The Asian Age, Feb 28, 2016

The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left By Praful Bidwai Rs 599

When business is as usual, the dilemma of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and, by extension, of the parliamentary political parties that can broadly be categorised as the Left is to find a comprehensive resolution that captures the theory as well as the practice of doing the impossible — finding a way of straddling electoral politics with its continuous compromises and the ideology of an emancipating revolution.

The Left has put winning elections by, sometimes, building uneasy partnerships to defend secular democracy and to foil the Bharatiya Janata Party’s designs ahead of its revolution agenda.

In the entirely unexpected convulsions that have gripped the nation and public imagination after events in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Left, both the parliamentary as well as non-party political, represented by Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya, each with a different but intractably Left allegiance, find that they have been tossed into the deep end without warning and preparation. It is certain that Praful Bidwai, author of the posthumously published The Phoenix Moment, would have been exhilarated by the sudden change in the Left’s fortunes, because he began his book lamenting that Left-wing politics has not flourished in India as a “vital source of legitimacy” even though it was “once a rainbow comprising breathtakingly different currents.”

Now, in the contest between the Left and the rest versus the Bharatiya Janata Party and its mother node, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, about nationalism, there is a sudden closing of ranks. This has happened without the luxury of time-consuming and tortured internal debate which suggests that the Left as a whole finds itself on the other side of the barricade in the defence of democracy and freedom, against what public intellectual and economist Professor Prabhat Patnaik called “insurrection” by the bourgeois-authoritarian axis. Bidwai would have revelled in the fact that the Left has been pitchforked out of the gnawing-at-the-innards splits and acrimony over theory as well as practice that has, up until this moment, paralysed it to really be an ideological alternative and fulfilling its responsibilities.

It is extraordinary prescience that Bidwai wrote about the existential crisis of the Left and its failure to “develop an India-specific understanding of caste, gender, tribal and ethnic identities in relation to class, nor a political strategy that could help translate that understanding into a realisable, practical project,” worried that it would not find a way out of the maze. He would have been delighted that the Left is now engaged, in practice and at the theoretical level, in closing the gaps, and getting on with the task of leading with an alternative ideological and political charter.

In the clash over defining the nation and working out who is anti-national, what is democracy and freedom, all political parties are engaged in a discourse that extends all the way up to the top of the economic, social and political pile as well as all the way down to the most vulnerable, represented by Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad University and Mr Kumar’s incarceration. Both are students from categories defined as backward and poor.

It is unsurprising that the howling hooligans of the suspiciously named Aam Aadmi Sena turned up at the CPI(M) headquarters in New Delhi and defaced its signboard with “Pakistan zindabad” graffiti. As the biggest and most visible Left party, the CPI(M) symbolises the polar extreme from the politics, practices and ideology of the BJP-RSS. In the battle over the project of nationalism, this attack was inevitable, for in BJP-RSS rhetoric, Communists are anti-nationals, because their ideology is “imported”. History had not sprung its surprising challenge to the idea of India as a nation when Bidwai — journalist, activist and author — died. Nostalgic about the Left’s contributions in the past, worried about its future, he looked at the period after 2004 as a long slog, to get over which he created a solution that linked the parliamentary Left parties to the progressive currents outside these parties through a “Peoples Charter” that could be adopted by a “New Left.” Bidwai separated the issues into five parallel tracks. Each axis had its own specific problem and he looked at different possibilities and solutions. He could not have anticipated that the Left would be pulled into the centre by the BJP-RSS that needs an enemy against which it can revive itself as the protector of the Hindu nation.

Responsibility has been thrust on the CPI and the CPI(M) by the events in JNU, Jadavpur and Hyderabad University. The “tragic moment” from Bidwai’s perspective would have been if the mantle for radical social, economic, political and cultural activism had passed away from the party-political Left to popular, rights-based movements and a host of grassroots organisations that mobilise on issues of “gut-level importance to the poor and the under-privileged”.

As the nation seeks to define and defend a nationalism that is consistent with the expansion of democratic rights and freedoms, it is certain that the Left, in Bidwai’s words, “will not be the same social and political entity it was 20 years, even 10 years ago.” Sadly, Bidwai is no more and will not be witness and reporter to what follows.

Shikha Mukerjee is a senior journalist in Kolkata