How Can Left Politics in India Be Reclaimed?

In the light of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the declining performance of the left in national politics has been a subject of debate. The current political turmoil in the country has raised crucial questions both about the continued relevance of the left and its future discourse in mainstream politics. How can the left reclaim its politics and re-imagine its future?  

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) return to power with a thumping majority speaks volumes of a deep social churning that shaped the people’s mandate in 2019. The discourse of nationalism and national security, economic reform and developmental schemes has certainly contributed to Narendra Modi’s return to the helm of India’s political landscape. A significant outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha election has been that the left stands weakest in terms of its presence in the Lok Sabha. The gradual erosion of the left raises pertinent questions about the relevance of the left in the country’s political scene. West Bengal, Tripura and Kerala are cases in point. The left, once able to reach to the grass roots, has seen a gradual reduction in its electoral performance at the national level. Facing such a setback, what should the left do to mobilise the masses and reclaim the political space? How should it re-imagine its future? 

History of Left Politics in India

The history of India’s freedom struggle reflects the history of the left movement in the country. The emergence of the movement in India coincides with the radical trends in anti-imperialist movements in various other colonial, semi-colonial and dependent countries, particularly in Asia (Namboodiripad 1986). Owing to the left’s active involvement in the anti-colonial struggle, the ideology of the left acquired mass appeal to the extent that the Communist Party of India (CPI) and its later offshoots became the face of left politics in the country. Inspired by the international communist movement, the CPI focused on building a strong peasantworking class alliance, mobilising them towards a revolutionary cause. The rebellion against the Nizam of Hyderabad, radical peasant movements in West Bengal and Thane (Maharashtra) led by the party and its peasant front, the Kisan Sabha, and the tribal struggle in Tripura led by the Ganamukti Parishad are notable examples. 

By embracing parliamentary politics in 1952, the CPI wanted to extend its political influence in the sphere of governance. In 1957, the party experienced its first ever electoral victory in the Kerala state legislative assembly elections. Two decades later, the party set its ground in West Bengal, followed by Tripura. During this time, the CPI emerged as the first leading opposition to the Congress in parliamentary politics (Roychowdhury 2018). Despite the recurrent splits within the party post the 1960s, the ground that it had gained in these three states in the 1950s and 1960s could not be easily shaken. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed a wave of struggles advanced by the left Front on the issue of land. Reforms leading to the distribution of surplus land, ending of rack-rented tenancy, or ensuring security of tenure for sharecroppers gained prominence during this period. The struggles in the sphere of land reform, decentralisation of powers, strengthening the rights of the working class for collective action, and defence of secularism by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI M)-led left governments in Kerala, West Bengal, and Tripura had contributed to the advancement of the democratic agenda of the left (Karat 2019a). 

During the late 1970s, when the Indira Gandhi government was in power and internal emergency was imposed, the left parties played a major role in uniting the opposition. Further, when in the late 1980s the Rajiv Gandhi government was rocked by the Bofors scandal, the left parties joined hands to oust Gandhi and form an alternative government. It can be seen that throughout the 1990s the left parties continued to influence politics at the national level. In the event of a hung Parliament in 2004, the opposition came together to install a coalition in order to keep the BJP out of power; this was again led by the left. The left parties were in the forefront influencing central government policies and schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Forest Rights Act and Right to Food, until the signing of the Indo-United States Nuclear Deal by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2008 when the left withdrew itself. In the elections that followed, the Left Front has remained on the back foot. 

The first major electoral jolt that the left suffered was its defeat against the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by Mamata Banerjee in 2011 in West Bengal. This was followed by the Tripura assembly elections in February 2018, when the BJP made significant inroads into the state unseating the ruling CPI(M) from power. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the people of Kerala managed to keep the BJP out of the state through their decisive political mandate in favour of the United Democratic Front (UDF), but they could not keep the BJP completely out of the political turf, as is evident from the increase in the BJP-led NDA's vote share from 10.85% (2014) to 15.2% (2019), with the BJP accounting for 12.93% of the votes (Hindu 2019). The political situation for the left in West Bengal was no different, with the BJP gaining a pan-Bengal presence and the CPI (M) occupying the third position. These developments have raised serious concerns about the future of left politics in India and the extent to which the ideology is relevant in the absence of a strong grass roots presence. 

