| Parochial errors
In the history of Indian communism, there have been perhaps six occasions on which it has decisively set itself apart from the national mood.
Historic Blunder Number 1 took place during World War II. When that conflict broke out, the main nationalist party, the Congress, immediately offered to support the British, asking for, in exchange, a commitment to Indian independence once the war had ended. Men like Gandhi and Nehru understood that Hitler’s Nazis were truly evil. Their sympathies were with the Allies. But, they asked, should not a fight for freedom imply freedom for the coloured peoples too' This the British were not prepared to accept. Thus it was that the Congress demitted office in the provinces, and prepared to make their case through the medium of satyagraha.
The Indian communists, on the other hand, dismissed the conflict as an “Imperialists’ War”, a struggle irrelevant to the real needs of the people. Their mentor, Stalin, had signed a pact of non-aggression with Hitler. However, on the night of June 22, 1941, Hitler’s armies swept across the border into Soviet Russia. For communists everywhere, the Imperialists’ War overnight became the People’s War. Russia’s friends became the friends of the proletariat. Indian communists now became the most ardent of loyalists, supporting the British raj, staying away from the Quit India movement, even (by some accounts) providing intelligence reports on nationalist agitators.
Blunder Number 2, contemporaneous with Blunder Number 1, was the wholehearted support of the Communist Party of India to the idea of Pakistan. This was seen by party ideologues as being in keeping with Comrade Stalin’s theory of nationalities. From the early Forties, while Gandhi and company worked tirelessly to keep alive the idea of a united India, the leading communists dismissed this as a reactionary and bourgeois demand.
In August 1947, India was partitioned, but it also became free. Some communists acknowledged this to be a genuine achievement. Others, however, insisted that this was a false dawn — “ye azaadi jhoota hai”, as they put it. In an intense inner-party debate, it was the sceptics who won the day. In February 1948, the seal was set on Historic Blunder Number 3, when a Communist Party conference in Calcutta declared war on the Indian state. Cadre were commanded to go underground and engineer a countrywide insurrection. Now commenced a bloody battle between the rebels and the government. Thousands of comrades were arrested, hundreds of others killed. The madness continued for upwards of two years. Finally, the rebellion was called off under instructions from — you’ve guessed it — Stalin.
In March 1950, the CPI issued a statement on the new Indian Constitution. They called it a “charter of slavery” because India was still in the Commonwealth, because foreign industries were not confiscated, because there was no self-determination for separate nationalities. They insisted that the Constitution was framed by landed vested interests, and that adult franchise was a fraud because the means of propaganda were in the hands of the capitalists.
Despite this, the communists took part in the first general elections in 1952. Five years later, they won power in Kerala through the ballot-box. They were deposed in 1959, this a blot on Nehru’s otherwise impeccable record as a democrat. But by this time, cracks had once more appeared in the relation between party and nation. At issue here was the border dispute between India and China. China had taken over thousands of square miles of disputed territory in Ladakh. There were reports of clashes between border patrols. Meanwhile, the Chinese came down heavily on the Tibetans, and the dalai lama fled to India.
In 1959, 1960, 1961, as the governments of India and China exchanged protests and memoranda, questions were asked about where the communists stood. As in 1947, there was once more a divide within the party. The more articulate elements thought that, in any dispute between a bourgeois government and a people’s democracy, the latter had ipso facto to be right. The more patriotic elements thought that India must be supported, not least because it had a good case on the border question.
There is a vivid account of these intra-party disputes in Mohit Sen’s autobiography, A Traveller and the Road. When the Chinese attacked in October 1962, he writes, “the CPI leadership was taken by surprise — all sections of it”. Throughout the country, “mass anger against the Chinese was widespread and high”. But it appears that the bulk of the party leadership did not share this mass anger. For they thought the prime minister to be an agent of the American imperialists. And, from this viewpoint, “the Chinese had given him a suitable rebuff and had also thereby helped the Communists in India by exposing and weakening their main enemy. The mass mood, according to them, would soon change and the Chinese stand would be appreciated. If the CPI kept neutral and rode out the storm, it would benefit”.
This was Historic Blunder Number 4 — the inability to come out in defence of your country, the refusal to recognize, to quote Mohit Sen, that “Communists too, could be chauvinistic and seek to grab the territory of others”. Like the first three blunders, this one too was a consequence of placing the interests of another nation above that of your own. In 1941 and 1948, Russian nationalism took precedence over Indian nationalism. In 1959-1962, it was the Chinese who occupied pride of place.
Historic Blunder Number 5 was committed in 1996, when the party did not join the United Front government (thereby depriving Jyoti Basu of the chance of being prime minister). Blunder Number 6 was the decision of the party not to join, but merely to support from outside, the present Congress-led government in New Delhi. Blunders 5 and 6 differ from their predecessors in one crucial respect. Those had all to do with extra-territorial allegiances, with placing so-called “proletarian internationalism” (in effect, the interests of Russia or China) above “bourgeois nationalism”. The last two blunders are a consequence of what we might call “proletarian parochialism”, the placing of the presumed regional interests of Bengal and Kerala above the interests of India and Indians as a whole.
From the point of view of the national interest, the left’s decision is undoubtedly to be deplored. For they would have provided a much-needed stiffening to the Central government. The communist ministers would have been among the most articulate and intelligent, and certainly the most honest. They would have shown a complete commitment to maintaining communal harmony. They would have acted as a stable counterpoint to the opportunistic and corrupt allies of the Congress, such as the Rashtriya Janata Dal.
But I believe that from their own point of view too, the decision of the communists to stay away from the government has been a mistake. Here was a chance to put their own pet concerns — agrarian reform, decentralization, employment generation — firmly on the national agenda. Here was an opportunity to make their talented leaders known and admired outside their bases in Kerala and West Bengal. By participating actively and creatively in government, the communists could have become, in both senses of the word, a properly national political formation.
Like its predecessors, Historic Blunder Number 6 was committed only after much agonized debate among cadre and leaders. So were all the others. As Rudrangshu Mukherjee has pointed out in these columns, those early blunders were bitterly opposed by major communist leaders, such as P.C. Joshi and S.A. Dange. Doubtless, there were also some honourable dissenters this time around. I rather suspect Jyoti Basu was one of them. As he was last time, too. Then, it took five years and more before he was able to tell us it was a “mistake”. Now, party discipline does not permit him to express his dissent in public. But this writer is bound by no such discipline. Let it be said — the decision not to join the government was a blunder of the first magnitude.