an end with neoliberalism and with India’s strategic embrace with global Capitalism.

–Given the peculiar circumstance that the Left Front, after all, had to operate within the larger national framework within which macro-economic policies are laid down by governments at the centre, there is only so much the Left could do in West Bengal beyond the unprecedented upliftment of incomes in the rural sector; it could have done more in the industrial sector should it have chosen to succumb wholly to the diktats of the neoliberal captains of finance Capital; the Left could hardly be berated for raising the questions that any Left politics must with regard to the social and accumulative consequences of pursuing neoliberalism—consequences which have mightily come home to roost in the developed world itself since the crash there began with the collapse of giant banks and corporations, all bailed out by you know who—the tax moneys of the discredited public treasury; it was inevitable, therefore, that in the current environment of economic thinking spawned by the Washington Consensus, the Left would be faced with aspirational pressures that it would find difficult to negotiate on quite the same terms as some non-Left state governments were willing to. Given the shrinkage of the state-sector, job creation beyond agriculture and state services then came to be a tough ask.

–The Left Front was, therefore, not wrong in determining that jobs could result chiefly from reinvigorating industry, especially manufacturing; as it sought to turn attention to encouraging investments and acquiring land, it ran into a reality that it may have smugly left out of consideration: over time, its equation with the class that it had benefited the most, the small and middle peasantry, had suffered deep ravages. All importantly, land-owning peasants were no longer willing simply to be vassals to the diktat of party cadres. Over long years of control, the cadres had ceased to be one with the people, or to talk with them; a coercive habit of talking-down had set in. Result: despite its pioneering work in installingPanchayati Raj (grass roots democracy), such raj (governance) had come to go out of the hands of the people and into the muscular enforcement of party cadres. Indeed, the malaise stretched beyond the rural sector, encompassing most aspects of public life and service, including the state-apparatus. The cadres came to see themselves and to be seen both as the people and the state. Hegemony had come to yield place to precipitate and overbearing coercion.

Good to remind ourselves that whenever that has happened—no more eloquent instance than the erstwhile Soviet Union—disaster is only a step away. It is my view that the overthrow of the Left in Bengal, even as it had to do with episodes like Nandigram which shocked chiefly the Muslim Bengalis out of a habitual preference for the Left despite little cause for thanks beyond the land they came to possess and physical safety from majoritarian onslaughts, had to do with the little man’s assertion on behalf of self-affirmation against big-brotherly habits that seemed to take their allegiance for granted. The question therefore cries to be pondered: why, and why so often, do people-friendly formations that seek to deepen democracy end up stifling the same?

I have submitted on more than one occasion that the Indian Left must diligently seek to rethink the Leninist legacy of a party in total command, and of democratic centralism itself. These legacies no longer seem conducive to the sort of rapport that Left politics needs to forge with toiling people on whose behalf it thinks and hopes to work. These are legacies that have hubris written into them, and sixty years of political democracy in India have eliminated the room for command or hubris as the operative axes of relationship between political formations and the masses. Given the complex cultural matrices of Indian social and historical life, leaderships that only understand people’s suffering from a safe theoretical distance, however correctly, always have lost to others who share those sufferings on the ground, and on a sustained basis of immersion. There are lessons to be learnt here from the more authentic non-governmental organizations who, slowly but surely, have over the decades, come to substitute the grass roots work that rightfully belongs to organized Left parties. And lessons as well from those communist leaders who, into their ageing days into the end of the sixties, observed patterns of personal living and relationship with the people that were instrumental in setting up an influential politics of the Left in India when in most other democracies the Left had come to shut shop.

Is there a call, therefore, for the Left to rethink not just contingent errors of policy and praxis, but its root organizational principles? I think there is. Not until rigid and robotic forms of affiliation between party leaderships and cadres, and between cadres and the mass of people are loosened and freed from mere cerebrated correctness may the Left now hope to secure a more willing foothold among wider sections of the immiserated who recognize the authenticity of Left concern but who also feel thwarted by high-falutin rebuke.

