Praful Bidwai (Feb 26, 2014)


India’s Left parties, among the world’s biggest parties belonging to the Communist tradition, face formidable challenges as they approach the 2014 national election. The election will play a major role in deciding if they can reverse the setbacks they recently suffered, or go into a steep decline, with a fall in membership, decreasing political influence, and growing organisational dissonance.


The Left, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)—the world’s second largest Communist party, next only to the Chinese party—saw its Lok Sabha strength shrink by 60 percent between 2004 and 2009. The Left also lost power in West Bengal and Kerala in 2011.


The loss was especially grievous in West Bengal, India’s fifth most-populous state, where the Left set an unbroken international record of being elected to power for an uninterrupted 34 years. It has since lost village panchayat and municipal elections too.


Any further losses for the Left will have significant implications for Indian politics and society. India’s Left parties continued to grow for two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and were a noteworthy exception to the generalised disintegration of Communist parties the world over.


The Left parties have come to form a distinctive part of the Indian political spectrum, independent of the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and regional/caste-based groupings. They raised their Lok Sabha seat-tally to an all-time high of 61 in 2004.


The Left has been India’s most important political current with a commitment to the uplift of the poor and dispossessed on a radical agenda of social transformation, including land reforms, redistribution-oriented economic policies, and devolution of power to local governments. For seven decades, it has played an important moral, intellectual, cultural and political role disproportionate to its seven-to-ten percent share of the national vote.


The Left emerged as a vocal and consistent critic of neoliberal economic policies precisely when these acquired dominance. It stood firmly for rationality, liberty and emancipation from hierarchy and oppressive traditions.


The Left distinguished itself as a bulwark of secular opposition to Hindutva-based communalism, and an advocate of peace and nuclear disarmament. This helped the Left attract a variety of progressive and secular forces.


That trend could now be upset. The Left parties are in no position to challenge existing power structures through grassroots people’s mobilisations. In the past, such mobilisations preceded and crucially determined their legislative success.


Today, they are groping for an electoral strategy detached from popular mobilisation and trying to build an alternative to Congress- and BJP-led alliances. But a “Third Front” based on an alternative programmatic foundation has not materialised.


All that the four Left parties—comprising the CPM, Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party—have succeeded in putting together is a loose 11-party alliance with regional groupings including the All-India Anna DMK, Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (United) and Biju Janata Dal (which hold power respectively in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha), and the smaller Janata Dal (Secular), Asom Gana Parishad and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha.


The new front is set to hold a convention, give itself a name and issue a declaration on February 25. Although its constituents are sizeable in number and potential political weight, they lack ideological and policy cohesion. They have no organic links or political synergies that can enhance their individual performance in different states.


This loose grouping failed to work out a joint floor strategy in the last Parliament session, and was divided on separate statehood for Telangana. The CPM and CPI, despite being ideologically the least dissimilar of the lot, have sharply divergent positions on Telangana. The two are likely to form diverse alliances for the Lok Sabha election in a divided Andhra.


Some recent opinion polls forecast that the Left’s Lok Sabha tally could decline from the current 24 seats to 15-23 despite alliances with regional parties and a likely recovery in Kerala. Only one poll forecasts a somewhat higher score for the Left (27 seats).


The Left could thus be reduced to just one of many players in India’s electoral politics—unlike 10 years ago, when it was indispensable to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s survival and influenced national economic and social agendas.


The Left’s difficulties are not limited to the electoral sphere. It faces a multi-dimensional crisis of ideology, programmatic perspective and political strategy. The Left parties have not updated their programmes for years—the CPM for 14 years. They adhere to a statist notion of socialism based on the Soviet (and Chinese) models despite their glaring failures and flaws.


They remain vanguardist in their conception of leading mass movements and are often unable to form alliances with autonomous popular movements based on livelihood issues like land acquisition, displacement and destructive industrial, mining, irrigation and energy projects.


The Left has not creatively conceptualised issues like caste, religion and forms of social oppression specific to India, and integrated such understanding with classical class-based Marxist theory. Until recently, it showed little comprehension of patriarchy and gender issues.


The Left continues to be weak on ecological issues. It has failed to generate a model of socialism based on alternative notions of relations between nature, society, production and consumption, which is socially equitable, climate-friendly and environmentally sustainable.


In recent years, the Left parties have virtually abandoned their traditional emphasis on radically reducing India’s enormous and growing wealth and income disparities. Indeed, when in power in the states, especially in West Bengal, the Left accommodated to and often pursued the same corporate-led inequality-increasing neoliberal policies which it assails nationally.


This became painfully evident in the confrontation between the Left and its own constituency of poor peasants at Singur and Nandigram in West Bengal in 2006-08. These crises dented the Left’s credibility and were partially responsible for its debacle in 2011.


Despite its major achievements in Kerala, including the Third World’s best human development record, the Left is rife with dissension and policy confusion. The Left has learnt very few lessons from its mistakes—not least because it follows the doctrine of Democratic Centralism, which effectively forbids free inner-party debate, critical reflection and course correction.


Unless the Left rethinks its ideological and programmatic positions, reconnects itself with grassroots struggles, and develops a new political mobilisation strategy, it cannot resolve its crisis. Such rethinking will be wrenchingly painful. But there is no alternative to it.

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