What is left of India’s Left and what lies ahead for it?

The Asian Age.  | John Mary

Opinion, Oped

The CPI was more realistic, dropping proletarian dictatorship from its party programme.

Socialists have advised the CPI(M) to dump its dictatorship fixation and even drop “Communist” from its name if it wants to rally the Left in the time of its worst electoral drubbing. (Photo: File)

At a time of tumult in Indian politics, questions abound as to what is left of the Left and what lies ahead for it. Be it the sordid drama to snatch power in Maharashtra or the ongoing national buildup against the compulsory citizens’ register, the Left camp, with a mere five MPs in the Lok Sabha, is a pale version of the 62-MP contingent that qualitatively influenced the governance agenda during UPA-1.

The Left’s failure to accept the fact that class has been synonymous with caste in the Indian context, its centralised model of class struggle as opposed to democratic non-class movements and the CPI(M)’s use of democracy merely as a passage towards the ultimate goal of proletarian dictatorship have been cited as some of the reasons for the Left being confined to three out of the 28 states.

Socialists have advised the CPI(M) to dump its dictatorship fixation and even drop “Communist” from its name if it wants to rally the Left in the time of its worst electoral drubbing. “To the 21st-century mind, the word ‘Communist’ is indelibly associated with tyranny and authoritarianism. On the other hand, the word ‘socialist’ is more benign”, says historian Ramachandra Guha.

The CPI was more realistic, dropping proletarian dictatorship from its party programme. It accords priority to the unity of the Left and democratic forces rather than insisting on its own leadership of such a combination. But, for the CPI(M), proletarian dictatorship still remains its USP in the party programme.

All along, the parliamentary Left have been hamstrung by their so-called democratic centralisation model of struggle. They shunned participating in any democratic model of struggle, restricting themselves to a narrow class struggle approach.

This centralised model of class struggle has neither the depth of class struggle nor the breadth of mass movements incorporating non-class movements.

Late rights activist K. Balagopal, who had broken off with the Maoists in Andhra Pradesh, used to say Marxism never treated democracy as the foundation of modern society. It uses democracy as a means to achieve its goals in class struggle. Its goals are towards the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“One of the goals of proletarian dictatorship is to enable workers to participate in decisions affecting their lives in factories and public life in civil society. Barring these goals which are worth cherishing, everything else such as the ‘seizure of State power’ or overthrow of the State machinery by the working class is redundant. An ideological correction is necessary here”, says Prof. Arun Patnaik, head of the department of political science at the University of Hyderabad.

For Indian Communists, US Senator Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist, or British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are undesirable manifestations because they are revisionists or reformists, who have lost sight of the ultimate revolution and are in compromise with neo-liberals.

Such blind interpretations have hindered the metamorphosis of Indian Communist parties into modern democratic socialist formations, allowing their cadre to join in mass equity struggles without losing sight of the ultimate objective of revolution.

Prof. Prabhat Patnaik has commented that “the current problem with the Indian Left, and in this term I include all sections of the Left, from the so-called “parliamentary Left” to the so-called “revolutionary Left”, is in my view, its lack of appreciation of the dialectics between ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’”.

“By the dialectics of reform and revolution I mean the following: revolution is the denouement of a persistent demand for reform on the part of the people, which the system cannot accommodate. Therefore pressing for reform and mobilising people around a demand for reform is not ‘reformism’; it is itself a revolutionary task. The problem with social democracy which is avowedly ‘reformist’ is not that it asks for ‘reform’ instead of ‘revolution’ but that, being avowedly ‘reformist’, it tailors and limits its demand for reform only to whatever the system can agree to. It does not ask for reforms that push the boundaries of the system”.

But there is a growing realisation that no matter what happens to Communist parties in the country, there will still be the Left in different avatars, fighting neoliberal policies. Even in the right-of-centre BJP, there are Left-minded individuals and groups. Note the resistance mounted by the pro-Sangh Parivar Swadeshi Jagran Manch against the Centre’s haste to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Ayushman Bharat, a major BJP initiative, a health insurance plan for almost half the population, and Congress-led UPA’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee programme are examples of equity-oriented welfare initiatives promoted by parties that pursue free market policies.

The Left’s ideas survive and flicker through many forums; regional parties in India through their populist programmes. N.T. Rama Rao and M.G. Ramachandran were classic examples. Though bereft of any Leftist theoretical underpinnings, their pro-poor agenda was discernible. Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan too were proponents of a Leftist stand. Caste-based parties too have a certain tinge of leftism in them as they fight the social pyramidal structure. Socialism and Leftism are too vast to be contained in a warp. They flow through different political parties.

Says Prof. Arun Patnaik: “In my dialogue with Ram Madhav in 1994, I discovered him as an anti-caste Hindu intellectual like Veer Savarkar. But unlike Savarkar, he is not anti-Muslim. I told him that Muslims too have caste. He was plainly surprised.”

“In my view, thus, dialogues across intellectuals of this sort are necessary. Ram Madhav told me that he was fighting within the RSS to recognise caste realities all along. He says it has not been easy for him to convince other members. In 2014, recently the RSS brought out an anti-caste special issue of Organiser dedicated to Ambedkar. Today Ram Madhav may say that his persistence with caste brought some results in the organisation now. But somebody will have to convince the RSS to recognise caste among non-Hindus.”

“However, a secular recognition of caste across religions is necessary for all ideological convictions. A communication with left-wing intellectuals across all ideologies is possible on several issues, not just caste-related issues. Pro-people elements across the political spectrum are available. A communication is necessary across them to construct a bridge.”

Late Prof. Praful Bidwai used to argue for a new Left by re-interpreting Marxism in the post-Marxian situation and reformulate strategy and tactics by the Left to fight the twin enemies of the neo-liberal economic order and Hindu religious fundamentalism, based on what he called a “People’s Charter”.

Praful Bidwai’s People’s Charter perhaps anticipated future alternatives that are resonating around India today.