Thinking Beyond Capitalism

In a recent article, Prabhat Patnaik, the credible intellectual voice of the cpi (m), has rightly argued that the relevance of the Left remains a long-ranging one because, alone among India’s political formations, it thinks of life beyond Capitalism, and has the theoretical equipment to do so.

The question I ask myself is one that Marx would surely also have asked: what does it mean to be fighting Capitalism in the India of 2011? Or, indeed, India per se.

As I seek for answers I find no easy ones. The vanguards of India’s anti-colonial movement, many impeccably rational and seeped in knowledge of ideologies, did not, often could not (because for every rational leader there were two or three who shared irrational habits of custom and thought) battle the social and cultural content of pre-Capitalist material orders. I say that in the plural because there is still little agreement among economic historians as to whether pre-colonial India was uniformly Feudal, or uniformly Asiatic, or indeed offered a spectrum of practices in economic organization.

India’s post-colonial “modernity” thus arrived as a mish-mash of absorptions and compromises. There are those among India’s sociologists who think that a good thing, since thank god such a consequence has saved us from unilinear models of “modernity” and its deracinating effects on subjectivity.

The fact, however, remains that economic considerations did not come to inhabit the chief pinnacle of concern among Indians generally, with the exception of those, of course, who came to, and have come to, appropriate the means of production. More than in any other country, the consciousness of class has remained strangulated by multifarious allegiances that have often succeeded in burying the relations of production beneath piles and piles of debris from what Marx called the “muck of ages.”

One consequence of those concatenations has been that, barring the stipulations laid down in the Constitution of India, it cannot be said that Indians have uniformly achieved the consciousness of “citizens.” And for good reason: to this day the operations of the state and its agencies do not negotiate with all Indians as “citizens.” Apart from considerations of class, such negotiation is everywhere coloured by determinations that may be proscribed by the republican Constitution but remain alive and kicking on the ground. To a point where even the extent of torture inflicted on prisoners, or the nature and quantum of punishment given to them for identical crimes is often conditioned by habits of socialization among law-enforcers and officers of the Bench that run contrary to the stipulations of law and the requirements of justice. Indian Capitalism and the party-political system that represents it, then continues to plough into these fractured self-definitions, never allowed to gel into “citizen” consciousness across the board.

I therefore plead that Capitalism in India now cannot be confronted exclusively on the single plank of exploitation, but that such a fundamental premise of class analysis requires to be arrived at through a diverse spectrum of negotiations. For that reason I doubt much that Indian Capitalism can be fought with any great consequence through a book-ridden route to some pristine proletarian struggle, supposing that anything like a proletariat with a dour class-consciousness exists, or, if it does, carries sufficient clout. I also think that the debate whether or not the Communist parties should formally declare themselves Social Democrats, embrace the irreversibility of Capitalism, and carry on from there is little more than a red-herring, although viewed from a ruling class perspective, of great comfort. For a start, dialectical thought which I hold to be a truer representation of the operations of time, space, and human agency than any other I know, rebukes from irrefutable scrutiny the very notion of irreversibility. But on more practical grounds, embracing such a so-called finality can only have the consequence of debilitating the sternness of conviction without which the work of the Left can only dissolve into a complacency matching that of well-intentioned Liberals.

I think fighting Capitalism at this juncture in India’s history must mean engaging with oppressions of diverse definition (oppressions against tribals, dalits, women, children, religious minorities, relegated ethnic groups, displaced populations, victims of state and social/community atrocity alike), definitions that impinge as forcefully on subaltern self-consciousness as economic impoverishment and seem more, often than not, prior to such impoverishment, and seeking to bring those into a unity of “citizen’s” consciousness against the operations of the state and its supportive social elite who seek both to prevent such consolidation and to profit by its lack. Intending not a snuffing out of the colours of the rainbow, but to syncretise them into a light of shared and common recognition that what seem disparate circumstances are everywhere syncopated into the realities of class society. To wit, the hydra may have many heads, but it is one and the same animal. Even as the heads must need be dealt with each in its own location.

