[Marxism] "The Indian Left's tightrope act" (by Praful Bidwai)
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Thu Nov 23 23:44:29 MST 2006
The News International
Nov 3, 2006
THE INDIAN LEFT'S TIGHTROPE ACT
by Praful Bidwai
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a
researcher and peace and human-rights activist
based in Delhi
As foreign secretary-level talks between India
and Pakistan approach, a remarkably hawkish lobby
is emerging in India which opposes any
reconciliation between the two governments. This
vocal lobby, consisting of former Indian high
commissioners to Pakistan (G Parthasarathy and
Satish Chandra) and intelligence chiefs (B Raman
and A K Doval) would like to hold up progress in
bilateral relations until Islamabad delivers on
its "anti-terrorism" commitment to the hawks'
satisfaction. It blames Pakistani agencies for
the recent terrorist attacks in India.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is backing this lobby
increasingly overtly. Even yesterday's Hindutva
doves like Atal Behari Vajpayee have joined the
Besides the civil society-based peace movement,
the only resolute and consistent opposition to
the hawks comes from the organised Indian Left,
comprising the Communist Party of India
(Marxist), the Communist Party of India, the
Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward
It is important to understand the Left's
positions and its dilemmas in dealing with the
ruling United Progressive Alliance which it
supports from the outside.
The Left is unhappy that the UPA has not
fulfilled the promises of its own National Common
Minimum Programme. The NCMP promised to "pursue
an independent foreign policy and promote
[global] multipolarity." But it has tailed the
United States and supported unipolarity. Its
economic and social policies also seriously
deviate from the NCMP's promise of egalitarian
development and re-assertion of secularism.
The UPA won the 2004 elections because the public
was disgusted with the BJP's sectarian and
communally divisive politics--revealed starkly in
the Gujarat carnage of 2002. The electorate also
felt insulted at the ludicrous "India Shining"
Yet, the UPA hasn't implemented its mandate.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hasn't even once
reiterated the UPA's commitment to secure justice
for the Gujarat victims, tens of thousands of
whom remain refugees in their own land. The UPA
has passively watched Narendra Milosevic Modi's
sabotage of the criminal justice process in
Gujarat. Barring the National Rural Employment
Guarantee and Right to Information Acts, the
Alliance hasn't imparted substance to its social
and economic promises. (Even on the RTI, it's
dragging its feet.) The UPA's overall economic
policy isn't sharply distinguishable from the
This highlights the Left parties' predicament.
They have acquired unprecedented relevance. In
Parliament, they have grown to the highest-ever
figure of 61 MPs. They are acknowledged even by
conservative politicians as the UPA's
Yet, their well-considered pleas on food
security, labour laws, urban planning, and the
rights to education and healthcare are ignored.
The UPA's policies on rehabilitation, affirmative
action, tribal rights, etc. differ sharply from
Nevertheless, the Left cannot withdraw support to
the UPA and risk the BJP's return. It must
perform a tightrope walk and continually mount
pressure on the UPA through dialogue, advocacy,
lobbying and protests. This difficult exercise
also carries an additional cost--subordinating
the Left's core concerns, programmes and
organisational priorities to the task of keeping
the BJP out of power.
It's therefore appropriate that the CPI and the
CPI (M) are undertaking "serious introspection"
on their functioning and internal structures.
Such reflection is indispensable if the Left is
to preserve its distinctive political identity.
The Left, despite its weaknesses, has played a
uniquely worthy and irreplaceable role in
India--as the voice of the underprivileged, as a
force for democratisation and for extension of
freedom, and as a repository of progressive
ideas. If the Left didn't exist, we would have to
invent it! Three questions demand the Left's
serious reflection. Is it setting an example of
good governance in West Bengal and Kerala, which
is worthy of emulation? How can it achieve a
major objective it set itself decades
ago--namely, build/rebuild a base in the Hindi
belt? And what's its strategy for expanding its
political reach and inducting new cadres?
The first question calls for candid answers. In
West Bengal, the Left is drifting Rightwards. It
has revived the state's long-stagnant
economy--but at an onerous cost to its own
integrity and its image among the
underprivileged. As Chief Minister Buddhadeb
Bhattacharjee said in July, he's essentially
following a "capitalist model."
This model is based upon accumulation by
dispossession and impoverishment of the poor,
through cleansing cities of slumdwellers and
creating special economic zones with tax-breaks
or dilution of labour laws.
Although the Left's base in Bengal has widened,
it's shifting. An April 2006 poll showed a five
per cent adverse swing in its support among the
poor, and a 17 to 18 per cent gain among the rich.
Kerala is different. There, the Left parties have
recovered their base among the poor and religious
minorities. They even defeated the Muslim League
in Muslim-dominated Malappuram. The Kerala
problem is essentially internal to the CPI (M): a
rift between the V S Achuthanandan and Pinarayi
Vijayan factions. Achuthanandan's elevation as
CM, albeit without control over portfolios like
Home, has left his rivals fuming--and plotting.
The factionalism extends to governmental
Take the Hindi belt. The CPI was once formidably
strong in Bihar and in central and eastern Uttar
Pradesh. But it suffered massive haemorrhage in
Bihar. In UP, its entire unit was swallowed by
the Samajwadi Party. The CPI is slowly rebuilding
its base in these states.
The CPI (M) has had no major Hindi-speaking base,
but is seeking small gains through temporary
alliances with Centrist leaders. This brings it
into a clash with the CPI. The two shouldn't
drift apart; they should move towards
unification. Their original programmatic
differences have become irrelevant. They share
each other's theoretical understanding, doctrine
The Left does face an uphill task in the Hindi
belt given the hardening of caste politics,
especially in UP. It cannot possibly relate to
caste like other parties, without abandoning its
distinctive class-oriented approach. The Left
must also develop a credible strategy of
self-rejuvenation and expansion. As of now, the
CPI (M) has 9.5 lakh members and the CPI nearly 6
lakhs. Their membership has grown by 8 to 10 per
cent over the past two years.
This is impressive when seen against the decline
of Communist parties the world over after the
collapse of the Soviet Union. It speaks to the
Indian CPs' resilience. After stagnation between
the mid-1990s and 2002, the CPI has made
impressive membership gains, especially in Kerala
and Bengal. But 18 per cent of its members don't
renew their membership. The CPI (M) too suffers
from significant non-renewal, especially in Tamil
Nadu and Kerala.
The primary reason why the Left parties have not
grown more rapidly in the Hindi belt despite
agrarian distress, unemployment and frustration
among the youth is their "image burden". They're
seen as belonging to a long-bygone era of statism
and public sector unions.
This image must be corrected. The Left must
reassert its relevance in contemporary terms--as
a force immersed in a democratic culture, with
one of the longest international histories of
working a parliamentary system.
The Left parties must develop innovative
solutions to today's problems by putting
flesh-and-blood people before capital. They must
formulate alternatives in health, education,
housing, water and electricity supply, and in
macroeconomic policy. Only thus can they
implement their agendas of secularism, justice
and social cohesion and contribute to
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