Ajaz Ashraf


The drubbing that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) just received in Tripura deepens the crisis the Indian Left has been facing. Is the Left’s demise in the country inevitable? Will the Tripura Assembly election result dampen the morale of Left-liberals who have been opposing Hindutva for the last four years? Will it aggravate the tension in the CPI(M) over the issue of whether or not to align with the Congress in 2019?


Ajaz Ashraf spoke to Sumanta Banerjee, cultural historian and civil rights activist, who has written seminal critiques of the Left movement in India. He is the author of In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement and Logic in a Popular Form: Essays on Popular Religion in Bengal. Excerpts from the interview.


Tripura pitted the Left and the Right in a direct face-off for the first time. The result will be projected as Hindutva trumping Marxism. What is the significance of the CPI(M)’s debacle for leftist politics?


The Left will have to rethink the line prescribed by former general secretary Prakash Karat of having no alliance with the Congress. They will have to redefine their electoral strategy for the 2019 election. That has to be their priority. Their main threat is the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is growing and…

It is in power at the Centre and winning one state after another.


If the BJP wins in 2019, it will be the end of not only the Left, but of any democratic space. The Left has to concentrate on consolidating the larger democratic, secular space. In terms of electoral strategy, it means seeking allies among national parties such as the Congress as well as among regional parties. Things are developing in the South. For instance, Chandrababu Naidu and his Telugu Desam Party are feeling marginalised because all the promises (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi made to him have not been met. So here is a regional party which could be aligned with to cobble together a larger united front. The CPI(M) should go beyond ideological purity. In any case, it has sacrificed its ideological purity.


Why do you say that?


How did they lose West Bengal? Remember Nandigram, bringing in industrialists and giving them land. Since ideological purity is not there, it should become pragmatic. The Left’s priority today is not a socialist revolution, but to preserve the bourgeois democratic structure that is being threatened by a fascist regime.


Over the last four years, the opposition to the BJP has come mainly from those who subscribe to Left-Liberal politics. Do you think the Tripura result will demoralise them?

Yes, to a certain extent. At the same time, it is also a warning to them that they should remobilise themselves and close ranks because of the threat they are facing. In fact, the Left is divided even more than the Right.


Obviously, there are problems with the Left. Why doesn’t it have the kind of appeal it had three-four decades ago?


The Left’s crisis started much before the Tripura result. We can trace it to the industrial policy of the Left Front government in Bengal. It coincided with India pursuing the policy of economic liberalisation. The land reforms (of 1978-80) that the Left brought about in Bengal reached a plateau. This was because the plots of land given to the peasants were tiny.


These tiny plots got further fragmented.


Yes, and without any opportunities for the younger generation. The Left Front government failed to open the agro-industrial sector. They neglected cooperative farming. That created an economic crisis. At the same time, the middle-rank leaders were no longer ideologically committed. They became part of the administrative machinery of the ruling party. Unlike their predecessors, they became party apparatchiks. It upset people.


Wasn’t their domination of the citizen’s everyday life, from buying a house to securing ration, about which you have written extensively, the reason why people became upset with them?


Sure, the cadres degenerated into being the muscle-power (of the party). Tripura, of course, did maintain a long period of honesty. Unlike the CPI(M) in Bengal and Kerala, the CPI(M) in Tripura had a (clean) image because of the personal incorruptibility of (the outgoing Chief Minister) Manik Sarkar.


But there were other problems in Tripura. The indigenous tribal people became a minority over the years…They were nearly 51% in the 1940s and are now around 30%-31%.

Yes, this created a degree of tension between the Bengalis and the tribals. But I must stress that in pre-Independence years and for sometime after, the communist party had a solid base among the tribals. For instance, it had Dasarath Debbarma. (Debbarma and his Ganamukti Parishad followers joined the Communist Party of India in 1950. Once it split, he joined the CPI(M).)


Of course, one should credit Manik Sarkar for bringing peace to Tripura in spite of the tribal insurgency. But the younger tribals felt alienated because they had become a minority. Their grievances are quite justified. This is where the BJP made inroads. It entered into an alliance with the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, which is demanding a separate state. The BJP is a party for all seasons.


