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Beyond the Debacle

The present plight of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) reflects the crisis of a social-democratic party, its initial success in the power game of bourgeois parliamentary politics going to its head, and making it gradually move away from its original support base among the poor. But all is not lost, for the CPI(M) is not the sole repository of the leftist cause. There are other movements anchored more steadfastly in the values of social justice and equitable distribution of resources. The leaders of these popular movements will have to recognise and negotiate with the armed Maoist insurgents who have carved out a base among vast sections of the tribal and dalit poor in swathes stretching from the forests of Dandakaranya in the west to Jangalmahal in the east, Lalgarh being their latest signpost.


Beyond the Debacle

Sumanta Banerjee

skies! All along during the last five years – or even earlier – political observers, as well as their sympathisers in the rural constituencies, and friendly critics in intellectual circles (often expressing their views in the

The present plight of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) reflects the crisis of a social-democratic party, its initial success in the power game of bourgeois parliamentary politics going to its head, and making it gradually move away from its original support base among the poor. But all is not lost, for the CPI(M) is not the sole repository of the leftist cause. There are other movements anchored more steadfastly in the values of social justice and equitable distribution of resources. The leaders of these popular movements will have to recognise and negotiate with the armed Maoist insurgents who have carved out a base among vast sections of the tribal and dalit poor in swathes stretching from the forests of Dandakaranya in the west to Jangalmahal in the east, Lalgarh being their latest signpost.

Sumanta Banerjee ( is best known for his book In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement in India (1980).

t is the worst of times for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] – what with the Lok Sabha poll reverses, the Central Bureau of Investigation’s chargesheet against its state secretary in Kerala, the outburst of public fury against its corrupt leaders and the police in the tribal belt of Lalgarh and neighbouring areas in West Bengal, and the party leadership caught in a cleft stick over the centre’s latest directive to ban the Communist Party of India (Maoist) [CPI(Maoist)]. But then, the CPI(M) leaders have to pay the price for years of misdeeds, which have obliterated in public memory its earlier achievements. Initially, in their knee-jerk reaction to their shocking electoral downfall, some among the CPI(M) leaders cried wolf, recalling their earlier suspicion of a Central Intelligence Agency conspiracy (high lighted in the party’s mouthpiece People’s Demo cracy on the eve of the election r esults, pointing at the US charge d’affaires’ meeting with c ertain Indian political leaders). In West Bengal, the party secretary kept harping on a Maoist-Trinamool plot behind the defeat. In Kerala, the party spokesmen blamed the media for character assassination of their state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan (an accused in a case of corruption). These excuses are now being discarded after the recent politburo and central committee meetings in New Delhi, which veered around to the conclusion that actions like forcible acquisition of land for industries, and “certain wrong trends and practices” (euphemism for acts of corruption and bestiality indulged in by the CPI(M) functionaries) in West Bengal; “disunity” in the Left Front and faction feuds within the CPI(M) caused, among others, by the tie-up with the People’s Democratic Party led by the dubious character Abdul Nasser Madani in Kerala; and the “unrealistic” pursuit for a Third Front government at the centre with slippery allies, could have been the main causes for their defeat. But, true to their chicanery, the CPI(M) leaders are now pretending to have suddenly discovered these factors, as if they have fallen from the

Economic & Political Weekly

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27

columns of the present journal and other fora) had been warning them against following precisely these disastrous policies, warnings that the party’s leaders had dismissed then in their usual bumptious manner. By their self-righteous and arrogant persistence in pursuing these same policies, the present leaders of the CPI(M) have not only set back the course of the left movement by several years, but have also done the greatest harm to the cause of socialism. Many people today tend to identify the I ndian left with systematic savagery and skulduggery, as witnessed in Nandigram in West Bengal and dubious financial deals in Kerala – thus eroding popular faith in a s ocialist alternative.

But its well-deserved defeat need not be seen as a sign of the end of the left in India. The CPI(M) is not the sole repository of the leftist cause. There are other movements led by a variety of groups and organisations (not tied to the CPI(M), or any such political party) which are anchored more steadfastly in the values of social justice and equitable distribution of resources. They range from mass agitations against industrial capital’s imposition of special economic zones (SEZs), encroachment on agricultural land and destruction of the environment in different parts of India and protests against human rights violations in Kashmir and the north-east on the one hand, to armed uprisings by poor p easants against feudal oppression and state repression in Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and neighbouring areas on the other. There are also encouraging signs of an ideological churning among a new generation of left intellectuals and social activists who are questioning the orthodox Leninist-Stalinist method of running a communist party along conspiratorial lines that suspect every voice of dissent (as was evident recently from the CPI(M)’s intolerance of the Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee’s independent stand, and his expulsion from the party). They are harking back to the basic socialist principles of demo cratic functioning and respect for h uman rights – the two principles that had


been consistently violated by the CPI(M) in its role as a governing party in Kerala and West Bengal.

