The Hindu / Literary Review, April 2, 2016

Can the Indian Left seize its Phoenix Moment?

   G. Sampath

The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting the Indian Left; Praful Bidwai, HarperCollins, Rs. 599.

According to Bidwai, whether or not the Left manages to arrest its descent into political oblivion would depend on its ability to honestly address five fundamental problems.

The decline of the Left in India is now an old story. From being the largest opposition party in independent India’s first general election, in a span of 65 years, it has dwindled to a token presence in Parliament. Communist ideologues like to attribute this decline to external factors — such as the growth of consumerism and an aspirational mindset, change in the nature of the job market following globalisation, rightwing brain-washing, etc. But as Praful Bidwai demonstrates beyond doubt in The Phoenix Moment: Challenges Confronting The the Indian Left, the single biggest driver of the Left’s decline has been its own failures, or as some might say, betrayals.

Divided into eight chapters and spanning 500-odd pages buttressed by voluminous endnotes The Phoenix Moment begins with the founding of the Communist Party of India in 1925, and concludes with the Left’s battle for survival following the 2014 electoral rout.

This masterful survey dwells primarily on the fortunes of the Parliamentary Left, steering clear of the non-Parliamentary currents. Had the party Left — which essentially means the CPI (M) and the CPI — focussed its energies on strengthening the Left as a movement rather than on winning state elections, they would have been in much better shape today, argues Bidwai.

Bidwai pays close attention to the Left’s record when in power. In Bengal, where it ruled for a record 34 years, it had a great opportunity to set an inspiring example for the working classes in the rest of the country. But after initial enthusiasm for social reform, as Bidwai documents, the Left turned increasingly conservative. Even as it mastered the art and science of winning elections, it neglected its constituency. This neglect culminated in the ultimate betrayals of Singur and Nandigram, where a nominally communist government sided with its class adversaries (foreign capital) to brutalise its own support base (peasants and agricultural workers).

The Left had a comparatively better record in Kerala. But here too, its success was short-lived, as it began to kowtow to the electoral calculus instead of sticking to its programmatic agenda of establishing the hegemony of working class interests.

Both in Kerala and Bengal, the Left’s short-sightedness led it into mistakes such as appeasing communal elements, ignoring ecological degradation, and calibrating its land reforms so as to not disturb the structure of power relations between the land-owning classes and the landless masses. Since its interventions were incremental rather than structural in nature, the Left’s mandate of social transformation remained a non-starter. As a result, it could neither retain nor expand its support base.

According to Bidwai, whether or not the Left manages to arrest its descent into political oblivion would depend on its ability to honestly address five fundamental problems that have dogged it from the very beginning. The first is the principle of democratic centralism, which has put a lock on dissent, debate, and inner party democracy, thereby condemning it to persist in folly even when said folly is evident to the entire world.

The second is its failure to address the caste question, both in terms of a lack of representation of the non-savarna castes in the top leadership, and a reluctance to invest its energies in Dalit emancipatory struggles.

The third is the absence of engagement with people’s mobilisations that it does not control — be it of safai karamcharis, adivasis, or anti-nuclear protests. Fourth, is the lack of strategic unity, not just between the constituents of the Left Front, but also within the individual constituents.

And lastly, the absence of a clear political vision in terms of what the Left should aim to achieve via the Parliamentary route, and how these objectives relate to the struggles waged by non-Parliamentary Left groupings.

Bidwai concludes his book on an optimistic note, with a series of suggestions that could be construed as a road map for Left revival. Their overarching theme is that the Left should base its political project on the aspirations of the working people instead of some doctrinaire revolutionary agenda. This, of course, runs counter to the party Left’s political instincts, which look at doctrine for direction.

But the funny part, as Bidwai demonstrates, is that the Left parties, till date, have not come up with their own analysis of the Indian ruling class, nor a political vision that is home-crafted. Their doctrinaire politics, imported wholesale from Stalinist Russia nearly a century ago, have not served them well.

Now, after almost a century of training itself not to think, and not to venture beyond narrow Parliamentary politics, can the Left undertake a bold and honest introspection with a potential for radical course correction? Going by the evidence of the last one year, this looks unlikely, says Bidwai. He pins his hopes on the potentialities of an Indian New Left — on the logic that even if the party Left fades into geriatric irrelevance, progressive politics would remain as relevant as ever.

With the entire nation recently enthralled by the speech of a CPI student wing leader, the publication of this book could not have been better timed. India’s Left parties should make it compulsory reading for each and every member of their politburos and central committees.

The Left’s phoenix moment is here. The future of democracy in India depends a great deal on whether Left can seize it.