| Watching the replay
[History] Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or if still
In memory only, reconsidered passion.
— T.S.Eliot, “Gerontion”
Once upon a time, a man called P.C. Joshi had a dream. Joshi, now a forgotten name except among a handful of aging admirers, was for a long time the general secretary of the Communist Party of India. In 1948, he was hounded out of his own party and worked out of a hideout in Kyd Street in Calcutta. He was driven out because that year the CPI decided that independence was a betrayal, Jawaharlal Nehru no more than “a running dog of imperialism’’ and India ripe for an armed insurrection. The directive, as was usual, came from Moscow and was ruthlessly implemented in India by B.T. Randive, the new general secretary. Joshi was not only thrown out but was pilloried and slandered, even by young comrades he himself had brought into the party. He was later to be rehabilitated in the CPI but never quite recovered his authority and influence.
Joshi’s dream was that the communists and the Congress working together would be able to build a just and fair society and polity in India. The communists should be part of the national mainstream; otherwise they ran the danger of being marginalized and of being cut off from their national roots. The Joshi line, as it came to be called within party circles, advanced the thesis that Nehru should be supported but pressure should be mounted to make reforms in government and in society. The communists were in a position to mount such pressure by joining hands with the “progressive’’ elements within the Congress and thus strengthening Nehru’s hands. Joshi advocated a national front at the core of which would be Congress-communist unity. He was fond of saying that the communists should be the mahout of the Congress elephant.
One suspects that Joshi, if there is a paradise for communists, is having a good laugh there today. The wheel of history, with an irony that is Clio’s second name, has turned full circle.
It could be said that what Joshi dreamt is finally coming true in a different time and political context. The left, an umbrella that brings under it communists and non-communists, has sufficient numbers in the Lok Sabha to make possible a Congress-led ministry. The left’s support to the Congress is critical for the Congress to stake claim to government formation. Within or without the government, the left is the Congress’s most significant supporter. The spearhead of the left is the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a formation within the communist movement in India which had always steadfastly opposed the Joshi line. That is the nub of the irony.
It is important to underline the domestic and the global context of the Joshi line. It was based, of course, on a particular assessment of the national movement and of the ideological orientation of Nehru. More than that, it was moulded by a degree of optimism and hope about the future. The Congress and politics in general were yet to be completely tainted by greed and scandal. There were people in politics with unimpeachable credentials, and communists were the first to be counted in this list. Globally, the Soviet Union was on the ascendant, as was the ideology of socialism. Stalin’s crimes against humanity were yet to be widely known and the Soviet record against Nazism had deflected attention away from the false trials and purges of the Thirties. Even outside the communist movement, there were people around who still believed in socialism and the planned economy. Jawaharlal Nehru was one, and the most relevant one for Joshi and his supporters.
In short, the context was fundamentally different from what prevails now. Globally, socialism is no more than a vanished dream. The socialist experiment in Russia stands at the dock of history for having perpetrated horrors that parallel Nazi atrocities. Only a 21st century Don Quixote believes in the planned economy, and charges at the market economy. Within India, the Congress is no longer the force it was under Nehru. Cynicism, rather than hope, is the prevailing mood. Politics and politicians, including those of the left, no longer command respect.
Today, the left has sufficient numbers in the Lok Sabha to make a difference. This is a luxury that communists in Joshi’s time did not enjoy. But communist rhetoric today is caught in a time warp. It is concerned with issues like stalling the reform process, which is to hark back to the Fifties when a planned economy was considered a viable alternative. There are elements of the absurd and the hypocritical in this because in West Bengal, where the communists have been in power for over 25 years, the chief minister is busy wooing foreign business corporations to invest in the state. It is an odd situation that when the left had the inclination it did not have the numbers. Now it has the numbers but lacks the inclination to join the government and play a critical role in national life. It is reluctant to assume the responsibility that history has offered to it.
Whether the CPI(M) politburo and central committee realize it or not, the left has a role to play now in Indian politics. The most important item on the political agenda is very clear. The sangh parivar must be kept away permanently from political power and its cultural influence must be eroded. The opportunity to do this has been offered on a platter by the Indian electorate and it cannot be frittered away through petty bickering and bargaining. Both the Congress and the communists need each other because they are the only two political formations that are committed to a secular agenda. To argue now about what will happen in assembly elections in Kerala and West Bengal where the left and the Congress are pitted against each other will be akin to seeing the trees and missing the wood. The challenge before the left is to use the economic reforms and globalization to remove poverty and deprivation. This is the mandate of the common people for the left. The left will betray the mandate if it continues to shirk responsibility.
The CPI(M) has an antipathy towards the Congress. Indeed, that antipathy is its birthmark. There were other aspects of its making that it has successfully sloughed off, especially after its experience in West Bengal. It has become investor-friendly and pro-capital in the state. It needs now to look at the bigger national picture and abandon its anti-Congressism. It has already taken a step in that direction by deciding that it will support a Congress government. It needs also to partake of the responsibility of leading the country, which it refuses to do. If it does not do so at this important political juncture, when will it ever do so' It cannot keep to itself the privilege of saying no and withdrawing support without having shared the responsibility that comes with power.
PCJ — as Joshi was fondly known — believed that the undivided CPI could command into its fold the best and the brightest. He thus “lit up the lives’’ of some, as one of his acolytes once wrote, dedicating a book to him. Of no communist leader today can this be said. This is not a statement on an individual but a sad comment on a movement that has lost its moral authority. Its stands perilously close today to losing its political influence as well. Maybe Joshi is not laughing in paradise.