Book Review: Saving What’s Left (Ajith Pillai)
While Praful Bidwai’s critique of the Left is sympathetic at one level, it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to addressing flaws that have dogged the communist movement in India
By Ajith Pillai
Those who have followed Praful Bidwai’s writings would be well aware of the fact that he was not only sympathetic towards Left ideology but also reposed immense faith in its ability to bring about social transformation and equitable and inclusive growth. Yet, despite his own commitment, he was never blind to the flaws in the functioning of communist parties in India which were supposed to translate Marxian concepts into contemporary reality. In fact, more than anything else, his book, The Phoenix Moment—Challenges Confronting the Indian Left reflects the writer’s honesty and objectivity in critiquing the Left and is thankfully, not an attempt to justify or whitewash some of its cardinal failings.
Praful Bidwai is frank in describing the shortcomings of the Left
Bidwai says that the Left did a blunder when it stood with the BJP in opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal. Once in power in 2014, the BJP endorsed this very deal.
Having said that, Bidwai’s fervent hope is that communism will bounce back as he believes it is “indispensable to the health of Indian democracy. If it did not exist, we would have to invent it”. The book’s title is self-explanatory. It’s the author’s effort to look at what such a reinvention entails.
HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE But in doing that, the writer does not attempt to editorialize on the issue. That would have been the easy way out. Instead, Bidwai has taken the trouble to delve deep into history and look at what went wrong with the Left in post-Independent India and how past mistakes can be and ought to be rectified.
This is an in-depth study which may upset some of the author’s communist friends, particularly politicians. But as constructive criticism, it should be welcomed because Bidwai is not treading the clichéd path taken by right-wing pundits—failure of collectivism, state intervention and the public sector—when they attempt to run down the Left. On the contrary, this book is an attempt to see what role the communist movement can play in our present times when several contexts have sharply changed following the breaking of the Berlin Wall and the advent of globalization.
According to Bidwai, instead of waking up to the changes, Indian communists worked largely within a framework “inherited from the Communist International” some 90 years ago. It went by a rigid formulaic understanding of various issues, based on the experience in another era in another context. It is this adherence to outdated concepts and style of functioning that has reduced the Left to the margins. That is why he makes a fervent plea for the emergence of a New Left free from the baggage of the past.
The author gives a candid insight into what went fundamentally wrong in the Left’s dogged adoption of old models. He says in the book: “The Left embraced the notion of socialism which led it to regard the Soviet Union, and later China, as models, which they are not. It has long failed to define a coherent project of socialism for the twenty first century, and to identify possible pathways that might connect it to the present. The Left did not develop an India-specific understanding of caste, gender, tribal and ethnic identities, nor a political strategy that could help translate that understanding into a realizable, practical project. At another level, it lacked an analysis of the specificities of Indian capitalism, the nature of the state, and the character of the ruling class, especially since the 1990s.”
LEFT EROSION The writer’s criticism of the Left is indeed sharp. Bidwai does not spare words in recounting the Left’s erosion in electoral terms even in Kerala where it once was an unassailable force. It now remains content with sharing power alternatively with the Congress-led United Democratic Front. In West Bengal, it suffered an ignominious rout at the hands of the Trinamool Congress and is yet to recover and its cadres are demoralized.
Opposition leader and CPM member VS Achuthanandan addressing a dharna in Thiruvananthapuram
He also notes that the links of the communist parties with trade unions and kisan sabhas have weakened over years, corroding its mass base. Meanwhile, the Hindu right, says Bidwai, “has come to power nationally under one of its most rabidly communal leaders. The Right’s ascendancy will mount further pressure on Left, aggravating its crisis.” One of the historic blunders of the Left which the writer includes is the one in 1996 when a non-Congress-non-BJP Third Front was unanimous in its choice of Jyoti Basu as the prime minister. This was an opportunity for the Left to play the lead role in the government. But the choice of occupying 7 Race Course Road was not left to Basu but to the CPM politburo. It voted in favor of being part of the central government but the central committee of the party overruled it and the Left missed the bus.
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has captured West Bengal’s imagination
The other blunder, according to Bidwai, was the position the communists took vis-à-vis the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2007-2008. In this case, the Left stood with the BJP in opposing it.
According to the author, it was a tactical error since after coming to power in 2014, the BJP did a U-turn and “enthusiastically” endorsed the very deal it had opposed for purely political reasons.
The book comes at a time when it is a make-or-break moment for the Left. Bidwai’s burden is that it either introspects on its flaws and weaknesses and undertakes a “radical course correction” or persists with what it is doing now and maintains the status quo. If it chooses the latter option, then the downward slide may not be arrested. In fact, the process will only speed up.
This engaging book will, no doubt, trigger a debate among those interested in the health of the Left movement in the country. Bidwai, who passed away in June at the age of 66, will be happy if that happens.
One must end by pointing out that the size of the book must not intimidate prospective readers. Of its 586 pages, only 352 constitute the main text and the preface. The rest is devoted to notes and appendices.