It changes its messaging according to the state where it is contesting elections.


In Nagaland, they appealed to Christian sentiments. They are Janus-faced – they are one thing in Uttar Pradesh, quite another in Nagaland or Tripura. I wonder how Tripura or Nagaland would have reacted had they been made to listen to speeches that BJP leaders made in Uttar Pradesh before the 2017 Assembly election. The BJP’s organisational tactics are also formidable. For two years, the activists of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the BJP’s parent organisation) camped in Tripura and visited every house. Compared to this, the CPI(M) was perhaps complacent.


A huge amount of money was pumped into Tripura. Are we seeing a de-ideologisation of Indian politics?


Yes. The economic liberalisation of 1991 and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 constitute a watershed. They led to the creation of a new generation of voters who are totally depoliticised. I may sound cynical or anti-people, but instead of glamourising the masses, let us demystify them. The present trend, whether in rural or urban areas, is each one to himself and the devil take the hindmost. Earlier, elections in states or for Parliament were fought on certain economic issues – for instance, rising food prices. Or there were political issues – for instance, the human rights issue after the Emergency. Those ideological, political and economic issues are no longer there. What are the elections now about? Anti-incumbency.


And also about “change”, which is in vogue now, though no one knows what it means precisely.

Exactly. Remember last year’s Uttar Pradesh election. It was held after demonetisation, which affected a mass of people and over a 100 people died. Yet there was no expression of protest against demonetisation. On the contrary, voters in Uttar Pradesh chose Adityanath. How do you explain this? I feel depoliticisation has led to people being swayed by identity and communal polarisation.


How does Left-Liberal politics tackle it? Whether anxieties over identity are real or imagined, they have to be addressed. There is no running away from this.


It is a long haul. The Left has to start from scratch. This means the Left has to return to being what it was in the 1940s and 1950s.


Which is?


In the 1950s, when we started in the student communist movement, we never had hopes of capturing power at the Centre or running governments in states. Of course, we participated in elections, we fielded candidates. But such candidates were few and the aim was to have them voice the party’s views. We worked at the grassroots – in Kisan Sabhas, trade unions; we worked in slums. We conducted night classes to teach people.


Essentially, these were attempts to identify with the poor?


Exactly. We took up their daily problems – for instance, getting them ration cards or taking them to hospital. The way the party intervened in civil society was significant. In the 1950s, our medical student comrades, who later became doctors, set up a students’ health centre in Calcutta. It gave free medical advice and medicines to the destitute.


We lost this to the Shiv Sena in Mumbai and to the RSS in the North. They took a leaf from our book. It is interesting how the Left’s eroded its mass base in the 1970s and 1980s. When they came to power in West Bengal and Kerala, the cadres were told that everything would be delivered through the government machinery and, therefore, there was no need for a mass movement.


I suppose they were the conduit through whom the delivery of services was to take place, further complicating matters.


Yes, the corrupt panchayats. The delivery mechanism itself became corrupt. I don’t know what exactly happened in Tripura, but there were grievances which no one seemed to be addressing. The BJP stepped into the vacuum, so to speak, as did the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.


They need to go back to working in villages. The BJP’s victory is Pyrrhic and won’t last by giving sops. There is an agrarian crisis and we need to work among agricultural labourers and farmers, organise and mobilise them and give them an alternative.


What other elements does the Left need to take into account before starting from scratch?


Maybe align with other movement like that of Medha Patkar. There are these anti-dam movements, which are almost spontaneous and outside the mainstream Left movement. It is not as if people are taking things lying down. The Left has to get out (of its straitjacket) and align with such movements.


What about the leadership structure? You go talk to people and they say, sure, the Left fights for the poor but its leaders are predominantly upper caste.


Of course, it is true that the upper castes have dominated the leadership, apart from Tripura, where the Adivasis were represented in the CPI(M)’s leadership structure. This is an old problem, rooted in the fact that the communists had not thought of caste. I am not going into the Ambedkar-communist debate, but, yes, there is a need to change the leadership structure.


But it isn’t just about lower castes not being represented (in the leadership). It is about the problem of ideology as well. Things have changed and the Left has to change its old mindset. It has to become more open organisationally as well as to identity-based movements.