For these left-minded activists and intellectuals now, it is time to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to face the twin challenges in the post-electoral scene. The first challenge is the myth manufactured by the corporate sector-hired media that the CPI(M)’s electoral debacle is the end of the left in India (much in the style of the “end of history” theory propagated after the collapse of the Soviet Union). They are pushing for a bi-polar configuration in Indian politics with the Congress as a centrist party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a party of the rightist forces – but both sharing their neoliberal economic agenda. L K Advani’s attempt to make the best of his party’s defeat by gleefully announcing the inauguration of a two-party system – monopolised henceforth by the Congress and the BJP only – indicates the trend of thinking. One hopes that the new generation of ideologues and activists demystify this myth by recapturing the left space by strengthening the on-going popular movements as an alter native force. The second challenge is to detoxify the left movement from the taint of the now thoroughly discredited CPI(M) leadership.

But, in order to restore the credibility of the left, it is necessary to oppose the CPI(M) from a leftist position – as distinct from the stand taken by populist demagogues like Mamata Banerjee (who, devoid of any political vision, are presently exploiting the popular anger against the CPI(M)) in West Bengal, or rightwing communal outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Islamic fundamentalists, which are attacking CPI(M) cadres in Kerala in a turfwar. In other words, there is a need for an alternative set of leftist strategy and tactics, moored in the fundamental ideology of socialism and committed to humanitarian values. They should be shaped in a way as to inspire the common people to bring about an overall socio-economic transformation by dismantling the present structure – a goal which had always been evaded by mainstream parties ranging from the Congress and the BJP to the CPI(M), and sidestepped by regional parties like the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Telugu Desam which thrive within this structure.

Yet, the much-vaunted triangular structure – consisting of the legislature, executive and judiciary – is looked upon with cynical contempt by the man on the street, who knows that the candidate for whom he is voting is a local mafia don (there are at least 150 new Members of Parliament in the present Lok Sabha with criminal cases pending against them, according to the National Election Watch), the government functionary whom he approaches for essential services demands a bribe, and the judge to whom he appeals for redress turns a deaf ear to his pleas. It is this rotten structure that has to be dismantled and reconstructed to orientate it to the needs of the people.

Immediate Future of the Left Front

You cannot jump when you are falling down from a peak. The CPI(M) will hurtle down faster along the path of steep descent that its leaders had been pursuing during the recent past. Its present electoral setback is unlike its earlier spells of defeat – after which it could always bounce back, riding high on popular support for its commitment to the cause of the poor, and dedication by its cadres. That commitment had eroded over the last few years, and the dedication disfigured by muscle power in the states that the party governs, thus creating a crisis


this time for the left, and crippling its clout in Indian parliament. The CPI(M)’s drubbing in the 2009 Lok Sabha election therefore should be looked at as the symptom of a much deeper malaise – of wider political and moral dimensions. It has cast a pall on the entire Indian parliamentary left.

As for the ideologically committed activists of the CPI(M), it will be an uphill task for them to dislodge the present bunch of arrogant and opportunist leaders in New Delhi, and purge their West Bengal and Kerala branches of the notorious headhonchos. For the next few years, the CPI(M) will be borne down by the load of skeletons pouring out from its cupboard of financial scandals (a la SNC Lavalin), suffer further erosion in its ranks and desertion by its allies, and will be fractured by acrimonious internal dissensions, mauled by electoral defeats, running wild in violent turf warfare with its political rivals (already evident in parts of West Bengal).

Since the CPI(M) still controls the largest chunk of the parliamentary left (16 out of some 20 odd Left Front seats in the new Lok Sabha), the latter’s fate is linked with the fortunes of this party. The drastic decline in the number of its own MPs (coming down from 43 in the last Lok Sabha) indicates its alienation from its own constituency during the last five years. Its failures had also rubbed off on its smaller allies – like the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Forward Bloc, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (which have lost seats) – who too have been punished by the electorate for guilt by a ssociation with the CPI(M). Rumblings within these parties suggest the growing disenchantment with their respective leadership’s hitherto followed policy of submitting to the “big brother” CPI(M). Debates continue within these parties over questions like whether they should have resisted the CPI(M)’s steamrolling them into withdrawing support from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government on the issue of the abstruse provisions of the nuclear agreement which, as a subject of debate, remained confined among the closet intellectuals only, and whether they should have come out openly against CPI(M)’s atrocities in Nandigram. The CPI leadership – after having faithfully followed all these years the “big brother’s” dictates both on relations with the UPA government and chasing the flimsy dream of a Third Front with unscrupulous characters like Mayawati and Chandrababu Naidu – appears now to be distancing itself from the CPI(M), accu sing it of unilaterally taking decisions (CPI general secretary A B Bardhan’s TV interview on 14 June). We may soon see the other junior partners of the badly mauled Left Front seeking an alternative course that keeps clear of any contamination with the CPI(M). Even within the CPI(M), among its ideologically committed members and middle ranking leaders, there is seething resentment against the top brass. Abdur Rezzak Mollah, the CPI(M) Land and Land Reforms Minister in the West Bengal Left Front government, complained in a recent press interview that although he had been consistently opposing the policy of forcible acquisition of land in Nandigram and Singur, “nobody (in the party and the government) listened to me”. He added: “Even now, total realisation is not there”. His final warning is worth quoting:

There is some corruption and high-handedness within the party rank and file. The local leaders have begun to think of themselves as the lords of their areas….I am saying it openly: if we want (to) win the 2011 state polls, we have to change our attitude within the party (Tehelka, 6 June 2009).

Shrinking National Electoral Base

The 2009 election results also demonstrate a trend which has been hardly discussed in left circles – the shrinking base of the parliamentary communists in terms of national representation. Although a small force, the communists during the 1960-70 period could make their voices heard from as many as 10 to 12 states (ranging from Punjab in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south, and Maharashtra in the west to Orissa in the east) through their MPs in the Lok Sabha. Despite the split in the communist movement in 1964, in the Lok Sabha polls that followed three years later, the CPI won 23 and the newly formed CPI(M) 19. In the 1971 elections, their score went up – with the CPI(M) winning 25, and the CPI 23. Interestingly enough, quite a large number of their MPs came from states like Bihar (five from the CPI in both the 1967 and 1971 elections), Uttar Pradesh (which sent five CPI MPs in 1967 and four in 1971), Tamil Nadu (electing four CPI(M) candidates in 1967 and four CPI candidates in 1971), and several other states (like Assam, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab) sending a number of communist representatives to the Lok Sabha during this period.

Those elected from West Bengal and Kerla of course dominated the Left in Parlia ment. But the total Left vote went up to more than 9% – in these two elections – because of the participation from a wider constituency spread over other states. Since then there had been a steady decline in the representation and vote share from most of these states. The post-Emergency elections in 1977 saw a reversal of fate of the left, with the CPI winning only seven seats (its loss of popularity due to its support to the Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency) and the CPI(M) (which opposed the Emergency) winning 21 seats. Between themselves, the two parties accounted for 7% of votes. A lthough the communists managed to r etain some sort of a respectable position in the Lok Sabha in the 1980s and 1990s (with the number of their members varying from 40 to 50), their vote share came down to 6%. Besides, during this period, their MPs (taking the CPI(M) and CPI together) came mostly from Kerala, West Bengal and T ripura (the states which they ruled). The other states largely remained unrepresented. In the present Lok Sabha too, there is hardly any communist representation from outside these three states. The vote share also remains hovering around 6 to 7%.

Apparently, the CPI(M) central leadership failed to live up to their pledge (made at the Salkia plenum of the party) to expand their base in the Hindi heartland and elsewhere, and instead remained content with the regular supply of a sufficient number of MPs from the three states they ruled to keep the party in the position of a broker in New Delhi’s politics – the role assigned to them by their late general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who with the help of these MPs (whose number went up in the 2004 Lok Sabha to form a decisive block) could coerce the minority Congress party into forming the UPA government with their support. But five years later, today, the voters in Kerala and West Bengal (the two states that accounted for the maximum number of CPI(M) MPs) have rejected them, and the party is losing its clout in New Delhi.

The present plight of the CPI(M) reflects the crisis of a social-democratic party, its initial success in the power game of

Economic & Political Weekly

june 27, 2009 vol xliv nos 26 & 27


b ourgeois parliamentary politics going to its head, and making it gradually move away from its original support base among the poor. It is an Indian parallel to the B ritish Labour Party’s degeneration through its betrayal of the industrial proletariat. The political betrayal leads to the moral debasement – whether reflected in the scandal over British Labour MPs’ expenses, or the CPI(M)’s degeneration into a ruling party that has become corrupt to the core, reducing day to day governance to injunctions by party apparatchiks, and yet incapable of meeting the basic needs of the people.

On an ironical note, let me add that on 13 June the CPI(M) observed the birth centenary of E M S Namboodiripad, with its general secretary Prakash Karat recalling his contributions to the movement. Does he know that EMS (as he was fondly known to us) as the first communist chief mini ster of Kerala in 1957 laid down the rule that his ministers would not draw more than Rs 350 per month as salary (although the sanctioned pay was Rs 500)? Is it not a far cry from today, where his party in Kerala, straying from the norms laid down by EMS, has grown into a multifaceted business house running TV channels, hotels in collaboration with dubious businessmen, and its state secretary embroiled in a financial scam?