Decline of the Left and Its impact on India’s Democratic Credentials

Speculation about the future of the left in Indian politics started with the CPI(M)’s debacle in West Bengal in 2011. In his 2011 article, Prabhat Patnaik attributed the CPI(M)’s defeat to a deep-seated process of “empiricisation” plaguing the party. He defines empiricisation as the left’s rejection of the communist goal of defeating capitalism. Responding to Patnaik, Gohain (2011) attributed the decline of the left to the change in the class-character of the party, which according to him explains its alienation from the masses. He further held that a non-revolutionary approach to parliamentary democracy was also responsible for CPI(M)’s alienation from the basic classes. Kripa Shankar (2011), on the other hand, argued that the reason why people considered the Left Front irrelevant was that they did not see it as very different from any other bourgeois party. Similarly, Baisya (2011) added to the discussion by writing that the left must now be considered a ruling class party. While the issues raised in these discussions are important, one needs to go beyond such sweeping generalisations about the left in order to understand its exit from power in the states where it ruled. 

There are recent examples on the ground to show how the left has combined parliamentary work and powerful mass struggles to give a platform to the voice of the workers and the peasants. The Kisan Long March of 2018 from Nashik to Mumbai organised under the banner of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), a mass organisation of the CPI (M), brought the issue of agrarian distress facing the farmers to the fore. Further, the workers and peasants’ march in Delhi in September 2018, agitation of the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and Anganwandi workers in Karnataka in January 2018, and the all-India workers’ general strike in early January 2019 were all organised by the trade unions and peasant and agricultural workers’ platforms of the left. The kisan mobilisations in Rajasthan by the AIKS in February–March 2018 and the Women’s Wall for gender justice across Kerala in January 2019 are also remarkable examples of mass mobilisations. However, these struggles have not translated into electoral gains. 

The Hindutva strategy of the BJP in West Bengal, Tripura, and Kerala points to the reality of the dangers that the left faces not only electorally, but also ideologically. This ideological onslaught of Hindutva was accomplished by making the Left Front suffer electoral defeats in states like West Bengal and Kerala. The Hindutva project of building a “communist free India” (Asian Age 2018; Roy 2018) is not only a perilous idea at its roots, but also a threat to the inclusive and secular idea of India that the left espoused through its many years of struggles beginning from the freedom struggle. In the recent elections, there seemed to be a constant dilemma in the minds of the voters: “If not Modi, then who?” This articulation reflects two important points: First, the decisive rejection of the Congress by the people, and second, the absence of a viable third force at the national level. The second postulation particularly affected the left and other political formations marginalised by Hindutva’s victory. In the absence of a “viable political alternative” in many states, the traditional anti-Congress votes went to the BJP-led alliance. In the absence of a strong grass roots presence, the slogan of “a secular government at the centre” raised by the left did not appeal to a large section of the society in its traditional bastions of West Bengal, Tripura, and Kerala. In other words, the left’s vision of an alternative was vague and did not carry conviction among the masses. 

Despite the massive struggles undertaken in the 1930s and 1940s, the left has remained confined to only a few regions in the country. Even there, the left ended up contributing to its own stagnation. For instance, its attempts to pursue industrialisation in West Bengal and incidents like SingurNandigram resulted in a backlash against the state government, with the Left Front losing its credibility in the state (Patnaik 2011). By the time the left lost power in West Bengal, it also lost the support of three of its fundamental constituencies—the peasants, the tribals, and the Muslims—who were once its major support base. This decline in the mass base of the party and the inability to expand its influence cost the left heavily in the elections that followed. Besides the recurrent electoral debacles, the failure to enjoy popular support amongst those who would be the ideal beneficiaries of a left government is a major concern to be addressed for the future of the mainstream left. 

