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LEFT BEHIND - Where are the comrades when one needs them?

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 8.09.14

Where’s the Left when you need it? Time was when you didn’t have to be a party member or a fellow traveller to admire its virtues. After Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when Sikhs were being attacked and killed in their thousands at the Congress’s prompting, Jyoti Basu’s steely peace-keeping in Calcutta was the stuff of urban legend. This was 1984; the Left Front government’s great experiment in land reform, Operation Barga, was yet to run its course. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was a redistributionist, social democratic party, committed to secularism: every parliamentary system ought to have one.

Thirty years later, with an explicitly majoritarian right wing party in power in Delhi, the Left is neither a counterweight nor a rallying point. It is a small political rump, which controls ten seats in Parliament and one provincial government, tiny Tripura. What happened? In Indian politics, only catastrophic defeat brings ‘introspection’. Even then, the analyses and mea culpas come from apostates, fellow travellers and academics, not from the party faithful. Despite the 2014 general elections, where it was nearly wiped out in West Bengal, the CPI(M) has officially learnt nothing. Like a punch-drunk southpaw after a standing count, it keeps leading with its left, convinced that with Marx in its corner it’s bound to win. Outside the party, though, reality-based explanations of its political and electoral decline have begun to surface. But first, the debacle.

The Left Front as a whole won two parliamentary seats in West Bengal out of 42, exactly as many as the Bharatiya Janata Party. To rub salt into this wound, the BJP almost trebled its 2009 vote share: from 6.5 per cent to 17 per cent. The BJP won a larger percentage of the urban vote than the CPI(M) did; more ominously, it won more first-time voters. Not only did the CPI(M) lose the cities, it lost the race for young voters, which doesn’t bode well for its electoral future. In terms of vote share, the CPI(M) remains the second largest party in the state, with nearly 30 per cent of the vote, but this is cold comfort. A cursory comparison with the 2009 election shows the BJP on a steep upswing; it also shows the CPI(M) in hectic decline, from 43.3 per cent in 2009, to 29 per cent in 2014. In percentage terms, the CPI(M)’s losses seem to correspond with the BJP’s gains.

It’s a testament to the Left Front’s demoralization and the BJP’s new confidence that the BJP’s leadership has been quick to frame the 2016 assembly elections as a contest between the BJP and the Trinamul Congress. Woundingly, Mamata Banerjee seems to concur with this assessment; she offered the Left Front a joint front against the BJP. With its mortal enemy offering it a junior partnership in the fight against a party that it considers its real political foe, the CPI(M)’s cup is full and overflowing.

How did it come to this? The temptation to say ‘Nandigram’ or ‘Singur’ is understandable, but it ought to be resisted. The violence inflicted by the Left Front government upon its principal rural constituencies in the name of investment and industrial growth is a symptom of the Left Front’s political ossification, not its cause. After the Left Front’s great breakthrough in the matter of land reform, Operation Barga, wound down in the mid-1980s, the ruling coalition used the political credit it had earned to transform itself into a political machine dedicated to preserving the new status quo.

It succeeded in creating a structure of patronage and clientage so intricate and all-encompassing that the party’s writ ran all the way from the Writers’ Buildings to the smallest rural panchayat. In a forthcoming book, Government as Practice (Cambridge, 2015), Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya has a striking phrase for this process — the “governmentalization of the locality”. Instead of localizing government — that is, decentralizing power as a democratic socialist party might do — it subordinated the locality to a state machinery controlled by its apparatchiks and cadre. Ironically, this party of the Marxist Left produced a political apparatus more accurately described by Lewis Namier’s patron-client template (first developed to explain aristocratic parliamentary politics in 18th-century England), than any class analysis.

Why did the Left Front government think it could expropriate ten thousand acres of agricultural land in Nandigram for a SEZ without consulting the peasantry that this would displace, a class that had been its electoral backbone since Operation Barga? Because it had been years since the Left Front had thought of Bengal’s peasantry as a class capable of class action; by 2007, it had become used to thinking of peasants as dependent clients. Like all patrons, it expected obedience from its clients; when its clients were recalcitrant, it made an example of them. The howling irony of the Left Front government sending in thousands of policemen and hundreds of party lumpen to violently punish a peasantry, often a Muslim peasantry, for trying to hold on to land it held because of Operation Barga, was lost on Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The CPI(M)’s political derangement in 2007 stemmed from the gulf between its political practice and its theoretical sense of itself. It was a successful, even admirable social-democratic party, practically committed to parliamentary politics, but ideologically contemptuous of its bourgeois nature. It was a party that believed that its understanding of Marxist prescription and teleology raised it above the ruck of populist parliamentary politics.

