A remarkable result was thrown up in the recent Lok Sabha elections by the Mumbai North East constituency: Medha Patkar, perhaps the best-known ‘civil society’ activist of the country, who was contesting on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket there, lost her deposit. This was particularly striking because Maharashtra is her home state, Marathi is her mother tongue, and Mumbai a metropolis where people are likely to have read and known about her struggles.
Lest it be thought that her poor performance was because the main location of her struggle was far from Mumbai, it is worth noting that S.P. Udayakumar, the leader of the mass agitation against the Kudankulam nuclear plant, which had attracted the entire country’s attention, also contested the election on an AAP ticket from Tamil Nadu, and also lost his deposit.
This does not, in my view, indicate any lack of respect for these activists, or lack of sympathy for their struggles. I do not believe that Medha Patkar would not command the respect of a sixth of those casting their votes in Mumbai North East (which is the proportion of votes required for saving the deposit); she undoubtedly would, and profound respect at that. What the result indicates is that people draw a distinction between a worthy leader of a movement and a candidate who provides a governing option, and vote only for the latter.
This phenomenon has been visible in other countries for a long time. For instance, in the old days, when the Communist Party was a force in Britain, it was very common for workers to choose communists to lead their trade unions since they had the reputation of being tough, honest, and uncompromising on workers’ interests; but the same workers would never vote for the Communist Party in the general elections, and preferred Labour Party candidates instead. They respected communists in the trade union movement but did not consider them a ‘governing option’.
In India, by contrast, the communists have been seen, in some parts of the country, not just as constituting a movement, but also as a governing option. But, curiously, not in other parts. In Tamil Nadu for instance, where the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has more than a lakh of members (the largest number it has after Kerala and West Bengal), where party branches exist in almost every village, and where the party has played a major role in the socio-cultural life of the state, leading powerful agitations not just in the economic but also in the social sphere (including recently against the “two glass system” in local tea and coffee shops which is a hangover from the days of “untouchability”), it fares poorly in elections, except when it is in alliance with one or the other of the Dravidian parties. People may respect or join its movements, but do not consider it a governing option.
Why do people consider some parties as providing a governing option and not others? Or, since, barring a few cases where parties have been formed by important film-stars using the ‘fan club’ chain, most major parties have emerged from movements of one kind or the other (including fascist movements), why do some movements make a transition to being governing options but not others?
Fortuitous circumstances certainly play a role in such transitions. In 1977, for instance, if the Janata Party had not rejected the request of the Left Front, by then greatly weakened by the semi-fascist terror it faced in the 1970s, for 100 seats under a seat-sharing agreement in West Bengal, forcing the Front to fight on its own in a triangular contest in which it went on to win three-quarters of the seats, it is a moot point if the Left would have emerged as a governing option in the state. In the opposite case, if the Left parties had not insisted on a large number of seats in their negotiations with N.T. Rama Rao for an electoral understanding in Andhra Pradesh, which had once been a Left bastion but by then had ceased to be so, and had settled for fewer seats to preserve the alliance, the Left would have fared much better, and might have succeeded in re-emerging as a governing option in that state. Even Rama Rao’s own essay in politics, which did not come out of any mass movement, might have remained a still-born one if Rajiv Gandhi had not publicly humiliated the previous chief minister, T. Anjaiah, and Indira Gandhi had not unceremoniously dismissed him, hurting Telugu pride in the process.
But leaving aside such fortuitous circumstances, and even assuming that the electorate actually gives a particular political party that has emerged out of a movement the mandate to govern, that party itself has to make a transition from being only a movement to being a governing option. This is precisely what the AAP did not do when given the chance; not surprisingly, it was rejected comprehensively in the Lok Sabha elections as a governing option. Whether it makes this transition in the future is besides the point; the transition itself is difficult since it carries with it the risk of compromising on principles.
To say that the transition entails a risk of compromise is not to say that a compromise is inevitable. To ensure that a compromise is not made in the transition from a movement to a governing option, it is necessary that the political party’s theoretical comprehension is carried to a much higher level.
This statement may appear odd at first sight. It is common to see participation in a movement, or leadership over it, as being informed by a theoretical understanding, while being a governing option requires the art of practical politics that is devoid of any theory. ‘Purity’ based on theory in short (or what is commonly referred to as ‘principles’) is contrasted with ‘practical politics’ that is inevitably seen as requiring all sorts of opportunistic compromises (or an abandonment of ‘principles’).
But making this distinction itself is what lies at the root of the problem. It is not ‘practical politics’ per se that necessarily entails an abandonment of ‘principles’; it is ‘practical politics’ uninformed by ‘theory’ that entails this. As the philosopher, Georg Lukács, had once remarked: “[T]he highest level of development of theory is when theory bursts into practice.” If theory is not developed to that level, when practice (or ‘practical politics’) instead becomes purely ad hoc and purely empirical, only then does such practice degenerate into unprincipled opportunism.
Developing theory to the requisite level, to be sure, is not easy, which is why ‘civil society’ organizations prefer to remain ‘pure’, prefer to keep their theoretical endeavour to fairly rudimentary levels, and prefer to rest content with leading movements that never throw up any governing options. One problem with movements that neither themselves make the transition to becoming a governing option, nor have any explicit strategy of forging links with some existing governing option, is that the discontent to which they give expression, the crystallized form which they impart to the grievance of the people, is then utilized by some other, and typically unsavoury, governing option. They become, in effect, the facilitators for the ascendancy of some other governing option, as the anti-corruption movement undoubtedly became for the National Democratic Alliance.
In contrast to ‘civil society’ organizations, the Left, at least in parts of the country, has succeeded in making a transition from a movement to a governing option. But it faces a problem of a different kind (quite apart from the immediate problem of terror which it faces in West Bengal): if the transition from a movement to a governing option is accompanied by an abandonment of the movement, by an exclusive pre-occupation with the governing option role, which is what happens in all established bourgeois parties, even those whose origins lie in movements, then the Left too would become indistinguishable from these established bourgeois parties. It must, in short, combine both the roles, that of being a movement and that of being a governing option, without compromising either. This requires great theoretical depth which again is not easy to acquire but which must be acquired.
Many of the well-wishers of the Left, concerned about its weakened state after the election, and worried about the adverse consequences of such weakening for the struggle for democracy, secularism and social and economic equality, want the Left to ‘reinvent’ itself by getting back to the path of socio-cultural activism. This is certainly necessary, but in the process it must never lose sight of the need perennially to remain a governing option, for otherwise there will be an ‘NGO-ization’ of the Left, the beneficiaries of which will be established bourgeois political formations, especially the unsavoury ones among them that are currently in ascendancy.