In the case of Bengal, it is noteworthy that the BJP’s steady rise is not only due to the activities undertaken by the party, but also the support received from a host of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)- and Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP)-affiliated organisations like Hindu Jagran Manch and Bajrang Dal in the state which were deployed at the grass roots. These supporting organisational networks established over the last three decades have multiplied since the decline of the left and the TMC’s ascendency to power (Bagchi 2019). Not only was the void created by defeat of the left in West Bengal filled by the Banerjee-led TMC which projected itself as the “real left” (Pramanik 2019), but the agenda of the BJP and the RSS along with the TMC in creating an anti-communist offensive in the state also got bolstered. 

Owing to the lack of a concrete political ideology and direction, the TMC is found to be borrowing the narratives of its rivals (both the left and BJP) from time to time. Taking a critical stand against land acquisition, Banerjee adopted the pro-peasant narrative which she had borrowed from the left (Bagchi 2019). Now, by giving grants to puja mandaps and to clubs for festivals, undertaking the task of beautifying the Ganga Sagar, etc, she is trying to adopt a pro-Hindutva stand borrowing it from the right (Datta 2018; Statesman 2018; Lolwal 2019).  A blend of nationalism and Hindutva symbolism on the one hand, and absence of ideology on the other has found resonance in the politics of Bengal today. Somewhere, it is the electoral setback to the left and its dwindling political influence in the state that has contributed to the rise and reinforcement of competing communalisms between the TMC and the BJP. Moreover, in the absence of a strong left alternative, Banerjee’s pro-Muslim welfare policies have increasingly angered an upwardly mobile class among Hindus who found solace in the “development” slogan of the BJP further consolidating their grip in Bengal.  

Reinventing the Left: What Does it Mean?

The task of reinventing the left can come to fruition only when the urge to reclaim the “political” takes precedence over immediate electoral success. The “political” is the field within which social groups are shaped by institutions, norms, culture, and ideology constituting deeper opinions and values (Roy 2019). In order to understand how the peasantry, the working class, and agricultural labour have voted, and what caused alienation of the masses from the left, a concrete analysis of the political, economic and sociocultural factors and conditions, and careful configuration of the definition of the “political” should be undertaken. The resounding victory of the BJP is illustrative of how religious divisions couched in their agenda of ultra-nationalism and development discourse became the defining principle that influenced the political mandate in the recent elections. According to Karat (2019b), global finance capital and the neo-liberal regime globally have fostered identities based on religion, ethnicity, and race. And the right-wing has made these the basis of their identity politics and sectarian nationalisms. Taking cognisance of the right-wing hegemonic discourse, the left has to build a political field that is inclusive of the multiple identities constructed along the lines of “class” rather than “religion.” The left can achieve this by increasing its presence at the grass roots organisationally, ideologically and politically so that it can improve its future electoral prospects. By broadening the definition of the political, the left in India has to reclaim and communicate in a language that has mass appeal, a language that effectively bridges the existing gap between ideology and grass roots presence, and finally a language that purports its stand against Hindutva communalism, the neo-liberal agenda and authoritarian attacks on democracy, while not alienating people from its fold. The slogan of mass struggles should extend beyond fighting for economic demands of the basic classes to include a larger political struggle. As it has been pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, “The class struggle is essentially a political struggle” (cited in Karat 2019b). 

Across the globe, a political rightward shift is slowly and steadily gaining momentum. This shift can be seen taking place from Australia to Turkey to Latin America and recently in the European Union. The deepening world economic crisis since 2008 and rising unemployment created the impetus for a global surge in right-wing forces (Patnaik 2019). At the same time, resistance against the political right is also simultaneously growing in different parts of the world. Issues like unemployment, jobless growth, agrarian distress, and inflation which are plaguing the Indian economy created discontent among the masses and were thought to have generated an aversion to the “Modi factor” in the recently concluded elections. Instead, the contrary happened. Explaining the crisis phenomenon, Patnaik (2017) writes:

“Such fascist elements exist normally as a fringe phenomenon in all bourgeois societies, but they come centre-stage in periods of crisis, when established bourgeois political formations are incapable of providing any solutions to the crisis and when working-class parties are too weakened and debilitated to fill the void; and they do so with the support of big business which uses them as a bulwark against any potential threat to its hegemony. Their agenda for resolving the crisis consists not of any concrete thought-out measures, but in projecting a “messianic” leader and ruthlessly subjugating the “other”, usually some hapless minority group, which is made responsible for the crisis.”

