Perhaps the one political lesson from contemporary India that should be introduced in history curriculums or future generations is the inspiring rise and the disappointing decline and decay of the mainstream Left front. And nothing signifies this disarray better than the 20th party congress of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) in Kerala earlier this month.
The mainstream Left (that is a part of the legitimate democratic process in the country) comprises of four political parties—the CPI (M), the CPI, the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc. While the CPM is obviously the most significant and powerful of the lot, followed by CPI, the latter two are marginal players.
The CPI (M)’s 20th party congress—the party´s highest policy-making congregation—was hugely significant, coming after a disastrous four years since the last party congress in early 2008. In the last four years, the Left front withdrew support from the first Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre over the issue of the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, tried cobbling together a third political force (anti-Congress, anti-BJP), performed disastrously in the Lok Sabha election the following year in 2009, got reduced to just 24 of the 543 Parliament seats from its previous tally of 61, was decimated in its bastions—Kerala and West Bengal—in state elections, losing its over three-decade-long reign in the latter, and was largely relegated to a bumbling fringe player in national politics.
Somewhere down the line, the Left had gone horribly wrong. And much of the onus lay on the CPM, whose own Lok Sabha tally fell from 43 in 2004 to a mere 16 in 2009.
The party congress, coming after these eventful years, was being touted as an exercise in course correction for the party—ideological, political and organizational. But unfortunately, this became another lost opportunity, an art the Left seems to have mastered. The CPM wasted its four-day deliberation exercise in rhetoric and jargonizing, talking loosely about ‘US imperialism’, the government’s ‘neo liberal policies’, the BJP’s ‘communal’ agenda and the regional parties’ fetish for ‘identity’ politics.
The party resolutions adopted during the meet seem more like an academic analysis of everything around—from the US, to the Eurozone debt crisis, imperialist interventions, disarray in Afpak, aggression in West Asia and North Africa and on the domestic front, Congress, BJP, media, regional parties etc—than an introspection of its own fault-lines. No concrete roadmap for the Left’s future course was laid down.
It does not take a genius to say that the Left desperately needs to re-invent itself in India. There are two broad problems with communist parties who enter mainstream politics. One, they either get completely co-opted into the system and start resembling other political parties whose brand of politics they have always vehemently opposed. Two, they refuse to adapt to changing circumstances, thus rendering their ideology and politics anachronistic and redundant.
The former happened to the CPM-led Left front in West Bengal and Kerala, where it had tasted power for decades. The left ceased to be the Left. The messiah of the oppressed became the oppressor. Unable to fuse the demands of altered circumstances with its core ideology deftly, the Left got completely sucked into the system and corruption, nepotism and power struggles became its defining features, much like other mainstream political parties. The fresh-into-the-democratic-structure Maoists in Nepal are already showing similar, dangerous signs of degeneration.
The second phenomenon is one of the factors that led to the fall of communism in much of Eastern Europe. The Left front in India has also failed to establish a true pan-India presence precisely because it has not been able to remodel itself in a new era. The Maoists in Nepal, tasting their first drop of legitimate power, have to be cautious in ensuring they don’t go down the same path.
So what is the future course for the mainstream Left in India?
To begin with, the Left needs to decide how it wants to revive itself—as an electoral force or as a political force. While the two are certainly inter-related, the left has to chart out a future path with an immediate agenda and strategy in mind. It can either look at attacking elections, thus aiming at re-securing numbers in its strongholds and hence, becoming a political power in its own right. Or it can opt for the more gradual course of regaining its political space, becoming a serious and constructive opposition, which derives its power from the streets (like the Left always has) and then moving towards widespread electoral gains.
The CPM-led Left has sadly conceded both spaces to electoral and political forces in recent times. While electorally, it has been trounced by the likes of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress; politically, it has opened the gate for civil society interventions like the Anna Hazare movement who are filling in the vacuum created by the Left’s lack of initiative and understanding of the people’s pulse.
Two, the Left has to work towards creating a unique space for itself in India’s polity. It cannot continue harping on the pro-poor, secular, democratic and anti-imperialist plank any further. Most parties today, including the Congress and several regional outfits, have appropriated the first three planks and it is no longer unique to the Left. As for ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘anti-neoliberalism’, these rhetorical phrases do not resonate with the masses unless the Left finds a way to translate them into common man issues.
Three, the Left must move towards more positive politics instead of merely being against what other parties stand for. For instance, the CPM in the party congress resolution has also stressed on its fight against BJP’s “communal and right-wing agenda”. Again, a slightly outdated political strategy given that BJP has been working extra hard to get rid of its communal stain and the Left would have to wait for it to make a serious blunder on that front so it can galvanize public support against that. The Left needs to carve out its own political identity instead of waiting for other parties to bungle up. It has to move from politics of ‘anti’ to ‘pro’.
Four, the Left needs to show more courage and venture out of its comfort zones, literally. Why is it limited to Kerala, West Bengal, Tripura and to some extent Tamil Nadu? Its student outfits have even lost the little Republic of Jawaharlal Nehru University to a more radical left student organisation. The 16 seats it has in the Parliament come from just four of the country’s 28 states—West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura and Tamil Nadu .
The CPM is 48 years old and if you look at undivided communism, it is nearly a century old. This, as against the BJP that is 32 years old but has a true pan-India presence. Why has the Left not tried to make inroads in the Hindi heartland? It has repeatedly claimed this is because this region relies heavily on identity politics that the Left is overtly against. But then, isn’t the Left about ‘revolution’? Shouldn’t it have been at the forefront of changing or at least attempting to change that dynamic?
Bihar was a perfect ring for the Left to throw its hat in. Disillusioned by Lalu Prasad Yadav’s 15-year misrule, the voters were desperately seeking a change that went beyond caste equations. And Nitish Kumar came and did just that. He and more recently, Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh have proved there is a greater demand for development than caste and that is precisely what the Left should have ideally seized on.
Five, the CPM needs to have a more cohesive strategy for the larger Left. It needs to question its very existence as an entity separate from the CPI. The CPM broke away from the then undivided CPI in 1964 over the latter’s pro-Congress and pro-Soviet line. Fast forward to today. There is absolutely no logic and justification for the two to function as separate outfits in the contemporary polity at a pragmatic level. A merger between the two will strengthen the party cadres, giving it greater ground strength and will also lead to a better, more diverse leadership.
And finally, the Left has to learn the art of adaptive and pragmatic politics, even while not compromising on its core ideology. It is a different context today and a completely altered socio-economic framework and the Left has to operate within this to prevent itself from being relegated to complete irrelevance. Introspection is the key word.
The Left is and has always been an absolutely critical and indispensable element of Indian politics. The country cannot afford the huge vacuum in the polity where there is the right, the almost-right, the opportunistic regional parties but no Left. And if not for itself, the CPM-led Left bloc must reinvent itself and bounce back for a healthier, more complete Indian democracy.