The CPI(M)’s dread of going native, its fear of being lost in some smelly Lohia-ite swamp, were it to cut the umbilical cord that connected it to the bracing foreignness of the original German, created a disabling fastidiousness. Officially, the party supported affirmative action on the basis of caste, but its heart wasn’t in it: to recognize caste as the basis for political action was to pander to false consciousness, to betray the universal salience of class.

Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya points out that the political penalties that the Left is paying for its dogmatism about class have grown with economic liberalization. Such urban job creation as has occurred in this time has been in the skilled and unskilled service sector. This has spawned not the industrial proletariat of communist lore but a fragmented, dispersed workforce whose principal enemy isn’t capitalism but the precariousness of urban life and its anomie.

The spectre of disease without a public health system, the lack of access to an affordable education, the shortage of cheap credit, these scarcities are the enemy and the working urban poor use the solidarities of caste, community and region to deal with them. Trapped in its straitjacket of class, the Left has failed to mobilize these networks for its political ends.

The Left’s deafness to caste isn’t merely ideological; it is sociological. Despite its place on the political Left, the CPI(M)’s leadership, specially that of its West Bengal chapter, has been historically upper-caste and Hindu to an extent that would embarrass the BJP. And yet the party remains happily unselfconscious about the glaring absence of minorities, Dalits and tribals in its leadership echelon. It is happy to be led by charter members of the bhadralok such as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Nirupam Sen, Surjya Kanta Mishra, Manik Sarkar, Biman Bose and Brinda Karat, to name only the most recent intake of the CPI(M)’s politburo. The political commitment or integrity of these leaders isn’t at issue here. The question is simple: how can all the Bengalis in a communist party’s politburo be uniformly middle-class?

Dismissing this criticism as the politics of tokenism doesn’t work. A party whose preferred form of address is ‘comrade’ shouldn’t dismiss the symbolic value of inclusiveness and fraternity. The Indian National Congress recognized as early as the late 19th century the political value of performing its pluralism. To that end, it deliberately elected as diverse a succession of presidents as it could — Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, Bengalis, Maharashtrians — so that it could be seen to be representing the census diversity of India. For the CPI(M) to be blind to the bhadralok monoculture of its politburo in 2014 is perverseness on an epic scale.

The consequences of this blindness aren’t just symbolic. Critics point out that the party leadership that implemented Operation Barga didn’t, with one or two exceptions, have much land to lose. Conversely, this leadership’s failure to invest in education, sanitation and medical care (West Bengal, after three and a half decades of Left Front rule, languishes in the middle of the provincial league table in these areas) can be plausibly attributed to a comfortable bhadralok leadership that had no personal experience of deprivation. It failed to see how critical a functional school, an indoor toilet and decent medical provisioning were for subaltern groups looking for dignity, social mobility and a level playing field.

The tragedy of the Left in Bengal is the spectacle of a once-radical party made provincial by the elitist dogmatism of its leadership. The CPI(M) is even linguistically parochial, a Bengali party for Bengali voters. Mamata Banerjee speaks publicly in Hindi much more often than any senior leader of the CPI(M) in West Bengal does. Little wonder that an industrial constituency like Asansol, which ought to be a communist party’s pocket borough, votes for the BJP because the upcountry immigrant groups that constitute its working class find that the Left Front literally doesn’t speak their language.

In the assembly elections after the Nandigram violence, one result summed up the way in which the Left Front had been punished for its hubris. Firoza Bibi, the mother of a man shot by the police in Nandigram defeated the Left Front’s candidate in that constituency by nearly 40,000 votes. Firoza Bibi was a peasant, a Muslim and a woman. When someone like her sits in the CPI(M)’s highest councils instead of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee or Brinda Karat, we will know that the party is serious about rediscovering itself as the party of the working poor. As it stands, the leadership of the Left in Bengal is privileged, not plebeian — more Marie Antoinette than Joan of Arc.