Mukul Kesavan


Where’s the Left when you need it? Time was when you didn’t have to be  a party member or a fellow traveller to admire its virtues. After  Indira Gandhi’s assassination, when Sikhs were being attacked and  killed in their thousands at the Congress’s prompting, Jyoti Basu’s  steely peace-keeping in Calcutta was the stuff of urban legend. This  was 1984; the Left Front government’s great experiment in land reform,  Operation Barga, was yet to run its course. The Communist Party of  India (Marxist) was a redistributionist, social democratic party,  committed to secularism: every parliamentary system ought to have one.


Thirty years later, with an explicitly majoritarian right wing party  in power in Delhi, the Left is neither a counterweight nor a rallying  point. It is a small political rump, which controls ten seats in  Parliament and one provincial government, tiny Tripura. What happened?


In Indian politics, only catastrophic defeat brings ‘introspection’.  Even then, the analyses and mea culpa [acknowledgement of error] come from apostates, fellow  travelers and academics, not from the party faithful. Despite the  2014 general elections, where it was nearly wiped out in West Bengal,  the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or  CPI(M) has officially learnt nothing. Like a punch-drunk southpaw  after a standing count, it keeps leading with its left, convinced that  with Marx in its corner it’s bound to win. Outside the party, though,  reality-based explanations of its political and electoral decline have  begun to surface. But first, the debacle.


The Left Front as a whole won two parliamentary seats in West Bengal  out of 42, exactly as many as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). To rub salt  into this wound, the BJP almost trebled its 2009 vote share: from 6.5  per cent to 17 per cent. The BJP won a larger percentage of the urban  vote than the CPI(M) did; more ominously, it won more first-time  voters. Not only did the CPI(M) lose the cities, it lost the race for  young voters, which doesn’t bode well for its electoral future. In   terms of vote share, the CPI(M) remains the second largest party in  the state, with nearly 30 per cent of the vote, but this is cold  comfort. A cursory comparison with the 2009 election shows the BJP on  a steep upswing; it also shows the CPI(M) in hectic decline, from 43.3  per cent in 2009, to 29 per cent in 2014. In percentage terms, the   CPI(M)’s losses seem to correspond with the BJP’s gains.


It’s a testament to the Left Front’s demoralization and the BJP’s new  confidence that the BJP’s leadership has been quick to frame the 2016  assembly elections as a contest between the BJP and the Trinamul  Congress. Woundingly, Mamata Banerjee seems to concur with this  assessment; she offered the Left Front a joint front against the BJP.


With its mortal enemy offering it a junior partnership in the fight > against a party that it considers its real political foe, the CPI(M)’s   cup is full and overflowing.


How did it come to this? The temptation to say ‘Nandigram’ or ‘Singur’  is understandable, but it ought to be resisted. The violence inflicted  by the Left Front government upon its principal rural constituencies  in the name of investment and industrial growth is a symptom of the > Left Front’s political ossification, not its cause. After the Left  Front’s great breakthrough in the matter of land reform, Operation  Barga, wound down in the mid-1980s, the ruling coalition used the  political credit it had earned to transform itself into a political

machine dedicated to preserving the new status quo.


It succeeded in creating a structure of patronage and clientage so   intricate and all-encompassing that the party’s writ ran all the way  from the Writers’ Buildings to the smallest rural panchayat. In a  forthcoming book, Government as Practice (Cambridge, 2015), Dwaipayan  Bhattacharyya has a striking phrase for this process — the   “governmentalization of the locality”. Instead of localizing > government — that is, decentralizing power as a democratic socialist  party might do — it subordinated the locality to a state machinery  controlled by its apparatchiks and cadre. Ironically, this party of  the Marxist Left produced a political apparatus more accurately described by Lewis Namier’s patron-client template (first developed to  explain aristocratic   parliamentary politics in 18th-century England),  than any class analysis.


Why did the Left Front government think it could expropriate ten  thousand acres of agricultural land in Nandigram for a SEZ without  consulting the peasantry that this would displace, a class that had  been its electoral backbone since Operation Barga? Because it had been  years since the Left Front had thought of Bengal’s peasantry as a   class capable of class action; by 2007, it had become used to thinking  of peasants as dependent clients. Like all patrons, it expected  obedience from its clients; when its clients were recalcitrant, it made an example of them. The howling irony of the Left Front  government sending in thousands of policemen and hundreds of party  lumpen to violently punish a peasantry, often a Muslim peasantry, for  trying to hold on to land it held because of Operation Barga, was lost  on Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The CPI(M)’s political derangement in 2007  stemmed from the gulf between its political practice and its  theoretical sense of itself. It was a successful, even admirable  social-democratic party, practically committed to parliamentary   politics, but ideologically contemptuous of its bourgeois nature. It  was a party that believed that its understanding of Marxist  prescription and teleology raised it above the ruck of populist   parliamentary politics.


