Business Standard, December 15, 2015

How the Left was lost In this book, published posthumously, author pulls no punches in detailing the reasons for the "terminal decline" of the Left movement in India

Archis Mohan

THE PHOENIX MOMENT Challenges Confronting the Indian Left Praful Bidwai HarperCollins 586 pages; Rs 599

Praful Bidwai, who died this year, was a rare voice within mainstream English language journalism in India that remained sympathetic to Leftist politics even after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. In this book, published posthumously, he pulls no punches in detailing the reasons for the "terminal decline" of the Left movement in India. His assessments are worth a read because they come from a fellow traveller.

The chief weakness of the Left parties, Bidwai says, was democratic centralism that muzzled dissent. Other reasons that contributed were the inability of the communists to adapt their ideology, unlike Mao Zedong's "Sinification of Marxism", to Indian socio-economic conditions. Communists refused to accept the role of caste and persisted with looking at India through the prism of "class struggle", Bidwai says.

A leadership that primarily comprised of upper castes, particularly in West Bengal, and was drawn from the westernised elite gave strength to the communist movement in India. But the failure to give representation in its top decision-making bodies to Dalits and backward castes meant the communists could never move beyond their areas of influence in Kerala, Bengal, Tripura and some pockets in India. Bidwai explores this failure in detail and is critical of the communists for having opposed B R Ambedkar.

Interestingly, the sharp increase in membership of the two leading communist parties between 2007 and 2011 was something that gave them a false sense of confidence. Bidwai points out how the CPI (M)'s membership increased by 6.4 per cent to reach a peak of 1.045 million, while that of the CPI shot up by 7.4 per cent to reach an all-time high of 666,000 in 2010. Outside of China and Cuba, the only places in the world that the communist parties continued to grow after 1991 were South Africa, Nepal and India.

But these statistics hid the serious crisis facing the Left, which Bidwai fails to catch, of not being able to attract the best talent from universities. The increase in membership was likely a result of the Left parties having turned out their best ever Lok Sabha results, winning 61 seats in 2004, being a key supporter of the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre and when the Left parties still ran governments in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. The inability of the CPI (M) and the CPI to reinvent their ideological underpinnings after the collapse of the Soviet Union may have helped lead to socially aware middle class youth joining non-governmental organisations instead of the communist parties.

There was a time until at least the late 1980s that the Soviet embassy in New Delhi matched the propaganda war against the United States embassy. If the US Embassy had its slickly produced magazine, SPAN , and the American Centers had well-stocked libraries and organised events that afforded Indian youth a peek into the "American way of life", the Soviet Union's soft diplomacy encompassed sports, music, and culture.

Its magazine Soviet Land , published, unlike SPAN, not just in English but also Hindi and other regional languages, was quite popular. The Soviet "Cultural Centres" held free chess coaching classes for the young. Soviet ballet and circus troupes visited India often, while Progress Publishers sold communist literature and stories by Russian authors for children, translated into Indian languages, at throwaway prices.

The USSR's propaganda machinery in India connected with the middle class and its common concerns. That helped communist parties achieve the moral authority to have peasants, working classes and even middle class youth in India dream of an egalitarian state.

But this construct collapsed all too suddenly after 1991. It coincided with India's first moves to shed its 'licence-quota raj' and embark on economic reforms. In one stroke, a middle class that used to be the recruiting ground for future communist leaders was either in love with the promise of consumerism or too cynical about communism.

In one of the more startling observations in the book, Bidwai claims that most communist leaders had never read Marx's Das Kapital. For the Left leaders, Bidwai says, Stalin's "exegeses on Dialectical and Historical Materialism were the final word." Bidwai doesn't mince words on how the CPI leadership took instructions for their revolutionary programme in India directly from Stalin, recounting a 1951 meeting in Moscow.

This made the communist movement take some inexplicable positions. The communists opposed the Quit India Movement of 1942 since the USSR and Britain had become allies by then. In 1947, the B T Ranadive line led to the communists opposing independent India's first government.

In 1962, some within the CPI portrayed India as the aggressor against China. This led to the split of 1964, and the creation of the CPI (M). One common joke in the 1960s was that CPI cadres in Kolkata opened their umbrellas if it rained in Moscow. The CPI supported the Congress during the Emergency. The Left, at least in West Bengal, became so much the establishment that its government ended up killing peasants in Nandigram.

The chapters on the splendid work by Left governments in Kerala in implementing land reforms and improving social indices and its gigantic failure in West Bengal, particularly its piecemeal tenancy reforms, are readable.

What's missing in Bidwai's critique is the human element. A peep into the lives of legendary leaders like S A Dange, P Sundarayya, E M S Namboodiripad, P C Joshi, Jyoti Basu, Harkishan Singh Surjeet and others would have enriched the book.