This is how the Left can break out of upper caste domination. For instance, at Hyderabad Central University, you had leftist and Dalit students coming together. If this can be expanded on a political basis, not merely caste basis, by embracing tribal and Dalit grievances, then you can have an ideology that goes beyond the CPI(M)’s class-based programme. Apart from workers and peasants, the Left has to appeal to other aggrieved sections of the society.


Do you think the Left has a problem coping with India’s rising expectations or aspirations?


By expectations, do we mean the expectations of a class of nouveau riche?


It is like people don’t want to hear about removing poverty but aboutdevelopment, regardless of its nebulous definition.


At the ground level, poverty removal is a basic expectation. The aspiration of starving farmers is to get rid of their debts. There are different levels of aspiration in society. What you are talking about are the aspirations of a growing class that has emerged.


This class has enormous clout, far in excess of its numbers.


Yes. It dominates industry, Parliament and the media. In addition, there is the new middle class, those employed in the information technology sector and multinational companies. Their growing expectations are being met through the policies of the government. I am not only speaking of only the BJP but also the Congress. These expectations were nurtured by the (Congress-led United Progressive Alliance) government.


Yes, but this class of people is able to use its money power and monopoly over the media to alter the popular mindset…


Earlier, they used muscle power. Now they do it through money power.


How does the Left combat this?


I think this class will soon be facing a crisis. There is already large-scale entrenchment in the IT sector. The average IT sector worker is out on the street. But this is what I am talking about – the Left has to expand beyond its traditional class. It has to include the middle class youth who is unemployed or facing retrenchment. So not only does the Left have to focus on retrenched workers, but also on the professional sector. The Left has to prepare for the crisis that will hit the professional sector. It has to evolve a multi-pronged strategy, which the BJP has successfully managed to formulate.


In one way, it wasn’t surprising that the Left was voted out in Tripura because it had been in power there for 25 years. But the panic button has been pressed because apart from Kerala, wherever the Left is defeated – whether in a state or in pockets of influence in states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – it gets turfed out permanently. What explains this phenomenon?


I am not going by the yardstick that the Left is losing state after state. My yardstick is that the Left has to reestablish itself not merely through election, but through mass movements. Fine, the Left has lost Bengal and Tripura, its numbers are down in Parliament, and it could lose Kerala as well. It is not that I am not concerned about this. But my yardstick is how does the Left revive itself as a mass movement. It was supposed to be a mass party, not an electoral party. This is important because of the fascist threat we face.


So you will go with CPI(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury’s description that what India is facing is a fascist threat, in contrast to Karat saying the BJP represents authoritarianism?


There is no need to quibble over terminology. But the elephant is in your room. The popular mood in the country today is what Wilhelm Reich called the mass psychology of fascism. What happened in Germany in the 1930s is happening here. This is what is alarming. The coming years are crucial.


Everyone speaks of the Hindu Right. How come we haven’t thought of a Hindu Left?


The only person who I can think of as representing the Hindu Left is Swami Agnivesh. But I wonder whether he’d call himself Hindu Left.


Maybe Swami Sahajanand, the peasant leader who led a powerful movement in Bihar in the 1930s and 1940s?


Of course, he could be called Hindu Left. But I do feel uncomfortable with the term “Hindu Left”.

Hindu radical?


Okay, Hindu radical. There is an anti-Brahminical tradition in Hinduism, for instance the Bhakti movement, a parallel anti-Brahminical, anti-hierarchical movement in which Dalits also participated. There is a possibility of drawing inspiration from that tradition and from Swami Sahajanand’s movement.


Isn’t that something that non-BJP parties, particularly the Left, have to take into account?

Yes, but we cannot replicate it. But I do agree that when we speak to a Hindu audience, we have to distinguish the BJP’s Hindutva from Hindu traditions. Just visiting temples or mosques won’t help. The other thing is that when we raise questions about Hindu fundamentalism, we need to do the same regarding Islamic fundamentalism. There are reformist movements among the Muslims, but, sorry to say, the Congress compromised with the mullacracy.

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