And it means, most of all, not just to take up causes for the record, or for media exposure, but devise organizational strategies whereby the Left is constantly among the affected people, educating itself about the specifities of particular oppressions, and preparing the conditions for mass assertions that may in time come to identify a common adversary. Because, emphatically, such discrete coordinates of attention must, even as they do their work, at all costs be prevented from ossifying into vested enclaves of specialized activity which over time become bureaucracies oblivious of the totalized purpose to which they must all contribute severally. Those that are assigned the task of cutting off each head must never forget that the heads belong to one and the same brute, and it is a conjoint task they perform; nor should they forget that the Capitalist hydra spawns ever new instruments, which sometimes spawns newer heads, especially in so pluralist a venue as India.

Electoral Politics

I have for many years felt that inorder to free itself of the contradictions that participation in state power in a multi-party democracy must entail, Left parties should go wholly over to mass work for a decade or two. The attempt to work from above and below simultaneously may have brought the Left to a point where the loss of a state government seems to acquire the proportions of a calamity. Much as I might wish the Left first to consolidate into a unity grounded in a short list of macro-historical determinations, and then to go over wholly to a revolutionary line of mass mobilisaton and education, including self-education, this does not seem likely to happen. Although we may wonder why not.

It should also be obvious that the Left parties on their own are in no position whatsoever, especially as I write, to determine the course of parliamentary power. Nor is it foreseeable that the Left will become a decisive force in parliament for many years to come, regardless of objective conditions that cry out for Left victories.

A question that has repeatedly cropped up in the conclaves of Left decision-making, then, is how may the Left forge an effective role in parliamentary participation? A question that, like it or not, brings us down to unlovely considerations of an opportunist and contingent nature. Today let me say with brevity that if the two all-important objectives of Constitutionalism are social inclusivity/secularism, and as much material and institutional justice as class society and the state it owns may furnish to the people, the Left must consider with wisdom and without self-pride which parliamentary and party-political forces to align with and which to confront, all within the ambit of Constitutional possibility. Such consideration must need disregard interests limited to specific areas of the nation-state and take a view that keeps the entire body politic in mind. As well as the histories/ideologies of major political players, and their record of governance as instruments of class rule. After all, if the parliamentary exertions and interventions of the Left are to be meaningful and consequential, its negotiations and compromises must follow some order of preference. In that context, the Left may need to take a second look, however painful, at the Indian National Congress in disregard of the fact that the Congress remains its chief electoral adversary in West Bengal and Kerala. Even as the work of the Left among the masses brings, overtime, the Congress to a fresh evaluation of its own policy frameworks. The Left must never forget that forces exist in India that seek stridently to fascicise both state and polity—stridently because wide segments among the new affluent classes support any course calculated to homogenize the nation into a strident social unity, weaken democratic institutions and practices, and set out on a course of abrasive militarism. By common recognition, it is the Left mainly that is rightly seen to be the ideological adversary to such forces. But the Left must in turn recognize and accept the reality that it is a fight in which it needs both democratic mass assertions on an exponential scale, and organized political partnerships from among the contenders for power.

West Bengal

As the adage goes, every loss conceals a gain. The loss in West Bengal affords the Left a fine opportunity to contemplate and interpret. The time to change will surely come in five or less years, given what has taken over in Writer’s Building.

Bengal remains a thoughtful and magnanimous place. Those that write off the Left after the Bengal debacle need to remember that it still runs the best government in the North East—one that has succeeded in righting innumerable wrongs done by earlier dispensations, and that the cpi (m) still remains the largest single party in Kerala where, but for the spectacular show put up by the Indian Union Muslim League (winning 20 of 24 seats it contested in contrast to a Congress score of 38 from 82), the Left Front government would have been ahead by more than a mite. They also need to remember that the BJP once had just two representatives in parliament, but went on in 1996 to form the government at the centre.

In the coming five years in West Bengal the Left must expect to receive provocations galore, and not all non-violent; but as it rethinks its cadres, the Left must not be tempted to reply in kind. As in many other matters, the Left here has lessons to learn from Gandhi. 

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