This is the mechanism that neo-liberal capitalism along with the pursuit of an aggressive communal trajectory generates for itself in order to contain the growing discontent from emerging as a political alternative. 

Moreover, the fact that unemployment rose and growth rate had come down during UPA II, was also essentially because of the crisis of neo-liberalism. The Congress could no longer pretend that neo-liberalism could bring about development. This not only led to a deterioration of the material conditions of a large section of the population, but also exacerbated inequalities to a large extent. 

The merit of the left is based on the recognition that any opposition to the political right must necessarily entail a break from neo-liberal politics and economics which has been the hallmark of policymaking for both the BJP and the Congress. Indian society is riddled with such deep-rooted economic and social inequalities that mere initiation of reforms by the state without necessarily transcending neo-liberal capitalism is seen as a means to improve the material conditions of the people. It is the crisis in capitalism that enabled the ModiShah duo to create a macro wave, but deliver micro results in the form of flagship welfare schemes in five key areas such as financial inclusion, rural electrification, sanitation, and cooking fuel to woo the voters. To an average voter, these schemes despite the caveats appeared more impressive than the government’s macroeconomic record. The left in its analysis of the current crisis should grasp the dialectical relationship between politics and economics and create an alternate approach to development. 

Both the BJP and the Congress have emerged as bourgeoisielandlord parties representing the interests of a section of the ruling class. Therefore, in order to represent the interests of the basic classes, the left has to maintain equidistance from both the BJP and the Congress. In order to build a strong working classpeasantry alliance, the left has to defend its ideological position and independent vision without giving in to the Congress’s idea of India. The ugly manifestations of ultra nationalist politics promoted by the BJP and the RSS have to be countered with the pursuit of a progressive reworking of nationalism espoused by the Indian left. Patnaik (2016) argued that even though in India the bourgeoisie was in a position of leadership of the anti-colonial struggle, the struggle in itself was not a bourgeoisie struggle but a multi-class struggle which included the workers and peasants within its ambit. The nationalism that is being propagated by the Hindutva forces today, however, is not the inclusive nationalism of the anti-colonial struggle. It is an aggrandising nationalism which privileges the nation over its people, and the caste system is an integral part of the Hindutva agenda. What is needed is an alternative vision that may resonate with public aspirations and inherent progressive values of ordinary people. 

Class intertwined with the questions of caste and gender should appear much more strongly in the policies and public action espoused by the left. With caste atrocities and gender-based violence and discrimination increasing at an alarming rate, the role of the left in the country amplifies manifold. Class struggles should be constructed through caste struggles. There should be consolidation of unity between left movements and Dalit protest movements at a larger level. To be effective, the working-class movement must adopt a politics that rejects social hierarchy and social oppression of all kinds. The left must act on an alternative to the rhetoric of “development” offered by the Modi-led BJP government. It has to treat with caution the very idea of “development” because solely focusing on the rights of the disadvantaged and marginalised groups might prove critical for the left movement. 

The primary task of the left in India is to go back to its basics: the masses. This is because the ultimate strength of the left was and still is the masses.  There has to be a ‘Left Minimum Programme’ (LMP) which will unite all the left parties together to fight against the right-wing authoritarian policies. While wider alliances and joint fronts with other democratic political formations are forged, the left should be able to maintain its independent political and ideological stand which it should effectively bring to the people. This can be made possible only when the interests of the left parties find resonance with the interests of the basic classes of the society. Historian Irfan Habib stresses on the need to move with the times. He says that it is important for the left to change its slogans. He gives example of the fight against landlordism which had helped the party to make inroads among the people in the 1950s and 1960s. Similarly, today it is the fight against Hindutva politics and big corporates (Jigeesh 2019).

The declining political influence of the left should be concomitantly seen as the decline of secular and democratic values that the Constitution upholds. Pragmatic decisions and a shift in perception is all the left needs to do at this juncture. When people say the left has been wiped off from the country, we ask if we should celebrate the left's decline, or do we want the left to recover its lost ground?

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