Prospects of an Alternative Left

Torn between despondency and hope fulness, the followers of the Indian left can only draw fresh inspiration from the alternative streams of popular protest and ideological debates that were mentioned at the beginning. Will it be possible to chart out a path that brings together all these various strands into a common programme of left strategy and tactics? Dissenters within the CPI(M) like Abdur Rezzak Mollah, Somnath Chatterjee (in West Bengal), and the various breakaway groups from the CPI(M) in Kerala, may find a common ground with the various popular movements breaking out in different parts of the country, in their search for re-establishing the ideological and moral values (that initially drew them to the CPI(M), but were betrayed by its present leaders). At the same time, leaders of these popular movements will have to recognise and nego tiate with the armed Maoist insurgents who have carved out a base among vast s ections of the tribal and dalit poor in swathes stretching from the forests of Dandakaranya in the west to Jangal mahal in the east (Lalgarh being its latest signpost).

Those hoping to chart out a new left strategy should remember that historically the communist movement in India had gained momentum from both armed struggles (as in Telangana in the 1940s) and participation in parliamentary politics. Let us recall that in the first general elections in 1952, it was Ravi Narayan Reddy, the hero of the Telangana struggle who won by polling the highest number of votes among all the MPs in the first Lok Sabha. It was again in Kerala, redolent of the 1946 communist-led armed uprising of Vayalar-Punnapra, that, for the first time, communists came to power through elections. As in the past, today also, bands of armed guerrillas of the CPI(Maoist) are operating in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and neighbouring areas where they have taken up the cause of the tribal poor, mobilising them against the predatory minions of the state – forest guards, police, and corrupt politicians. Sadly however, in the absence of an enlightened and far-sighted leadership, there is the danger of these bands degenerating fast into roaming gangs of armed bullies (as evident from reports of extortion from, and intimidation of contractors and traders in certain areas), and revanchists eager to wreak vengeance on their opponents (as obvious from their unscrupulous entente with the Trinamool Congress in the persecution of innocent CPI(M) followers and their families in Nandigram, and the systematic killing of some 50 odd CPI(M) workers in Lalgarh recently). But instead of pushing them further down this disastrous course by keeping them in the isolation of deep forests and hills, there is an urgent need to bring them out in public and engage them in debates over the basic socio-economic issues that they are raising. They need to be brought into the mainstream of an alternative left. It is only through a process of dynamic interaction and catalysis that the various social movements, human rights campaigns, dalit agitations, tribal uprisings, feminist protests, and Maoist guerrilla struggles and ideological debates, can give birth to a new socialist movement from the grass roots.


Union Home Minister P Chidambaram’s latest announcement of a ban on the CPI (Maoist) all over India under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, will hardly make any difference to the party’s operations, which continue in states like Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Chha ttisgarh, where the ban had been on for years, or prevent Lalgarhtype popular outbursts against police atrocities in other parts of India. Sorry to say, Chidambaram is shooting from the hip – shooting the messenger (the Maoists), but failing to pay heed to their message. The message is simple: “Put an end to the

o ppressive rule of the feudal landlordindustrial tycoon-corrupt bureau crat axis”.

G.B Pant Social Science Institute is a premier Social Science Research Institute in the Country. It is a Constituent Institute of the Central University of Allahabad. The Dalit Resource Centre (Located in the Centre for Culture and Change of the Institute) requires Five young academicians to work as Research Officers and Research Associates for its project titled Cultural Resources and forging a Democratic Order: Marginalized Groups in Northern India: A Research, Documentation and Dissemination Project. The project is supported by Ford Foundation. The duration of the project is three years. The Institute invites applications, especially from women and Dalits for the following posts : 1. Research Officer/Post Doctoral Fellows (1 post) The incumbent must be a Ph.D. in Social Science / Cultural Studies from any reputed University, or related fields with demonstrable interests in Dalit studies. Candidates with minimum 3 years experience in academic project or good publications will be preferred, consolidated salary of Rs. 18,000/- p.m. 2. Research Associates (4 posts) The candidates must be MA/M.Phil in social Sciences/Cultural Studies or related area with interest in Dalit Studies from any reputed University. Candidates with minimum 1 year's experience in academic projects preferably around issues pertaining to Dalits, with publications will be preferred, consolidated salary of Rs. 15,000/- p.m. Application along with curriculum vitae should reach the undersigned before 10, July 2009. ADVERTISEMENT NO.FORD FOUNDATION/2/2009 Administrative Officer

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