The CPI(M)’s dread of going native, its fear of being lost in some  smelly Lohia-ite swamp, were it to cut the umbilical cord that  connected it to the bracing foreignness of the original German,  created a disabling fastidiousness. Officially, the party supported  affirmative action on the basis of caste, but its heart wasn’t in it to recognize caste as the basis for political action was to pander to  false consciousness, to  betray the universal salience of class.


Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya points out that the political penalties that  the Left is paying for its dogmatism about class have grown with  economic liberalization. Such urban job creation as has occurred in  this time has been in the skilled and unskilled service sector. This  has spawned not the industrial proletariat of communist lore but a  fragmented, dispersed workforce whose principal enemy isn’t capitalism  but the precariousness of urban life and its anomie.


The spectre of disease without a public health system, the lack of  access to an affordable education, the shortage of cheap credit, these  scarcities are the enemy and the working urban poor use the  solidarities of caste, community and region to deal with them. Trapped  in its straitjacket of class, the Left has failed to mobilize these  networks for its political ends.


The Left’s deafness to caste isn’t merely ideological; it is   sociological. Despite its place on the political Left, the CPI(M)’s  leadership, specially that of its West Bengal chapter, has been  historically upper-caste and Hindu to an extent that would embarrass  the BJP. And yet the party remains happily unselfconscious about theglaring absence of minorities, Dalits and tribals in its leadership > echelon. It is happy to be led by charter members of the bhadralok  such as Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Nirupam Sen, Surjya Kanta Mishra,  Manik Sarkar, Biman Bose and Brinda Karat, to name only the most  recent intake of the CPI(M)’s politburo. The political commitment or  integrity of these leaders isn’t at issue here. The question is  simple: how can all the Bengalis in a communist party’s politburo be  uniformly middle-class?


Dismissing this criticism as the politics of tokenism doesn’t work. A  party whose preferred form of address is ‘comrade’ shouldn’t dismiss  the symbolic value of inclusiveness and fraternity. The Indian  National Congress recognized as early as the late 19th century the  political value of performing its pluralism. To that end, it deliberately elected as diverse a succession of presidents as it could  — Parsis, Hindus, Muslims, Bengalis, Maharashtrians — so that it could > be seen to be representing the census diversity of India. For the CPI(M) to be blind to the bhadralok monoculture of its politburo in  2014 is perverseness on an epic scale.


The consequences of this blindness aren’t just symbolic. Critics point   out that the party leadership that implemented Operation Barga didn’t,   with one or two exceptions, have much land to lose. Conversely, this leadership’s failure to invest in education, sanitation and medical > care (West Bengal, after three and a half decades of Left Front rule,  languishes in the middle of the provincial league table in these  areas) can be plausibly attributed to a comfortable bhadralok  leadership that had no personal experience of deprivation. It failed  to see how critical a functional school, an indoor toilet and decent  medical provisioning were for subaltern groups looking for dignity,  social mobility and a level playing field.


The tragedy of the Left in Bengal is the spectacle of a once-radical  party made provincial by the elitist dogmatism of its leadership. The  CPI(M) is even linguistically parochial, a Bengali party for Bengali  voters. Mamata Banerjee speaks publicly in Hindi much more often than  any senior leader of the CPI(M) in West Bengal does. Little wonder  that an industrial constituency like Asansol, which ought to be a   communist party’s pocket borough, votes for the BJP because the upcountry immigrant groups that constitute its working class find that  the Left Front literally doesn’t speak their language.


In the assembly elections after the Nandigram violence, one result  summed up the way in which the Left Front had been punished for its  hubris. Firoza Bibi, the mother of a man shot by the police in  Nandigram defeated the Left Front’s candidate in that constituency by  nearly 40,000 votes. Firoza Bibi was a peasant, a Muslim and a woman.


When someone like her sits in the CPI(M)’s highest councils instead of   Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee or Brinda Karat, we will know that the party  is serious about rediscovering itself as the party of the working  poor. As it stands, the leadership of the Left in Bengal is  privileged, not plebeian — more Marie Antoinette than Joan of Arc.

Top - Home